Sunday, February 25, 2018

Class Rings—The Start of a Tradition

High School and College. There are so many important moments in those seasons of a young person’s life. First dates, dances, yearbooks, first jobs, getting a driver’s license and/or first car. And getting a class ring.

I personally never got a class ring, either in high school or college. Not that I didn’t want one. I did. Not that we couldn’t afford one. My family could. I just…didn’t. I don’t even know why. So when my own son reached high school, I made sure we offered. He said he would love one, and he wears that ring proudly now as he goes through college. I will assume we might get him a college ring as well, but that decision is another year or more off.

For my most recently published story, The Brigand and The Bride, found in The Mail-Order Brides Collection, a ring plays an important part of the story. I needed a distinctive ring, something few others would have. I immediately thought of a class ring, since they’d likely be inscribed with a name and a year, and because only the students from that school would have one. But I quickly realized it would have to be from a prestigious school, since it didn’t seem likely that most one-room schoolhouses would be the types of places you’d find class rings. No, in that age, it would have to be an Ivy-league school or the like. Of course, I immediately had to wonder if class rings were even a thing back in the mid-1800s. The ring in my story was worn by my hero’s father, which means it would’ve been from around 1850, give or take a couple of years. Did class rings exist in those days?

West Point emblem
Why yes! Yes they did!

The tradition of class rings goes back to 1835, started by the graduating class from the United States Military Academy, or West Point. Interestingly, this was the first school to dream up the idea of each member of the graduating class having a memento to commemorate their time at the school—and as a symbol of shared camaraderie and pride. At first, the rings were all styled the same, and the only customization was what might be engraved on the underside of the ring. But as time passed, the schools were able to begin offering customization of slight changes to the basic ring being offered for that year, like the graduating senior’s name or other details to personalize the jewelry.

West Point Ring Weekends hold a lot of great moments. The “Firsties,” or seniors, have their official ring ceremony where the students receive their rings, followed by a formal dinner and a dance (which they call a “hop”). And from that point forward, the underclassmen mob the Firsties, asking to see their rings. However, they don’t just say, “May I see your ring?” They have a a special way of asking. They’ll repeat:

“Oh my gosh, Sir/Ma’am! What a beautiful ring! What a crass mass of brass and glass. What a bold mold of rolled gold! What a cool jewel you got from your school! See how it sparkles and shines? It must have cost you a fortune! May I touch it? May I touch it, sir/ma’am?”

I dare say that school is all about tradition, and the “ring poop” as it is called, is a fun one.

So what might a class ring from circa-1850 look like? I was excited to discover that J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart, the famed Confederate general, was a graduate of West Point in 1854, and I was able to find pictures of his class ring. It was well worn, but in great shape for its age.

The stone was green, and when the ring was new, it had the West Point crest engraved in the stone’s surface. Jeb Stuart was a cavalry officer, and over the years between his graduation and his death in 1864, the engraving was word down, perhaps by the rubbing of the reins of his horse. As you can see on the underside of the ring, there is engraving including his name, along with the month and year of his graduation.
J.E.B. Stuart's West Point class ring

With the details of West Point being the first school to start the tradition of class rings and with a picture in mind of what such a ring might look like, I knew I could safely incorporate such a ring into my novella. Of course, you’ll have to read the story to find out how and why it’s important!

Interior of J.E.B. Stuart's class ring, showing
inscription and date/year.
It’s your turn: I’ll give away a copy of The Mail-Order Brides Collection to one reader, so you can see just how that ring plays into the story. To enter, please tell me whether you got a class ring in high school and/or college. If so, do you still wear the ring(s)? If not, did you want one, and what kept you from having one?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list numerous times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.

What kind of woman would answer an advertisement and marry a stranger?

Escape into the history of the American West along with nine couples whose relationships begin with advertisements for mail-order brides. Placing their dreams for new beginnings in the hands of a stranger, will each bride be disappointed, or will some find true love?

The Brigand And The Bride by Jennifer Uhlarik

1876, Arizona
Jolie Hilliard weds a stranger to flee her outlaw family but discovers her groom is an escaped prisoner. Will she ever find happiness on the right side of the law?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

For The Love of Candy

Save the Earth; it's the only planet 
 with chocolate

I’ve got candy on my mind this month and it has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day or the empty box of chocolates on my desk. The real reason I’m thinking of all things sweet is that I just finished a book about a heroine who owns a candy shop. 
While doing the research for my book, I turned up some fun and interesting facts. For example, we can blame our sweet tooth on our cavemen ancestors and their fondness for honey.  But the most surprising thing I discovered was that marshmallows grow on trees—or at least used to.  That was before the French came up with a way to replace the sweet sap from the mallow tree with gelatin. 
I also learned that during the middle ages, the price of sugar was so high that only the rich could afford a sweet treat.  In fact, candy was such a rarity that the most children could expect was an occasional sugar plum at Christmas.  (BTW: there are no plums in sugar plums.  Plum is another word for good). 
This changed during the early nineteenth century with the discovery of sugar-beet juice and mechanical candy-making machines. 
Soon jars of colorful penny candy could be found in every trading post and general store in the country. It took almost four hundred candy manufacturing companies to keep up with the demand. 
This changed the market considerably. Children as young as four or five were now able to make purchases independent of their parents. (Had youngsters known that vegetables including spinach were used to color candy, they might not have wasted their money.) 
Children weren’t the only ones enjoying the availability of cheap candy. Civil War soldiers favored gumdrops, jelly beans, hard candy and hub wafers (now known as Necco wafers). 
Never one to miss a trend, John Arbuckle off coffee fame, noted the sugar craze that had swept the country and decided to use it as a marketing tool.  He included a peppermint stick in each pound bag of Arbuckle’s coffee to encourage sales. 
“Who wants the peppermint?” was a familiar cry around chuck wagons.
This call to grind the coffee beans got a rash of volunteers.  No rough and tumble cowboy worth his salt would turn down a stick of peppermint candy, especially when out on the trail. 
Arbuckle wasn’t the only one to see gold in candy. Outlaw Doc Scurlock, friend of Billy the Kid and a Bloody Lincoln County War participant, retired from crime in 1880. Though he was still a wanted man, he moved to Texas and opened up a candy store.
Milk ChocolateCadbury, Mars and Hershey rode herd on the chocolate boom of the late 1800s, early 1900s.  Penny candy still made up eighteen percent of candy sales but, by that time, some merchants had refused to sell it.  Profits were thin and selling such small amounts to children was time-consumingChocolate was more profitable. The penny candy market vanished altogether during World War II when sugar was rationed, but did made a short comeback in the 50's.  Fortunately, no war could do away with chocolate.
Okay, now that your sweet tooth has gone into overdrive, tell us the name of your favorite candy?  Anyone have a candy memory to share?

 Meet the brides of Two-Time, Texas