Monday, October 24, 2011

Researching History - EXPAND Your Knowledge!

Historical research - don't you love it? I certainly do!
But I have a question for you - - - when you are researching something, do you only research that particular item (or craft or clothing...) and end it there? Or do you take what you've learned a step further...researching whatever it is you are studying to see how it applied to everyday life?
Recently...well, in fact, yesterday, I was reading an older posting that I wrote about Pre-Beatles Rock and Roll and I noticed that it was really only partly done in that it sounded more like an advertisement for Time Life Music than an article about early rock music.
- I must have written it in a hurry -
So I took it upon myself to 'complete' the article to give the reader a greater idea of the why's and wherefore's of the music instead of only how one could obtain it. And that got me to thinking about all historical research; I think too many of us half at it when we study history and get only get a dictionary definition rather than a well-rounded encyclopedic picture.
Expand - that's the word, the verb, we're looking for. I have learned to use this wonderful word in my research - - expand. To give greater detail in your quest for knowledge of the over-all period in time that interests you is taking that extra step. For instance, if you have an interest in stage coach travel, then learn about the parts of the stage itself and of the men who made them. Learn about the types of roads the coaches traveled over. Study what tavern life was like, for many folks who traveled on stage coaches invariably spent time in a tavern, whether just for board or for an overnight stay. It's in this way you can have a more well-rounded and total picture of the subject at hand (please see my posting and stage coach and taverns to get a better idea of what I mean here).
Another example of expanding your historical knowledge involves something that nearly all living historians/reenactors begin their 'hobby' with: period clothing.

Here is an original 1860's men's frock coat (from the collection of Bill Christen)

There are those who lean heavily on studying period clothing. These are the people that will collect original examples, from hats and bonnets right down to the undergarments. They will also usually collect cdv's to study clothing as well. A cdv, for those who are unaware, is an acronym for the French carte de visite or visiting card. This style of antique photography took over in popularity from the daguerreotype or ambrotype of the 1840s and 1850s and carried on into the 1860's and (I believe) 1870's. In many cases, by studying cdv's one can see in great detail exactly how clothing of the period should look as it's worn, and many have been able to make replicas of the period clothing to either wear for themselves, sell, or to even make a pattern for. I have numerous friends who are well-versed in their period clothing expertise, and they have helped my wife and I learn what we should (and should not) wear during an event.
There are a few of these clothing historians that have done enough research on historical wearing apparel that they can tell you why each piece was worn, the time of day, the season, and for what reason. They understand and can "bring alive" those who originally wore that particular garment.

Here is a CDV of a working man and his daughters

By the way, I am not necessarily speaking of sellers who run a sutlery. Oh yes, there are a few very good sutlers. But unfortunately there are many - too many - out to make a buck and will gladly sell you whatever they have whether it's period correct or not! Just so you know (for newbies in the 'hobby').

There is one particular person (who shall remain nameless at this time) that I consider my mentor. This women not only knows clothing of the period, but her general knowledge of everyday life of the 1860's goes beyond anyone else I have met. She has studied speech and manners, etiquette, food, home tools/accessories, furniture, occupations...the list goes on and on...
And she willingly shares her knowledge -  not in an uppity way but in a very friendly conversational style.
Best of all, she is not afraid to say if she does not know the answer to a specific historical question. Unlike a few that I know, she will not assume or make things up. She may offer a possibility or an opinion but she makes it clear that she may not have the facts if she truly doesn't.
She, too, is in a constant state of research.

This is the way that I am trying to be.
But I've had retention problems that will sometimes prevent me from sharing what I have learned, which can be very frustrating.
However, I am overcoming that...
I read somewhere (and I apologize that I don't remember where) that the human brain only retains a mere smidgen of what we read; it was something like 3% of an entire book. The rest we almost immediately forget as soon as we read it. As I just stated, I have found this to be true with myself. I'll find an amazing book - Our Own Snug Fireside for instance - and there will be loads of wonderful historical information, the kind that I just eat up. But it seems that once I close the book at the end of a chapter, all of that living historical information leaks out of my brain like a sieve except for a few small things that made a strong impression while I read them.
This isn't something new for me - I've always had this problem, especially when I was in school. But a number of years ago I discovered a way that I could retain the information better: rather than reading the book as a book - you know, all at once, chapter by chapter - I instead flip to points of interest at any given time. For instance, I am interested in colonial hearth cooking and the equipment used. So the other morning at breakfast I found that particular section in my "Snug Fireside" book and studied what was written on the subject. In this way I can read about any one topic that I may have a want or a curiosity about rather than go through each entire chapter and read - but not retain - information I may not be interested presently. Reading my history books in this manner - just jumping around book to book, section of interest to section of interest - has greatly helped my retention level.
And it sticks with me, too!
 This is wool that was sheared, cleaned, combed, spun, and dyed using traditional natural methods (roots, plants, and berries) at the Daggett House. It's simple enough for one to spin wool on a spinning wheel. But that's only a very small part of the entire process. Expand! See?

It's also a way for me to learn about many different topics instead of just a few chosen interests. One of the problems I have encountered is some of the men have a stigma on learning about women's work of the 19th century. Seriously. I mean, we know what our wives do today - and they know our chores as well - so why wouldn't we know about their chores of 'yesterday' ?  
As men we absolutely would! 
 I watch as my wife spins on her spinning wheel. I've even helped her pick out the dirt and seeds from the raw wool. And I'll help her dye the wool when she does that as well. And I'll study other subjects, no matter if it was for a male or a female: the other day it was hearth cooking. And by reading about hearth cooking I also learned about the differing types of pans and ladles used to cook. And that lead me to read about the local blacksmith and how he made these cooking utensils in his shop. And to the potter shop to read about plate and cup making.
Do you see where this is leading?
Now tomorrow I may look up coopering, and later this week I may learn of a domestic's duties. I also have a want to learn more about the variety of mills in the mid-19th century. Crazy, huh? But who knows where each of these topics may lead me? So for me, my method of bopping around a book rather than reading it straight through has actually given me much more knowledge of the era. It helps to show me how it all ties in together in the family home of the mid-19th century because I do take that extra researching step and, more importantly, I retain the information.
I have also found that I can join in and share on nearly any topic of the mid-19th century and beyond. And if any one subject is spoken of during a conversation (stage coach travel for instance) I can then expand on that subject to accent and fill in the holes missing.
It works for me - it just might for you.


Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

Hi Ken-

I'm just beginning to catch up on my favorite blogs after a few months away.

I love the way you think and write. I, too, find it hard to retain facts about subjects I absolutely love to read about. I would love to have the knowledge at my fingertips sometimes, and I think in general, I retain the essence, but not the specifics. I love to purchase books as reference, and never get rid of a book! I've picked up the same books over the years, only to find something of interest that I know I've already read, but had left my mind.

I don't avoid highlighting or underlining in new books I own, but would never mark up an antique, and I've even tried starting to index topics in a computeer database and cite my references so I can go back and find the original source. But that's so time consuming!

I think your way works best. And since you're living the life of a reenactor, you probably need to recall more info if somebody asks you about something.

This was a very interesting post!


Historical Ken said...

Great minds think alike, and you and I are definitely thinking alike on this (although I'm not sure if I have a great mind or just a plain old ordinary mind!!).

Susan Armstrong said...

Thank you for this wonderful post. I too have the same issues with retaining information and like your explanation. Too many state they don't have time to read let alone expand on a topic. When a reenactor says they would like to learn from me (doing laundry) it means they don't want to take the time to read "something/anything" on the subject. Do they not realize what this takes away from my experience if I have to get them up to speed before spectators arrive? Right now I'm going through a soul searching about reenacting.

Forums can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to researching. We are all at different levels of interest. It is very easy to discourage others or reenactors use forums to not do their own reading/research.
For a change, I started creating educational displays. I set up in an educational area. This enables me to talk to more people, both spectators and reenactors. People ask more questions since I'm not in the camp setting (nor competing with the mainstream reenactor). I can also do this at my local library during the off season...heat and/or air :D

I really enjoy reading your blog.

Historical Ken said...

Thank you Susan - I appreciate your kind words.
I couldn't agree more in what you wrote here. It can become a frustrating experience when one or two seem to do all of the research while the rest just follow blindly with out a care. I don't mind teaching, but I'd rather be a catalyst for them to take it upon themselves to expand their knowledge rather than the sole teacher.
Forums? I usually stay away from most because I find too many who write in them to be too uppity and, like you said, some tend to use the info as gospel without doing their own research. We discuss researching in our membership meetings and it's tended to work well for us (I wish other units would teach their membership this as well - that would go a long way!).
I also enjoy doing smaller programs for libraries, schools, and even senior centers. It's been a while since I've done this - - maybe in the spring I'll try to get this going again!
Thanks for writing!