Thursday, October 1, 2009

Little Things Mean A Lot

So the other day I was writing a piece for another blog I host - one dedicated to Greenfield Village ( and, while researching a few things I came across some wonderful information telling how our forefathers lived during the late summer and autumn months. Most of what was written I already knew, but there were a few tidbits of information that I didn't know

- "Fruit jams or preserves were kept in small crocks or glass jars and sealed with bees wax, spirit soaked parchment, or animal bladders that when tightly drawn over the jar opening, would dry and seal off the jar (they were reusable). Lots of fruit was dried by slicing and lying out in baskets or on wooden racks. Fresh fruit was carefully packed in barrels whole to keep in a cool spot" -

Learning about colonial canning made me very happy. Sounds silly, doesn't it?
But, it did.
Probably because it helps me to see the way our ancestors lived that much more clearly. You see, when I write about the past, I kind of live it in my mind as I write, which, to me, is almost as good as participating in a reenactment. So researching is something I simply cannot get enough of. Of course, if the opportunity arises, I will go visit a historic place to see, first hand, how the process of what I learned plays out. In this case, the home that I could visit to witness the 18th century drying and canning process in which the writer of the above quote is speaking of is the 18th century farm of Samuel Daggett, located at Greenfield Village. This is the fall harvest time of year and, although the Village doesn't, unfortunately, celebrate autumn and the harvest like it used to (click the link), the two main farms (Daggett and Firestone) and the presenters that work there still do a fine job in their presentation of 18th (Daggett) and 19th (Firestone) century autumn rituals.

Drying apples and plants at the 18th century Daggett Farmhouse

Why would I, as a reenactor that portrays a postmaster, be so concerned about the fall canning process? Well, in the autumn of the 19th century, except for a few rare instances, virtually everyone canned. And, for those few that did not can, chances are they knew people that did. So when a visitor comes to my tent and asks me a question about my post office, I do my best to answer it. But, while making the attempt to remain in 1st person, I also try to carry on a conversation as if we really were living in the 1860's, as would have been done during that time period. And, so, I could ask my "customer" how the canning of his harvest is going, then maybe speak of the old Widow Jones down the road who still cans by using animal bladders.
The second weekend in October is the last major Civil War reenactment in Michigan known as Wolcott Mill and I will be the postmaster once again. But, hopefully, I will get the opportunity to use my new-found information to teach not only about letter writing and delivery but a little bit about the everyday life of the average Victorian person as well.

Besides taking place in the fall, what else is a bit different at the Wolcott event is that I also participate in the annual lantern tour and speak on the importance of letter writing during the Civil War era. Now, trying to research postmastering practices during the mid-19th century is like pulling teeth - - there's just not that much info about it out there. Luckily for me my wife located (on a book - The Postal Age: The Emergence of Modern Communications in Nineteenth-Century America by David M. Henkin - exactly what I was looking for to help my presentation. When I opened my Christmas present to find this book inside, my heart literally skipped a beat. Who would have thought that such a book existed? And yet, here it is! This book is an excellent source for reference and has helped me tremendously.
And because such a book exists I can now whip out a few more interesting facts to the visitor. For instance prior to 1851, the addressee paid the postmaster. But, many folks just wanted to know that their loved ones were OK and did not pay once it was known who the addresser was. The U.S. government became wise to this and offered a discount to the addresser to pre-pay before sending the letter out.

~Lincoln & Grant~
The important Dignitaries always seem to visit my Post office

For social historians wanting to know of the everyday lives of those who had gone before, this is great stuff!
And, knowing these little bits of historical information can really help give a more natural, well-rounded presentation in any living history impression. For those of us who wish to take reenacting further than the average reenactor, I cannot recommend enough the importance of researching all aspects of daily life of the time period we are attempting to portray.
And, just like reenacting, have fun while you research! That's what it's all about, isn't it?


Mrs. G said...

Ken, that is interesting! However, "they" wouldn't have referred to it as "canning", would they? That's more a post Napoleonic term, I think. Wouldn't they have said "preserving, or "putting up" or "putting by"? I'm sure that's a distinction that you already knew but for those who didn't...... :-)


Historical Ken said...

Thanks Paris - - - - Actually, the entire article that I copied onto the GFV site is pretty fascinating to read. If you get a chance you might want to check it out!

Mrs. G said...

I think I will Ken, I'm very interested in the topic! Thanks again for posting this!