Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reenacting Other Eras

This past Sunday I took part in spending an afternoon in the 1920's at a garden party in Mt. Clemens, Michigan at the Crocker House Museum.
No, I'm not leaving the Civil War era, so you can relax!
I was asked by the director of said museum if I would take part in a presentation to show a little bit about the prohibition era. Nearly a dozen of us dressed in our (makeshift in some cases) 1920's finest and mingled with the guests during the afternoon affair. Throughout, skits would take place, most involving the infamous Mae McKenna. As the Mt. Clemens library site states:
Mae came to Mount Clemens in 1919, and embarked upon a 22-year career as proprietess of a number of businesses of ill repute, including a brothel known as "Mae's Place" at 35 Park St. Her social circle included distinguished visitors of wealth and influence, which may have accounted for the way in which her business prospered with little harassment from local authorities for many years. McKenna had one run-in with law enforcement in Macomb County in March, 1924, when she was tried on a Prohibition-era liquor law violation. A hung jury, voting 8-4 to convict, sent the case back for a second trial. The second trial ended in Mae's acquittal on June 14, 1924.
So, as you probably have figured, it made for an interesting day! The presentation of Mae and her era was done in a very discreet manner and the attendees "knew" the story without the blatancy so prominent in our modern society.
Local actress, Lynn Anderson, portrayed Miss McKenna, and there were others who portrayed other local dignitaries of the day. Yours truly narrated the beginning and end of the party and mingled with the guests as well. A three piece 1920's band provided live background music.
A couple of young girls (they told me they were 17 and 18 years old) even practiced and performed the Charleston for the guests!

It really was a fun time!
It was odd for me to portray one from an era 60 years later than what I am used to portraying, but it was interesting. I could picture my grandmother and her sisters moving about the crowd in this period of what would have been their teen years. As my great Aunt Babe told me during an interview shortly before she died (taken from my collection of family history stories): "The Roaring Twenties, I'll never forget. We wore everything that came in style. Wearing dresses where our hips were the dividing line instead of the dividing line being up here," Babe points to just below her ribs."It was down on your hips so when you walked your a-- would swing," she said with a smile. She followed the fads, trends, dances, and music of the era. She considered herself a 'flapper.' "We were getting kind of wild. Our shoulders were bare - that was bad! You didn't show your shoulders. Pearl (my grandmother) wore her hair in a bun." Aunt Babe went on to explain that most young girls wore their hair in a short 'Bob' cut, not in a bun like Pearl. "She tried to be like the others but she just never made it. She wasn't that type. She wore her clothes a little different from the other girls."

All of this got me to thinking - - 1920's America had no major (or even minor) war, and yet we had quite a large group of paying customers show up to spend an afternoon in that decade. And that made me wonder why we only reenact eras of war: Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, WWI, and, more recently, WWII.
Except for the Old West (mainly in the western states of the U.S.) and the "Somewhere In Time" weekend (held in September up on Mackinac Island), one doesn't hear about living history during times of peace.
Not that I don't like to read and watch reenactments about wars of the past. I do, and I understand the unfortunate importance of war. But, I don't understand why we only reenact a war era. I suppose, however, that there have been enough wars in our nation's history to cover most periods in time. But, I wonder if the 1920's and the Titanic /Somewhere In Time eras are sorely underrepresented for those who like those periods.
Are there people in the U.S. who would want to reenact the flapper or the Edwardian eras? If so, would it draw patrons like the Civil War reenactments?
I, as a civilian representing the Civil War period, have put on presentations for folks young and old and found there is great interest in the everyday life of the period. During these "extra" excursions I rarely, if ever, mention the Civil War; I just speak on how the average person of the mid-19th century lived.
Although I believe reenacting the great events such as war is imperative so we never forget those who gave their all to help to make this country great, I also believe that reenacting other under-represented eras (such as the prohibition era) can be just as important.
(OK - it's back to the 1860's for me - - - - see you there!)


Chandra said...

I'm sure there those who would like to reenact non-war eras, but I have the feeling they would be "By Us, For Us" events. The draw at CW reenactments is the battle, no one comes to see the civilians.

Historical Ken said...

Thanks for your response Chandra.
We have done a number of civilian-only events this year and have had excellent crowds.
As long as civilians have something to offer...
I do feel there are more and more people coming out to see civilians, maybe not as much as to see the battles, but they are a growing number.
By the way, I do enjoy your blogs as well.
An enjoyable read.

Michael said...

Considering that the Civil War was fought on the farm fields and from the porches and attic windows and in the towns of civilians... that by-and-large the soldiers weren't professional soldiers but civilians from farms and town similar to those they were now fighting on... that the soldiers were foraging in civilian fields and from their barns and fruit cellars... I have to disagree. The Civil War was equal parts of military and civilans. You cannot portray one and neglect the other. The two parts make one whole, complete and accurate human story.

Civilian reenactors are just as vital and integral to the portrayl of the war as the military. They just don't do it with black powder and caps. Their audience comes by in small groups and interacts personally with them, while the audience gathers on a hillside, behind traffic tape, and watches from afar, with a narrator. Who has the harder job?

Chandra said...

I don't disagree that civilians are any less important, or that civilian only events were sparsly attended by vistors. It has just been my expierence in the last 14 years that the battle is the "big draw". I have yet to meet the visitor that would rather stay to watch a ladies high tea or spinning demonstration than watch the battle.

Stickhorsecowgirls said...

This is a thought-provoking piece. I think history is just punctuated by war (unfortunately). We always refer to things as "antebellum" or post-WWII, etc. Hmmmmm. Now I'm going to be thinking on why we concentrate so on the bellicose...Thanks for the post. I'll certainly be back to check up on you! C

Mrs. G said...

You guys look great, I loved the photo by the car! Interesting point about reenacting primarily wars..... I personally find the Depression years to be very interesting, I think because my parents were growing up then.


Rock Band said...

I think I will begin reenacting the later half of the 1970s. Ah, THOSE were the halcyon days.