Saturday, March 23, 2013

Is Nostalgia "Portable"?

~I came upon the idea for this posting while reading an older post.~
...updated May 2018...

Lately I've been going through a sort of melancholy phase due, in part, to the many changes going on not only in my own personal life with the recent deaths of my mother, my brother, job changes, and neighborhood transitions, but in society in general. I am a traditional man with traditional values, and with modern times being what they are, I am nostalgic for an era I remember from long ago - a time no longer here.
In fact, to a time I was not actually a part a way...
I suppose you just have to read this post to understand what I mean.
Now, I am not trying to be snarky here, but please do not send me nasty comments telling me to "get over it," "accept what the future holds," "live for today," "you need to get out of the past," "I suppose you want slavery back," and all the other asinine bile I get when I write in this manner whether here or on my Facebook page.
And there's also no need to politicize something that isn't political. 
You see, I still have a right to my thoughts and opinions just as you have a right not to read them if you prefer...
Please remember this as you read.
~   ~

So, I've been a bit melancholy, and when I get this way my thoughts tend to wander in many different directions, especially down the nostalgic trail.
An autumn scene right out of 1760. Yeah, I was there...
Nostalgia, as defined by Mr. Webster's dictionary, is described as a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland, or to one's family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.
That would mean nostalgia is a very personal experience then, does it not? And according to the above definition, only those who actually experienced the time period firsthand actually have the right to feel an attachment to it.
However, I once read that "Nostalgia is portable," meaning it can be possible to feel a sentimental attachment to a time period one did not personally live through.
Hmmm...but that's not according to definition - - how can that be?
If nostalgia truly is portable, is it possible, then, that those of us who reenact the past, frequently visit historical living history museums, or read extensively about a time from before we were born to experience these same nostalgic emotions?  I mean, it's pretty obvious that I was not around during the horse-and-carriage days, and yet I still have a sort of nostalgic feeling for those times.
...and I was also in 1882.
~Maybe it's because I've spent so much of my youth in a rural setting in the company of my Victorian-born grandparents, whose ways, morals and values, and even style of furniture was of the pre-electric, pre-modern era.
~Maybe it's because I have been witnessing daily life of the 18th and 19th centuries while visiting the historical open-air museums of Greenfield Village and Crossroads Village quite frequently - sometimes weekly - for 30-plus years, intently watching and sometimes even taking part in the everyday activities of long ago.
Here I am taking part in the oh-so-important farming activity of plowing. Yeah...that's me holding the plow behind the horses...
~Maybe it's because I have been actively participating for nearly two decades in the world of living history: reenacting the world of the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries while utilizing a strong attempt to accurately and authentically bring that era back to life, if only for a weekend at a time.

I mean, when one thinks about it, if I added up each day I spend reenacting and include the times I visit open-air museums, I am immersed in the past an awful lot, aren't I?
So, with taking everything into account, does this mean that I can actually feel a sort of Webster definition of nostalgia for times long past?
Real memories of a time before my time, though it occurred in my time.
Does that make sense?
How about my children, each of whom, since birth, have attended colonial and Civil War reenactments (before participation and after), visited v-e-r-y often the above mentioned museums and witnessed almost weekly people in period clothing performing the historical activities of horse-drawn plowing, milking cows, caring for chickens, riding in carriages, on steamboats, and on trains, picnicking near a covered bridge... on wood and coal-burning stoves...or even seeing their father warming over an open hearth on a cold winter's eve inside ancient American homes, as you see me doing here in sub-zero temps in the Daggett house. yes, the warmth from the flames did thaw my toes and nose as it would have back then.
And, as you know, they have also been a part of the living history/reenacting world for most of their lives.
Then there are the many, many summertime weekends in the small 19th century-built American town of Lexington (Michigan), where such things as visiting a general store that has a mix of old and new items (including penny candy), an old stagecoach stop turned into a restaurant that still keeps its period appearance, catching pollywogs at the creek, bonfires at night, and extremely little TV watching, were all commonplace.
Wouldn't you say this is pretty old-timey stuff?
Just ask a typical pre-teen today how much of what I just mentioned they themselves experienced; I can practically guarantee most have not...ever (unless their your child, right? Because chances are, if you're reading this, you and I have a very similar mindset).
With all of this, can they be nostalgic for eras beyond their own time?
We had our family image put on a tintype by famed tintype photographer Rob Gibson (Gods & Generals, Gettysburg, Cold Mountain) when we were in Gettysburg a few years ago. We have the memory of dressing up in our Sunday best, walking to his gallery (located in a mid-19th century building), and posing for our portrait - the same exact experience as people had from 150 years earlier.

We have also visited a restored colonial village, Colonial Williamsburg, where virtually every building in the area was either originally built in the 18th century or an exact replication of one from that time.
My wife and I walking down an 18th century street in Williamsburg.
Yes, we had the same experience as one may have had 240 years ago, did we not?
And those who work for the foundation, no matter what part or role they may 'play' (from store-keep to gardener), all are dressed in the fashions of the 1770s, and many pretty much keep period in their conversations.
Our discussion in this photograph actually did center on the activity - the news - of the excitement up north in Boston. The young lady and I agreed on some of what we heard and disagreed on others. But it was a conversation that most definitely was had on the same street from the 1700s, for it was in the local broadsheets of the era.
I greatly miss being there in Colonial Williamsburg. You might say I am nostalgic to go back. But which "back" am I nostalgic for? Back in Colonial Williamsburg, or back in the 1700s?
Methinks a little of both because the experience was not much different.
Though we are contemporary people, my family and I probably includes the past beyond most. You see, my wife, Patty, has very much the same sort of desire as I in that she prefers the more traditional and rural ways of life over the modern cut throat, hustle and bustle of the 21st century.
One of her passions, for instance, is spinning wool into yarn using her spinning wheel.
In fact, during the summer of 2014 she spent weeks picking through and cleaning three 30-gallon garbage bags of raw wool she received from a sheep-owning friend. I mean raw wool, for it had sheep poop, hay, grass, sticks, and dirt, imbedded in it.
As you can see, the raw sheep wool my wife was cleaning was spread out all over. Most of the dirtiest work/cleaning was done outside in the yard, but some was done inside, which definitely gave our home that barnyard-fresh smell!
She spent hours and hours carding the wool with her carding paddles before we had the chance to take the rest to a carding mill - - a real honest-to-goodness carding mill, located in Frankenmuth, Michigan.
Again, just as folks did 150 years ago.
And this mill (Zeilingers) uses carding machines of the 19th century:
Carding machines at the Carding Mill in Frankenmuth

Patty also loves to sit on our front porch or in our back yard and spin on her spinning wheel, not only because it relaxes her, but because she loves to crochet as well, and the idea of "sheep to shawl" is very appealing to her. She has crochet mittens, scarves, shawls, sontags, hats, and just about anything else you can think of.
She really gets a kick out of having total strangers out for a walk come up to our porch to watch her do this traditional craft. One just doesn't see spinning on a spinning wheel very often in the suburbs!
So here is my wife living the 19th century life of luxury in the middle of modern suburbia: chick-sitting my son's chickens, dog-sitting my son's dog, and enjoying the relaxing craft of spinning wool into yarn, all the while wearing her period clothing----wait----scratch that last part!
And Patty always enjoys going to Greenfield and Crossroads Villages, taking long rural rides in the country to visit small-town America (besides Lexington), antiquing, quilting, knitting, and looking at old houses.
Are we a match made in heaven or what?

And our kids?
Well, our oldest, though very contemporary, still embodies the spirit of the past in his life; besides reenacting, Tom plays guitar and sings in a rock band as well as sings in a couple of period vocal music groups. He raises chickens and grows his own vegetables while preferring a traditional style of planting his heirloom seeds as shown in this book he received for Christmas: Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way - 18th Century Methods for Today's Organic Gardners over the more modern methods. He also spent a few weeks in the summer of 2014 caring for another friends farm while said friend was out of town for a few weeks.
His values, morals, and political fervor goes against the modern grain as well.
Here is Tom dressed in his Dickensian costume - it's what he wears when singing old world Christmas carols with the period vocal group Simply Dickens. It's pretty obvious that period vocal groups have a large following, especially among cheerleaders!

My next eldest son, Robert, is to Civil War military reenacting what I am to Civil War civilian reenacting; he is constantly reading not only of the battle tactics, but of the everyday life of the soldier as well, using such resources as the infamous Hard Tack and Coffee book to help guide him.
He is an EMT and, like his older brother, his values, morals, and political fervor also goes against the grain of modern society.
Here Rob stands with his Lorenz musket. Why a Lorenz and not the more common Springfield? Because once he learned the the original members of the 21st Michigan used a Lorenz for the first couple of years after mustering in, he felt the need to have one so he could be as accurate and authentic as possible. He's his father's son, that's for sure.

I have two younger children: son #3 is preparing for college. He has Aspergers Syndrome which is in the autism family, and his interests lie in different directions, but yet still historical. For instance, he loves lighthouses, and, with Michigan being the state with the most lighthouses in the U.S., we make it a point to try and visit at least a different one every year if we can.
Here is my third son very happily getting his photo taken near the Port Sanilac Lighthouse, which was built in 1886. He hates having his picture taken but willingly does at each light house we visit.

My youngest child - my daughter - enjoys the life of a teen with her ipod, sleep overs, teen fashion designing, the latest in popular music, and the giddiness that a 21st century teen girl usually has. But she can also knit, crochet, spin on a spinning wheel, sew, and tell you of her 1860's life from sun up til sun down. She can also sing along with such well-known period tunes as Shady Grove, Wayfaring Stranger, Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier, and Some Folks Do.
Ha! She even had a beeswax candle dipping party with her friends - all around 16 years old - and taught them the colonial way of creating 18th century lighting.
My sometimes unlady-like daughter can be found up a tree. I do believe she and Laura Ingalls would have been fast friends had they ever had the chance to meet!
All four of my children consider Greenfield Village the 'place they grew up' - kind of like their 'old neighborhood,' for aside from the rural Lexington visits, Greenfield Village is the place they've been to most.
And each has a respect for and an understanding of the past.
The best of two very different worlds.
Oh, you bet I am proud!
My three sons at the now defunct Colonial Days event in Greenfield Village 1997. No, we were not reenactors at the time; the village had a collection of clothing for kids to try on to see how they would look if they lived in colonial times. It was great fun!
When my wife read the original Tom Sawyer to our kids a number of years ago, they understood and easily identified with the story and the characters. Because we participate in many progressive reenacting/living history events, they can identify.
My daughter at age two on the upper deck of the 19th century steamboat Suwanee. We began seriously reenacting the year this photo was taken but hadn't had a proper dress for her yet (or shoes or pretty much anything else!) because we really hadn't done our first reenactment, but we made the best of what we had.
(By the way, if you are interested in reading more about this steamboat, please click HERE)

So...after reading what I wrote here, and knowing that my family and I have many of the same memories that the people of the 18th and 19th centuries had, can we be nostalgic for that period in time?
Is nostalgia really portable?
To add to this thought, maybe there is also a sense of longing as well...
Longing is defined as a strong, persistent desire or craving, especially for something unattainable or distant.
"Unattainable or distant?"
Because of my reasoning in this post, experiencing a time long past has not necessarily been unattainable or distant, has it?
And maybe...just maybe...I do have a nostalgic longing for times before my own time, even if it's only through experience, because many memories would still be the same.
Maybe nostalgia really is portable.
This is, believe it or not, our first posed family photo with our six week old son, taken in Port Huron in August 1988. It was at a fair and they had one of those "old time picture booths." Naturally, we just had to get our image taken. In all honesty, I don't think it turned out bad at all, considering where and how it took place. We used to tell Tommy that we were really from the 1800's and had transported ourselves into the future after he was born.

What are your thoughts?

 P.S. I realize this posting goes off the beaten path for me. Nostalgia and longing both are a yearning, though for the good times, not the bad. Please note that I do understand this.
Thoughts enter my head and, well, sometimes these thoughts form into something much bigger, such as this post - - - nothing earth shattering, mind you, just something a bit out-of-the-ordinary such as what you've just read.
If nothing else I hope I was able to take you away on a different road for a few minutes.
And I hope you enjoyed some of the older photos of my family. Looking at them also made me nostalgic!

~   ~   ~


Jimio said...

Yes I believe you can be nostalgic over any time period that "suits your fancy" I don't see anything wrong with that. If a person feels very comfortable acting out and living close to a certain period in histor go for it! Hey, Trekkies act out a time way in the future as do those Star Wars guys. Was that Lorenz Musket expensive? I thought it was "Dickensonian" *Cheers* -Jimio

Robin's Egg Bleu said...

Well I've been feeling 'nostalgic' in the last few weeks myself. And melancholic. Been reading historical letters of one family over the last few months and perhaps that's also getting to me.

For with each one fascinating fact I retrieve from them, I'm reading an awful lot of misery going on in the lives of this family from the 1850's on to the 20th century.

The common thread other than family and economical issues, and seemingly hopeless situations...all made a point of stating..."better times coming." That concept is all they had to hang onto and keep going.

I'm certainly going to attempt to apply it to my own life from now on.

And this sentimentality I have for the Victorian era, along with feeling completely misplaced in time, reminds me of the movie "Midnight in Paris", about the fellow who yearns to be transported back to the Roaring 20's...and his fantasy fulfilled; wherein he finds his new 20's acquaintances long equally to be transported to the Gay 90's.

I guess this sentimentality for simpler times is historically accurate!

An Historical Lady said...

Dear Ken,
Awwww....Thanks for this post! You won't hear anything negative from me! I have of late been feeling the same melancholy you describe, and for the same reasons---So much so that the stuffin' is all knocked out of me and I have not been able to post on my own blog---Just simply overwhelmed with misery and have nothing to say...To make things worse I'm sick of the cold and the snow that never seems to leave, and I feel decidedly UN inspired!

I, like you, live a lot of my life longing for a peace (and PIECE!) of a simpler time. I guess that is also why Adam and I reenact, and why we live in a 240 year old house with NOT a lot of modern "toys".

I definitely believe that nostalgia is portable, and gee,---thank goodness for that. To me it means I can take that nostalgia with me wherever I go---It is in my HEART.

Wishing you warmth, sunshine, and happy old time days ahead my friend~

Stephanie Ann said...

I think you can be nostalgic for what you dream and imagine. It's why people try to bring history back to life and many people are curious to see it, even if they don't want to live it.

I spent many days as a child playing "in history" with my American Girl doll. What group of boys didn't play "cowboys and indians?" This nostalgia is very portable. Not to mention how you live in history by reading first person accounts and reenacting.

I think it is very natural, especially in times like these, to want to go back to a time, when neighbors helped each other out (even if they didn't always get along) and people weren't just a replaceable random number. Imagine a grocer forwarding you some veggies because he knows your family is on hard times or a banker giving an extension because you went to school together as kids.

I sort of think nostalgia is remembering the good while forgetting the bad. I know this to be true, but I do still get very nostalgic. I fear that melancholia has been affecting many of us recently. I hope things improve for you.

Historical Ken said...

Jimio - The Lorenz musket was pretty expensive. It took my son 6 months to pay for it.

Robin - "Better Times Are Coming" is a wonderful song by Stephen Foster (I think).
Funny...I believe had I been born in the 19th century, I'm sure I would have wanted to live in the 18th century. Just the way my brain is wired I suppose...I'll have to check out Midnight in Paris.

Mary - Your welcome! I truly am missing your postings and photos by the way!

Stephanie Ann - I appreciate your sentiment. Like Robin, I do believe that Better Times are Coming, but the common thread here between all of us id that Better Times may not be modern times...

Thank you all for taking the time to comment. Each comment means a lot to me. It really does.

Alena said...

I love your "first posed family photo"! It looks so hopeful and says a lot about your family today too. I think it is the time of year for melancholy and introspection, but Spring will arrive. it must.

PvtSam75 said...

I definitely believe that nostalgia is portable...

I've gone to very few events as a reenactor where I really feel like "I was there", but each time I go to an event like that, I really do feel awful about leaving. I also work at a house museum, and I really do feel a connection to it. When I'm not giving tours, I tend to think about what it would have been like to live there, or work there.
For me it's also because of my ancestry-we can trace the family back to the 1630s, and then it gos back to England. I know who was named after, where they're buried, and I even got tattoos with their names and birth years. I really feel a connection with the past. It's not a negative one; I don't go around wishing we could "go back to the way it was" all the time, even though I don't agree with every aspect of the modern world. It's a good feeling!

SewDucky said...

I don't reenact (I have in the past, moved to a place that doesn't do it and interest in what era was refined), but it can happen even without immersion.

My real interest hits sometime between 1915 and 1935 (fashion history is a bit more varied, however). After moving to a rural area where my SO provides me with a life I can enjoy and not have to worry about money (as in the bills get paid, sometimes it's tight, but we do fine) I find that I tend to slide back to the era in odd ways.

I have mid-century furniture (late 30s-early 40s), I use my dressing table, I can food, my "desk" is a secretary from the 20s...and I use a 1927 Singer treadle with the same techniques they would have. Not to say I don't have modern things (hello, deep freezer), since I do. My taste in clothing is what I like, which can be pretty much anything I want to wear since I make it anyway.

Whatever the term you apply, sure you can have it. I regret going into a store to look at clothes for my 2 year old and have to choose from inappropriate or adult. I miss not being able to do a lot of things I never actually experienced first hand, and some things I did get to as an oddity in my childhood.

But is it the actual time period, or the feeling/lifestyle/attitude of the times? If it's the former, then for me the answer would be no, but certainly portable on the ideas of the time.