Friday, July 31, 2009

Is That A Real Fire? And Other Questions Reenactors Get Asked

We that reenact the Civil War era get asked tons of questions. Most are intelligent and thought out, asking specific questions about our clothing, our 'occupations,' social history, etc.
Many, however, can be borderline ridiculous.
The following are actual questions that are repeatedly asked at reenactments - some serious and some silly, but all real. I have included answers given. Please understand that if an answer looks like we're being 'smart-aleck-y,' we're not. We're usually smiling when we respond in that manner.

Is that a real fire?
Yes, it's hot! Do not touch!

Are you going to eat the food you're cooking over the fire?
YES! We would not waste whatever we happen to be cooking. Our food is not a prop.

Is that a real baby?
Do I really need to answer that?

Would you really live in that era if you could?
All signs point to...yes!

Aren't you hot in all those clothes?
We wear wool and cotton just as our ancestors did, and they survived without air-conditioning or even an electric fan. Both fabrics breathe.
If it's 95 degrees - would you think we were hot? Are you hot in your shorts and t-shirt?
The sun burns your sweat off as it beats on your exposed skin while our body retains the natural coolent underneath our clothing. Plus, we drink lots of water.
Cancer free!
Oh, by the way, yes, we are hot.

Where do you get your "costumes" from?
What we wear are NOT costumes. Costumes are polyester-fake-high school play-velcro-closing pretend clothing bought at the local Hallowe'en costume shop, like the guy in the picture to the right.
What we
do wear are authentic replica period clothing that we hope is every bit as accurate as what our ancestors wore.
And, yes, they are expensive.

Look at the people in the funny clothes!
Ha! We say the same about you!

Do you get paid for doing this?
On rare occasions the units we belong to will get some money. For the most part, however, we do this out of a love - a passion - for the past.

Do you really sleep in the tents?
Yes, most of the time.

Did civilians really follow the army like this, living in tents and all?
For the most part, no they did not, although there were refugees mainly in the south as well as a few military families. There were also entrepreneurs who would sell their wares to the soldiers. Sometimes their 'wares' might not be exactly moral or legal...
As a civilian from Michigan I would have been safe and secure in my wood-framed home, just the same as most folks of the era.
But, since we cannot bring houses with us (or, except for rare instances, use real period homes), one has to use their imagination a bit and think of our tents as our wood frame home.

Is that a real gun?
They are authentic replicas and yes they can actually fire a real 58 caliber bullet. Except on rare 'pumpkin shooting' occasions, most reenactors never fire a missile out of their muskets.

Can I fire it? can I phrase this...NO!

How do you know when to die during a battle?
When you feel the time is right or when the Capt. tells you to.

(A few questions asked of my Rebel friends)
1.) Why do you portray a Rebel? My ancestor was in the Confederate army. I am honoring him. Besides, someone has to be a Confederate otherwise who would the Yankees fire at during the reenactments?
2.) Are you racist? No - there were more 'racists' in the north than in the south
3.) Do you believe in slavery? I believe in states rights

And, finally, as God is my witness, the following happened:
We did a living history presentation for the local Community college in the early spring of 2008. Afterwards, about 15 of us decided to eat at the Big Boy restaurant directly across the street. Of course, we were all still in our period clothing.
We walked into the restaurant and were promptly and politely greeted by the young hostess (I'm guessing she was around 18 years old) who asked why were we dressed the way we were. Me, being ever the smart-aleck, told her we were from the Victorian era.
Hostess: "Seriously?"
Me (playing along with what I thought was a joke): "Yes, we are Victorians. We were born in the 19th century."
Hostess: "Were you really?"
At this point, the president of our unit, who was listening to this conversation and realizing the young lady was in earnest, stepped in to add: "Yeah, we're from the Civil War!"
Hostess: "The Civil War? Really?"
President: "Yeah, you know, from the 1860's."
Me: We're from the past."
Hostess: "That's pretty awesome."

At this point she had gathered the menus and lead us to our tables.

Ahhh...the life of a reenactor...
If there was a way I could do it for a living, I would!

Monday, July 27, 2009

But, it was invented in 1863! That means I can Use it!

Reenacting tip:
Just because something was around or invented during the Civil War does not make it acceptable at a reenactment.
Let me give an example: pasteurized milk was invented by Louis Pasteur in (I believe) 1864. A 'know-it-all' will sit at their camp, speaking not only of the process of pasteurization, but will also speak of the bacteria the process kills, thus making a healthier drink. This person will then pull out milk to drink, stating quite confidently that it is the newly invented pasteurized milk.
I can tell you here and now that would not have happened in the 1860's. No way, no how. It wasn't until well after the turn of the 20th century before Louis Pasteur's invention took hold.
Another example, albeit in a different vein - - - let's say it's 200 years in the future and these future folks are reenacting (for some odd reason) the era of the 1970's. A futuristic person does research and finds out that the first computer sold for home use to the general public was in the mid-1970's. So, Mr. Future-man says, as he puts a replica antique computer on his desk, "It was first sold in the 1970's so I can use it for my presentation!"
Now, I don't know about you but I saw my first home computer in the 1990's, and that was a rarity. Virtually no one had a PC in the 1970's.
Are you understanding what I'm trying to say here?
I could give plenty more examples of this if you'd like. Just think about the inventions in your own lifetime: the compact disc was invented in 1965. I know of no one who had a CD back then. Or in 1975. Heck, or even in 1982!
But, there are those who feel justified to speak, have, or know about something while participating in a Civil War reenactment just because "it was invented in 1861."
Unlike today, news did not travel very fast in the mid 19th century, so, in Louis Pasteur's case, I am sure the greater majority of people of all classes living in the U. S. in 1864 did not hear of his process until much later. And, when they did, I would still bet the greater majority did not even understand what it was.
Or even cared.
Not that the Victorians weren't smart. Quite the contrary, as most of you well know. But, germs and bacteria and the like were beyond most average folks understanding at that time. Not unlike we here in the 21st century attempting to explain a radio or television to one living in 1860, transmitting radio waves through space. That would certainly be beyond their comprehension...just as many of the planned futuristic inventions yet to come in our own modern time can make our heads spin.
If you want to do an accurate impression at a reenactment, you'd be best off studying the decade previous as well as reading period newspaper and magazine advertisements and articles.
That will allow you to give the folks (as well as yourself and your co-living historians) a much better presentation.
Here's a little something to get you started:
Completion of Jackson Biography and Civil War Ads

Friday, July 24, 2009

Past & Prologue

I found the following article on the internet while I was searching history information. It was written by Kathleen Vail for National School Boards Association's American School Board Journal, the award winning education magazine.
Although I do not agree with everything herein, I do find the discussions of what and how to teach history in the public schools both interesting and, times, disturbing.

Being that the greater majority of those who read this blog are historians in their own right, I thought most might also find the article interesting as well:

Christopher Columbus: the man who discovered the New World, or the perpetrator of genocide?
Thomas Jefferson: a Founding Father and author of the Declaration of Independence, or a slaveholder whose notion of liberty didn't extend beyond white male landowners?
John F. Kennedy: a visionary political leader who inspired a generation to idealism and social action, or a serial philanderer whose recklessness endangered the country?
Most people can see there's truth in both statements about these historic icons. We understand that Columbus, Jefferson, and Kennedy were human -- complex, contradictory, and flawed like the rest of us.
But what if the only thing you learned about Columbus in school was that his arrival was disastrous for the natives of North and Central America? What if all you knew about Jefferson was that he apparently fathered children by one of his slaves, yet did not free them after his death? What if you heard only how the United States failed to live up to its ideals as a democracy? How would your view of the world and the role of the United States be shaped?
These questions are central to the ongoing debate over what should be taught in social studies classes. Few academic subjects evoke as much passion as history (though reading instruction comes close), so the debate is by no means new. It has intensified, however, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The debate also comes at a time when many educators worry that social studies is vanishing from the curriculum. With schools scrambling to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind, history, geography, and civics are being pushed aside so more time can be spent on the subjects that are tested -- mainly reading and math.
Not your father's history class
The debate goes something like this:
Students are learning only the dark side of American history, according to a growing and vocal group of social studies educators and professors. And, these critics argue, this focus on the negative is churning out students who are so disengaged from our political system that they scarcely bother to vote.
"It's cultural suicide to raise a generation of cynics who don't value the extraordinary nature of our country," says James Leming, a Saginaw Valley State University professor.
Others say the perception is false, that negative subject matter isn't all that's taught in social studies classrooms, and that children do get a balanced view of history. "[The critics] have this image of what they think social studies is, but it's a distortion of what is happening," says Stephen Thornton, professor of social studies and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.
No one questions that times have changed since the 1960s, when the textbook in Lucien Ellington's high school history class was called American Pageant. The book, Ellington says, was distorted in that it showed only the positive story of American history, with no criticism. But during the Vietnam War -- when faith in American institutions plummeted -- the history field began to change. Textbooks began to reflect both America's triumphs and its failures.
"That's the way American history and world history should be taught," says Ellington, codirector of the Asia program and professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
But whatever is being taught, it doesn't seem to stick. The 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test results revealed that 75 percent of high school seniors were not proficient in the subject. Twenty-five percent of seniors could not identify two ways the Constitution prevents a president from becoming a dictator.
In 1998, fewer than one in five Americans ages 18 to 24 voted, according to the New Millennium Project, sponsored by the National Association of Secretaries of State. Other reports on voting patterns show that while young people are volunteering at greater rates, they have the lowest voter turnout rate of all adult age groups and are less likely than other adults to read the newspaper.
Leming and others charge that low voter turnout and the NAEP scores are proof that social studies is going in the wrong direction. Students are so dispirited by hearing about how bad the United States is, the critics say, that they don't believe it would do any good to vote or become politically active.
"It makes sense to me that if the history that you're learning is oppression and disenfranchisement, corruption and crime, rather than achievements," Leming says, "you form a negative view."
'Cultural and moral relativism'
Ellington, Leming, and a handful of other history professors and teachers belong to an informal group who call themselves the Contrarians. For the most part, they are members of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), and they formed partly because they disagreed with the organization's philosophy.
About eight years ago, the group's core members got together and wondered if the social studies field was worse or better than in the past. "We came to the assessment that things are getting worse," says Leming. "The field is more fragmented and distracted on contemporary issues and less focused on the discipline."
Ellington says he and his like-minded colleagues have no desire to go back to the days of American Pageant. Instead, they'd like to see a return to balanced teaching. What happened, he says, is that social studies professors and others have tried to overcompensate for generations of injustices perpetrated on women and minorities. The resulting textbooks and curricula, Ellington says, are just as distorted as the sanitized view of American history that was once taught.
The Contrarians might have been content simply to talk among themselves. But then came 9/11. Suggestions from NCSS and other civic and education organizations on how social studies teachers should discuss the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks "set all of us off like a Roman candle," Leming says. The result, a book called Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? was published in August 2003 by the neoconservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.
Leming says the group was particularly bothered by recommendations that teachers ask students to ponder why the United States was so hated around the world. Those recommendations, he claims, were clear proof that the social studies curriculum had strayed too far into cultural and moral relativism.
"If you can't make value judgments about cultures, what is worth defending and fighting for? This reaction among social studies theorists showed us the pervasiveness and power of this ideology," Leming says.
Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? features an introduction by Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn Jr. and chapters by social studies education professors and teachers who call for revamping the teaching of history. Many of the authors charge that left-leaning professors of education have, as Leming puts it, highjacked the social studies for their own political agenda.
"Our goal is to refocus social studies on historical content," says Kathleen Porter of the Fordham Foundation and a coeditor of the book. "It's now more focused on social issues than American and world history."
'The nature and needs of democracy'
Lest you think it's only social conservatives who believe that social studies is going in the wrong direction, consider the conclusion reached by the Albert Shanker Institute, a politically liberal organization that is part of the American Federation of Teachers.
In a November 2003 document called Education for Democracy, the institute notes that democracy is "the worthiest form of government ever conceived." The document says schools must do more to improve the teaching of democracy through an expanded course of study in history, civics, and the humanities.
Nearly 150 politicians, civic leaders, professors, and educators endorsed the document. Signers came from across the political and professional spectrum, from former President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy to writer and historian Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, the founder of the Core Knowledge curriculum.
Textbooks that depict American history in a negative way have hurt schools' efforts to "purposely impart to their students the learning necessary for an informed, reasoned allegiance to the ideals of a free society," the document states. Educators and schools "must transmit to each new generation the political vision of liberty and equality that unites us as Americans, and a deep loyalty to the political institutions put together to fulfill that vision."
According to the document, students need to be prepared to be democratic in four ways, through:
• A robust history and social studies curriculum,
• A full and honest teaching of the American story,
• An unvarnished account of what life has been and is like in nondemocratic societies, and
• A cultivation of the virtues essential to a healthy democracy.
"We do not ask for propaganda, for crash courses in the right attitudes, or for knee-jerk patriotic drill," the document says. "We do not want to capsulize democracy's arguments into slogans, or pious texts, or bright debaters' points. The history and nature and needs of democracy are too subtle for that."
A similar concern is voiced by former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who now serves as president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Hamilton, who signed the document, says social studies must be taught in a way that encourages today's students to get involved and stay involved.
"What has to be done in the educational system is to impress on young people that with freedom comes obligation, with liberty comes duty," he says. "If the deal is not kept, democracy is threatened."
In the classroom
But wait a minute, say many who are on the front lines of the debate. Things really aren't that bad. In fact, says Richard Theisen, a former social studies teacher in Minnesota, the vast majority of social studies and history teachers want history taught with facts that involve interpretation. Theisen, past president of NCSS, says he resents the implication from the Contrarians and others that social studies and history teachers hate the United States.
"We really do support the principles and founding documents," Theisen says. "We wouldn't be in this country if we didn't."
For the most part, says Thornton, the Columbia professor, social studies teachers present different sides of history in the hopes of getting students to draw their own conclusions, a skill they hope young people will develop into adulthood.
"You find that some people resist getting kids to think for themselves. Their argument is that kids should be exposed to the traditions and values that the United States stands for," he says. "Yes, they should be, but at the center of American values is the right to speak up and think for yourself. If we are serious about our professions, we have to give kids opportunities to think for themselves."
An example of this emphasis on critical thinking is the Choices Program, a high school curriculum for teaching international issues and civics developed by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. The lesson on responding to terrorism calls for students to look at political cartoons about 9/11 from various international sources. Students then advocate for one of the positions represented in the cartoons as a way to help form their own opinions on the event.
Another example is the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum, which looks at the historical development and legacies of the Holocaust and other instances of collective violence. Aimed at middle and high school levels, this curriculum calls for students to consider such questions as: What is the difference between crimes against humanity and killings sanctioned by war? Are individuals responsible for their crimes if they have obeyed the laws of their nation? Or are there higher laws?
Culprit I: Multiculturalism
Contributing to the malaise that currently surrounds social studies, the Contrarians say, is multicultural education -- teaching tolerance of other cultures by teaching about those cultures. Jana Eaton, a longtime social studies teacher at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Pa., is an avid proponent of multicultural education. But she doesn't like where it seems to be heading.
Since multicultural and global education began in the 1960s and '70s, Eaton says, professors and teachers have gone overboard with cultural relativism. She notes reluctance among social studies educators to judge other cultures or to say that democracy is a better political system than dictatorships or repressive regimes. "You have to call an evil an evil," she says. "There must be a universal recognition of rights that should pertain to everyone."
Eaton warns that the way multiculturalism is taught today could lead to hyperpluralism, the creation of separate groups that don't see themselves as whole. And that, she says, is especially dangerous in a time when the country -- at war and still healing the wounds of 9/11 -- needs cohesion, not separateness.
"Multiculturalism has been very divisive, pitting one group against another, especially the various minorities, who are being told they are just as oppressed today as years ago," says Eaton.
This attitude contributes to the distorted view that our country is flawed, Eaton and others argue, but it doesn't extend to the flaws of other cultures. "When you look at multicultural literature, racism is limited to European Americans," says Ellington, even though other nations and cultures have been marred by the same racist attitudes and practices.
Just teaching about other cultures doesn't mean that you endorse or agree with those cultures, says Thornton. "Because I teach about Buddhism, it doesn't mean I'm converting children to Buddhism," he says. "It's important that we know how people in the Islamic world view us, but that doesn't mean we say it's OK."
Culprit II: Constructivism
If you think the aim of social studies to is create good citizens, the critics invite you to think again. The reason for social studies, they say, is to teach children history, geography, and civics -- not to make them good citizens or even to make them critical thinkers.
In fact, the Contrarians and other critics place the blame for much of what is wrong with social studies squarely on constructivism, the instructional philosophy that deemphasizes teacher lectures in favor of having students "construct" their own learning through projects and group work. Over the years, constructivism has also meant stressing skills over content.
"Social studies is deeply rooted in progressive education," says Ellington. "The philosophy is that content should help students solve problems, as opposed to making them better-educated people."
The idea that the purpose of social studies is to create good citizens and critical thinkers has pushed content -- historical movements, political and economic theory -- into the background, critics say. And that has resulted in widespread ignorance and apathy about American history and political institutions.
For example, says Ellington, most teachers believe a good citizen is someone who can understand and help solve society's problems. It might be a good thing, then, to get a high school government class involved with voter registration. But if the students aren't also learning about federalism and how the government works, they'll become what Leming calls "ignorant activists."
But Syd Golston, dean of students at Alhambra High School in Phoenix and a member of the NCSS board of directors, says that the Contrarians and the Fordham Foundation are calling for the return of lecture and memorization of facts. And those teaching techniques, she says, simply don't work.
Golston, herself a former social studies teacher, doesn't advocate what she calls "soft curriculum" in which students do projects and perform skits but don't learn anything from them. The activity must spur students to think about and retain information. "That's what you do in good classes," she says. "You teach kids how to think. A great lesson in social studies has that as its objective."
Golston agrees that one purpose of social studies is to make students good people who want to make a difference in their communities. In that respect, she says, social studies lessons often don't focus enough on the poverty, injustice, and discrimination faced by some groups of people in the United States now and in the past.
"When you say life has been unfair to many people in this country, some kids will do something about it," says Golston. "If that's not what we're about, then what is?"
The content of the curriculum
It all boils down to what to teach, and that question is nowhere more evident than in the different ways educators at each end of the social studies spectrum approach the writing of curriculum standards. The battle lines were clearly drawn in the 1990s, when the National Center for History in the Schools, at UCLA, issued a set of national standards for history that drew immediate fire from critics.
Skirmishes are still occurring. This past fall, educators and politicians in Minnesota were locked in battle over state social studies standards, with each side saying the other is pulling the agenda too far to the left or to the right. New, less politicized standards went to the state legislature for adoption in January. Similar battles over what to include in state social studies standards have occurred in California, Virginia, Vermont, and elsewhere.
But the fault may not lie with the leftist professors of education or the ideologues of the right -- or with multiculturalism or constructivism, for that matter. The fault might lie with the state standards themselves, says Boston University historian Paul Gagnon, the author of two books on teaching high school history.
Gagnon, who has studied social studies standards in most states, has concluded that most of the standards are so stuffed with specific facts, events, and topics that no teacher could possibly get through all the required material in a single year. And because states aren't testing history standards, schools and teachers are picking and choosing among the requirements.
"I don't find actual villains dominating," says Gagnon of what ends up being covered in class, "but it's so easy to be sloppy that people aren't focusing."
Gagnon would have people focus on what he calls standards to ensure a "common civic core." In another, similarly titled Shanker Institute publication, Educating Democracy, Gagnon argued that the biggest problem with existing standards is not deciding on priorities.
And therein lies the rub. The only thing certain about the social studies debate is that it isn't going away. As long as Americans hold passionate views on politics and history, there will always be disagreement on what we should teach our children about those subjects. In some ways, the argument reflects the current philosophical and cultural divides in our society.
Thornton sums it up this way: "You have cultural conservatives increasingly arguing for a relatively sanitized version of the American story being told, a story about why the United States is superior to other cultures. You have other people saying, 'Hold on, the world is a more complicated place.'"


Monday, July 20, 2009

How I Became A Civil War Era Reenactor

How did we get here?

I get asked every-so-often how and why did my family and I get involved in Civil War reenacting.
Here's our story...

For years I have enjoyed visiting historical reenactments, seeing the participants wearing period clothing and living as if they were from the past. I envied those folks that were able to assume the role of a person from another era, and I would think about it quite a bit after returning home. But, I had always felt it was an exclusive club - that a plain Joe like me could not just join. It would nag at me each time I would visit an event: because of my love of history (And How Long Have YOU Been Into History?) I really wanted to be a part of this group of people! Part of the problem was my job - my occupation at that time was in retail and that meant my weekends were spent at work. This did not give me much of an opportunity to pursue reenacting.
After years of living the retail life, I wised up and found a new job - one that allowed me to have my weekends free. It was that year (1996) that my family and I visited the Dickens Festival up in Holly. What a great time we had, seeing street actors dressed up in Dickensian clothing, bringing the characters from Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" to life before my eyes. Now, you have to understand that "A Christmas Carol" is my favorite book and movie, and my wife, Patty, and I had planned to have a Dickens Christmas party one day. It never happened. What did happen was the following year I contacted the entertainment director of the Dickens Festival and joined the troupe. Initially I sold raffle tickets, then a chestnut vendor, and finally I got a small part in the play as a charity man asking Scrooge for a donation.

At the 2001 Holly Dickens Festival -
velcro polyester costume - - - Hey! Ya gotta start somewhere!

My wife joined me that first year...she hated it! Absolutely found it not to be to her liking. She did not like being in the cold, she did not like the tight scheduling of events, and she did not like conversing with the public as an actress.
But, luckily for me, she never tried to prevent me from my participation. And, eventually, my two older children also took part, one as a vendor and a singer, the other as Tiny Tim. They, like me, enjoyed it immensely.
So, on the weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas we donned our Dickensian costumes (for they really were costumes purchased at a costume shop) and found a niche we never knew we had. We had great fun speaking in our pseudo British accent, joking with the patrons and the other Dickens characters.

Yes, that's me between Scrooge & Marley

The trouble was, it only lasted through the Christmas season, and I found myself thinking about the Festival throughout the year and would even throw on the costume here and there when no one was home. It was clear to me that one month of pretending I was from the past was not enough - I wanted more.
At the 1999 Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village on Memorial Weekend I inquired on how I could participate in such a cool activity. The unit I spoke to (which shall remain nameless here) was friendly enough and explained how easy it was to join, which my eldest son and I did (my wife was uncertain at the time). They told us of an event coming up that we could attend with them. After explaining that I didn't have clothing as authentic as their's - that mine was a velcro costume from a costume shop - I was told that it would be OK, to come along anyhow.
We did.
Unfortunately, at this event, we were shunned.
We must've had the plague or something.
No one spoke to us. No one explained to us anything about reenacting; what we were doing wrong or right.
Until we were leaving the grounds. Then - and only then - did a period-dressed gentleman speak with us to tell us how great a time Civil War reenacting was and that he hoped we'd return.
Too late.
My son and I were miserable and we both agreed that if this was the way people that reenacted were, then we wanted nothing to do with them.
Who needs 'em!
I had joined the East Detroit Historical Society the same year I joined the Dickens Festival and helped to create programs for our schoolhouse, one of which included me putting on my costume and act as an 1872 superintendent to the schoolchildren that visited. That was fun and it helped a bit during the off season. And, I would, at times, convince my wife to don her costume and play along with me here and there for the different historical society events we put on. Sadly, it usually ended with her saying something to the effect of, "It was OK but once was enough."
However, the fact that she was willing to dress 19th century (we didn't know about "farby" yet!) had always made me feel that there was some interest in this sort of thing for her. But, my question do I get her to willingly reenact more often?
Of course, the memory of my experience with a real reenactor unit was very fresh in my mind, and I knew that had my wife experienced what I did, she would never even consider reenacting ever.
Enter an East Detroit Historical Society living history luncheon held in the fall of 2003, where Patty and I portrayed the famed above mentioned author, Charles Dickens and his wife Catherine. Yes, my wife willingly agreed to do this (!?!). As I researched information on the author and his wife I inadvertently discovered period clothing sites. Since my sister-in-law's sister was a seamstress, we ordered period correct (circa 1840) clothing patterns for her dress and for my shirt. The rest of what we wore was still costume.

Mr. & Mrs. Charles Dickens 2003 -
we're trying...

Patty also learned as much as she could about Catherine Dickens so she could answer questions should any arise. However, at the garden party, the majority of the inquiries were not about Catherine Dickens the author's wife, but of the period dress my wife was wearing. That seemed to spark a bit of an interest and, after the four-hour luncheon had ended, Patty remained in her dress for a couple hours after.
Jump up eight months into the future, to Memorial Weekend 2004. I had convinced Patty to dress up, once again, in a "period" dress I found that I thought looked a bit more accurate to the 1860's and attend the Civil War Remembrance at Greenfield Village. This ensemble now included a hoop skirt of which she had never worn. (Looking at the dress now, it was far from accurate but better than the Dickens Festival costume).
Being the brave soul she is (and given the fact that she loves me very much) she ventured into uncharted territory. It helped that our friend, Lynn, who collects original garments and enjoys dressing period, came along with us.
Patty had a blast! She really did!
It was on this weekend that I met a few members of the 21st Michigan Civil War reenacting unit - a group I had only conversed with through e-mail due to their participation in a living history festival that our historical society was putting on later that summer. I immediately felt a friendliness that was not present with the other unit. They even invited us to stay for the evening ball! We could not because my mother was ill in the hospital and we had to be home early, but just the idea that we were invited stuck with us.
It was then that I started on the "Let's join a Civil War unit" plea with Patty replying "No, I really don't want to - I like doing it how we've been," etc., etc. I told her I'd really like to give it a try and that it would be a great thing for us to do as a family - every trick I could think of.
She still shook her head no.
So I mentioned to my two oldest sons about joining the 21st Michigan, Robbie did not hesitate to respond with a resounding "Yes!" Tom, the oldest, responded with "Will I get to fire a musket?" When I answered in the affirmative, his response was a very un-Victorian "Cool!"
Yesssss!!! Now to work on my wife.
In early July, our historical society put on a living history festival called Erin-Halfway Days. Patty wore her Catherine Dickens dress and spent the day crocheting, while I wore an eBay purchased ca 1900 jacket with my Dickens shirt and pants. We all got to see first hand the 21st Michigan in action.
I wanted to join so bad! That evening, after my wife had left, I spoke with a few of the female members and they agreed that it was a great family hobby. I knew Patty would enjoy it if she gave it a chance. But, I vowed to myself that I would not join unless my family joined with me.
Finally, I just confronted her.
"OK, Patty, here's the deal: you give it a try for three - just three - events. Why three? Because you cannot make a decision based on one or two events. The first may be good. The second not so good. The third one could be the tie-breaker.
That was my plea.
She agreed. But, she had many questions: Did she have to play a role? What will she do all day at an event? What do we do with our youngest two children, especially Miles, who was autistic and didn't like loud noises, much less musket fire? And there were many more questions that I could not answer. So I told her to come to the drills that Tom and I planned to attend and maybe she could meet some of the women in the unit who could help her along.
She came and I was ecstatic that she did. A couple of the women showed and made my wife feel totally comfortable, answering all of her questions openly and honestly. So much so, in fact, that we spoke positively of our joining the whole 35 minute ride home. Patty actually showed signs of being excited about portraying a Civil War era woman!
Now, the real test would take place - we would attend our first reenactment, taking place at Historic Fort Wayne in July of 2004. One of the female members rode to the fort with us, which helped to calm our nerves a bit. It also helped that we left our kids at home this first time out.
The day was a complete success! Patty had more fun and was more relaxed than I had seen her in quite a while, crocheting and talking with the other members of the unit. We even had our photograph taken with an old glass-plate camera - the only picture of us taken at our very first event.

You can see just how farby we were - don't you just love photos from your first event?

All the way home, after we returned home, and into the following days all conversations seemed to be about Civil War reenacting.
"All right!" I thought. "One event down, two more to go!"
Our second event was a big one - the Jackson event, the largest in the midwest. The whole family (sans Miles) came along this time. If you have ever attended large events, then you know what Jackson is like. Virtually every Michigan unit, as well as some from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even Canada, show up. Wall to wall reenactors - we had never seen anything like it. And, since Tom had received the OK from the drill masters, he was able to enter into battle.
Our heads were spinning!
Once again, the long drive home was filled with conversation of the day's events - all very positive. And Patty was on a Civil War "high" for weeks following.

At Greenfield Village 2005 - So close, but...

Even though there was no need for a third event, we more than willingly attended a living history festival in Wyandotte that September, this time bringing Miles. Although he cringed when the military fired their muskets for the public, even he enjoyed himself! And when Patty realized this would be the last event of the season, she was, in her words, "bummed."
The original three event test was now complete and it passed with flying colors.
That first winter I decided to remain a civilian - much to the chagrin of a few of the military fellows - and studied period clothing intently, finding historians on line and speaking with and learning from them. By the time the first event of 2005 rolled around, we were ready!
Since that time, my family and I have immersed ourselves into 1860's living, applying much of what we learn from the past to our present day living.
In the spring of 2005 we joined a second reenacting - actually, a living history - group, the civilian only Michigan Soldiers Aid Society (MSAS), a group which thrives on and strives for authenticity and accuracy. This wonderful group of social historians have taught me so very much about everyday life of the Civil War era, and I apply what I have learned to each reenactment I attend. In fact, of late, I have been participating more often with the MSAS than in past years and have been able to apply a 1st person living history to my personna due to this.

MSAS members at Walker's Tavern - a scene from the past!

Due to the large civilian contingency of the 21st Michigan, I have been elected four years in a row as 'Civilian Coordinator' for the unit, where we are always working to improve our impressions, clothing, and speech.
Because of our involvement in reenacting, we have met some of the finest people one could ever meet and are proud to call them our friends. We have a like-mindedness like I've never experienced - a connection like no other. It's hard to explain.
And we continue to meet more and more...
Since becoming a reenactor/living historian, I can now live out my dream/fantasy of time-traveling to the mid-19th century pretty much as often as I'd like.
And be with the finest folk on God's green earth.
It just doesn't get any better.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Visit To the Mall

I went to the mall today for the first time in I don't know how long - probably since February or March. I don't like the mall - unfortunately, I needed to get tires for my van at Sears and decided to walk around while I waited.
The variety of stores stink - - I mean, how many clothing and purse and shoe stores does anyone really need? And the styles in each are awful. Kind of like the Bratz dolls come to life - very whore-ish (sorry but there is no other description that fits - and, no, my eight year old daughter is NOT allowed to play with (or watch) anything Bratz).
I realize, especially living in Michigan, how rotten the economy is, but I believe that stores could actually be doing much better than they are if they stopped pushing the crap that they do. I know of no woman who would wear the garbage trying to be pushed as the latest fashion. I do, however, see the high schoolers and young college girls wearing this so-called style. And, yes, they really do look every bit as whore-ish as I figured they would.
Not pretty.
Not even attractive.
More like a street walker.
But, they think they look good.
However, they have very little else to choose from.
What I find interesting is that male clothing has become much more conservative of late. Dress shirts, khaki pants, dark dress shoes seem to be the order of the day.
What happened to our young ladies fashions?
Aside from (mainly womens) clothing stores, there was very little else to choose from in the mall. Other stores included a music store, video game store, jewelry stores, a Hallmark, Spencers, and a couple of knick-knack stores. Not much else. Not even a book store.
Very few customers.
Virtually nothing for a 40-something year old man such as myself
You can have all of your fancy displays with flashing lights, "ultra-hip" styles, etc., etc. But, most people aren't stupid. In this day and age with high unemployment rates they're not going to buy what they don't want.
And, if parents were smart, they wouldn't allow they're daughters to wear such garbage either.
As for me, I will be staying away from the mall for quite a while.
There is nothing there for me.
Or my daughter.
Now, where's that Civil War sutler...?

Monday, July 13, 2009

What's YOUR Favorite Era?

A genealogist searches for their ancestor.
A historian wants to know how their ancestor lived.
A reenactor wants to be their ancestor.

I don't remember where I found this quote - or even who made it up - but it is so true for me. You see, I consider myself to be all three: a genealogist, a historian, and a reenactor. And they do all tie in together. But, it's the reenactor who has the toughest job - they have to research extensively the everyday lives of their ancestor (or anybody's ancestor for that matter), then use the information gathered and apply it in order to create living history authentically.
This lead me to notice, from a different perspective, other eras of reenacting. For instance World War II.

World War II reenacting is gaining in popularity, which is a cool thing. Recently, while at Greenfield Village, they had a WWII USO show, complete with an actual big band playing the music of the day, a dozen or so young folk dressed and jitterbugging in 1940's period clothing - women in the "latest fashions" and their service men. There was a radio announcer giving us the latest updates of that awful war in Europe - it was really something to see when the WWII service men (and others) threw their hats in the air and hollered when it was announced that the Germans surrendered. There was also a display of jeeps and other WWII artifacts.
As I spoke to the reenactor of this time period, he asked me if I might be interested in also portraying one from the 1940's. Although I love the music of the big band era, and the cars were the best (a '41 Ford is my favorite!), I politely turned him down stating truthfully that I prefer the earlier era of the mid-19th century. I am too interested in the times of the Victorians.

But, even if I were open to other eras, I don't think I could ever reenact the time of my parents - World War II. I could never be my parents, and that's how it would feel to me if I were to do the 1940's
Weird, right? But, that is the way I feel. The family ties are just too close there.
Now, I could (if I had an interest) portray a WWI era person - my grandparents time. That is 'far enough' away in years where it wouldn't really bother me in the same regard as the WWII era.
But, just as the 1940's is not my era, the WWI era is just not where I belong either.
On another note, my 2nd eldest son, who loves Civil War reenacting, has expressed interest in Revolutionary War. Now that would be interesting, to become a citizen of the 18th century.

I have been to a few Rev War reenactments and, for the most part, have enjoyed them. Unfortunately, in this part of Michigan, reenactments of the colonial era are few and far between. I can only think of two - maybe three - actual 18th century reenactments within a three hour drive of Detroit. Up on Mackinac Island, however (a five + hour drive), I understand they have a wonderful colonial era living history presentation with soldiers, Indians, and civilians. That would be awesome to see, but for me to participate up there would be virtually impossible. And to do the very few local events I know of would really not be worth the money to purchase all that I would need. The too few events would never satisfy my passion for the past (nice plug, eh?).

I would imagine if I lived on the east coast it would be a different story. But, something tells me that no matter where I lived I would still prefer the Civil War era over all others.
Again, the mid-19th century is just my era.
And, I suppose, that sounds strange doesn't it?

It's a fine thing that we are able - and willing - to re-create, to the best of our knowledge and ability, other eras in time.
Just as long as they keep it authentic, patrons will attend.
And, even if the patrons don't come I'm sure there are many of us who would continue recreating the past for our own pleasure.
In fact, I'd be willing to bet most of us do anyway...