Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Living History - One Person's Story

The following is my journey into the world of living history. I do not claim to be a professional (is there such a thing?) at this, but I can tell you that what I do is working well for me. I know I have much more to learn, but it is my hope that any reenactor who might read this may take the jump (leap?) into this time-traveling experience.
It's like nothing I've ever done before...
A menial task is a menial task, one which no one ever pays attention to...ever. But, put someone in period clothing, and that boring old chore suddenly becomes interesting...almost (dare I say?) historic! A good example of this happened during an event a few years back when my eldest son was chopping wood. A group of fathers and sons (they might've been Cub Scouts) watched as he chopped. Now, my son does nothing different than most folks when using an axe to chop wood, but given the fact that he was wearing a Civil War uniform made this mundane chore pretty darn special ("we saw a soldier chopping wood!").

Simple, yet living history.
For me, I can tell you exactly the moment that I began to practice real living history: Memorial Weekend at the Civil War reenactment at Greenfield Village 2006. As a surprise birthday gift from my wife and kids (my birthday was the week previous) I received a wooden "laptop" writing desk that included a pen & ink set. It wasn't exactly period correct but it didn't matter to me at that time. I was just happy to be able to dip my pen in the bottle of ink to write a letter - just like they did in the 1860's.
On the final day of the three day reenactment, one of the newer members of the 21st Michigan asked if she could use my set to write a letter to her soldier-boy brother, off fighting the Rebs.
"Of course!" I replied.
She pulled out a sheet of paper, dipped the pen, and began her letter. While she was writing, a funny thing occurred that hadn't happened to us before: a small crowd of around 10 to 15 people had gathered around to watch this young 1860's girl write "the old-fashioned way." They were fascinated to see how she had to dip her pen into the ink bottle every few sentences to continue to write.
And they began to ask questions...
So, I acted as the go-between from past to present and explained as best as I could about what she was doing. I did not have very much information at that time to pass on to our visitors - just the basics - but I told them what I knew. I explained that ink pens as we knew them in our modern time were many decades into the future for this young lady, and that letters were the only connection to home for these boys off fighting many hundreds of miles away. I showed them the metallic nib (or tip) of the pen and explained how the ink will sit in the tiny reservoir, waiting to flow out to form letters as the writer applies slight pressure to the paper.
Like show and tell, the extra pen I had (my set came with two pens) was passed around for all to see.

This is not Miss Cary - this is my daughter writing to her brother off fighting the rebs!

Then the best part of this unexpected scenario took place: Young Miss Cary read her letter to the waiting public. The wording wasn't necessarily period correct - she hadn't read too many Civil War era letters to have known exactly what to write - but she did include family stories such as their cow dying, the taking sick of a close friend down the road, and of the hardships she and her mother were having trying to run the farm without the men around.
The public loved it!
At that moment a light clicked on in my head. Well, maybe it wasn't a "click" - rather, it was more like the flick of a match to an oil lamp. Either way, I realized right then and there that we were doing living history - we were bringing the past to life!
It was awesome!
We continued this scenario for the rest of the day, and other members helped out by writing letters as well. Small crowds gathered each time, and I carried on as the go-between from past to present.
I finally had a purpose! The best part was that no one else was doing anything like this!
I researched the subject of letter writing to add more information to my presentation, and for the rest of the reenacting season I explained the letter writing procedure at each event.
As I continued my research via the internet, I learned the importance of a Civil War era postmaster, and found that job to be very interesting as well. I decidedly leaned in the direction of presenting the position of postmaster as my 19th century occupation. The following year my wife surprised me with a book about postmastering in the 19th century, and let me tell you, this book is a wealth of information and supplied much of what I needed to enhance my presentation.
From being the go-between to becoming the postmaster was a natural progression, I suppose, but I still had a few misgivings on turning this into a 1st person presentation. To be honest, I felt kinda silly trying to make people feel as if I was actually a person from the 19th century. But, I did make the attempt here and there.
It was during our last event for the season that year when I was asked to take part in a lantern tour - my first one.

I had Miss Cary as my "reader" while I did the go-between thing like I did the year before. It went okay, and the tour group seemed to enjoy it, but I knew it could've been so much better. I knew I had to work on bringing the past to life, and there was only one way to do this: research everyday life of the mid-19th century.
I read their letters, journals, and diaries. I read popular books of the era, including books on etiquette..I learned their wording and their phrases. I studied etymology (the history of words)...I researched and read all I could about the mindset of the populace of 150 years ago - their thoughts, actions, why's, and wherefore's...and even their language usage.
Learning the way our ancestors spoke to each other can be confusing at times (for instance, the word 'excite' and its derivatives in the 21st century: excite = awesome -/- mid-19th century: excite = trouble), but I knew the outcome - if done correctly - could really make my presentation come alive.
I also learned that to drop certain words which were not in general use back then (example: hello or hi, cool - as in "that was cool!") and phrases (example: "aww man! That was awesome!") can make a world of difference in one's presentation.
Practice and practice and still more practice - that's what I did. I tried to write in the same way as they wrote in the 1860's, I would create 'period dialogues' in my mind and sometimes with my reenacting friends, and I even began writing a time-travel story that forced me to write in the 1860's vernacular.
With my research and practice, I could see that it was slowly coming together. S-l-o-w-l-y I was making inroads in understanding the thought process of those folks who we emulate.
It was beginning to fall into place.
In the few years that followed, I bounced back and forth between 1st and 3rd person - mainly staying in the 3rd person style, for my own lack of confidence was my hindrance for 1st person.
But, I forged ahead. I really wanted to do true living history - I really wanted to make the past come alive - and to do it right. I continued my 1st person research by the ways mentioned above (and still do to this very day!). And, of course, I continually (again, to this day) forced myself to try to think in the way our ancestors thought.
Something needed to be added to the whole scenario, however.
But, what?
Then it occurred to me -
-->perception played a major role in this 1st person thing; to make it truly work, nothing farby could be allowed! How could I act and seem like one from the past with a blue plastic cooler about, or a bread wrapper on the table? Not that we didn't hide this stuff -we did - but every-so-often these futuristic items would creep out right in front of me. This changed rather quickly. I made sure I was surrounded by authentic items - whether replicas or antiques - because I knew that it was these small details that could help me to time...er...mind-travel back 150 years, and bring the visitors along with me. Mind! All of this study and research and trial and error took years following my first foray into living history on that fatefull day during Memorial Weekend '06.
I believe last year - 2010 - it finally all came together for me where I can say that I was satisfied with my living history presentation. Is it perfect? No, not by any means, and it never will be. I am not from the 19th century, obviously, so I can't really tell you their true thought process. Nor can I tell you positively of their mindset. But, I can make an educated attempt due to my research of first-hand accounts. And it's continued research of this subject that will allow me to improve my presentation.
And, I have been able to present living history in other ways - not just as a postmaster. For instance, in recent years I have portrayed one who is gravelly ill, the owner of a farmhouse, and a mourner.

I was so ill, lying on the sick bed while my 'wife' took care of me

For those of you who have been thinking about mind-traveling into the past, I hope this has helped you.



Stephanie Ann said...

Lovely! It really is a process isn't it, and it happens about 1,000 times. :D It is really great when you can tell that people are interested.

mdgillett said...

Wonderful article (among many!)... very insightful and encouraging, Ken!

Richard Cottrell said...

Loved your blog, I just became a floower. Love the past and old houses. I have a blog you might like. Please drop by. Please scroll back and see older psot as well. Thanks, Richard at www.myoldhistorichouse.blogspot.com

Historical Ken said...

Thanks everyone! I appreciate it!

Amy said...

Great post Ken! Thanks for that -- it really does help to read another person's "progress" into the past. I'm supposed to go to a reenactment on the first weekend of March...maybe I'll get up the courage to practice a little while I'm out there.

In the meantime, I'm trying to be as authentic as possible...at least for my daughter. I'm actually attempting to make black kid leather shoes for Victoria! :) I figured you would be one of the few people in this world who would totally get that. Haha!


Historical Ken said...

"black kid leather shoes for Victoria" - I like that!
As far as living history and your 1st person presentation, just take your time and bring it out here and there. Don't overdo it where it sounds forced or you feel uncomfortable. Do it in snippets, and then bring it out more and more at each event.
Oh - and make sure not to be around others who do not practice or care for 1st person - they can really ruin it sometimes.