Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Satisfaction of Civil War Living History

This week I have a sort of two-part posting - a good bang for your buck! The first speaks on what I 'get' out of reenacting, while the second goes into men's period clothing information.

First...why??? Why would I subject myself to the ridicule that comes from wearing clothing 150 years out of date in public? Oh, and believe me when I say we are called crazy. I've read on-line articles about living historians, and the comments that follow are, well, simply put, scary. Here are a couple that I found:  
"We live on the same street as one of these evil time warpians. My children are not allowed to to play with their kids."

"I think these people are insane. They are probably worthless mongrels who have absolutely nothing to offer society and need an escape from their pointless existences. The only positive thing about "timewarping" to escape reality is that they chose this absurd escape instead of choosing illicit drug use."

" 'Good manners" and "respect for women' ?? I think this was the era when women couldn't vote, own property, get educated, have jobs, etc. Not to mention the brutal oppression of native populations, like what the British did in India. Not to mention child labor and sexual abuse were considered normal parts of life."

"These folks are totally incapable of dealing with reality...that's why the escapism! Losers would be a very accurate term to describe them. Wonder if they would have liked the decreased life span that existed back then when people died from diseases that are now curable."

"Losers! You can always enjoy what you have right now and live a normal happy quality life. But to escape yourself into the past is only for losers. Don't be fool with Victorian era, there were no personal freedom, racist-arrogant white, sexist, no filtered-clean water, no real doctors, no education for most people, no human connection if you don't live in one of the few cities, and so so much more. So only losers would dress up like that.
Lady Gaga dressed as a sno-ball is accepted nowadays. Which ones are the freaks?"

"Why are we trying to normalize these outcasts? These bizarre social rejects can't fit into our current society so they've created their own little fantasy world. How sad that they can't find a hobby or activity in our own world."

Yikes! Really? Is that how we are perceived? When one thinks of all the insanity that goes on in our society - much of it probably caused by these folks who have these awful and mis-guided opinions of us - one can hardly believe that such things would be said of those of us who enjoy our little weekend time-travel excursions.
Ah well...such is life...

As most of you probably know, reenacting and living history can be a rather expensive and time-consuming hobby. There's an inside joke about how aghast our ancestors would be if they knew how much money we spent - more than the average year's salary of their day - to emulate them.
So why do we do it? What makes grown men and women revert to acting like children do and pretend to live in a time long past? You know it's more than "I want to show the public what it was like back then." If this were the case then why do so many living historians not even speak to the public at the big reenactments? Also, why do we do private, no public allowed events?

Living history inside a period can be as good as it gets, even when there are tour groups coming through
I can't answer for everyone else, but I can say for myself there are a multitude of reasons, one being that taking my passion for history to the extreme gives me a sort of high. Kind of like extreme sports for those who love that thrill. Reenacting and living history allows me to step out of today into yesterday, and if I do it right I can almost actually be there.
The public, depending on the event, can be a wonderful addition which allows me to share my knowledge. Or they can be a distraction. I suppose this would all be up to the living historian and the surroundings in which he finds himself. I personally enjoy both: with and without the public. When we reenact at Greenfield Village, for instance, upwards of 30,000 visitors show up over the course of a three-day weekend. I expect and prepare for that. To be honest, I rather enjoy it quite a bit. The visitors that attend are real history buffs, for the most part, and take a genuine interest in what we do and in our presentations. 
Friends visiting in the parlor
But I also immensely enjoy private events, usually in a reenactor's home or at a small historical venue with maybe small groups of modern people stepping through here and there on a tour. For a living historian, this is where one can take pretending to a much higher level. This is where one can truly make history come alive.
A couple of years ago I portrayed a man who was feeling rather poorly - it was said I had the summer fever - and so I was positioned on the sick bed located in a room where I could be looked after while the daily routines could go uninterrupted for the most part. This was a very realistic scenario; after a while I felt took on the persona of actually being sick and lay upon the sick bed for the entire afternoon while I was looked after by a woman who portrayed my wife. The public would walk through every-so-often, many making snide comments about me drinking too much the night before or me trying to get out of my daily work that needed to be done. But the reenactors who came to visit acted as if I were really sick and their response to my illness was more out of concern rather than in a joking manner.
A rarity: seeing a Victorian man without his coat or shoes on - I really must have been sick! The summer fever certainly can take a lot out of you!
This is why, at times, the public can be a distraction. Fortunately, most (I repeat: most) visitors that attend a reenactment come for a love of history. Not enough love to time-travel like we do, but enough to where they want to learn more about the different aspects of the era.

I have spoken to my very good friend who happens to be a car buff. He races his 1979 Camaro every chance he gets. And when he's not on the track he's constantly working on it, fine tuning it, or washing and waxing it. He's spent an awful amount of money restoring it to its original color with pin-striping and seat covers. He thinks nothing of dropping a couple hundred dollars to "get it right."
It's the same with us who do living history. We want to do it right - that's part of the challenge, isn't it? And we are in a constant state of research; when we come across some historical item or information - whether to wear or to use - we can't wait to put it on or try it out or to share this new find.
I guess this is as good an answer I can come up with on why I do what I do and why I spend my hard-earned cash on something as frivolous as a new cravat just because it's more historically accurate than the previous one I had.
I look at it this way: I could be spending my spare time watching TV, sitting at a bar, or going to all of the over-priced sporting events to watch over-paid players play a game.
The best part of living history and reenacting for me, by the way, is that my family - wife and kids - all enjoy this hobby as well. It's something we can all do together.
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For information on Men's period clothing, click HERE





Stephanie Ann said...

Very good post! I am glad you do civilian. It's nice to show a world where not every man and boy are in the military.

Civil Folks said...


I enjoyed your post and I asked myself 'Why do you reenact?'

I have a very simple answer, I do it for ME. The public just gets the bonus because I will not do something I have not researched to the best of my ability. We portray dirt poor refugees from Atlanta and well-to-do entrepeneurs from Delaware to Rev. and Madam You-name-the-church or common indentured servants. Our favorite is the one we are doing at the time!

Some scenarios have us singing and spinning or eating a period meal at a polychromed table. Of course, visitors ask questions and want to be involved and we answer as though they were guests at our table. Some folks have even reached, and got, our food before!

I do it for me, for my family and for the public entertainment and knowledge.

Our costs have been minimal because my wife is a seasoned costume designer for theater and it was an easy adjustment to be more 'authentic'.

We are grateful for the opportunity to do the things we love in a country where we are allowed to do the things we love.

Great post.


Gilded Streets said...

Great write up! I love when people wear period clothing. I used to have some myself. I say be yourself and those who dislike it often have a disdain for general life. You are your own person with character and style and seldom are modern people brave enough to follow their passions. You are one of those rare people that live an authentic life. Bravo and keep it up!

Historical Ken said...

Thank you all very much for the kind comments. I truly appreciate it.

Mia said...

Great post!
I too was horrified at the accusations and comments made about re-enactors. I truly do enjoy the hobby..there's so much to learn about history, and events are a great way to experience 19th century 'everyday living'.I look forward to your next post. Thanks~!

Historical Ken said...

Thank you Mia. I am honored and flattered!
I'm very glad to hear that you stuck it out and continued in your living history adventures.
I checked out your blog - you should write more often - - - and I love the pictures (though I would like to see some faces).

victorian parlor II said...

I love your post!!! I have never heard such disturbing or negative comments (we live in South Carolina so reenacting is almost expected and those who don't reenact are thought to be wierd-lol). Anyway, my hubby and I portray a lady and gentleman. I have purchased most of hubby's clothing from Gentleman's Emporium and have been very satisfied with their clothing. I learned how to sew my own clothing last summer and am now venturing into making hubby's clothes as well (it's much cheaper:). We love reenacting because we love history and we love the Victorian era. Our motivation is more or less to enjoy the beauty of the era more than the battles. We also reenact Regency era through the roaring
20's. Your blog is wonderful and I look forward to visiting again!



Historical Ken said...

Thank you very much Kim - - sorry it took me so long to get back with you. But I do appreciate your kind words!