Thursday, January 29, 2009

History Books

I have been having a great run on historically-oriented books lately - my reading time is filled to the rim! They mostly deal with everyday life of the mid-19th century and I am finding that they are helping me to gain so much more knowledge of the era. These books will help me tremendously in my re-enacting/living history presentations, as well as 'colorize' the story I am writing.
First off is one called "Interpreting Historic House Museums" which is edited by Jessica Foy Donnelly - it is actually written by numerous historical curators and historians. It tells of new ways to make your historical building or museum come to life by use of many different perspectives instead of the same old stodgy presentations.

I enjoyed it because it it opened my eyes to just what goes into every detail of a museum, from placement of furniture accurately inside of each room to the knick-knacks that are put on the shelves. It also delves into the museums that succeed throughout America and why they succeed.
There is even an excellent chapter about how my favorite open-air museum, Greenfield Village, decided to come up with their own presentations.
No, this is not necessarily a book for reenactors. Just something that is of particular interest to me.

"Death in the Dining Room" by Kenneth Ames is another book that is great for museum interpretations. But, it is also an excellent guide for social historians. In this book Mr. Ames gets into the psyche of the Victorians - the whys and wherefores of room furnishings: why were pump organs so important to Victorian women? For what reason did men lean back on the chairs, raising the front legs up off the ground? Hall trees, rocking chairs, samplers, sideboards, hall chairs, wall paper...if it was in a Victorian house, there is probably a story about it here. It really delves into the psychological realm of the Victorian home. Fascinating, but only if you are into details.

I'm not from Maryland and have only been to that beautiful state once (when I went to Antietam), but the next book I am reviewing, "Maryland Voices of the Civil War" by Charles W. Mitchell, is filled with first person history of the Civil War events that took place in that state. It is literally FILLED with excerpts from journals, diaries, newspaper articles, notices, letters, and speeches from that time. It's this sort of book that I enjoy most because it just brings history to life - I always imagine being the recipient of one of the letters or the writer of a journal from the time. I try to imagine what they saw or thought when they wrote or received the words written. Yeah, I'm a bit eccentric, I admit it. But, I certainly get the most out of a book like this!

Another book along these lines is the surprise gift of the Christmas Season for me (given by my lovely wife) - "Notes on the Life of Noah Webster" part one and two compiled by Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford. Originally published in 1912, this is a two-book collection of (mostly) letters written by Noah Webster, friends and acquaintances of Noah Webster, and family of Noah Webster, as well as diary entries. Webster and his family wrote very descriptively and, because of this, we can almost *see* what was written.
Here is a sample (from 1830):
Dear Husband,
Professor Gibbs handed me your letter on Wednesday eve. The weather is chilly and I have to warm myself at the kitchen fire frequently. Julia is well, the babe rather drooping but not sick. Rose at half past five, made a fire, and put on the tea-kettle and while I was sweeping the room below, R. set the breakfast table and made some tea and toast with eggs. Lute clean'd the knives and help'd me wash the dishes, beside acting as nurse to Lucy.
(by the way, what you have just read took place in the home now located at Greenfield Village).

"The Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture, 1860 - 1880" by Louise L. Stevenson is a book that I found used for $4 on Amazon and took a chance. I'm glad I did! From the very first page of Ms. Stevenson's preface, I knew this would be an excellent book. In it, she states: "'Victorians read in their parlors. They had not used their bedroom chambers as the primary sites for reading.' So much work had preceded these two declarative sentences!" And then proceeds to write substantial overviews of everyday life in Victorian America. Now, considering the important historical events of the years covered in this book, surprisingly little is written about the Civil War or reconstruction. But, that's OK, because, instead, we are treated to the private and public life of the middle class person of the mid to late 19th century.
A fine find!

"My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America" by Joan L. Severa is an excellent (and a bit pricey) tome on American fashion from 1840 to 1860 and includes men, women, and children in its high quality pages. A fairly detailed description is written for each of the nearly 300 images here so anyone can learn about the variety of clothing during the mid -Victorian era.
Yeah, I know...I'm a guy and I have this book of fashion. But, more than that, I look at the faces - the expressions - of the long dead folks inside and wonder about them...their lives...their thoughts...where and how they lived...

And then I realize - - - - just by reading the books mentioned above (amongst the many, many others in my collection), I can get a pretty accurate picture of how they lived, and these people in Ms. Severa's book come to life for me! They are the ones I try to emulate whenever I don my period clothing. So, you see, it's not just a collection of fashion photographs.

There are so many other great social history books available - these are just a few of my most recent purchases/gifts.
The computer is a wonderful thing. TV and movies are a wonderful thing. But, I don't believe the written word will ever be surpassed.

Every one of these books can be found, usually at a good price, on I have yet to find them in any of the local bookstores.

(By the way, I am also reading "Time and Again" by Jack Finney - slow but interesting. Some great details (a little too detailed at times!) about time travel. Well...not exactly time travel. More like mind travel. In other words, reenacting. Kind of.)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tintype Studio Images

I thought I would post a few of the images taken at the tintype studio in Greenfield Village with my digital tintype camera on December 28th.
We certainly had a fine time on that day.

Mrs. White

Mr. And Mrs. Cary

Mrs. Cook

Yours Truly

Miss Lamkin

It's these sort of "out of the box" gatherings that make reenacting/living history fun. There are many of us that like to keep it going during the off season. Actually, with me there is no 'off season'!
I just keep it going...


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Time and Again - A Reenactor's Story?

I received the book "Time and Again" by Jack Finney from a friend for Christmas this year. I have heard much about this book but had never read it. I guess there was a reason - I am writing my own time-travel story and I didn't want any influence from anywhere or anyone else. But, I suppose all time-travel stories have a connecting link in a way. A good thing is that my story is definitely different from this one, not just the time period but in style and in the plot.
That's a good thing.
However, Mr. Finney truly thought of a unique realm to the time-travel experience. It's here that I am going to infringe on the copyright laws, and present a very interesting concept to the possibility of time-travel from Mr. Finney's book in which I believe many true-spirited reenactors and living historians can possibly relate and learn:

' Presently (Einstein) said that our ideas about time are largely mistaken. And I don't doubt for an instant that he was right once more. Because one of his final contributions not too long before he died was to prove that all of his theories are unified. They're not separate but inter-connected.
He meant that we're mistaken in our conception of what the past, present, and future really are. We think the past is gone, the future hasn't happened, and that only the present exists. Because the present is all we can see. It's only natural. (Einstein) said we're like people in a boat without oars drifting along a winding river. Around us we see only the present. We can't see the past, back in the bends and curves behind us. But, it's there.
You know the year, the day, and the month for literally millions of reasons: because the blanket you woke up under this morning may have been at least partly synthetic; because there is probably a box in your apartment with a switch; turn that switch, and the faces of living human beings will appear on a glass screen in the face of that box and speak nonsense to you.
Because red and green lights signaled when you might cross a street on your way here this morning; because teenage children you saw were dressed as they were, because the front page of the Times looked precisely as it did this morning and as it never will again or ever has before.

The main character of the story was then taken to an older part of the city (in this case, New York) and the prospect of time-travel began once again:

You can see yesterday; most of it is left. There's even a good deal (
of the 2oth century). There are fragments of still earlier days. Single buildings. Sometimes several together. Those places are fragments still remaining, of days which once lay out there as real as the day lying out there now, still surviving fragments of a clear April morning of 1871, a gray winter afternoon of 1840, a rainy dawn of 1793.

The main character then went to the Dakota Apartment Building, built in the early 1880's, which stands in front of Central Park. The dialogue continues:

The Dakota is unique. Suppose you were to stand at a window of one of the upper apratments and looked down into the park; say at dawn when very often no cars are to be seen. All around you is a building unchanged from the day it was built, including the room you stand in and very possibly even the glass pain you look through.
Picture one of those apratments standing empty for two months in the summer of 1894, as it did. Picture our arranging to sublet that very apartment for those identical months for the coming summer. If Albert Einstein is right - as he is - then hard as it may be to comprehend, the summer of 1894 still exists.
That silent empty apartment exists back in that summer precisely as it exists in the summer that is coming. Unaltered and unchanged, identical in each, and existing in each. I believe it may be possible, you understand, for a man to walk out of that unchanged apartment and into that other summer.
But), the uncountable millions of invisible threads that exist in here would bind him to this (coming) summer, no matter how unaltered the apartment around him. ...It occurred to me that just possibly there is a way to dissolve those threads...'

Pretty interesting stuff, eh? This is exactly how I look at my time during a reenactment. Dissolving those threads that connect me to the present (or future, however you would like to put it) is always at the forefront of my mind while I am at an event, even with the modern patrons about. I can see through these reminders of the 21st century, so-to-speak. I do not ignore them, of course, but I can over-look the fact that the visitors are wearing modern clothing - I am learning to bring my mind to that level. Actually, I have a much harder time with the period-dressed reenactors acting like their 21st century selves rather than their 19th century counterparts.

This is what I believe we all need to work on as living historians. Nothing ruins that moment like seeing the take-off-the-period-clothing-and-put-on-the-sweat-pants crowd after the event is closed for the evening to the general public.
In our camp, instead, my son will pull out the guitar and sing period tunes such as Lorena, Wayfaring Stranger, Goober Peas, or Just Before the Battle Mother (among others), or my other son will whip out the fife and perform Road to Boston or some other classic of the era.
And, as evening turns to night, sitting around the fire can keep you "in the moment." Members in our camp stay in their period clothing throughout, and then some of us - myself included, will put on period nightclothes at bedtime so as to awaken the next morning already "there." My time in the past continues for as long as I let it, or until someone has to, unfortunately, remind me (if you know what I mean).

My family and I eating breakfast at the restored Tillie Pierce House in Gettysburg April 2008. We were in our period clothing the entire time there and stayed at the Tillie Pierce House - now a bed & breakfast.
Note: nothing farby in this image.
Were we really

Can you imagine if every participant at an event did their best to practice accurately the authenticity of the early 1860's? Who knows? We might even be able to create a time warp in that alone!!
Happy time-traveling!


Thursday, January 15, 2009

The American Way - Get Over It!

OK, as any of you who read my blog know, I did not vote for Obama. There are many reasons why and numerous older blogs of mine of last fall cite some of them.
Well, he won, but he didn't necessarily win as big as the media would have you believe.

They would have you believe that virtually everyone except for a very few extremists voted for the man. Well, that's simply not true: the popular vote shows that 69,456,897 of the actual votes went for Obama and 59,934,786 went to McCain - quite a bit closer than one might think, considering all of the bias being printed. And that's not even listing all of the independent votes for the smaller party candidates that were not listed. In other words, contrary to popular belief, there is still an extremely large segment of the American population who is not for Obama. And yet, we are all cast aside and told to get behind him - stand united!
What? Like all of you Obama worshipers stood behind George W or any of the other presidents? Why is Obama any different? Oh yeah, he's for "change" (among other reasons).
Now, before you start on me with all of your anti-Bush rhetoric, understand that I am also very disappointed in ol' George. I did not like many things he did. Many things. But, the media would have you believe that Bush is the cause of every nuance of our nation's ills - simply not true. Do your homework if this is what you believe.

Here's something I find rather scary - - - - -
did you know that most school districts are going to have the inauguration broadcast during school on Tuesday? And since the actual swearing in takes place at 11:30 - lunchtime - that many are going to allow the kids to eat lunch in their rooms so they could watch "history being made" (yes, a direct quote)?
I don't recall this ever happening before. Ever.
My eight year old daughter will, fortunately, be making history another way; she will be at home with me instead of being brainwashed by the extreme leftist socialist agenda that has become common place in our New America.
And I can just hear all those folks coming at me with their spears for doing so. I am teaching her that her father stands by what he believes. She is eight and if she is going to learn about today's politics, I'd rather she learn from me than the liberal left.
Obama was elected president of the United States by popular vote and electoral college, and I accept this. It does not mean, however, that I must stand behind him. I won't. When I mentioned this through another avenue, a friend told me she was "disappointed" in me for my feelings.
My question to her and the others who feel this way: did she and the other Obama worshipers stand by Republican president-elects in the past? No.
Would she and the others have stood by McCain or, better yet, Romney (if he had made it that far)? Highly doubtful. And yet, I am being told that I should stand behind Obama.
I won't.
I voted against him! Why would I back him? He doesn't stand for what I believe.

Remember something here: my reaction to this newly elected president is as old as the United States itself. Heck, a war was even begun as a direct result of the 1860 election (when Lincoln was elected, for the few of you who did not know).
Just as virtually every president-elect before him, Obama has many many against him, and that's OK. It's called checks and balances folks, and that's what makes this country (or made this country) the great country it is. Otherwise we would have a dictatorship.
No matter who gets elected president (even if it's my pick), I hope we will always have those who fight him/her every step of the way. That's the American way. And it's our right as Americans.
At least it was. I'm not so sure anymore.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Living History Preparations for 2009

Well, here it is, the end of another Christmas season. The tree came down Sunday, as did the rest of the decorations, and I am a little down. It always brings me down when we un-decorate. Plus, I had to put my wonderful period Christmas music away - well...I didn't have to. I suppose I could go on listening to those glorious sounds of Christmas past throughout the year, but then they wouldn't be as special. Plus, my friends would think me even stranger!
But there is some light shining brighter and brighter at the end of the tunnel - - - - - -
My thoughts and motivations are gearing up for the 2009 Civil War era re-enacting season! It's living history that will carry me through the doldrums of the bleak winter months ahead. In fact, this Saturday (the 17th) is the Michigan Roundtable in our capital city of Lansing and it's almost like Christmas to me. Of course, I know most of the events that will be brought up, but it's the surprises that get me excited. For instance, last year they brought back the Charlton Park event in Hastings after a four year hiatus. Having never been, I found it to be a great living history event despite an all-day rain. We were able to use a house built in the 1850's as our own for a mourning presentation, and that right there is a dream come true for any living historian - using an actual period home for a presentation.
I have hundreds of pictures from the 2008 season (thank God for digital tintypes) and have enjoyed re-living some of the events by looking at those photos. But, it's the coming year that I am looking forward to. More memories to make. More pictures to take. And even more friends to make as well. Both of the units I belong to seem to be growing at a good pace with new members joining all the time - with the country heading in the direction it is, no wonder we have more and more folks looking toward the past! And I really enjoy working with the 'fresh fish' - the newbies - I like guiding them in the right direction in doing living history. Mind! I am by no means an expert. There is a certain Mrs. Root and a Mrs. Christen who I look to and consult with many times for my own impression. They are the experts! And, it's through their willingness to share their wealth of social historical knowledge that gives me that want to study the era even more - I want to someday be where they are at for social history.
Watch. Practice. Read.
So far since the the new year has begun I have purchased six (or is it seven?) books on social history. One is a guide on oil lamps. Something good to know when teaching the patrons of everyday life of an era long gone. Another is a period fashion book for men, women, and children covering the years 1860 to 1880. No explanation needed for this book, is there? And still another is a facsimile of the 1824 Blue Back Speller by Noah Webster. Why this particular book? Well, if I actually were in 1863, this is more than likely the schoolbook I would have learned from as a youth in the 1820's/'30's. My children, being of school age in the 1850's and 1860's, would have studied from the McGuffey Reader. These are the things that complete one's Victorian counterpart's picture.
Like a very good friend of mine once said, I take my fun seriously. And I cannot wait to have some serious fun in 2009!
Or maybe it's 1863...


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Detroit News and Greenfield Village News

Two items of local importance.
First -
In a recent survey of 2,500 employees and entrepreneurs across the nation conducted by Yahoo Real Estate, Detroit was voted 2nd worst place to live and work in the United States. Only New York 'bested' Detroit as the absolute worst.
The best? New York - best and worst.
New York was voted best because of its entertainment, Central Park and great public transportation. However the high rent, cramped subways and long suburban commutes vaulted it to the top of the worst list.
Why is Detroit such a rotten place? Well, the city's public relations image, dwindling population, collapsing auto industry, schools, poverty in the city, and the text message scandal as reason's they would not want to live and work here. The top two negative attributes of Detroit according to the poll were health and safety and image.
Last April, I wrote a blog about What Others Are Saying About Us and it's amazing how quickly this area went from bad to worse. What bothers me even more is that this black zit of a city is bringing down the whole state of Michigan; when folks abroad think of Michigan, they invariably think of Detroit.
That's what happens when incompetence runs a major city, and the state's governors (for the last 30 years) allows it to happen.
Yes, we have wonderful things in the Detroit area - and in all of Michigan - but not enough to keep the natives from moving - there are no jobs and the prospects are slim.
And I don't see light at the end of the tunnel.
So what happens now? Lots of politically correct and feel-good speeches, but that's about it.

OK, enough politics. Back to history.
And second -
Unfortunately, some more bad news, although this will have a happy ending - -
The Sarah Jordan Boarding House in Greenfield Village, which was built in New Jersey in 1870, housed many of Thomas Edison's workers during its 1870's/1880's heyday and was one of the first ever to have electricity installed by Edison himself, caught fire on the afternoon of Monday January 5th. One of the workers at the Village wrote this on Facebook: No major structural damage. The front room's ceiling (floor of the front right bedroom) is a bit bad, but has some bracing. Most things made it out alright, but will need cleaned/dried. Lots of cosmetic damage. With the water on the roof, it may need replaced, but may not. The porch will need replaced.

The house is now badly scarred - fire totally torched the top two rooms and most of the bottom parlor, as far as I could see (I couldn't go in). All the artifacts (charred, dirty, untouched, and everything in between) were moved all night until the house was stripped.

He went on to say that many of the artifacts were damaged, and some were lost, but most were saved.
It seems that a construction worker may have accidently started the fire while working on the gutter.
The folks at The Henry Ford have all of the original blueprints from when Henry Ford's chief architect, Ed Cutler, brought the structure to the Village in 1929, so repairs will be wonderfully accurate.
Still, it's upsetting to come so close to losing such an important piece of history.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Civil War Christmas Party

Last night was the Christmas party of the Civil War reenacting unit that I belong to, the 21st Michigan. What's nice about this party is that it is period dress and held in a 19th century schoolhouse. And most members do come dressed appropriately, wearing their finest Civil War era clothing. Even President and Mrs. Lincoln attend! The food we have is, for the most part, period correct: venison stew, turkey, ham, beef stew, homemade stuffing, squash, turnips, beets, mashed potatos, as well as many different kinds of desserts. And wassail to drink! To cut down on garbage, we ask our members to bring their own accurate plates, bowls, silverware, and glasses.

After our feast, there is a 'white elephant' gift exchange for the adults (not period correct, as far as I know - especially the gifts! - but fun!) and a gift giving for the children.
Some of our very talented members provide the music for us throughout the evening by performing as a stringed quartet - old world Christmas music as well as some beautiful classical pieces. And then the final sing-a-long of Civil War era tunes such as "Just Before the Battle Mother," "Listen to the Mockingbird," "Lorena," "Battle Cry of Freedom," "Goober Peas," "Wayfaring Stranger," and even one of Mr. Lincoln's favorites, "Dixie's Land," ends the evening on a high note.

Yes, there were, unfortunately, many things that were farby: the electric lights (fire marshall will not allow us to have candles or oil lamps lit inside this historic building), the way the food was cooked (slow cookers, etc.), the Christmas Tree lights, and even a few people! But, just as with most reenactments, one must learn to over-look these things which are not period correct and concentrate on what is.
All 'n' all, it was quite a festive evening!
This is a wonderful way to end the Christmas season, a period party in a period location, and I am very happy that the unit celebrates in this manner.

And now, on to the clear slate of 2009, where I pray that "better times are coming" (as the old Stephen Foster song goes).