Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Accessorize to Accent Your Journey Through Time

Clothing - period clothing - is the first thing anyone sees and takes notice of at a reenactment. And if the reenactment is not really a reenactment, such as a Renaissance Fair, it's still the clothing that will give us an impression of the past - even if it is pseudo.
And for the most part, the majority of us who practice authentic living history do a pretty darned good job in the period clothing department. Oh, there may be a few disagreements about "who wore what," and some of the unnecessary nit-pickiness that even our ancestors would scoff at, but generally, most of us could be placed in the past and pass as a local.
However, reenactors cannot live on clothing alone - - the past will still be dead without the proper accessories to help bring it to life. For instance, if you have a young lady in a hoop skirt posing next to a modern automobile, it looks kind of silly, doesn't it?
You can take the girl out of the 19th century, but you can't take the 19th century out of the girl! Or is it vice-versa? Ha!

 Or give a group of period dress living historians modern items and, well, something just doesn't seem right...they even act differently!
Little Caesar's Pizza, Coca Cola, and (plastic) bottled water - well...if they'da had it, they'da ate and drank it, right?

Now, surround some of these same reenactors with period-correct accessories - items that are very important in bringing a visitor into the world of the past that are too often left by the way side - and not only do they no longer look silly, but they, instead, seem like are actually from the past!
No Coke, no pizza, no bottled water, no cell phone, no zebra purse, no car, nor is there any 21st century silliness from crazy reenactors to let anyone know we are actually from 2015 and not from the 1860s. Instead, I do see a Harpers' Weekly, a period book, oil lamps, the right type of furniture, glasses of water, and...mmm...cookies.
Okay, yeah so I went a little to the extreme to prove my point. But you have to admit, the farb-photos are kind of fun to look at aren't they?
It's pretty obvious that surroundings and accessories will make a difference. Period clothing does very little without accessories to enhance the presentation, and accessories can be bland and boring with little meaning without a period-dressed person to make them come alive. Imagine seeing a cider press in a museum but not seeing it in action. Like a husband & wife or peanut butter & jelly or Ken & American history, period clothing & accessories go hand-in-hand with each other.
Over the years I have acquired numerous past products to display or demonstrate to the public. I'd like to show you a few of the ones I've been using to help bring the past to life. I don't bring everything to every event, by the way. Just what I feel I would like to have or maybe need depending on where I'm at.
I'd like to begin with the things that have greatly enhanced my Civil War era impression, followed by a few of the Colonial items I have, and show first my earliest impression as a reenactor - the Post master. It's what got me going as a presenter during reenactments and eventually allowed me to branch out beyond letters and mail delivery to talking about taverns, stagecoach stops & travel, and general stores:
Here is my Post Office set up, including the dovecote-style mail sorter, which is based on an original from the 19th century. Whether I set up as a post master inside a post office, speak about tavern life, show a stage coach stop, or even present as a general store owner, this set up will work in any of those scenarios, for mail was picked up and delivered at all four places.
Here I am as not only the local post master, but also as the proprietor of the general store. I have been able to utilize my 19th century post office/post master impression in a number of different ways. Add to this my research on the local general store and I can include numerous interesting bits of information right alongside my post office. Even though I have never worked at an open-air museum, I've been very lucky to be able to experience historical presenting much in the same vein as those who do. I enjoy it immensely.

Very little says "the olden days" like a spinning wheel. Here, my wife spins on her Saxony wheel; she never fails to draw a crowd anytime she pulls it out. She will also explain and show the "sheep to shawl" process by having raw wool on hand for folks to see and touch, carding paddles so visitors can experience that task, and giving step-by-step instructions to all who are interested, especially young girls.

How about a carpet bag for you men? Yes, I know many men feel awkward carrying one, due to their close proximity to the women's purse. But you would not be carrying a purse or even the awful modern "man-bag;" it is an accessory that many men carried during the time (and for a while before) the American Civil War. 
As far as being concerned about being called a "carpetbagger," I get called that by the uninformed quite often. I think of it as a great teaching opportunity to let the folks know that the term became derogatory after the War, when many northern carpetbag-carrying men traveled south to take advantage of the unsettled social and political conditions of the area during Reconstruction. Think of it this way: at least they know what a carpetbagger is, right?

Dipping candles is a great presentation for the younger set----yes, they still made candles in the 1860s, especially in the more rural (farming) communities. If you do this, try and do it the way it was done in the 19th century; instead of using the spray or gel that folks use today to remove the hardened candles from the molds, dip the mold with the hardened wax into the pot of boiling water for a few seconds. The candles should slide out very easily.

Cider press! Nothing says "autumn" like apple cider, and to press the apples like they did in the old days is not only a big draw for both public and reenactors, but you get to reap the benefits as well! Yes, they're expensive, but oh! what a great thing for your unit to purchase!! Highly recommended!

Ahhh...the 19th century-style ice cream maker is always a hit with reenactors and visitors alike. The idea that in the 1860s ice cream was not readily available at the local Dairy Queen or corner store and was only made on special occasions, such as celebrating Independence Day, is another great teaching opportunity. Plus, tasting the past is one of those benefits we living historians get to have.

My friend Larissa and I do historical presentations as a farming couple, and we speak on what it was like to live and run a mid-19th century Michigan farm during each of the four seasons of the year. Not only do we dress appropriately, but we also bring along accessories to accent our presentation...
Here is a close up of some of the accessories Larissa and I bring to accent the 19th century home-life part of our presentation: (from left) ice cream maker, pen & ink box, glass oil lamp, chamber pot, parlor lamp, wash bowl and pitcher, butter churn, and a hog scraper. As we gather more farm tools, we'll bring those along as well.

In the days before Thomas Edison's crazy electric light invention: here are a few of my replica 18th and 19th century era lighting apparatuses. I put them in roughly a time-line order here from colonial through mid-Victorian, beginning on the left with a wood lantern, brass candle holder, tin wall sconce, the Old North Church/Paul Revere lantern, another brass holder, a pierced tin lantern (often mistaken, for some odd reason, as a Paul Revere lantern), a table candle holder with large glass globe, a parlor oil lamp (with the orange base), and a regular glass oil lamp. On the wall on the upper right is a wall sconce suitable for mid-to-late 19th century. I also have numerous other period lighting not shown in this photo, including a rush lamp and a tin lantern.

2014 was my first year reenacting the era of the American Revolution, so I basically was "background" while the more experienced 1770s reenactors did their presentations.
This year, however, I plan to move more into the foreground by taking my Civil War-style reenacting and applying it to Colonial era Reenacting. In other words, I will become a colonial living historian and try to make the 1770s come alive for the patrons visiting. Of course, I plan to bring along a few of my 18th century accessories. I don't have very many in comparison to what I have for the Civil War era - times are hard, you know - but I have a few items that can suffice until I accrue more.
Here are a few I plan to have with me:
An 18th century-era reproduction candle box. I was told by a former historic presenter from the Daggett House (built circa 1760 and is now located in Greenfield Village) that this is close to the original 18th century candle boxes she has seen and that I should purchase it. I did, and she was correct - this looks very close to originals - what a great buy!

A journal-style book, a lantern (a replica of one that lit up the steeple of the Old North Church in April of 1775), a quill & ink set, and a notice listing the dead from the Battle of Lexington & Concord: great items to start a conversation about the beginning of the American Revolution.

In this picture I spy a 1770s broadsheet (18th century-era newspaper), brass candle holder, my tankard, and my tricorn hat. Believe it or not, the candle holder cost me only a buck! And it is period correct - - -

Here you see the same dollar candle holder as in the above picture, but now we also see a writing desk, a different quill & ink set, and an excellent reproduction copy of Thomas Paine's pamphlet "Common Sense."

Remember the picture above of my wife of the 1860s spinning on a Saxony wheel? Well, here she is in the 1770s, only with the large walking (or great) wheel. This is a posed photo from inside the 1760 Daggett House (in Greenfield Village), and, since she spins, we're hoping to bring the large wheel we own with us to one or two of the events this year.

Perhaps one of the very best of all of the reenactments I have participated in (so far) took place last fall during our Harvest Home presentation, where many of us living historians were able to come together and present as well as experience the fall harvest of 150 years ago. (A couple of the photos from that reenactment are above: candle making and the cider press). We could never do such a thing as a fall harvest with just clothing knowledge alone, nor would the presentation be nearly as interesting if we were wearing modern clothes while presenting. It takes both to make the past come alive.
In other words, without accessories to show the past, we would be nothing more than lecturers in funny clothes.
And how boring would that be? 
Hopefully I have enticed you to spend some time researching and searching for accents to your demonstrations of the past. It certainly will help to keep our ancestors alive, wouldn't it? 
And, well, it'll make your time in the past a lot more fun and interesting.

Sources for your own researching pleasure:
Discovering Oil Lamps by Cecil A. Meadows
Early Lighting by Elmer Smith
Also Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder has an amazing amount of social farming history within its pages.

For your further reading pleasure:
Harvest Home: Presenting the Fall Harvest of the 19th Century



Stephanie Ann said...

Great post! I'm glad people are starting to think "outside the clothing" and agree whole-heartily on the "generally, most of us could be placed in the past and pass as a local," and now we need to move on to expanding from this point.

Mark Wood said...