This book takes place between November and Christmas 1880. The context is the luxurious emporiums of the nineteenth century.
In San Francisco we already saw in another book Laura visiting the City of Paris, which is a big department store. The City of Paris Dry Goods Company (later City of Paris) was one of San Francisco’s most important department stores from 1850 to 1976, located diagonally opposite Union Square. The main San Francisco store was demolished in 1980 after a lengthy preservation fight to build a new Neiman Marcus, although the store’s original rotunda and glass dome were preserved and incorporated into the new design.
Another department store is the White House.
When Violet’s mother steals a few items, Nate and Annie mention Elizabeth Phelps who was a wealthy woman who stole a few things at Macy’s. On the day before Christmas, 1870, Elizabeth Phelps, a wealthy New York philanthropist and feminist, went shopping at New York City’s Macy’s. Phelps put two boxes of bonbons on the counter, one of which she covered with her parcels and muff. When the shop assistant was wrapping one box the other disappeared. When she questioned Mrs. Phelps about it she got flustered and dropped it about three feet away from the counter. It was then that she went to her supervisor and made an accusation.
Mr Livingston mentions Macy’s and its founder Roland Macy. Rowland Hussey Macy, Sr. (August 30, 1822 – March 29, 1877) was an American businessman who founded the department store chain R.H. Macy and Company. Macy moved to New York City in 1858 and established a new store named “R. H. Macy & Co.” on Sixth Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, which was far north of where other dry goods stores were at the time.
As Annie works for Livingston, she uses some kind of calculator called the arithmometer. The Arithmometer or Arithmomètre was the first digital mechanical calculator strong enough and reliable enough to be used daily in an office environment. This calculator could add and subtract two numbers directly and could perform long multiplications and divisions effectively by using a movable accumulator for the result.
In the books Annie refers to dresses quite often. One dress she has is called polonaise. The robe à la polonaise or polonaise is a woman’s garment of the later 1770s and 1780s or a similar revival style of the 1870s inspired by Polish national costume, consisting of a gown with a cutaway, draped and swagged overskirt, worn over an underskirt or petticoat. From the late 19th century, the term polonaise also described a fitted overdress which extended into long panels over the underskirt, but was not necessarily draped or swagged.
Another garment is the basque. In Victorian fashion, basque refers to a closely fitted bodice or jacket extending past the waistline over the hips; depending on era, it may be worn over a hoopskirt (earlier Victorian era) or bustle (later Victorian era). A basque bodice (i.e., when considered as a dress component, to be worn with a specific skirt) could also be referred to as a “corset waist“, because of its close fit.
And another garment is the bustle. A bustle is a type of framework used to expand the fullness or support the drapery of the back of a woman’s dress, occurring predominantly in the mid-to-late 19th century. Bustles were worn under the skirt in the back, just below the waist, to keep the skirt from dragging.