Friday, August 29, 2008

Listen, Children, and You Shall Hear...SENSORY OVERLOAD

Really - stop what you're doing and listen.
What do you hear?
At this moment, I hear:
the soft hum of my computer, the sounds of Max and Ruby - a show my seven year old loves - on the TV, the motor of my refrigerator, my mother's window air-conditioner in her room upstairs along with her table-top radio (she needs noise to asleep), the ceiling fan's buzz while it swishes the air as it spins, the hum of my neighbor's central air-conditioner, various cars, trucks, and motorcycles as they zip past my house, the construction trucks working (loudly) on the next block as they widen the street, the BEEP BEEP BEEP as a truck goes in reverse, a siren in the distance, the BOOM BOOM BOOM of a ghetto cruising rap/crap listener...and that's just the sounds from within my home - day or night.

Now, how about as I drive my car or van:
all windows are down so, as I drive 40 mph down Gratiot Avenue, I have the wind blowing quite loudly in my ears, the radio blares The Beatles so I can hear the music over the wind, the myriads of other vehicles passing me (and me passing them) even louder than the wind and the radio, screeching tires, a police car with an ear-piercing siren zipping by me...all this besides the sound of my own auto's motor.

And then there are other sounds I hear and do not give a second thought to daily:
the phone ringing, pagers going off, a high-speed train chugging by just a couple miles away, the buzzing from the florescent lights overhead, speaker phones, electronic toys bleeping, the drills and screeches of various machinery for the various blue-collar workers, the motor of a jet plane flying overhead...

And I have just scratched the surface.

Let's imagine what our ancestors heard 150 years ago:
the ticking of the wind-up clock, the clip-clopping of horses hooves with maybe the squeaking of a wood wagon as they trod on the dirt or (if you lived in the heart of town) the wood-plank or brick road, a real church bell (not the canned, electronic "bell" as heard so often in our modern times), dogs barking, birds chirping, the snap and crackle of the cooking fire (or the warming fire, depending the time of year), the sound of a coal-burning train chugging (if you were near a town), possibly the rumble of a gristmill if you lived close enough to one, possibly the screech of a sawmill (again, if you lived close enough to one), the squeak of the hand pump to retrieve water, the tapping of a hammer making repairs, a handsaw, more than likely cows mooing, chickens squawking, horses neighing, pigs snorting...

Now, think about what we see:
I am sitting at my computer with a 19" digital monitor while our digital 32" television brightly shows the vivid colors of cartoons right behind me along with the screaming commercials - buy! buy! buy!, with a flick of a switch I get instant light - unnaturally bright lights - no matter what time of day or night, my home phone and cell phone both light up when someone is calling me, digital numbers on the microwave, lights on the stereo...

And on Gratiot:
Whizzing down the Avenue at 40 miles per hour, I best be sure my attention is on everything - the other vehicles driving just as fast (or, in many cases, faster), swerving in and out of the lanes - there are three lanes going in each direction - six lanes in all - not including the "Michigan Left Turn" lanes - and folks cutting each other off right and left, stop lights, construction warning signs and flashing lights, pot holes, street signs, billboards, store fronts, pedestrians on foot and bicycles crossing here and there, the strong gas and oil smells as we wait at a red light...did I forget anything?

And let's not forget what you must watch out for while walking - everything in the above paragraph as well as looking both ways numerous times before running across the street.

Now, 150 years ago:
Natural daylight, fireplace, candle-light, or oil lamp to light the rooms, clip clopping down the road at a few miles an hour at best if you had a horse, the over-abundance of trees shade the way, if you are pulling a wagon there would be lots of bumping and rocking, another horse with or without a wagon behind it, a number of pedestrians, possibly mud and definitely animal excrement to look out for if you are walking...did I miss anything?

As I drove down Gratiot the other day, seeing and hearing all that I described in the above modern descriptive paragraphs, I wondered - how would my 3rd great grandfather, William Raby, who died at the age of 65 in 1887, have reacted to all of this extreme sensory overload swirling about his head if he were suddenly pulled from his time and brought up to our time, riding next to me in my van cruising down Gratiot? Would it have a dizzying effect on him, as I suspect it would? Or would he be able to take it all in stride? Would the sheer volume and flashiness of our world be too much for him?
I know when I have spent time at a reenactment out in the country (like Hastings, Michigan or Fayett Ohio) or even just away from the city taking a walk, I get a bit overwhelmed upon returning to my city home.
There was a time, around 20 years ago, when, while staying at the family cottage near Lexington, Mi (off Lake Huron), my wife and I used to be able to take evening walks with hardly any modern sounds invading our peacefulness. Now, it seems, we are invaded by, again, the BOOM BOOM BOOM of the ghetto cruiser, the constant flow of golf carts, kids on scooters - and this is on the country dirt roads outside of Lexington! It's to the point that a peaceful evening's stroll - city or country - is almost a thing of the past.
My dear wife seems to have to turn on a light day or night. I prefer having no unnatural lights until necessary. Even when I turn them on, I will have them low on the dimmer switch. Actually, come the Autumn time of year, I begin to burn our hand-dipped candles.
Natural light and natural sounds.
I feel my stress leaving already...


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A First Person Visit to the Past

If you ever want to really know what life was like for those who lived in the past, might I suggest reading the journals, letters, and diaries of persons from the 19th century? It's by reading these thoughts, feelings, and events-as-they-happened that one can fully immerse themselves into the past, even, dare I say, more than re-enacting can. Which is why I read as many of the early-mid-and late 19th century diaries and journals as often as I can. They create an understanding of everyday life of the time-period much greater and more accurate than any historian can.

Nearly all journals and diaries available seem to be written by women. The few written by men (at least that I have seen) are mostly written by soldiers.

The first diary snippet I will present is of a young teen named Caroline Cowles of New York, written on a Friday in May, 1854:

"Reverend Mr. Dickey, of Rochester, agent for the Seaman's Friend Society, preached this morning about the poor little canal boy. His text was from the 107th Psalm 23rd verse. He has the queerest voice and stops off between his words. When we got home (younger sister) Anna said she would show us how he preached and she described what he said about a sailor in time of war. She said, "A ball came---and struck him there---another ball came---and struck him there---he raised his faithful sword---and went on---to victory---or death." I expected Grandfather would reprove her, but he just smiled a queer sort of smile and Grandmother put her handkerchief up to her face, as she always does when she is amused about anything. I never heard her laugh out loud, but I suppose she likes funny things as well as anybody."

This puts some flesh on the bones of those long gone, doesn't it? Couldn't you see (and even hear) young Anna imitate the preacher, with the grandparents trying very hard not to burst out laughing?

How about something a little closer to home (for us that live in Michigan) - here are a few excerpts from letters written in late 1832 and early 1833 by Elizabeth Chandler, a young Quaker girl born in 1807 and died in 1834:

"We have had fine weather this fall in Michigan, and it still continues so. The farmers are still ploughing, and may perhaps do so for some time longer.

Our country is filling up fast but the Indian war and the Cholera have been great drawbacks on emmigration during the last season. Although the hostile Indians were two or three hundred miles from us, many fabulous and exaggerated accounts respecting them were spread abroad sufficient to deter numbers already prepared from removing at that time, and immediately after the appearance of the Cholera in various places was a sufficient cause to arrest the tide of emmigration."

Michigan, at this time, was considered Indian country.

How about life in a factory working woman's boarding house? Let's look into a typical 1844 evening for a young adult named Susan who was staying in a boarding house in New York:

"We had tea, flapjacks, and plum-cake for supper. There was also bread, butter, and crackers upon the table, but I saw no one touch them. After supper, the tables were cleared in a trice. Some of the girls came in with their sewing, some went to their own rooms, and some went 'out upon the street' - that is, they went to some meeting or evening school, or they went shopping, or visiting upon some other corporation, all of which is 'going upon the street' in factory parlance.

I retained my seat with the girls in the great keeping room, for Mrs. C had company in her own sanctum. Some book peddler, shoe peddler, essence peddler, and candy boys came in and made very strenuous exertions to attract our attention. By most of the girls they were treated with cool civility, but there were some noisy self-conceited misses who detained them under the pretense of examining goods for purchase, but who were slyly joking at the expense of the peddler."

Let's go back further into history - back to August 20th, 1787, where we find a journal written by the local (Hallowell, Maine) midwife, Martha Ballard. All spelling is as was originally written:

"Clear. Mr. Hinkly brot me to Mr. Westons. I heard there that Mrs. Clatons child departed this life yesterday & that she was thot expireing. I went back with Mr. Hinkly as far as there. Shee departed this Life about 1 p.m. I assisted to lay her out. Her infant laid in her arms. The first such instance I ever saw & the first woman that died in child bed which I delivered. I came home at dusk. Find my family all comfortable. We hear that three children expired in Winthrop last Saturday night."

A mother and child dying, three more children dying and nary a sad word except, "at least my family is well"...just everyday life in the 18th century.

Here's something to show the glamour of traveling by wagon train in 1865, written by 24 year old Sarah Raymond:

"When we had traveled about an hour the rains came down. I was likely to get very wet before our wagons came, for they were among the last in the train; I took the saddle and bridle off Dick, sat down on the saddle to keep it dry, and to wait for the wagons. I was resigning myself to a drenching when Mr. Grier, driver of the front wagon, came and spread a great big rubber coat over me, so that I was completey sheltered and was hardly damp when our wagons came.

There are more pleasant things than camping in the rain. The water is so impregnated with alkali that I fear it will cause sickness; the stock are in greater danger than we, for we can guard against it."

The above words from the journals and diaries show everyday life of folks doing everyday things in their time. But, what about when something historic happens in your town? For example, did you ever wonder how the folks felt in the weeks before the carnage of Gettysburg? The following are snippets from the many journals and diaries released in book and pamphlet form that will put the reader right smack dab in the middle of the fear and uncertainty of living in the Borough of Gettysburg, June 1863:

SARAH BROADHEAD: “June 15, 1863 – To-day we heard the Rebels were crossing the river in heavy force, and advancing on this State. No alarm was felt until Governor Curtis sent a telegram, directing the people to move their stores as quickly as possible. This made us begin to realize the fact that we were in some danger from the enemy, and some persons, thinking the Rebels were near, became very much frightened, though the report was a mistake.”

SALLIE MEYERS: June 20, 1863 – Some cavalry from Philadelphia who armed and equipped themselves came to-night. They are entirely and altogether volunteers.”

SARAH BROADHEAD: June 23, 1863 – As I expected, the Rebels have, several times, been within two or three miles, but they have not yet reached here. Two cavalry companies are here on scouting duty, but they can be of little use, as they have never seen service. Deserters come in every little while, who report the enemy near in large force.”

NELLIE AUGHINBAUGH (while learning a milliner’s trade at the home of Mrs. Martin): “June 26 – Mr. Martin excitedly rushed into the work room, exclaiming that the Rebels were coming. ‘They’re at Cashtown now. Send the girls home,’ he told his wife. Several of the girls stopped immediately and left. I was working on a bonnet that Mrs. Martin, who was very particular, had made me rip twice that day and start over again, and I said ‘I’m not going home until I finish this bonnet, not if the whole Rebel army comes to town.’

Once more, Mr. Martin came running in and, hurrying over to me, he grabbed my work from my hands and exclaimed, ‘Go home, girl! The Rebs are at the edge of town.’

I did. As I reached the center square, the Rebels were riding into it from the other direction with yells and cheers. I was frightened and ran all the way home. I had to cross the square and go down Carlisle Street. When I reached the house, Mother was standing in the doorway, ringing her hands.

‘My God, Child! Where have you been?’

Never in my life had I ever heard my Mother use the Lord’s name in that way, and I always told her that she frightened me more than the coming of the Rebels because I thought she had suddenly lost her mind.”

TILLIE PIERCE: “June 26 – What a horrible sight! There they were, human beings, clad almost in rags, covered with dust, riding wildly, pell-mell down the hill toward our home, shouting, yelling most unearthly, cursing, brandishing their revolvers, and firing right and left.”

SARAH BARRETT KING: “June 26 – My father was sitting by a window, busily engaged reading a daily paper, little dreaming the Rebels were so close by. I said to him, ‘Here they come.’ He asked, ‘Who?’ I answered, ‘The Rebs, don’t you hear the yell?’ And he looked out and saw them in pursuit of Captain Bell. He said, ‘Bring the children in and close the door.’ I said, ‘No, I want them to see all they can of this’ and remained on the porch of the house.”

SARAH BROADHEAD: “June 26 – We all stood in the doors while the cavalry passed, but when the infantry came, we closed them, for fear they would run into our houses and carry off everything we had, and went upstairs and looked out of the windows. They went along very orderly, only asking every now and then how many Yankee soldiers we had in town. I answered one that I did not know. He replied, ‘You are a funny woman; if I lived in town I would know that much.’”

ANNA GARLACH’s (speaking of her Grandmother): “Some of the (Rebels) asked her what she thought the Rebels were like (before they came to town), whether they had horns. And she replied she was frightened at first, but found them like our own men.”

SARAH BROADHEAD: “The Rebel band were playing Southern tunes in the Diamond (town square).”

HARRIET BAYLY:June 29 - Looking west at night we could see camp fires along the mountain side eight miles distant, and it seemed as though the enemy was there in force.”

HARRIET BAYLY: “June 30 – The whole air seemed charge with conditions which go before a storm; everybody anxious, neighbor asking neighbor what was going to happen and what will we do if the worst should happen?”

MICHAEL JACOBS: “June 30 – (I) saw General John Buford’s Union cavalry division, including two brigades, riding into Gettysburg from the Taneytown Road, on the south. He flung one of his brigades directly north, along Washington Street; the other he dispatched to the west along the Chambersburg Road.”

TILLIE PIERCE: “June 30 - A crowd of us girls were standing on the corner of Washington and High Streets as the soldiers passed by. Desiring to encourage them who, as we were told, would before long be in battle, my sister started to sing the old war song ‘Our Union Forever.’ As some of us did not know the whole of the piece we kept repeating the chorus.”

SALLIE MEYERS: “June 30 - How they dashed by! Their horse’s feet seemed shod with lightning. Along the street we stood – all the girls and women of the town. We had prepared food in advance, and had baskets and trays in our hands. They came by, snatching in their hasty passage whatever they could lay their hands on – sandwiches, pieces of pie, cold meat, bread, cakes, cups of coffee, and bottles of water.

The eyes of the soldiers blazed, they smiled and some joined in the song. It was the last song many of those brave men ever heard, and the bite we gave was the last many ever ate.”

SARAH BARRETT KING: “July 1 – I heard two cavalrymen talking and one of them said, ‘Well the ball is about to open.’ "

SARAH BROADHEAD: “July 1 – I got up early this morning to get my baking done before any fighting would begin. I had just put my bread in the pans when the cannons began to fire, and true enough the battle had begun in earnest, about two miles out on the Chambersburg Pike. What to do or where to go, I did not know. People were running here and there, screaming that the town would be shelled.”

Many of you, I'm sure, have seen the movie 'Gettysburg,' but many more of you probably never gave a second thought to those folks who lived right there in the thick of it all. You can hear the fear as they wrote and told of their adventures. Again, something that the history books rarely, if ever, expound on.

I continue to search out these books written so long ago. They not only shed light on life once lived, but they truly flesh out the old sepia photographs and help one to realize that these were once living, breathing people like you and I. They had happiness, sadness. They laughed and felt sorrow.

It would do us good to emulate them as best we can, so we, as living historians, can give the patrons an even better, more accurate idea of what life was like in the past.


Monday, August 25, 2008

I'm Goin' To Jackson (Michigan!)

If you are a Civil War reenactor living in Michigan or in the surrounding states, then you know about the Jackson Civil War muster. It takes place every year on the weekend before Labor Day Weekend on a massive plot of land known as Cascades Park.
Cascades is divided into numerous sections: at the far end are the Civil War era civilian camps, where the living historians show life on the homefront - hoop skirts and sack coats rule the day.
Bordering two sides of the civilian camp is the military camps (both North and South). This is where one can see the camp life of a soldier.
A wall of trees separates the camps from the "battlefield." Of course, it's not a real battlefield, but a makeshift one, made up to look like whatever battle they have that particular year. Most of the major battles of the Civil War have been portrayed here over the past 24 years, and a number of smaller, lesser known battles - such as this year's Wilson's Creek - are also portrayed. They do a wonderful job giving the ground where the soldier's fight a make-over so it gives a pretty good impression of what the actual battlefield may have looked like. This year, a real cornfield was placed on the grounds to give it that 'look' of where the battle was fought back in 1861 Missouri.
Infantry, cavalry, artillery - all battling at once. It's an awesome sight.
Near this field is a 'Special Impressions' area, where one can meet the dignitaries of the day: President Lincoln, Senator Howard, Stephen Douglas, etc.
This is also where one can learn about medical practices of the time, see old-time photography, visit a saloon, and watch a period ball, among other things.
A large parking lot separates the "past" from the present: the modern "carnival" aspect of the Jackson event is just on the other side of this parking lot. Not well liked by many of the reenactors, vendors are lined up to sell corn dogs, cotton candy, rootbeer floats and the like. Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil - their rental space helps to pay for the Civil War event (although I could do without the rock, pop, and polka bands).
On the other side of this circus tent area are the sutlers. One of the best things for the reenactors themselves is this sutler area. It's here where many of the living historians purchase their clothing and accessories used for reenacting purposes. This is where folks can pick up lanterns, period music, paintings, and old-fashioned toys. This is where so many reenactors spend much of their time on this particular weekend!
Then there are the Boy Scouts: these young men are out in force, helping any and all for parking, directions, guidebooks, and even in the first aid department. God Bless the Boy Scouts!
If I had any complaints (yes, there are a few), one would be the reenactor parking. We need a better, more organized area for our vehicles. Parking a large van, truck, etc., on the hill where it slides down in the mud is not my idea of taking care of the reenactors. I refuse to park there - I won't slide down sideways again in an attempt to drive out.
Another complaint the lack of civilians during the battle. For instance, wouldn't it be great to have moms, dads, wives, sisters, wandering out onto the battlefield to find their loved ones wounded or dead, letting out a wail if the worst is found? That would show the patrons a different aspect of the War that many know nothing about.
How about allowing civilians to have a picnic during early battles, as was done in 1861? Yes, that really did happen. They thought of the battles as 'entertainment'... that is, until the battle got too close and they saw (or may have inadvertently become part of) the carnage.
A little bit of realism of a different type.
When all is said and done, I feel the really great thing about Jackson is the amount of reenactors that show up - literally thousands, which, between the military and the civilians, gives the patron a well-rounded impression of the era and the War. It is truly a magnificent slice of living history at its finest.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Just What Is An Antique Anyway?

(Please click here for an updated version of this post)

Can someone tell me what an antique is? Does it have to be a certain age? And if so, who decides what is antiquated?
The reason why I ask is, well, I collect antiques. Oh no, not great works of art or anything like that. Not even "fine" pieces of furniture.
I'm more like Henry Ford: I collect everyday objects that people probably didn't think twice about but were used daily. For example, I own a great (or walking) spinning wheel. As near as I can figure, this wheel is from the early 1800's - probably the 1820's or '30's. And, it is pretty big - almost as high as me. It was purchased on Ebay at a very low price ("people have no room for these larger wheels," was the reason given for its low tag). It is definitely an original and, because of the information given at the time of purchase, I was able to research its history and found that everything fell into place, so, yes, I am quite certain of its age.Another piece I picked up - quite recently, in fact - is a corner cabinet. A couple of friends visited recently and both called it a "primitive." What excited me initially were the squared nails used in the making of this piece, meaning almost certainly it is from before the Civil War.I also have a dresser that, from what I can tell is from the 1850's/1860's, as well as numerous others antiques - a 'what-not-shelf' circa 1860's, a yarn winder from the mid-19th century, a settee from the 1890's, and a few more that I haven't listed here.
My wife and I allow ourselves one (maybe two, depending on the cost) antiques a year, and have done so for the past several years. It's quite fun, actually, to search out and actually own something that has been around for so long. One cannot help but wonder where these objects were kept all this time: was the great wheel displayed proudly because great great great grandma once spun on it? Or was it hidden away in an attic, forgotten about until the old homestead was to be sold and it had lost its meaning?
Did a proud farmer build the corner cabinet for his wife because, during the depression of the late 1830's and early 1840's, they could not afford to purchase one? Or did he build it because that's what folks did back then?
What room did the brass candle holder that I now own light up in the age before electric lighting? And, again, where has it been for the last twenty decades?

Now, this brings me to my original question - what constitutes an antique? Some folks will call virtually anything old an antique. I still have the complete Detroit News and Free Press newspapers from when John Lennon died. They are nearly 28 years old. Antiques? How about my Schafer 'Supremes' White Bread wrapper (with the caricatures of Motown's "Diana Ross and the Supremes" upon it) from 1966? This is over 40 years old. Is this an antique?I have a WKNR (Keener 13 radio) "Think Summer" button from the 'Summer of Love' - 1967. I wonder if that's old enough...Or, if you want to see even older pop culture, I also have a Lucky Strikes tin from World War II - how about this? Or my Life magazines from the 1930's and '40's? According to the 'professionals,' an antique is "an item which is at least 100 years old and is collected or desirable due to rarity, condition, utility, or some other unique feature. Motor vehicles, tools and other items subject to vigorous use in contrast, may be considered antiques in the U.S. if older than 25 years, and some electronic gadgets of more recent vintage may be considered antiques." Makes sense, especially when one considers how old objects in Europe are in comparison. But, are we making exceptions, maybe, for monetary purposes? Consider the Beany Babies - those little stuffed animals kids and adults went nuts for around 10 years ago. The companies that produced them purposely put out a lesser amount of certain titles (the purple princess one comes to mind) for the sole purpose of collectibility - to make them "rare." Would these be considered antiques today? How about the first Santa Bears from the 1980's (or was it the late 1970's)? Are those considered antiques?

Here's another definition: an antique is an old collectible item. It is collected or desirable because of its age, rarity, condition, utility, or other unique features. It is an object that represents a previous era in human society. I am beginning to see some light. "Collectibles." People - especially dealers out to make money, are intertwining something that is considered a collectible with an actual antique.
It seems to me that an antique is whatever someone declares to be one, even though it could be just a collectible.
Well, I guess in my opinion it looks like my John Lennon newspaper, Supremes bread wrapper, and Lucky Strikes tin have a few years to go before they can be called antiques.
But, my spinning wheel, corner cabinet, settee, and other objects that are from the turn of the 20th century and before are truly and legitimately antiques.
I would love to hear others' thoughts on the subject.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

I Will Vote for This Write In Candidate This November

Did you read my last post? The one entitled

The Traditional Life ?

Well, I received the following from a fellow Civil War reenactor (I did modify it slightly):


(1) English is the official language; speak it or wait at the border until you can.

(2) We will immediately go into a two year isolationist posture to
straighten out the country's attitude. NO imports, no exports.
We will use the 'Wal-Mart' policy, 'If we ain't got it, you don't
need it.'

By the way, this includes importation of Canadian garbage that they say they have no room for.

(3) When imports are allowed, there will be a 100% import tax on it.

And no immigrants allowed to enter for a three year period.

(4) All retired military personnel will be required to man one
of our many observation towers on the southern border.
(six month tour) They will be under strict orders not to fire
on SOUTHBOUND aliens.

(5) Social security will immediately return to its original state.
If you didn't put nuttin in, you ain't gettin nuttin out. The
president nor any other politician will not be able to touch it.

(6) Welfare - Checks will be handed out on Fridays at the end of
the 40 hour school week and the successful completion of
urinalysis and a passing grade.

(7) Professional Athletes --Steroids - The FIRST time you check
positive you're banned for life.

(8) Crime - We will adopt the Turkish method, the first time you are convicted of
stealing, you lose your right hand.

There are no more life sentences.
If convicted for murder, you will be put to death by the same method you
chose for your victim; gun, knife, strangulation, etc.

(9) One export will be allowed; Wheat, The world needs to eat.
A bushel of wheat will be the exact price of a barrel of oil.

(10) All foreign aid using American taxpayer money will
immediately cease, and the saved money will pay off the
national debt and ultimately lower taxes. When disasters
occur around the world, we'll ask the American people
if they want to donate to a disaster fund, and each citizen
can make the decision whether it's a worthy cause.

(11) The Constitution of the United States will be followed as our forefathers meant for it - not the bastardized version it has become.

(12) All politicians must be American born and bred. No more socialists like Shwarzenegger or Granholm pushing their foreign beliefs upon us.

Sorry if I stepped on anyone's toes but a vote for me will get you
better than what you have, and better than what you're gonna get.
Thanks for listening, and remember to write in my name on the ballot in November..

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Traditional Life

A couple of weeks ago I, along with others from the 21st Michigan Civil War reenactor unit I belong to, participated in a living history presentation in Dearborn at Ford Field (no, not the football stadium in downtown Kwame-town, but the original Ford Field!). It was actually a festival - a major festival, with rides, games, burgers and beer, an Eddie Money concert, cotton candy, and everything else that one sees at at a carnival.
But, off in a corner, beneath a grove of shade trees, sat a group of historians, if you will...from many different eras of American history. There was a soldier from the French and Indian War, a soldier from the Revolutionary War, a group of us from the Civil War era, as well as military members from the Spanish-American War and World Wars 1 and 2. There were chandlers from the colonial period dipping real beeswax candles, I had my 1860's postmaster tent set up, and there was a young lady who was fervently collecting money to save Civil War battle flags.
Funny thing about reenactors - no matter what era in time we represent, we tend to enjoy speaking with those from other time periods - there is a common bond that links us: our love of everything history.
I find that when I go to a place such as Greenfield Village or Crossroads Village and speak with the docents, that same bond exists; when I visit a quality local historical society such as the Crocker House in Mt. Clemens (run by Kim Parr) or my own East Detroit Historical Society (Suzanne Pixley - President) - just to name two of the many - I find that same excitement and knowledge. It's that like-mindedness that we share.
Besides our collective passions for the past, I have also found other similarities that bind us together: in general (but not always), I have found the greater majority of reenactors - especially of 19th century and earlier eras - are conservative in nature, are practicing Christians in the traditional sense, and have traditional morals, values, and mores.
Some folks say because of that, we live in the past.
I love it when people say that.
I actually had someone tell me that, because I have been married for over 23 years to the same person - the one and only marriage for both of us - and that we are church go-ers, have four kids, do things as a family, eat supper together 5 out of 7 days, etc., that we are a minority; that we are unusual. Another friend laughed at me upon hearing of our eating habits, and, in a mock tone, told me I lived in the past, and said that she's lucky if her family eats together on Christmas, much less throughout the rest of the year.
I find that sad.
I mean, my oldest is 20 and he still sits with us nearly every night - when work or college doesn't interfere - to eat, many times with his girlfriend joining us. He also joins us for church on Sunday mornings, when we visit his grandmother who lives in Battle Creek, extended family Holidays, and sometimes just to watch a rented movie.
Just so you don't think he is not of this 21st century time period, this son of mine also has a lap top computer, the latest cell phone, at times is in a contemporary rock band, and goes to the movies every chance he gets to see the latest flick, among other things.
He was raised to live in today's society with the values of the past, as are the rest of my children.
You know, it's not hard to live a traditional life in the 21st century. But, I suppose reenacting has helped me find others and their families who are like us.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Proud Living History Parent

Can I not be more proud of my seven year old daughter? She knows how to churn butter, thanks to our good friend and fellow reenactor Nancy Keeney.
She is also learning how to tat, again thanks to another very good friend and fellow reenactor, Joyce Hart.Of course, Monday - laundry day - was the busiest and hardest day of the week. Our reenactor laundress, Mrs. Cook, has my daughter agitate the heavy, wet garments.
And just ask her about children's toys of the mid-19th century! Here she shows modern kids (and even an adult!) the toys that children played with 150 years ago.
I feel very proud that my children know and continue to learn the art of the traditional crafts of the 19th century. I recently met a chandler (candle maker) and hope to include that craft in our family living history as well.
The best part is that my 19th century daughter is also the biggest Hannah Montana fan this side of the equator! She loves her music and watches the show nearly every day. The Best of both worlds indeed!
Still, Rosalia's favorite books are the Little House series and the American Girl Doll Felicity series. She reads a chapter or two (or has them read to her) nightly.
Like her parents, she loves the past but lives in the present.
And dad is smiling.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Earliest Sound Recording Known to Man

What you are about to read will, in no doubt, astound you if you are a history buff and/or a period music buff.
It has to do with a sound recording of the human voice made in the year 1860 - yes, you read correctly - this is not a typo - 1860!
Please read the following article, lifted from the New York Times (, that I copied and pasted here. It is written much better than I could ever do (by the way, scroll all the way down to the bottom of this blog to hear these ethereal sounds):

Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison
Published: March 27, 2008

For more than a century, since he captured the spoken words “Mary had a little lamb” on a sheet of tinfoil, Thomas Edison has been considered the father of recorded sound. But researchers say they have unearthed a recording of the human voice, made by a little-known Frenchman, that predates Edison’s invention of the phonograph by nearly two decades.

The 19th-century phonautograph, which captured sounds visually but did not play them back, has yielded a discovery with help from modern technology.

The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

“This is a historic find, the earliest known recording of sound,” said Samuel Brylawski, the former head of the recorded-sound division of the Library of Congress, who is not affiliated with the research group but who was familiar with its findings. The audio excavation could give a new primacy to the phonautograph, once considered a curio, and its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison.

Scott’s device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.

But the Lawrence Berkeley scientists used optical imaging and a “virtual stylus” on high-resolution scans of the phonautogram, deploying modern technology to extract sound from patterns inscribed on the soot-blackened paper almost a century and a half ago. The scientists belong to an informal collaborative called First Sounds that also includes audio historians and sound engineers.

David Giovannoni, an American audio historian who led the research effort, will present the findings and play the recording in public on Friday at the annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Scott’s 1860 phonautogram was made 17 years before Edison received a patent for the phonograph and 28 years before an Edison associate captured a snippet of a Handel oratorio on a wax cylinder, a recording that until now was widely regarded by experts as the oldest that could be played back.

Mr. Giovannoni’s presentation on Friday will showcase additional Scott phonautograms discovered in Paris, including recordings made in 1853 and 1854. Those first experiments included attempts to capture the sounds of a human voice and a guitar, but Scott’s machine was at that time imperfectly calibrated.

“We got the early phonautograms to squawk, that’s about it,” Mr. Giovannoni said.

But the April 1860 phonautogram is more than a squawk. On a digital copy of the recording provided to The New York Times, the anonymous vocalist, probably female, can be heard against a hissing, crackling background din. The voice, muffled but audible, sings, “Au clair de la lune, Pierrot répondit” in a lilting 11-note melody — a ghostly tune, drifting out of the sonic murk.

The hunt for this audio holy grail was begun in the fall by Mr. Giovannoni and three associates: Patrick Feaster, an expert in the history of the phonograph who teaches at Indiana University, and Richard Martin and Meagan Hennessey, owners of Archeophone Records, a label specializing in early sound recordings. They had collaborated on the Archeophone album “Actionable Offenses,” a collection of obscene 19th-century records that received two Grammy nominations. When Mr. Giovannoni raised the possibility of compiling an anthology of the world’s oldest recorded sounds, Mr. Feaster suggested they go digging for Scott’s phonautograms.

Historians have long been aware of Scott’s work. But the American researchers believe they are the first to make a concerted search for Scott’s phonautograms or attempt to play them back.

In December Mr. Giovannoni and a research assistant traveled to a patent office in Paris, the Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle. There he found recordings from 1857 and 1859 that were included by Scott in his phonautograph patent application. Mr. Giovannoni said that he worked with the archive staff there to make high-resolution, preservation-grade digital scans of these recordings.

A trail of clues, including a cryptic reference in Scott’s writings to phonautogram deposits made at “the Academy,” led the researchers to another Paris institution, the French Academy of Sciences, where several more of Scott’s recordings were stored. Mr. Giovannoni said that his eureka moment came when he laid eyes on the April 1860 phonautogram, an immaculately preserved sheet of rag paper 9 inches by 25 inches.

“It was pristine,” Mr. Giovannoni said. “The sound waves were remarkably clear and clean.”

His scans were sent to the Lawrence Berkeley lab, where they were converted into sound by the scientists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell. They used a technology developed several years ago in collaboration with the Library of Congress, in which high-resolution “maps” of grooved records are played on a computer using a digital stylus. The 1860 phonautogram was separated into 16 tracks, which Mr. Giovannoni, Mr. Feaster and Mr. Martin meticulously stitched back together, making adjustments for variations in the speed of Scott’s hand-cranked recording.

Listeners are now left to ponder the oddity of hearing a recording made before the idea of audio playback was even imagined.

“There is a yawning epistemic gap between us and Léon Scott, because he thought that the way one gets to the truth of sound is by looking at it,” said Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and the author of “The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.”

Scott is in many ways an unlikely hero of recorded sound. Born in Paris in 1817, he was a man of letters, not a scientist, who worked in the printing trade and as a librarian. He published a book on the history of shorthand, and evidently viewed sound recording as an extension of stenography. In a self-published memoir in 1878, he railed against Edison for “appropriating” his methods and misconstruing the purpose of recording technology. The goal, Scott argued, was not sound reproduction, but “writing speech, which is what the word phonograph means.”

In fact, Edison arrived at his advances on his own. There is no evidence that Edison drew on knowledge of Scott’s work to create his phonograph, and he retains the distinction of being the first to reproduce sound.

“Edison is not diminished whatsoever by this discovery,” Mr. Giovannoni said.

Paul Israel, director of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., praised the discovery as a “tremendous achievement,” but called Edison’s phonograph a more significant technological feat.

“What made Edison different from Scott was that he was trying to reproduce sound and he succeeded,” Mr. Israel said.

But history is finally catching up with Scott.

Mr. Sterne, the McGill professor, said: “We are in a period that is more similar to the 1860s than the 1880s. With computers, there is an unprecedented visualization of sound.”

The acclaim Scott sought may turn out to have been assured by the very sonic reproduction he disdained. And it took a group of American researchers to rescue Scott’s work from the musty vaults of his home city. In his memoir, Scott scorned his American rival Edison and made brazen appeals to French nationalism. “What are the rights of the discoverer versus the improver?” he wrote less than a year before his death in 1879. “Come, Parisians, don’t let them take our prize.”

The audio historian David Giovannoni

with a recently discovered phonautogram

that is among the earliest sound recordings.

The Phonautograph Recording from 1860 of 'Au Clair de la Lune' (mp3)

An Audio Excerpt from a 1931 Recording of the Same Song (mp3)

Enlarge This Image

Courtesy of David Giovannoni

Isn't that amazing? To think that we can now listen to a voice (or possibly voices- if they find more in pristine condition) from before the American Civil War!

Talk about bringing the past to life!