Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More On Reenacting - Taking It Seriously

Civil War Living Historians and Reenactors mostly from the 21st Michigan and the Michigan Soldiers Aid Society.
Top notch all!

Sometimes the newest members of a reenacting group can be accidentally overlooked while the rest of us prepare for the season. That can lead to these newbies traveling down the wrong path to historical accuracy, finding their information from sutlers who just want their money, from other reenactors who prefer having a good time over being authentic (farb be damned!), or from Hollywood movies such as "Gone With the Wind." I thought that I could remedy this situation by having those who, within the last year, joined one of the Civil War units I belong to - the 21st Michigan - over for a meeting, where they could feel free to ask questions without fear and learn in an intimate setting how to present themselves in an authentic manner. This took place earlier this month at my house where I had a sort of one-on-one learning seminar on what women should wear during reenactments. The speaker for the day was a long-time member that we are proud to have in our unit. She has been studying female clothing of the mid-19th century for a number of years now and can be trusted to answer most questions one might have on the subject. She brought ample period fashion books and pamphlets for the ladies to view as well as her own clothing & accessories. The exit polls showed that she had high ratings from the attendees!
Toward the end of the meeting, one of the subjects brought up was of the accessories that one should bring along with them to a reenactment.
And that got me to thinking...
To many in the reenacting community, items such as cups, plates, and pitchers may seem trivial. But, when you think about it, it’s the little things that can be the icing on the cake to your presentation. And visitors to your campsite will notice what you have. A drinking glass, for instance, can seem minor in the big scheme of things, but is actually pretty important as part of your collateral collection. Imagine, if you will, a reenactor strolling along the walkway, looking as if they stepped out of a Currier & Ives print. You would swear you were in 1861. Then, this person from the past pulls out a glass to take a drink…a Coca Cola glass (yes, I have seen this)! You, being as knowledgeable as you are, probably know that Coca Cola itself was not even invented until 1886, therefore a souvenir glass would definitely be non-existent. Due to this farby faux pas, the whole image of viewing the past just disappeared from your mind. This is just a reenactor pretending to live in 1861.

Heavy sigh…

I know that is exactly my reaction when something like this happens – a heavy sigh with a strong dose of 21st century reality - and it does happen more often than one can imagine. My hope, however, is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen with the membership of the 21st Michigan. One must understand, in this hobby is it so important that we get it right. This is history, folks, and we do not want to knowingly be untruthful to the visitors who expect nothing but accuracy from us.
“Oh, it’s such a little thing. No one will probably even notice!”
Little thing? Consider this statement from the management of Greenfield Village:Authentic. This is the key word. Nothing is placed randomly inside the structures at the Village. The curators carefully consider every object before allowing it to become part of the site. It's this type of vigilance that maintains the appropriate period appearance for each and every building. Every object tells part of the story. Nothing is there by accident, and nothing is there that doesn't support the overall story. One is surrounded by period buildings, vehicles, and presenters, and, because of the overall scenario, the signs of the modern world become non-existent. (The workers) must report to work fully dressed in the period clothing that is supplied to them by the Clothing and Textile production staff. Hair must be in place for the era they are portraying. No make up, lip gloss, or nail polish of any kind is to be worn. Jewelry, aside from an emergency bracelet or a wedding ring, must be period appropriate and approved by the clothing staff. This means no earrings for the males and no wristwatches of any kind. Even undergarments are provided for the period dressed presenter; undergarments such as bustles and/or petticoats that have been assigned to you provide certain period silhouettes and must be worn.
Although the presenter may not portray an actual named or historical character from the past while working in the homes, their appearance, actions, and manner of speaking attempt to evoke the past. The presenters are trained in thought and detail to give the visitor the impression that they have stepped into the past
Wow! Imagine if everyone took the time to be as vigilante as this in our presentations!
I know, I know. You’re saying to yourself, “But we’re reenactors, Ken, not a museum!”
Aren’t we? People pay to come and see us at a number of events, do they not? $25 bucks a crack at Greenfield Village, and we’re one of the Village’s top draws for the year! They come to see history come alive. And, there should be no difference if the event is free. Last year at the two-day Jackson event there were over 10,000 visitors, and they count – depend – on us to show them history every bit as much – if not more so – than any museum.
That being said, do you still think that accuracy shouldn’t matter as much when it comes to the little things? You see, it is our job to be as accurate as our knowledge will take us, and this means research, seeking out advice, and attending your unit's meetings to learn. Flippant second-guessing should not be an option.
By the way, as always there are exceptions to every rule. For instance, my wife's spinning wheel is not 100% accurate to an 1860’s wheel, but she does let the patrons know this. The key thing here, however, is the process of spinning wool into yarn is done in the very same way as was done during the period in which we are representing.
I was very glad that we were able to have such a meeting where the newer members could be shown, up close and personal, and as best as our knowledge will carry us, an accurate and fun way to present living history.
Yeah...I take my fun seriously...



Sewings and Goings; Love of Historic and Vintage Fashion said...

Wow, just finished reading your post here, Ken, my my! That's great to hear that you helped the new ones up and close to show them the accuracy that is absolutely essential to our entire being when we go out to ANY event and show them what it really was like. The little things do indeed matter, I agree. Trust me, I still am resesarching and learning the tid bits that I do need, and I'm still working on correctly dressing myself according to age, what colors were approriate,the CORRECT styles.. to my point.. which so many countless women AND men do so.. as you say simply buy them from the sutlers, just because they sell it doesn't mean it's authentic or exactly identical to the original c. 1860 item. For instance the straw hats, the ill- looking blouses that aren't the style from the 1860's but more the 1890's (the mutton chopped sleeves). The lack of undergarments or a corset added for structure or the correct middle hair part for women. It bugs me soo much when women don't give a flying crap. Same goes to men. If you're in the hobby, do your part and research, or seek out the most historically correct person you know. I apologizefor the rant here. But it's great that newbies are instructed from day 1. I was guided in the right path from day one. Well, will talk later! Again, enjoyable reading!
-Samantha Jane

Historical Ken said...

And thank YOU, Samantha Jane! Your comment really means a lot to me - I had hoped I didn't come off too blunt, but, like you, I feel that if someone is going to do this hobby, then do it right. It's just too important to those of us who really put our all into it.
I hope that others reading my post read your comment as well - it's so true!
It's wonderful to hear from others who have the same feeling about it that I do.
Thanks again!

Historical Ken said...

Ooops! Almost forgot: I didn't include men in my posting because we have no brand new civilian men in our unit.
But, believe me, they will get the same 'experience' as the women.