Monday, June 16, 2014

My Living History Back Story

I am going to preface this posting with a couple of questions followed by some commentary about reenacting:
First: Why do you reenact? 
What is your life like in the reenacting world?
I ask this because to many, it's all about the clothing and very little else.
Now, wearing accurate period clothing at an event cannot be stressed enough. That is the first thing the visitor will see and will be their first impression they will have of the reenactors. So when any of us are found in inaccurate fashions, that sets the stage for bad examples all around.
But to too's all about clothing and fashion and little else. They can tell you just how many stitches are needed for an accurate hemline, whether a collar is a quarter inch too wide, if the length is too short. and if the "darts" are as they should be, but have no idea what their station in life is, or what type of seasonal food they would eat any particular time of year, how much something may cost while shopping, or even their daily routine of wash day, mending day, bake day, etc., which would have been infinity more important to them than how wide their collar was.
So many reenactor's knowledge on what their lives would have been like is slim. They may know all about the minute details of battles or of the ladies this or that, but what they know about their period daily activities is nil.

This young poor domestic servant girl knows her lot in life, and Carrie portrays her marvelously and accurately. She really does work when we enter the immersion world. By the end of the day she has a very real idea of what it was like to be a servant girl.

I realize I am probably ruffling a few feathers here, but what I am saying is true: we, as reenactors and living historians need to have more meetings and spend more time researching about daily life and what living life was actually like, not just what toiletries would have been in a bed chamber or whether our clothing is good enough for the fashion show. We need to understand that most people of the time - both men & women - cared more about their chores and living their lives as best they could than about the clothing they wore.
Men: in your modern 21st century life, you know what your wife does - her daily routines and chores.
Ladies: in your modern 21st century life you also know about your husband's daily activities and chores as well. You both (hopefully) converse about your day during your evening meal, right? Well, my wife and I do, and have done for nearly thirty years.
Don't you think that men and women conversed much in the same manner back then?
They certainly did! They knew about what they needed to do as well as what their spouse's duties were.
If we spent half as much time researching daily life in the varying classes as we do on clothing, imagine how amazing our reenactments could be! 
And that's the premise for this week's posting.

~Part Two of My Living History Back Story: Farm Life/City Life~
Many visitors, and even other reenactors, often ask me about my "back story"in my living history world.
A back story for living historians, in case you are unaware, is the biography - or autobiography, rather - of yourself in in whatever era in the past you are representing. It's understanding that your story isn't only a few facts and names and fancy clothing, but a life lived and all it entails, just as the actual people who lived "back then." It's not just something in your mind but a story that can be told in an interesting and factual way, as if you were speaking casually to a new friend.
Just like your life today. 
And once you discover it, it's like an eye-opening experience.
Kinda like someone with amnesia who has 'awakened.' 
But it took a while for me to "find myself."
A few years back, as I did my usual speech about the postal service and mail in the early 1860's, I found myself getting a little tired of going over the same old stuff repeatedly. I could feel it becoming stagnant, monotonous. So over the last few years I began to expand from speaking strictly about mail to adding a bit more color by including a little about traveling on a stagecoach and describing what it was like to stay at a tavern. Things really began to form as I delved more into living history during certain reenactments, beginning with the immersion events of Christmas at the Fort 2012 and 2013 and Charlton Park 2011, 2012, and 2013. And then finally this year my partner in "Our Own Snug Fireside" and I formulated the outline for our historical presentations that we do, which was based on the immersion events.
And then it all just kinda hit me;
"Hey! I found my past!  I know who I!"
So, would you like to know what my back story is?
Well, the early roots to the "me" who lives in the 1860's can be found HERE.
But the information about the rest of the 1860's me can be found...well, read on...
My life in the 1860's - - well, anyone's life in the 1860's - could include most, if not all, of the following aspects of living:
It's farming or any other occupation or chore one might have.
It's visiting the photographer and having my tin type taken.
It's cleaning the house.
It's visiting a tavern.
It's celebrating Christmas and the 4th of July.
It's mourning.
It's going to the doctor.
It's shopping.
It's going to school.
It's visiting friends.
It's cooking.
It's music.
It's taking grain to the gristmill.
It's surviving life in each of our four seasons of winter, spring, summer, and fall. 
It's...well, it's so much more than names and dates and fables of glory, just as our modern lives are.
It's everything that you do today, but only the way they did it "back then." It's many of the subjects that I write about in this Passion for the Past blog.
As I said, my back story encompasses as much as possible about my life as an adult living in the 1860's.
It's taken only 10 years for me to finally figure that out. I've tried numerous other so-called autobiographies of my 1860's life, but I've never really felt comfortable with any of them. These stories just did not depict me the way I feel I, mainly due to the fact that there wasn't enough of a story to tell. But over the last few years, however, I've been able to naturally formulate a sort of narrative that makes sense.
That's because I have been researching and presenting information on daily life activities for so many years that it's all been instilled in my brain, just waiting to be utilized.
And now I am.
Even better, I have made it more personal by localizing it and using the place I've lived nearly my entire life as my backdrop.
To reiterate a bit of what I wrote HERE: in the mid-part of the 19th century, the area here in Michigan where my modern hometown of Eastpointe now sits was once a part of a larger settlement known as Erin Township. Over the years the township subdivided up into four villages that eventually became the cities of Eastpointe, Roseville, St. Clair Shores, and Fraser.
I have a few books telling the story of Eastpointe and Erin Township in general, and as I was perusing a couple of them it hit me that there was enough social history available right in my own backyard to build on my 19th century past.
Add to this the scenarios of Christmas at the Fort and Charlton Park as well as "Our Own Snug Fireside" presentations that I do for historical societies & schools, and, without fully realizing it, I've found my back story:
I'm a farmer!
Simple eh?
A farming couple eking out a new life on the frontier of rural Michigan. Yes, we can tell you of our lives in this era, both inside and outside the cabin.
Well, not quite as simple as you might think. I like to take my living history to the fullest extent that I am able - into immersion when possible - meaning that my presentation is going to be more than to speak a few sentences in a feeble attempt to explain a farmer's chores ("Good day, I'm a farmer. I feed the animals, plow the fields, and then harvest everything in the fall. I hope we have a good growing season.").
Because I'm more than that.
I know I am.
At least, I think I must be.
So let me repeat - I'm a farmer.
But I'm not just a farmer.
I'm a farmer who was born in 1811 and so I've lived the life of a man from the 19th century.
I'm a farmer who has done more than only farm, just as a farmer 'back then' would have done.
I'm a farmer who celebrates Christmas and the 4th of July, has mourned the loss of family members, has gone to the store to make purchases, has had a tintype taken, has had grain ground into flour at the gristmill, has stayed overnight in a tavern, and has hauled manure...
Do you see where I'm going with this?
The best part for all of this is that people are genuinely interested in my daily life activities, because by speaking of everyday routines of the past the visitor - men and women - can personally relate to it in a sort of comparison way: their 21st century life to my 19th (or 18th) century life.
And that's what draws them into our world of long ago.
Whether I'm in the 19th century or 18th century (as shown here), I hope to present everyday life as authentically as I can, through fashion and activities.
Researching is half of the fun in all of this, and then bringing that research to life is the other three quarters (yes, you read that right! I'm messing with your head here!). This is why when I post historical information here I try to list (and link) the sources/books from where that info came - usually more than one source is used, in case you hadn't noticed - just to criss-cross and cover more ground.
I know, I know..."who are you, Ken, to tell us how to reenact?"
I'm not telling you anything---you are entitled to reenact anyway you see fit---I'm just offering my thoughts and opinions is all. You see, to me it's important that we present our ancestors as more than fashion plates, for they truly were much more.
And I would LOVE to hear your back story!

By the way, if you are interested in reading in greater detail of my farming life, please click the following links:
as well as 
Autumn Food Pleasures
Autumn - A Taste of History
Fall Harvest in Photographs
and Thanksgiving

If you are interested in finding your back story, maybe some of what I wrote in past postings can help you:
Cleaning House.
Celebrating Christmas and the 4th of July.
Going to school.
Visiting friends and neighbors.
And generally making do in each of our four seasons.

Hope you find your way soon!
Til next time!


1 comment:

An Historical Lady said...

For us, it is not just as reenactors that we step into the past and try to show the public what life was like during the revolution---or earlier. For Adam and me, we try to LIVE some of that past now in our everyday lives. We try to keep some of the old ways alive, or at least the spirit of those old ways alive as best we can.
Restoring and living in an 18thc. house for many years has taught us many things and been rewarding beyond imagining.
Right now, we are in the midst of hand building an outdoor 'beehive' cob bake oven in our back garden, just the way it would have been done hundreds of years ago. All materials are from our property, salvaged, or given to us from a neighbor's land. Even the cob mortar is made by us, starting with digging up over 15 five gallon buckets of clay on our property!
Sorry to go on, but we have the same passion you do, and can relate to all you have shared!
Many thanks~
(You can see a few of our period-oven-building-adventure photos on our website,