Saturday, January 3, 2015

How Accurate Should We Be When Presenting History?

I have a question for you - - -
How accurately should history be presented?
Should every nuance and minute detail be 100% correct?
(Well, we will never be able to get it 100% correct, but you know what I mean here).
And is there a difference in a historical living history/reenactment presentation compared to a movie or TV series?
I ask this because a while back The History Channel showed "The Sons of Liberty," a mini-series about that secret society of men of which was formed to protect the rights of the colonists back in the 1760s.
The idea behind it is pretty cool, but unfortunately the channel no longer has the best history track record of late. Remember - this is the station, after all, that gave us one of the worst pieces of historical crap about our country called "The Story of US," and continues their aliens and ice-truckers-type shows instead of real history.
And with the 240th anniversary of the founding of our country upon us, the History Channel gave us "Sons of Liberty," more totally revisionist garbage instead of presenting this as the important piece of history that it is.
So let's go back to my original question:
How accurate should history be presented?
You see, as I watched a couple of episodes of the "Sons of Liberty," I found major historical inaccuracy after major historical inaccuracy, but there were others faux pas - some of what may be minor to most people but, for me, stood out like a sore thumb; for instance, setting atop a table where our colonial founding fathers & brethren were sitting around was an oil lamp - an oil lamp that was clearly at least 70 or 80 years ahead of its time.
Here is a still from The History Channel's "Sons of Liberty" mini-series. Note the out-of-time oil lamp.

Betty Lamp from the 18th century
Now I'm not saying that oil lamps were not used in the 18th century - they certainly were (with the most common referred to as betty lamps at the time), but they were not even close to looking like the one in the photo. It was the "futuristic" mid-to-late 19th century style of the oil lamp that got my attention. I mean, couldn't they at least do a little research here? I consider that to be akin to watching a movie about the 1920s and seeing one of those 1950s/60s floor to ceiling tension lamps with the three or four lampshades pointing in different directions standing in a living room corner.
Again, to me that would stand out like a sore thumb.
I saw this same type of anomaly in the American Girl Doll movie "Molly" that my daughter owns. There's a scene where Molly and her aunt are talking while at a soda shop and next to them is a table-top jukebox...from 1957 (the movie takes place during WWII).
Small, yes, but noticeable. At least by me. I being too picky here? I suppose in the great scheme of things, the oil lamp used in "Liberty" (or even the jukebox in "Molly") may be, as I said, pretty minor...even petty to most.
However, I can't help but be slightly disappointed and even a little annoyed at these aberrations.
This photo of an above stairs bed chamber in the Woodhull saltbox house from AMC's "Turn: Washington Spies" shows the time someone took to present historical accuracy.
And this picture below, also from "Turn," has us inside a more rural-style cabin:

Just look at the detail!
They did an amazing job on the props here!
Now, though the storyline in Turn wasn't necessarily historically accurate, the story itself was played out well, and as a whole it much much better quality in every aspect in comparison to Sons of Liberty.

(Pictures courtesy of Marlene DiVia)
This, of course, brings me to reenacting, where there can often be deviations from absolute accuracy laying about.
First off, in the Civil War reenacting group I am in, we're usually in tents - hardly period correct for most civilians. But, unless we have historic home reenacting opportunities, there's not much we can do about the tents, though at least most of us make the attempt to show visitors our period lives in a truthful historical manner by using and utilizing the correct accessories of the time period represented (at least in my camp), including oil lamps.
Now, the Sixberry House, from the 1850s, is where some of the most intense immersion we've ever done has taken place. This historic home inside the small open-air museum of Charlton Park in Hastings, Michigan is filled with antique furniture, some of which are more suited to the 1870s through 1900 rather than the 1860s, and yet we are able to transport ourselves back to the time of the American Civil War very realistically.
Living history at the Sixberry House. It sure looks 1860s to me!
Our clothing and mannerisms can make quite a difference in our presentation here, as well as the fact that the furnishings are at least near the time we try to represent.
At Historic Fort Wayne we also use the commandant's house built in the 1870s as our Civil War era home. As with the Sixberry house, it is furnished with later 19th century furniture - items not around during the 1860s, but, again, we make it work rather well during our reenactments for the same reasons as cited above.
Should we stop using these homes because of the discrepancies?
Colonial America: as close to perfect as one can be - -
Not a mistake in the bunch, including the house!
Hmmm...let's look at another angle...
How about cost? My wife was given (given!)  a spinning wheel a number of years back, and since then she has become the 21st Michigan spinning queen and has even begun to dye her homespun yarn different colors by way of traditional methods. And her presentation, including hand-carding wool, is very popular amongst visitors, especially children.
Though the process is exactly the same as spinning on an original from 150 years ago, her spinning wheel is not period correct - it was made in the 1970s, nearly a hundred years after spinning on a wheel became old-fashioned - but it does look very much like a traditional wheel.
My wife spinning at her wheel. Most do not know it's not 100% period correct, but it can pass fairly well, and the process of spinning wool into yarn is exactly the same.
We cannot afford to purchase a period-authentic original or replica spinning wheel. So...should she stop doing her spinning presentation because of this?

As easily as melted butter.
And no modernisms were used in the process!
Now there are small things we can do to present historically accurate. For example, in the fall I make beeswax candles using, for the first time, tin candle molds. I really want to do the entire process the way it was done in the 19th century, so instead of doing the method that most folks use today - using the spray or gel in the tubing of the molds so the hardened wax can easily slip out - I, instead, dip the mold of hardened wax into a pot of boiling water for a few seconds. The candles slide out of the mold as easy as melting butter!
The old process works beautifully, and I am very pleased to see that by following the directions in "Farmer Boy" we, too, could keep the 19th century way of this craft alive.
Now, as a colonial/RevWar reenactor, this can also be translated to that time period as well with some adjusting of accessories.
I do have another question - - and this is a biggie:
what do you think of women doing jobs that traditionally belong to men?
Now, before you attack me for being sexist or whatever, understand...yes, I know that some women did do what was considered 'men's work' (and we know there were women posing as male soldiers during the Civil War). but this was pretty rare. There have been lists of workers in shops with no women's names upon it. We can say, "well, some women dressed as men," and this is true. But was it true in a town setting where everyone knew everyone else?
I have also read that in colonial times women worked with men and were more accepted than in Victorian times...
Any thoughts?

Whew! I really went off on a tangent here, didn't I?
But it was all to make a point: How far should one go to accurately present history?
Well, I suppose there can be two answers here - - - - - 
I like to think that I can pass
as a colonial farmer.
First it must be remembered that as reenactors/living historians, though we may never be 100% correct, we should always strive to be. I like to think that if I were suddenly zapped back in time, the 1770s, that I might blend in without a problem. That is...until I open my mouth. Yeah, our modern speech would be a dead give-a-way that we were not like them.
But since we are portraying history through presentation and action to the visiting public, it really is imperative to make an all-out effort to be as accurate and authentic as we possibly can, and not be afraid to let the public know of the inaccuracies should the need arise.
Oh! And don't make things up (or have the attitude "if they'da had it, they'da used it").
Very simple.
Especially given the fact that the accessories we use are not so blatantly out of time (as is the oil lamp in the "Sons of Liberty" movie).
I mean, there has to be some exceptions to an extent, especially for newbie reenactors. But as long as the living historian continues to make improvements through research and not become lazy, that's the important thing.
I also feel if you plan to make a major motion picture/mini-series such as "The Sons of Liberty" where finances for researching and purchasing smaller details are not quite as tight as a home reenacting budget (The History Channel is owned by Disney-Hearst - big bucks!), then I would expect much more.
Authenticity and accuracy. Remember that.
Those are my thoughts...what are yours?
By the way, click HERE to read an EXCELLENT posting about the truth behind the History Channel's "Sons of Liberty."

Question number 2:
Did you see this series on the American Revolution?
If so, what's your opinion on accuracy and quality?



Ted Hudson said...

As someone trying to WRITE Civil War period fiction rather than re-enact history, I have been trying valiantly to avoid anachronism and factual errors, especially in dialogue. If I find myself typing an expression, or even a word, in dialogue, that is used metaphorically, I check to find out whether it was in such use at the time. When I started to have a character refer to another as "Hell on wheels," I checked and found that it was a post-war expression relating to the transcontinental railroad. I also discovered the generally excellent, if bloody, TV series of that name.
However, watching it, I found the writers and producers making what were, to me, egregious errors of pronunciation and fact. E.g., the main character said at one point during the War he had blown up a bridge over Monocacy Creek, only he pronounced it MO-no-CA-cy. Later, when a cavalryman was boasting about having stormed across the bridge at Antietam, our hero, who was from Mississippi, said he was in the small force that held up Burnside for much of the day. Of course, the two regiments that held up Burnside were from Georgia, not Mississippi.
Then there was the Redford movie about Mary Surratt, only they pronounced her name Surraht. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

Alena said...

We can never get to 100% accurate, I am unwilling to beat my children for accuracy sake. But in the objects we cary it is not that hard to get the last few centuries right. When presenting to the public we often fall in to the trap of saying: "the average joe will never know" when we feel like compromising, but I think they will be able to tell if something feels out of place, even if they don't know for sure.

An Historical Lady said...

We saw all the advertising for 'The Sons of Liberty' as well, but doubt we will watch it. Our feelings about the History Channel are just as yours are.
Also, after the much-hyped (and ridiculously horrifying) film 'COURAGE NEW HAMPSHIRE' a couple years ago on yet another channel, we are very select as to what historical shows we watch. 'Courage' was jaw droppingly terrible. So is MOST of what we see on mainstream TV being offered up as "true, historical drama".
We watch a LOT of BBC historical shows on Youtube, and I have recommended many of them on my blog in past posts.
We did see the Revolutionary War 3 part show that was recently featured on The American Heros Channel, and it was suprisingly accurate and very good.
Unfortunately, this History Channel's version of The Sons of Liberty doesn't seem to be very accurate from what we've seen so far so we probably won't be tuning in. As reenactors and lecturers on the period, in our opinion, there are some really embarrassing 'bombs' out there...When they get costumes, historical facts, etc. too glaringly wrong they do a disservice to viewers, and perpetuate the ignorance that so many Americans have of their own past history.
(Ken, I know you must know this from your past experiences at reenactments, and the absurd questions that get asked sometimes!)

Julia Ergane said...

I have many expletive deleteds concerning Disney I have lost count. That said, a company with that amount of money should have spent an adequate amount on various experts of the last 40 years of the 18th century. The docents at Williamsburg could definitely show the unhistorical cultural items before they are used so they can be replaced. There is so much dumbing-down now that I scream daily. I have ceased watching television because of the stupidity presented on it -- and the price I have to pay for that stupidity. So, I will listen to the music of the 17th-18th centuries and either read or knit. I do care about accuracy in history.

Terrie Gamino said...

I enjoyed your insights, and largely agree with your assessment of The History Channel. When I want accuracy in CONTENT...I look to Ken Burns. To me, that's more important (which would most likely mean that there would be a LOT of history books re-written)

My question is always...(being a woman) is are historical re-enactors being 100% accurate to the nth degree???? I'm talking about "that time of the month." or even pregnancy and post-pregnancy.

Who know how having to use rags or leaves as "sanitary" products affected their lives? How did they deal with cramps? How did they deal with post pregnancy bleeding or helping the uterus to get back to size?

We certainly don't need to look into issues as the use of chamber pots or out houses...but I have ALWAYS been interested how a woman's monthly period affected her life...given the materials she used at the time.

PvtSam75 said...

I'm a woman that portrays a 1775 British Light Infantryman, so I'll definitely never be 100% accurate :) And I'm okay with that! Because in general, I try to be as accurate as possible within my means. For example, for work (where I also do living history, just as a woman) I'm finally getting around to making a blue check apron, which the period imagery suggests were the majority of aprons at the time. It's an easy fix, but it makes a big difference.
When I'm at an event, we try to show camp life and to explain that due to modern inconveniences, we aren't 100% accurate (we feed anywhere between 30-50 people per event in our kitchen). They appreciate us talking to them, and the history lesson.
In the Rev War era of reenacting, we do have the "stitch Nazis"... I've been screamed at by one woman, another reenactor, in public, for being a woman portraying a man. Some people just don't get it.
What really kills me is that people doing movies and TV have so much access to the people and materials necessary to get it right, and they don't take advantage of any of it! I will say that I know for a fact that while it's not the most accurate show out there, AMC's TURN is making an attempt. A few members of their crew are reenactors, and know where to go to get certain things. So they're trying.
So I guess that I'm a firm believer in accuracy within reason. We will never be 100%, but we can make the best effort based on what we know, what we have access to, and what we can afford.

Historical Ken said...

I absolutely cannot believe the response I have received from this post, and nearly every one positive!

Ted: I am in the process of learning "period pronunciations." That's an entirely new level, and very difficult. But I do find it so very important.

Alena: There certainly are things we should NOT do for the sake of accuracy. Beating children is definitely one of them (LOL). We must definitely do things as accurately as we can, though definitely within reason.

Mary: Though I do agree with the general poor quality of historical mainstream TV, unfortunately it's all we have and, for me, I try to find the accuracies while noting and pointing out the inaccuracies.
I will withhold comment on Sons of Liberty until after watching the show.
We shall see...

Julia: I so agree. If the means are there, then do it right! I continue to watch for three reasons: to see if they 'get it right,' to hopefully right the wrongs through discussions such as my blog or Facebook page, and, well, for hope. I do have hope that one day they will actually finally get it right.

Terrie: believe it or not, as a social historian I, too, have had the same questions about "the unspeakable" as you but have not found the answer.
Why wouldn't I have the same interest in this situation - - I'm married and would know something about it had my wife and I been living "back then," wouldn't I? I think so.

Pvt Sam: If you recall, I dressed as an 1860s woman in morning - totally 100% accurate - and no one can say that what I represented wasn't historically accurate. How can I say that? Because I did not speak, therefore not one person (out of the literally hundreds if not a thousand) people that saw me live and in person knew I was a male. That being the case, I was historically accurate.
We have a young lady in the 21st michigan who portrays a soldier as well, and she does such a fine job and is very welcomed in our group because of how well she does. And, yes, she is treated like any other male soldier.
And I agree - with so much access to authenticity, how can "The History Channel" get such a simple object wrong?
(By the way, if you have not read my posting on my time as a widow, hear it is:

Thank you everyone for the wonderful comments! I do appreciate hearing from you!