The Whittemores or…getting down and ugly for the sake of authenticity.

Last year I wrote at length about Patriots Day and the Battle Road event in which we participated as part of McAlpin’s Corps of Loyal American Volunteers. While last year’s event was definitely successful, Mr. H. and I decided that we needed to step up our game a bit this time. We are certainly not actors (see my post on that account here), but we felt like we hurried through the scenario last year and we both admitted to it feeling a bit awkward. Mr. H. also pointed out that even though I tried to dress “down” somewhat, I actually “looked pretty” last year, and would a middle-aged woman taking care of her sick daughter, as well as her daughter’s 2 little boys under age 5 and their newborn baby sister really be worrying about wearing that nice blue gown and pretty green bonnet whilst trying to hide the valuables and fleeing from the approaching King’s army? Um…probably not. I also knew that a green silk bonnet could be documented to New York and PA (5 references) but not to New England (yet). It’s not impossible that Mrs. Whittemore could have had a green bonnet, but the vast majority were black.


The 3rd Mrs. Whittemore at home (last year). Methinks she looks a bit too happy, and fancy, for a woman running for her life and hiding in the woods. Photo by J. Henry

We knew that the Whittemore family were “farmers” but we weren’t quite sure what that meant in the 18th-century sense. My husband grew up on a dairy farm in the 20th-century, so he knew how that worked and what type of questions to ask. How many acres did they have? Were there other buildings on the property? Did Mr. W. have a trade other than farming? Did they have animals, and if so how many? What sort of crops did they grow? Did they have any sort of help with the work? Were they wealthy, middling, or rather poor? What might they have been wearing that day? We set out to find the answers to those questions.

The first order of business was to re-read the information found last spring: documents from, and an article in the Boston Globe about the family. Info in Ancestry is sometimes incomplete or incorrect, but much of it was useful. In some cases, I was able to link to the vital records of the town and find the marriage records. I also contacted the historian mentioned in the Boston Globe article, Polly Kienle, and she very kindly shared her information with me. Jacob Whittemore was born on March 3, 1721, and died in 1780, which made him 54 on April 19, 1775. His first wife was named Esther Whittemore and was his cousin. Imagine that, cousin Esther didn’t even have to change her name when she married. How convenient! They married on October 28, 1746, when Jacob was 25 and Esther was 16 (born in 1730). The data gets mixed up here because Ancestry says that Esther died in 1753, but according to the Concord vital records, Jacob married his 2nd wife, Deborah Flagg in 1749 because Esther had died giving birth. Their daughter Esther was born in 1748. Ancestry says that cousin Esther had 2 other children in 1747 (Milton) and 1749 (Artemus) but there is no other mention of those children. So, did she die giving birth to Esther, or did she die giving birth to another child a year later? There weren’t any other leads online for me to follow, so for now at least, on to other things. As far as I could tell, poor cousin Esther died when she was 18 or 19, leaving at least 1 child, but possibly 3 behind. With an infant(s) to care for, Jacob would have wasted no time in finding a mother for the poor child(ren), and so he married Deborah Flagg on October 19, 1749. Deborah was born on February 13, 1719, so she was 30 when she married 28-year-old Jacob, and she wasted no time having children. A child named Jonathan was born in 1750 and again, there are no records as to what happened to him. It is presumed that he died young because there is no mention of him elsewhere. Another daughter named Sarah was born on November 1, 1751, and Deborah died shortly after giving birth to her. This leaves our Jake a single dad with 2 little girls for certain, and possibly 2 or 3 little boys but…we don’t know what happened to them so they could already have died. Anyway, at this point, what does Jakie need? You got it, he needs another wife! He marries Concord spinster Elizabeth (or Elisabeth) Hoar (yep, cue all THOSE jokes) on December 5, 1754, so we know that he was a single dad for about 3 years. What did he do? Who took care of those kids? Inquiring minds want to know! According to Ms. Kienle’s information, Lizzie was probably born in 1722, though her date of birth is not listed. She was the 6th of 7 children so she probably didn’t have a big dowry, and let’s face it, she was an old-maid at 32 so she was lucky Jake would have her, right? Seriously, her family was prominent in Concord so it was likely an advantageous match. In any case, she took on 6-year-old Esther and 3-year-old Sarah and raised them like her own. The family lived with various relatives in a crowded house Jacob inherited from his father Nathaniel, and the girls married local boys who may or may not have helped out on the farm. Esther married Benjamin Brown and had 10 children, and Sarah married Moses Reed and had 9 children.




Between the 1771 land records, and information compiled and provided by Ms. Kienle, we were able to determine that Mr. Whittemore owned 114 acres which consisted of meadow, orchard, and woods both north and south of the Concord road, and that in addition to a “mansion” house (the house is large today but is not a mansion in the modern sense; this term refers to the basic 2 over 2 style of the house) there was a barn, a corn house, a cider mill, and a blacksmith shop not owned by the family but run by the Browns (possibly relatives of daughter Esther’s husband). Exact numbers varied between the 1771 records and Jacob’s probate inventory at the time of his death in 1780, but the family had 1-2 horses, a pair of oxen, up to 5 cows, some sheep, a pig, and at one time a sow and piglets. They also probably had chicken and/or geese, but those are not mentioned, nor are dogs (for sheep-herding) or cats. They had 20 barrels of cider from the orchard in their cider mill, and they had 3 tons of English hay and 5 tons of meadow hay. It appears that the family was neither particularly well off, nor particularly poor; rather they would have been the “middling sort” managing a working farm. Significantly, they did not have “servants for life”, which meant that there were no enslaved people living with the family. We assume that Mr. and Mrs. Whittemore and their children worked the farm. Since there were 3 women and 1 man, it is likely that there were local young men from neighboring families helping with the heavy work. We don’t know this for certain, but it is a reasonable conclusion to draw. Moses and Sarah Reed remained on the farm after they married, so there were at least 2 adult men to take care of the heavier work. There is probably enough information about pre-20th-century farm work and the division of labor into “men’s and women’s work” for another blog post, so I’ll leave that off for now. Details about the property itself can be found in the National Park Service (NPS) publication “Scene of the Battle”.




On April 19, 1775, the family in what is now called “The Jacob Whittemore House” near the Minuteman National Historical Park visitor center consisted of Jacob and Elizabeth, daughter Sarah and her husband Moses Reed, their 2 little boys; 4-year-old Whittemore and 2-year-old Moses, and baby Sarah, born on April 1, 1775. Sarah was considerably unwell following the birth (don’t worry, she had 6 more kids and lived until 1830). The family buried their valuables and fled the house just before the King’s troops leaving Concord came back through on their return to Boston amidst heavy fighting. They carried Sarah out on a mattress and hid in the woods some distance behind the house. There was a skirmish on the property, and a wounded soldier may have been brought to the blacksmith shop for medical treatment. I found no accounts of damage to the Whittemore’s house or personal property, (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they escaped entirely unscathed) but other neighbors were not so fortunate. Many had furniture, crockery, and looking glasses smashed, and furniture and houses or barns burned by the retreating soldiers who became angrier the closer they got to Boston.



After we obtained all of the information we could, we needed to get ourselves into character. Since I had access to information from Jacob Whittemore’s probate inventory, we wanted to know what he might have been wearing. He had a “blew” coat and waistcoat (called a jacket in the inventory), as well as a “brown jacket”, a “blew” greatcoat, black wool breeches, leather breeches, and trousers. There was no description of his shirts (whether they were made of white linen or something else). He also had a “beaver hat” (no mention of the style), boots, 2 pair of shoes, and silver buckles. Mr. H. has a blue wool 1770s style coat and blue wool 1760s style waistcoat but when he tried it on he felt that it was too heavy for the weather. He also has matching blue wool breeches. He decided this time to wear the coat and waistcoat from his 1760s “ditto suit” (ditto suit: 3 matching pieces) and the hand dyed, now faded, gray linen canvas breeches (but not the matching waistcoat), as well as a blue checked linen “work” shirt with a white neckcloth, so that his pieces were mixed, as if he’d grabbed the breeches for working and his decent coat, hat, and neckcloth. This is fairly similar to what he wore last year. The plan for next year is to have his clothes more closely match the inventory to the best of our ability.


Mr. Jacob Whittemore in his kitchen

In planning Mrs. Whittemore’s outfit, I had to think about what she might have been thinking. The night before, Paul Revere and the riders (no, no, not the 60s rock group…that was Paul Revere and the RAIDERS, silly) were out calling the alarm. At some time between 1 and 2 in the morning, the Whittemore and Reed families would have been awakened by the pounding of hooves and the alarm cry of “the Regulars are coming out!” Paul Revere was captured just west of the site of the Whittemore house at around 2 a.m. (see his account of that night in this deposition) so it is highly likely that he and William Dawes, and possibly Samuel Prescott rode from Lexington Common along the road past the Whittemore house.


In case you wanted to know what he looked like, here’s John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere, painted a few years prior to the action.

The adults in the family likely passed a mostly sleepless night, though they no doubt tried to get the little children back to sleep and perhaps encouraged their ill daughter to take some rest. In the early morning hours, the church bells began to toll the warning, and signal gunshots (typically 3 shots in a row) were being fired to call out the militia to Lexington Common. Moses Reed was 26 and Jacob Whittemore 54, so although Jacob was on the older side, both men must have been expected to turn out with the militia. So why didn’t they? Were they Tory sympathizers? Conscientious objectors? Probably not, as Moses Reed later joined the Continental Army. Of course, we have no way of knowing for certain, but it is likely that Jacob, having lost 2 wives to complications of childbirth, and possibly having lost 3 children to early death, was not inclined to leave his daughter alone in a state of ill health with 2 children under the age of 5 and a newborn to care for. He had to have known that if she couldn’t walk, her step-mother could not possibly have assisted her and the children out of the house alone, thus putting them in danger of molestation by the troops. He may also have encouraged his son-in-law Moses to remain behind in order to keep the family together and keep him from danger while his wife was ill. At approximately 5 a.m. the conflict on Lexington Common occurred, and it is possible that the noise from the guns and the shouting could be heard at the house from 2 miles east. Almost certainly the Regulars passed the house in the early hours of the morning as they marched toward Concord, 7 miles away, and the family may have seen them out the windows. It is likely that Elizabeth Whittemore would have had to leave the house and visit the barn to help her husband feed the animals, as well as feed the children and the rest of the family their breakfast amid the anxiety and turmoil, then pack and hide the household valuables in case the worst should happen. My assumption was that she would have reached for her dark-colored work clothes, and would not have worried about how she looked that morning. For this reason, I chose a dark green petticoat, and a dark green gown of a slightly different shade, a dirty blue checked apron, and a white cap and neck handkerchief (common accessories for the middling sort). To venture outside, an old, slightly tattered black silk bonnet, dark green wool mitts, and a short black wool hooded cloak were selected. Incidentally, we have no record of what sort of relationship Elizabeth had with her step-daughter, but she raised her from the age of 3, and Sarah later named one of her daughters Elizabeth, so I choose to think that she probably loved her as if she were her real mama.


Elizabeth, Sarah, and Jacob. Nope, not a real baby! Photo courtesy Elizabeth Sulock

As the Regulars left Concord to march back toward Boston the fighting became heavy, and the neighbors began to become alarmed as the fighting moved closer. The further east the troops came, the more officers they lost, and the more casualties they suffered, the angrier they became. They began to destroy property, to shoot into the houses, and to set buildings afire. Some people hid in cellars and attics, but for the most part, the women and children fled to safety. The Whittemores hid the valuables, and just before the Regulars arrived they fled the house, carrying Sarah out on a mattress, taking cover in the woods behind the house. We can imagine them hearing the shouting and the gunfire coming closer and closer, seeing the smoke from neighboring homes being set on fire, seeing livestock running free through the fields, having been set free in anticipation of barns being set ablaze by the soldiers, and seeing panicked friends and neighbors running down the road and through back fields seeking safety. We can only imagine the sheer terror they felt leaving the house, not knowing if they would even have a home to which to return, and fearing for the lives of Sarah and the baby. It was this, that we would have to recreate during the civilian evacuation scenario we had planned at our event.


Map of where the fighting occurred on the afternoon of April 19, 1775. The Whittemore House is near Fiske Hill, where the fighting was heavy and near where “Parker’s Revenge” took place.


The horsemen cometh


Evacuating the house. Photo provided by Hannah Peterson, taken by Josh Hasbrouck


Amos Doolittle, Print #4 “View of the South Side of Lexington” as the column marched back to Boston under heavy fire. Note the houses/barns all ablaze.


Non-professional photo by me


Professional photo by John Collins

All in all, most of us did what we could to put ourselves in the appropriate mood. In fact, as Mr. H. and I were bringing our wheelbarrow up to take our places prior to the start of the evacuation (which had civilians heading from the William Smith house down to the Whittemore House) we’d been talking about all those things in the previous paragraph, and we encountered an unfamiliar British officer (i.e. not one of our actual friends). For just a split second, until he spoke to me pleasantly, I had this odd, unsettling moment of gut-wrenching anxiety. To our credit, during the scenario, no one smiled or laughed and we all look quite grim in all the photos from the day. I look appropriately ugly and unpleasant in most of the photos I’ve seen, as if I hadn’t slept and perhaps had been crying (it was cold and my nose was red; I’ll spare you all that photo)…not how one wishes to look on any given day, but hopefully indicative of our success in capturing the mood of the situation. We were unfortunately not able to carry our “daughter” out on a mattress, so we supported her between us, but we now have another year in which to figure out how best to do that next year! At the end of the day, we feel a strange kinship with Mr. and Mrs. Whittemore, and we hope we have done justice to their memories.


Professional photo by John Collins. This was taken as we made our way up to the house prior to the evacuation scenario, and just after we ran into the officer on the road.


Her parents help Sarah and the baby to leave the house, while Moses brings a wheelbarrow of the family’s possessions that were not hidden, as they head for the woods. Incidentally, baby Sarah was born just prior to the start of the American Revolution in April 1775, and died at the age of 90 in April 1865 just after the end of the Civil War. Photo provided by Hannah Peterson and taken by Josh Hasbrouck.


Mr. Whittemore converses with Deacon Mason.


Mr. W. with the Mason family upon returning home to find his house unscathed. Mrs. Mason’s brother was not so lucky. His barn was burned to the ground.

evacuation group photo.JPG

The women and children (and some men to help us) of Lincoln and Lexington. Photo courtesy Ruth Hodges. We thank Ruth, the officers of McAlpin’s Corps, and the NPS for working so hard to coordinate the scenario this year.

Note: Photos by K. Henry unless otherwise indicated in the caption. All rights reserved.


From Farb to…Fab? Molly’s Journey into Darkness.

Molly’s journey into living history began inauspiciously enough, with a parade. Those of you who have followed this blog will no doubt have seen the first post about my interest in history as a child, and how I got started in the hobby. If not, here it is. ‘Zat a REAL fire? or…What is this strange hobby anyway and why do I do it? I did my first parade in an outrageous costume from the school department. I knew it was incorrect, but I was chaperoning children and did what I had to do.



Once I knew I wanted to become involved in living history, I needed a mentor. Unfortunately, the groups in my immediate area tended to be parade-oriented, and as a result, there really wasn’t anyone who could advise me on clothing or material culture, as there were very few women in those groups. I went online, and talked to a few people (some of whom are now deceased), purchased patterns and outfitted myself, knowing just enough to be dangerous. Here are some of the mistakes I made in the first few years.

Above are a couple of first attempts. The blue gown was made by a seamstress using the JP Ryan pattern. It isn’t bad, but the fabric I chose isn’t quite right for the Rev War time period. If the printed design had been white on blue instead of light blue on blue, and spaced further apart, it might have been ok. It’s also center front closing which is a later, 1780s style. I got rid of this gown, which I sometimes regret, but for a first attempt, it isn’t THAT bad. The fabric is probably more appropriate to the first quarter of the 19th-century. The garment on the right is what is often referred to as a “shortgown”, a jacket most often worn in the mid-Atlantic states. I’m in Colonial Williamsburg in the photo, so it’s acceptable for the location, but the fabric is a heavy cotton more appropriate to upholstery.

The next mistake was made in pink linen, with an even brighter pink petticoat. Still a center front closing gown in a high fashion style, worn after 1780. High fashion means silk, or printed cotton, and not likely to be made in linen in the 1770s. The bright pink would have been achievable on wool or silk but probably not linen. Also, any references to plain color linen that have been found indicate that they are most often blue or brown, and once in a while a light yellow. Light pink? Maybe, but less likely.

Starting to get a little better, is a wool jacket and 2 wool petticoats. I purchased the green worsted petticoat second-hand at a Hive meeting in Concord and it has become my absolute favorite. The jacket is in a style more common to the 1740s and 50s, based on a garment in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion but technically I’m of an age where I might still be wearing the larger cuffs even though they are out of fashion by the 1770s. The jacket will close all the way in the center front if I have my stays tight enough, so when I do wear this, I no longer use the stomacher. Jackets though are less common in New England, where most women wore gowns. The second pic is another “shortgown” but in a plain linen. This is fine for mid-Atlantic, and the green wool petticoat and printed handkerchief are good for New England. Green linen apron, though? Sorry, nope. For a while, I was in the habit of wearing my handkerchief tucked down on the sides rather than crossed in front. Was cleavage a big deal in the 18th-century? Not really. But for warmth and sun protection, women typically covered it during the day, so I caught on and began to do that. I also noticed fewer men seeming to forget where my eyes are, so there’s that.

Here again is some improvement, but still some problems. The pic on the left is a “caraco” jacket and matching petticoat. The fabric reminded me of the caraco in the V&A museum, so I had this made with the JP Ryan pattern, but the construction is not the same as the original. I got rid of the caraco and replaced it with a gown of the same material, which I was fortunate enough to find. In the second pic, the gown is center front closing, but I’ve hidden that with the handkerchief. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the gown is bright red linen, and the apron again is green linen. So no good. There’s also something odd about the shape of the crown of my straw hat. I was really sad to let this gown go because it was really quite flattering. But wrong is wrong is wrong so…goodbye to the red linen gown (update: I DID find one the exact same color in wool, open front style, that a friend was selling, yay!). I hope my friend the officer doesn’t mind being in the photo. I didn’t have the heart to crop out his resplendence. All of the above clothing was acquired before I really understood how to do good research. I made some of my own clothing but often used modern construction techniques like bag linings or…gasp…the sewing machine on parts I thought wouldn’t show. Oh, the horror. To my credit, I usually tried to get it right by copying something I’d seen but I didn’t always understand context. For example, I didn’t see that copying something in a museum that was worn in continental Europe but maybe not in the colonies didn’t make sense and I hadn’t really yet developed an eye for appropriate fabric. One thing that really helped me make the transition was Hallie Larkin’s Swatches, a Guide for Choosing 21st Century Fabrics for 18th Century Clothing. This may still be available At the Sign of the Golden Scissors website.


Above- fabric and extant jacket from Duran Textiles in Sweden. I couldn’t resist the fabric but…continental European textile and a garment style worn in the mid-Atlantic region rather than New England But by this time a couple of years ago I understood appropriate context. I’m in Williamsburg, VA wearing an imported “Dutch” textile, and it’s hand sewn using the lapped seam technique in Linda Baumgartner’s Costume Close Up.

In the early days, I showed up at events I’d heard about because either a friend asked me along, or I assumed it was open to anyone “in costume”. In some cases, it was a closed event and I unknowingly didn’t meet the standard, which as one can imagine, led to hurt feelings. Please understand, I really wanted to do it right, and my bad behavior was well-intentioned. I was the only woman in the group to which I belonged at the time who was willing to wear stays, so give me credit for that. I just didn’t “get it” yet. My friends laughed, told me I was crazy and looked uncomfortable, asking why in the Sam-hell would I want to “wear corsets”? So I was caught in the middle of two extremes. I could see at the outset which things were blatantly incorrect; old-timey costumes if you will, but I didn’t have a clue about the subtleties of 18th-century clothing, nor did I yet understand the idea of context. This means that yes, I was indeed in danger of being a “Farby Barbie” wearing a frilly gown to a military encampment that would have best been worn at either the English court to meet His Majesty, or to a fancy party in London (or yeah, maybe a ball in Newport). At least by that time my fancy gowns were correct in style and material, and there always seemed to be a fashion show, thus my excuse.


Yaaaass queen. Green silk sack back, and not a mistake. Gown by Lori Lawhorne

Kristel-Meghan - 1 336

Also not a mistake. Silk robe anglaise, petticoat, and stomacher by Sharon Burnston. I somehow managed to cover and trim the hat.

I also didn’t know who could best advise me, and as a result, every well-meaning person tried to. I was confused by information overload and didn’t know to whom I should listen when presented with conflicting information. And y’all know, I was presented with LOTS of conflicting information. So as a result, I sometimes I got it very right, and sometimes got it very wrong for any given event. As most of you are aware, there are costume enthusiasts, museum docents/interpreters, mainstream re-enactors, entertainers/actors, progressive living historians, and frankly, people who are simply out for a lark in an old-timey costume pieced together from their attic. There are others who are simply following their significant other into the hobby and outfit themselves with the most inexpensive thing they can find in order to participate. Ok, my husband. But now I MAKE him get things that are appropriately accurate. Let me please be clear- there is nothing inherently wrong with any of that, and I am not disrespecting or criticizing anyone for what they choose to do, as it all has its place. People are free to be themselves and wear whatever they wish. Just not always at the same events. I consider myself to be halfway in between a costumer and a living history interpreter. For living history events, I try to be as progressive as possible. But sometimes I copy a garment in a museum or in a painting, just because I want to. Occasionally, I’m not sure I’ll have anywhere to wear it, or will decide to attend a more mainstream or costume oriented event and will wear something I would never choose to wear to a more progressive living history event.

Sometimes, ya just gotta have fun and be a pirate! These were specific pirate-related entertainment events or parades. On the left, I’m wearing a velvet jacket with pewter buttons for which I have no documentation whatsoever. On the right, I’m wearing my husband’s 1760s coat along with a petticoat I made for myself with leftover material from his (quite accurate) ditto suit. Doesn’t he look handsome though? Yeah baby, yeah!

More improvement. We’re still using a cast iron set up in the photo on the left, but we soon realized that if we were either following an army, or refugees on the run, we’d not be burdened with all the heavy cast iron. Now we use tin, and only bring what we can carry, unless it is an event at a house museum where we’re asked to bring a whole setup for a demo. For anyone interested in 18th-century material culture, check out the 18th-Century Material Culture website and slideshows here. Can you spot Beaker? He’s done a lot of the research for us, and I can’t recommend this site highly enough! Also, as you can see, my gowns and accessories have improved in style, and material (wool, open front with stomacher). At this point, I’ve started to “up my game” on research and documentation because I saw friends beginning to travel to the dark side, and I longed to be there with them. Around 2009, as I recall, I put away the sewing machine and started learning how to make my own things using 18th-century construction techniques.

Here with Kitty at Battle Road. All my clothing is wool in appropriate colors and I have the ubiquitous black silk bonnet. At the time, the broadcloth mitts were thought to be correct. There has since arisen evidence that “worsted mitts” may have been knitted rather than cut from cloth. For now, I still wear them so I don’t freeze, but that may change in future. In the pic on the right, I have a brownish-green striped linen gown, a green silk bonnet and a blue and white checked linen apron. Mr. H. had lost 50 lbs at the time this photo was taken, so his suit is wearing him, sorry.

So in the hope that I may be able to help someone else, I’ve totally put myself out there. I’ve shared my journey in pictures with commentary on what is “wrong” or what I have learned. Feel free to either laugh or sympathize, but kindly do not take advantage and copy my old photos to one of those “Rev War Farbs” sites. The key to improving for juried or progressive events, which started for me after I’d been flitting around mainstream events for 4 or 5 years, is research and using primary sources (extant garments and contemporary-to-the-time documents). Using these sources to provide context was absolutely key for me to improve my impression and be able to begin attending progressive events. Make no mistake, I was intimidated at first, and continue to be to a certain extent. No one wants to be laughed at, made the butt of jokes, or excluded. I firmly believe that other people don’t intend to be mean or to bully anyone, but can get caught up in it when they don’t like what they see. I say, let us all be kind to one another, and keep on researching, and documenting your impressions. Stay hungry, my friends.


Loyalist Refugee fleeing through Maine to Canada

Loving whales and corsetry in the modern world.

Molly promised a post on revising her stays, and so here it is.  This one shouldn’t be too terribly long, as there are numerous blogs out there that have addressed this subject.  This one addresses the historic use of baleen (also known, somewhat incorrectly, as “whalebone”) in stays/corsets  Two Nerdy History Girls- Baleen Ho!   The next addresses the use of synthetic material in 19th-century reproduction corsets.  This is, in fact, the very blog I read before deciding to re-bone my 18th-century stays. Why Plastic is Better Than Steel.

I consider myself a larger woman, and while I’ll spare you the details let us say I’m well endowed and leave it at that. I also like to “tight lace” to a certain extent because if I don’t, the girls are unsupported and we simply cannot have that.  I also like to try to look as skinny as I possibly can in historic clothing because goodness knows I no longer look skinny in my modern life.  I know what you’re thinking…” vanity, thy name is woman”.  Yep, pretty much.

While I own reproduction corsets and stays representing eras from the 17th through the 20th centuries, I’ll concentrate on my 2 pairs of 18th-century stays.  The first was made from a standard sized JP Ryan pattern. The fit is imperfect because they were essentially “off the rack”, though the maker did customize them somewhat to my measurements.  I’m long-waisted and these are rather too short for me.  They are back lacing and because the front is relatively straight, they were reasonably supportive in the first place.  These were boned with reed, which is standard and available in rolls at craft stores.  Just about as soon as I received them and the manservant got me trussed up, I moved wrong and SNAP the reeds broke at the top of the waist tabs.  I wore them this way for a  couple of years, then sent them out to be re-boned and bound with leather instead of linen tape.  As they were re-boned with a combination of reed and ash caning, this didn’t actually solve my problem.


The second pair was purchased from At the Sign of the Golden Scissors (back when they were selling stays rather than kits) but were also boned with reed, so…same problem. They were also front and back lacing with a stomacher so that I could dress without the manservant to assist me, but I found the reed to be less than supportive in front. In fact, I sometimes resembled the prow of a ship, or at least the female figurehead, leading with my bosom.


No, it wasn’t quite like this, thank goodness!IMG_2628It was time to re-bone them, and I’d heard about people using plastic cable ties and other such things.  I wasn’t keen on either plastic, or cable ties which I figured would be even less supportive than the wooden boning the stays already contained.  Also, I turned my nose up at plastic as being historically inaccurate and probably wicked hot to boot.  I have some real baleen that a lady I know salvaged from a disintegrating 19th-century corset (yes it’s legal for me to own it, I checked), the pieces were too short, and I hesitated to use such an antique material in case it was fragile.  I’d save those pieces for demonstration purposes.baleenMore on baleen or toothless whales here., quite different from sperm whales that actually do have teeth in their lower jaws.  So Moby on the rampage had teeth…did you all know that?  Of course you did! Anyway, I went into research mode and read up online in blogs and sewing groups about a new product people were calling “synthetic baleen” which is an engineered plastic.  The people who used it seemed to rave about it, and since it was designed to mimic the properties of baleen without hurting an actual whale, plastic though it was, I decided to give it a shot.  I ordered 2 sizes; 6 x 1.5 heavier boning for the front/stomacher, and 5.5 x 1.35 for the rest.

I decided to unbind only the top of the stays to start and went as far as I could, removing the boning from one channel at a time, measuring it to the plastic material on the roll, sniping the piece, filing the edges with a heavy emery board, and sliding it into the channel.  I won’t lie, it’s a little tough on the fingers, but it worked like a charm.  I marked the channels containing broken reeds, or reeds I couldn’t remove from the top, with a pin then unstitched the bottom binding on the tabs in just those spots and fished out the pieces.  In some cases, I had to gently push the broken pieces down to a point where I could grasp them with pliers and pull them out.  For the most part, I was successful. Rebinding with a small glover’s needle was a snap.  I’d carefully removed the leather, fully intending to put it right back since I hadn’t purchased any new binding material, and simply slipped it back in place sewing it down through the needle holes that were still visible in the leather.


I’ve got blisters on me fingers!!!!

Now, I put them on, and MAGIC! They fit perfectly and I could move with much more freedom than I could formerly.  When people used to ask me if I found stays comfortable, I answered “yes” and I wasn’t lying, although by the end of a long day they’d be poking me in a couple of places and I’d be tired enough that I simply couldn’t wait to get them off.  I also couldn’t drive very well while wearing them, and if I fell over (yes, indeed there was a face plant right in front of the hotel restaurant window when the mister and I were leaving for the Ft. Frederick market fair.  I’d tripped over a hidden sprinkler head) or lay down I’d be like a turtle on its back flailing its poor little limbs around in a desperate attempt to roll over.


Tortoise falling over
Photo from

stays2aNot anymore!  Just like real baleen, the synthetic material moves with your body and molds to your shape, and I find that I have much more freedom of movement and comfort that I never knew I didn’t have with the reed, if that makes sense. I can wear them all day (and drive as comfortably as one can with one’s bustline up around one’s chin) without fatigue or boning poking me, they are extremely supportive yet move with me. The best part is that I haven’t contributed to the murder of any whales! Also, I find that it is no hotter to have one’s torso encased in plastic than it was to have one’s torso encased in wood.  So folks, if you’re contemplating making new corsetry or re-boning an existing piece with synthetic baleen, I say DO IT! You’ll be happy you did, and the whales will thank you.


Photo by Robbie Shade, taken June 2014, Gloucester, MA.




18th Century Wardrobe Malfunctions and Other Experiments

Hi kids.  Welp, it’s been a very long time since I’ve been inspired to blog, so bear with me, this one is long.  Long, but FUN, right?  Recently I made 2 new 18th century gowns using a relatively new pattern, the Larkin and Smith English Gown.  I’ve had some success with the JP Ryan pattern in the past and I’ve taken a couple of workshops directly with Hallie Larkin to learn 18th-century sewing techniques and to obtain personalized bodice and sleeve patterns.  This clothes horse has many, many gowns (ok too many to count, actually) but the ones I like best always seem to be the ones made by other people.  I’m working on changing that.

My sewing skills have steadily improved, though I’d not yet call myself a true seamstress.  Hey, at least I no longer need hate what I make with my own two hands.  I started out using the JP Ryan pattern, which is based on an original gown on page 37 of Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1. For quite some time, that pattern was one of the few available, it was dated 1770-85, and was very popular.  The only problem with it, which of course I didn’t realize when first starting out, was that it is based on a high fashion silk gown.  So even if that style were available as early as 1770 (it is now thought that the date is closer to 1780) as a high fashion gown in Europe, it wouldn’t translate to a plain linen or wool gown worn in the colonies.  Unfortunately, that is what we all were making with the pattern.  One of the first things I did was convert a couple of gowns I made with either that pattern or my custom pattern, over to the open front, stomacher style. Read about one of them here.  See the other one below (trust me, the stomacher is there under that big handkerchief).IMG_3719However, I was beyond sad to think I couldn’t use the Ryan pattern anymore. I’m long-waisted with a large bust and hips, and wide shoulders, and for some reason, this pattern seems tailor-made for my particular figure.  Not use it anymore?  I wasn’t ready to give it up…more on that momentarily.  In the meantime, here’s the first Ryan gown with matching ruffled petticoat I made on the sewing machine (I KNOW, can you believe it?), from a printed cotton.  I actually took it all apart, reset the sleeves after cutting down the too large sleeve head, cut down the back of the neck and added a facing, and re-stitched by hand everything that would show, because I loved the gown and would not part with it. I wore it when L’Hermione sailed into Boston in 2014.IMG_4657Fast forward to this winter, and it was time to experiment.  Since I wasn’t certain of the exact size, and my weight tends to fluctuate sometimes, I ordered two different sizes of the Larkin and Smith gown pattern…one based on my large bust size, and the other with a smaller bust size (extrapolated based on my smaller waist size), assuming that a) sometimes I’m skinnier so the smaller size might fit, and b) sometimes I’m fat, but in sheer denial of that fact will tighten my stays and squeeze into a smaller gown, much like a sausage in a casing.  Either way, I couldn’t lose.  As it turns out, the sleeves from one and the bodice from the other are the best fit for me, and I often end up tracing and modifying patterns to suit me better.  Anyone who is familiar with the open front, stomacher style gown probably knows that the stomacher is pinned to the stays, and the gown then pinned to the stomacher with straight pins.  Simple, right?  Um no, at least not for me.  Also, it matters not whether the pins are inserted vertically or horizontally, although I’ve heard that horizontally works better for some people. Not for me, however.  The first time I tried this, it was with a silk gown made for me by the prominent seamstress, Sharon Burnston, proprietress of the Village Green Clothier.  I was with friends, trying to go out to dinner in Colonial Williamsburg, and pins were sliding up out of the silk and flying around all over the place.  I ended up frantically holding myself together and repinning things all night, driving my friends crazy instead of enjoying myself. The gown looks pretty I’ll grant you, but it isn’t quite fastened.   IMG_0445aThe next wardrobe malfunction happened with a wool gown I made at a workshop, appropriately called the “green gown of doom”.  It was discovered, after I’d made it as a center front closing gown, that stomacher gowns were more appropriate to the early to mid-1770’s in the New England colonies.  I dutifully cut the fronts off and made a stomacher and robings from extra fabric, complete with great blobbing back stitches and other novice mistakes too numerous to mention. My friend got engaged wearing it, so she now owns this gown and claims to love it.  I love her for pretending to overlook the mistakes.  In any event, I wore the gown to an event at the Saratoga battlefield in 2013.  The gown doesn’t look bad in action, especially if one doesn’t look too closely.  But, as you can doubtless tell in this photo, I was having a major wardrobe malfunction, that my friend Kitty thoughtfully documented. kirsten2aBy the end of the day, due to the issue being compounded by less than supportive stays (that have now been re-boned with synthetic baleen…ooh I may need to post about that later too), MY BOOB WAS OUT, although as I recall, it was the right one, as opposed to Miss Jackon’s left one.  Not to mention the general messy look of a gown coming unpinned.  Thank goodness for the handkerchief is all I can say.  So, you may well ask how does one keep one’s gown together?

I wasn’t sure, but I was going to experiment.  The first thing I did was make up the larger size (41″ bust) Larkin and Smith gown, to see whether or not it would fit.  You think I made a fitting muslin, right?  Wrong. I don’t need no stinkin’ fitting muslin. Reckless though it may be, I just went for it.  It fit pretty well, though I felt that the waistline was slightly low even on long-waisted me, and the shoulder straps were also too long because, well my head sits directly on my shoulders much like a football player, so all shoulder straps on all patterns are too long for me. I tried it on before making the necessary adjustments.  In the first pic, the low waistline and a bit of wrinkling are fairly noticeable.  I improved that by shortening the shoulder straps (sorry, I didn’t get a pic after the adjustment).  The back looks pretty good, and the sleeves fit nicely.

So, how to keep it closed?  Larkin and Smith added a paragraph in the latest edition of their pattern guide suggesting putting a strip of fabric with lacing holes on either side of the inside of the bodice. But I had the older version of the pattern that didn’t contain that suggestion, which did actually occur to me.  But lazy bones doesn’t want to make a bunch of lacing holes, does she? My creative (and lazy) solution was to put linen tape ties on either side of the bodice, and a long tie at the back of the waist to hold the gown together under the stomacher.  Works like a charm, I’m happy to report.  If you use this solution you have to take care to tie it just right…too tight and the sides will pull and wrinkle, too loose and the gown will look baggy.  It probably could stand a 4th tie lower down too.  Keep in mind that you still need to pin the gown per usual procedure. This is simply extra insurance against the dreaded malfunctions.IMG_6104.JPGFor the next experiment, I decided to make a gown with the smaller size (38″ bust) Larkin and Smith pattern.  Think I made a fitting muslin this time?  See above…I still don’t need no stinkin’ fitting muslin!  Seriously, I learn more effectively from having to make adjustments and find creative solutions to fitting issues, and I can’t always tell how something will hang from a fitting muslin of just the bodice, made of a different material than either the fashion fabric or the lining.  So most times, I just skip it.  I had some brown and gray linen in my stash and came across an extant open front striped linen gown in the Philadelphia Museum of Art,  as well as this image of La Recureuse by Andre Bouys from the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. It’s from 1737 (and early for stripes going down the sleeve rather than around them!) but appears to show a striped gown in a similar colorway.  I copied the style of the gown in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, although I made the stripes on the stomacher go straight up and down instead of on the diagonal.AndreBouysLaRecureuse1737The gown turned out surprisingly well considering that the linen was “wonky” and difficult to work with.  The stripes on the back look slightly wobbly to my eyes, but I was able to match the stripes effectively for the most part, and this was the first time I was able to set the sleeves without the assistance of either another person or a dress dummy, just by taking it on and off and adjusting the fit of the shoulder.  It was also the first time I was able to really get the pleats at the top of the sleeve where they belong instead of looking like a weird puffy thing at the back.  It was also the first time I didn’t end up with a lumpy mess hidden under the shoulder strap.  The fit of this gown was slightly better than the larger size, although the sleeves were almost but not quite too tight.  I like my sleeves tight, so that was fine, although next time I make this gown I will trace the sleeves from the larger size and the bodice from the smaller to make a custom pattern, adjusting the shoulder strap and armscye accordingly.  I also decided to try extending the front of the gown to get it to pin closed in the center, pinning the stomacher and robings over the top of the center front bodice closure.  This of course used some fabric that I could have used for something else, since I now only have enough to squeak out a petticoat with some small scraps remaining.  I might actually use some of those scraps to create patches on the gown, but I need some time to think strategically about how and where to do that. Since it will be a working class gown, I did decide to piece it in a few places, including on the robings since I only had short scraps left, near the shoulder straps because I made a mistake I had to fix creatively, and at the bottom of the back panel, which I somehow cut too short. What, measure twice, cut once? Nah.  That would be too easy.

Pleating the back panel was tricky…I did it thrice before I gave up and said: “good enough for a hacker.”



Yay, no bulky mess!

My method for extending the fronts was to trace a center front closing gown pattern I already had, and merge it with the L&S bodice pattern.  That worked pretty well, except that the shoulder straps were…you guessed it…too long and I had to get a little creative , folding and stitching it down to make it look pieced, once I put on my stays and tried it on.  I DID actually transfer this change to the bodice pattern I’d made, so theoretically it shouldn’t occur again.  But, for me anyway, these things are half the fun.  I was pretty pleased with it when it was finished.

IMG_6112My next experiment is going to be with the Ryan pattern, since I already know that it fits my figure quite well.  I found some cheap “what I thought was wool flannel but is probably actually cotton flannel” tartan fabric.  At least it’s a twill weave.tartanThough the colorway is somewhat different, I’m going to copy the McTavish-Fraser wedding gown from 1785. Mum was with me when I bought the fabric, and she and some random lady convinced me that the brown would be lovely with my reddish hair and green eyes, so brown tartan it was.  Note in the photo below that whoever made the original gown didn’t bother to match the plaid! FrasertartandressinvernessInstead of using the separate back bodice pieces, I’m going to use my pleating template from the L&S pattern along with the front bodice pieces from JP Ryan to make an en fourreau gown.  I have not been able to find a photo of the back of this gown, so I am making an assumption that it has a pleated back, rather than separate back bodice pieces, although it certainly could have the later style back.  However, I feel that it will be far more versatile for my purposes to give it the en fourreau back. I have already re-drawn the sleeves to shorten the very top of the sleeve head (the original pattern piece makes a large pouf at the top back of the sleeve), and I will redraw the bottom of the front of the bodice to reflect the shape of the original gown instead of the squared off front that exists on the pattern piece.  The original gown is center front closing, so that is how I will make it. I have enough fabric to make the airisaid, and a matching petticoat, as well as a stomacher, robings, and even cuffs to easily convert it from center front closing gown of 1785 to an open front gown more appropriate to the Jacobite period of the 1740’s.  In fact, many of my gowns have removable robings and cuffs so that I can adapt them to the time period for the particular event I’m attending.  I should add that this gown is a compromise fabric-wise (at this time I didn’t want to spend what would be required for real wool tartan in my family’s clan colors), so it will by nature be more of a “costume gown”, as I would have no reason to wear it for Revolutionary War era living history in the American colonies.  But, portraying a Scot with my maritime group, or wearing it to a Burns night?  Oh yes.

After that, I plan to break out the silk and make a copy of this gown in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, again using the Ryan pattern.  The only modifications I will make are to the back of the neck, the sleeve heads, and the shape of the bottom front of the bodice.  This gown was originally lavender, faded to pink, but I’ve had this shade of pink in my stash for quite some time now.pinklavendergown

Speaking of fabric stashes…I have a huge one and I may just need to start selling some of my older gowns and jackets.  So many gowns to make, so little time.  The problem is that I love them all too much to part with anything, and yet I keep adding to the collection.  Remember that clothes horse?  In the meantime, does anyone think maybe it is time for me to replace the sleeves on my old shift?  Or perhaps I should keep this rag to use for my Loyalist refugee impression…



Renovation heaven…or is this hell?

Now that I’m home in my own colony once again, I thought it was high time to describe what the heck we’ve been up to this summer.  Well, turns out, it was a LOT! So here goes: Once upon a time in the year nineteen hundred and sixty-five, a cute little couple who had been married 35 years, lived through the Great Depression and never had much aside from their family home, finally achieved their dream come true…a little vacation cabin in the woods a half mile from the ocean.  He was a school teacher and they worked hard saving for this place, which was now nearly falling down.  Though they moved to RI for work and settled there, this to them was always “home”. People called it a “tear-down” and said we should start over.  But for their sakes, we were bound and determined to save it. I took a deep breath, left my management job in the corporate world, took a seasonal job in the museum field in another state, and JUMP…we were on our way.


As it appeared in the winter of 1965



Happy Anniversary Walter and Pauline! We discovered that banner in the bottom of the corner cabinet and decided to just leave it there. They’d have been married 87 years this summer if they were still with us.

When we arrived, the place didn’t look all that bad at first glance.  To my delight, original furniture, light fixtures, and tchotchkes belonging to my grandma were still there, untouched.  Except for the beds and upholstered furniture which we immediately got hauled away to the dump, most things were in good shape and salvageable and I began to have visions of making it a little 60’s time capsule.

We soon discovered, to our utter horror, that the floor joists supporting the entire structure were all broken or eaten away by wood-boring insects, and the supports for the second floor over the porch were bowing forward.  I may have cried a little, thinking we’d never save it until several kind neighbors reassured us that all was not lost.  Three contractors later, we found someone actually willing to help us.

There was also this horribly unsafe walkway between the actual loft space and a secondary loft bedroom that Gramp created when we needed an extra room.  Basically, it was just a couple of boards stretched across the ceiling rafters.  As a kid I thought it was fun and cool, but clearly it had to go because…codes.  Right?


Gramp’s improvised walkway, completed in the late 1970s. Good thing I took a photo to commemorate it because it’s GONE, as is the back loft (from where I’m taking the pic) which was never meant to be part of the structure.

The first thing we had to do was eradicate mold in the crawl space, or the dudes wouldn’t work down there.  We didn’t blame them, but there wasn’t time to hire someone so hubby decided that he’d don a hazard suit and do it himself. This is the sight to which I was treated…mmmm, sexy!


Several gallons of bleach later, we were in business and work began in earnest. Once the floor was supported, the rooms no longer felt like trampolines, furniture didn’t lean inward and doors didn’t scrape against the floorboards, the next step was to rebuild the porch that was supporting the second floor.  There wasn’t any way it was going to look like the original because apparently, one can no longer obtain rounded cedar posts that still has the bark intact.  What to do, what to do?  Fortunately, Grampy kept every single thing related to this cabin, including every cent he paid for every screw, nail, hook, window, light fixture, and piece of furniture (most of it still there, by the way) in a folder which was now in my possession.  Sure enough, there were the original plans, with the porch as it was intended before it was modified to suit his specification.  Texted a picture of the plans to the construction manager, and voila!


After the sagging porch supports were replaced.  We are slowly repairing the screens.

I’d started my job at the local historical society, so living here for the summer had become a necessity, and as you can all imagine, construction in a vacation hotspot at the beginning of the season can be chaotic…they were trying to make all of their customers happy and finish the major work before the 4th of July so that we could all enjoy our homes.  Our job was small, relatively speaking, so once the structural stuff was done all we needed was a bathroom.  Yeah, try living without a functioning bathroom.  I’d describe all the times the toilet was removed and I made desperate phone calls to get it reinstalled in between the steps it took to get the bathroom done, but that’d bore you to tears.  Suffice it to say that we lived in a cold-water flat with no kitchen and no heater (it was 42 degrees at the beginning of June) for a while, but at least we didn’t have to go in the woods with the bears.  Ok, there was that one time that I stayed with the neighbor across the street because there was no bathroom at all, I had to work the next day so we couldn’t go home, but that’s a minor detail.  Mr. H. is handy so he fixed the kitchen sink, got the water heater going, fixed the leaky toilet so we didn’t have to replace it, got the actual heater going, repaired some woodwork, scraped the old varnish off the window trim, repaired screens to get at least one more season from them, sanded cabinets so I could re-stain them, washed stained floors a million times, sanded part of a floor that was too far gone with 60 grit paper and a hand sander, re-painted thus saving a rusty old glider from the 1930s, found the septic,  built a stone wall around the yard, and basically was my hero.  He did a lot of this using Gramp’s old hand tools that he discovered in a closet.  He’s a lot like him, and I’m sad that they never had the chance to meet.  They’d have been partners in crime at rummage sales, buying in bulk, picking free stuff up off the side of the road like Fred Sanford, and fixing things the old-fashioned way.  There is still more to be done next season, such as repairing the porch screens, grading the yard, cleaning and treating the exterior wood, and possibly a new roof, but we’re getting there.  Right now, I’d like to think my grandparents are smiling down at us in their little cabin in the pines.

Enjoy some before and after photos.


Access to the crawl space is right here. This was my grandparents’ bedroom and is considered the “master”.  The bedrooms are so small that nothing larger than a double bed will fit.


Complete with original 1960s port and starboard lights. Yep, we’re Lucy and Ricky with twin beds because we didn’t want to crowd into a double.

My mother did the large painting years ago for my uncle.

My grandmother, Pauline Hayes, in the kitchen in July 1965

My grandmother in the kitchen in July 1965


Sigh.  A great mess.  We feared we’d have to paint the cabinets but were able to sand all the junk off them and restain.  The Formica countertop is original and we were able to save it, along with all the hardware!




Yes.  That is the same clock you see in the 1965 photo.  The table and chairs are from the 1930s.

This bedroom was always known as “the Indian room”.  There’s no picture from 1965 but we put it back the way it always was.


The room as I remember it.  I often slept here as a kid.


My grandfather painted the picture on the wall and made the birch frame for it.  My mother made and painted the pillow.  And what would Maine be without a mosquito in a party hat?


Here’s my grandmother in the loft in 1965.  I searched high and low for those curtains but couldn’t find them.  I got something fairly similar in the end.  That quilt was still there, but the jury is still out on whether we can get it clean enough to save it.


Here’s the hot mess we found when we got there.  Yikes!

Here it is after a little bit of work. For some reason, I took pictures before I got the bed made. Right now there’s only a twin up here but more beds could be added in this space later.


I was able to find some 60s curtains on eBay, and my grandmother’s afghan was still in the house.  My mother did the painting of the mill in Newfield, ME.   The floor up here is unfinished but I sort of like it that way.

Yikes, is all I can say here.  The vanity was too large for the room.


We put in a vintage sink similar to the one that was originally there.  The original floor had been changed and the floor we found in its place was beyond repair, so we had a wood-look vinyl floor installed.

We put some of the vintage advertising items we found in the house on a shelf in the bathroom, and we installed a cabinet above the toilet. The original medicine cabinet and light fixtures were still here.




Some shots of the living room from the 60s, and Grampy in his chair. Check out that giant ash tray!

This is the condition we found it in.  The original wagon wheel light fixture and lamps were still there.  The carpet was a mess and we hoped and prayed the original hardwood floors underneath were salvageable.

Yes they were!  But SO dirty.


All paintings were done by my mother and were originally in the house.




My husband made Moby out of a leftover piece of pine.




Still looking for groovy cushions like these originals on the 1930s glider.  Haven’t found them yet.








Can this really be work when it feels like fun?

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write, dear readers, and I figured all three of you were probably wondering what has happened to Mistress Molly.  The sole reason I haven’t posted recently is that most of my time is now spent in a location where I have limited to no access to Wi-fi, a computer, or even a television, and I find it difficult to type out something reasonably coherent using only my phone.  However, during the past few weeks, I’ve studied and learned the history of a region that was dear to the hearts of my late grandparents and that I’ve visited for most of my life, met some fascinating and wonderful people working with both historians and the public, have been able to learn about and try processes over 200 years old, along with their associated tools, and have been privileged to work somewhere doing something I’ve dreamt of doing since I was about 7 years old. While I may need to go back to the dreaded corporate rat race in the fall, at the moment I’m doing something that is so enjoyable it never feels like work.   For now, that is enough.  Enjoy some photos…eventually, I’ll be back.


Yes, we cheated and threw in a color packet!








Cape Neddick

It’s 7 of a foggy, drizzly May morning at what is probably the most photographed lighthouse in New England, known affectionately as “the Nubble“.  20150608_123617

I’m alone here, with the only sounds being the lonely cry of the gulls, the chirping and tweeting of the little song sparrows in the bushes, and the crashing of the sea against the rocks. The sky is cloudy and gray, and the sea a darker slate. The fragrant lilacs are in bloom, flags fly from yardarms all along the road, while weathervanes twirl in the breeze.  A Canada goose waddles around on the greening grass at the base of the lighthouse, while a family of what we always called “coots” (likely common eider ducks) float by, and a cormorant swoops down from above in search of his breakfast.  Boon Island with its early lighthouse, visible on a clear day, can’t be seen, but the faint outline of one of the Isles of Shoals is visible in the distance, as is the point out by York Harbor.



Boon Island on a brighter day


Not actually an enemy sub! The shadow of the Isles of Shoals on a sunny day.



A lone fishing boat passes slowly by out on the horizon, on perhaps a perfect day for luring fish in the slight fog. Red buoys marking lobster traps bob in the surf, and there are what appear to be traps stranded on the rocks. But the tide is low and comes in higher and quicker now than I recall as a child when the mud flats below the soft sand at the high tide mark were vast and there was a long walk to take a dip in the icy cold water.


Long Sands Beach

A lady walking her small dog walks up, snaps a photo with her phone and then vanishes.  The red fourth-order Fresnel lens in Nubble’s tower flashes on and off as it has for over 100 years. Yet something is missing…the plaintive call of the foghorn that we could hear upon awakening in the cottage a half mile from the beach and about 2.5 miles from the lighthouse. Its mournful note, sounding every 10 seconds on a foggy or rainy day is still in my head, and I’m saddened that it has been retired. Mariners can still sound a horn with a radio signal if necessary but it’s seldom heard anymore and not quite the same.


The fourth-order red Fresnel lens in the tower.  This is not the original that was here, but a replacement using an original lens from the correct period.

The sky brightens slightly and an old gray-bearded gentleman walks up and stares at the sea.  If not for his plaid shirt, blue jacket, khaki pants and baseball cap, he could be imagined as a sea captain of old.  He disappears down by the rocks and I’m again alone with only the cry of the gulls, the thunderous crashing of the sea upon the granite outcropping, a strong memory of the smell of the thick, peaceful pine woods near the sea, and the sound of the old foghorn permanently imprinted on my soul. IMG_1882

Cape Neddick lighthouse, also known as Nubble Light.IMG_555120150609_171935



If the shoe fits, it’s too expensive…or is it?

Today’s post is all about the shoes, and since I have what might be known as “bad feet” and “bad knees”, the result of long ago injuries that are too boring to mention, I have done lots of experimentation with real and reproduction shoes in all centuries.  Don’t even ask to see my closet full of modern shoes and boots! Ok, maybe just ONE pic of some groovy boots and some high heeled shoes…

So let’s get started, shall we? I’ll go backward, starting in the recent past and ending with a focus on the 18th-century. The first thing to know is that in addition to being a clothes-horse, Molly is also a shoe-horse (or perhaps it is shoe-whore?) and her favourite pair are these black satin beauties from the 1960s.  Oh so painful, but worth it for a few hours in a killer dress.  Like this one from 1962. This is Mum, and I’m told this dress was green, not aqua.  Gotta love old Kodachrome.  I have this vintage fabric (yep it’s green) and a pattern so if I ever get skinny enough I’ll make the dress (waits for hell to freeze over…). I tend to wear these shoes on holidays.

Jumping backward to the early 20th-century, seeking a pair of shoes or boots for an event set in 1912, I came across a pair of original boots from the early 1900s and they were actually my size, which is just about unheard of for those of us with modern gunboats for feet, as my petite grandmother used to say.  They weren’t terribly expensive, so I bought them.  They were rather beat up and the leather was a little cracked, but I set to work with some saddle soap, mink oil, and black polish.  To my surprise, and with some help from American Duchess‘s video they turned out to be rather nice.  Lauren talks about a particular brand of the product she used, but I can tell you that I just used what I had around whilst caring for my riding boots.  Here they are. And yes, yes I actually wore them.  Carefully, and indoors, but I wore them, and they were surprisingly comfortable.  Who says our ancestors didn’t know what they were doing?  Before:

And after, on my gunboats: (the pic from my phone is a bit grainy)


Another pair I found was from the 1880s with side buttons!  They were so cute but teeny tiny and despite the fact that they were supposed to be a size 7.5, they turned out to be not much bigger than a 5 (US sizes). They were old enough that I hadn’t really planned to wear them even if they did fit, and my goal was simply to restore them.  I worked them over with saddle soap and mink oil, kept them on display for a time, and then donated them to a local museum for their collection.   I don’t think there is a before photo, but here’s how they turned out.  It was worth a little work and a little love to restore these original boots to a fraction of their former glory and to preserve them for the future.


Our next stop is the 1860s or the American Civil War period.  This is far enough back that the originals are likely to be more fragile, so I was more concerned about documenting the style and finding appropriate repros to wear than about finding extant shoes to own. Examples of extant shoes from the 1860s demonstrated that side-lacing boots with low heels, square toes, and leather “foxing” at the toe and heel were very popular (there are examples of original mid-19th-century shoes all over Pinterest if you are interested). Generally, Mr. Robert Land in Canada is considered to be the best repro shoemaker for the 1860s period.  He’s notoriously difficult to reach, and the latest word is that he is no longer in business.  Another good option is NJ Sekela, who also seem to have larger women’s sizes.  I have 3 pair of Robert Land’s, which I purchased at a shop in Gettysburg several years ago (at different times), unfortunately at full price, but I felt like somewhat of a desperado when I heard he was going out of business.  I’ve also heard that Fugawee is decent, and they certainly are for the 18th-century, though I don’t have any of their Civil War boots (we’ll get to the 18th century soon).  These are my Robert Land boots, based on originals.  One pair has elastic on both sides (yep, they had it then), one pair laces up the front like traditional boots, and the other pair laces up the inside.


I don’t typically participate in living history from the 1830s-50s, but if I did, I might get away with using the black front-lacing boots, the side-lacing boots (even though the heel is slightly higher than earlier in the century, where the style was completely flat), or even the boots from the earlier 1800s.  These are from American Duchess, who has reproduction shoes from many different time periods, and were used for the Regency time period, War of 1812, etc. I have difficulty with completely flat shoes, but sometimes one has to suffer for the sake of history.


Now my favorite…the 18th-century!  Be prepared, there are tons of shoes.  The 18th-century is really what it’s all about for me, and in my quest for increasingly greater accuracy (and at a time when I had a really “good” soul-sucking job to fund said quest) I’ve tried just about every shoe that is out there.  I started with Fugawee, because they weren’t TOO expensive.  Ok, that’s not exactly true…I started out with a couple pair of modern shoes that kinda sorta looked somewhat like colonial shoes, and that I modified to hold buckles.  Yikes, watch out, the Farb word is coming at you. It’s not insulting if I call myself that, right? Thank goodness I’m sparing you the wicked bright pink linen outfit, though I spy a little peek there, and shower cap.  BEHOLD, I give you THE SHOES OF SHAME!

See, I’m perfectly willing to embarrass myself in the interest of education.  Clearly, this arrangement wasn’t going to work, so I set out trying to get myself some comfortable, appropriate shoes.  The first ones I tried were the “Martha” from Fugawee because I thought that pleated tongue was way cool.  Never mind that I’ve never seen that on any extant museum shoes, this was a step up in the world.


And here they are, with the buckles seen in the first photo.

These proved to be uncomfortable, as the toe box was sloped and not roomy enough, so I sold them after a few wearings.  My poor friend who bought them soon dispensed with them for much the same reason.  On to the RED ONES, thought I!!!!

I purchased the next pair, along with a pair of “mules” or slip-ons for camp from Burnley and Trowbridge.  These were quite a bit better and I wore them for a while, but I felt that the heels were a compromise…they were too high to be square like the heels on men’s shoes, and I always felt like maybe the heels should have been better shaped.  But, they’re billed as walking shoes, and they do work for a number of people.  I found them to be decently comfortable.


Mules…work nicely for “slippers” when slogging to the blue plastic necessary in the middle of the night.


B&T red walking shoes with brass basket-weave buckles.  Cute, but the heel shape didn’t look like 18th-century women’s shoes to me.


These are red calamanco (wool) shoes from 1765 in the Deerfield museum.  Notice the difference in the shape of the heels?  Yeah, so did I.

I liked the red leather, and could document it to extant shoes in the Kyoto museum (check out the book on Taschen’s website here.  It can also be ordered through Amazon.)


The only vendor who had shoes even remotely like these, was American Duchess.  So I tried them.  They are nice, but they are decidedly modern in construction and so, although they look the part pretty well, they are a compromise.  Perfect for costumers, but slightly less than perfect for living historians who will be outdoors in the mud, gravel roads, uneven ground, and all sorts of weather conditions. The first pair are “Georgianas” painted red, and the second pair are the “Kensingtons” in red leather.  I sold the first pair because the paint started flaking.  I still have the second pair (shown with my original paste buckles which ended up not fitting on the shoes) but I saved them for wearing indoors with nicer gowns because I didn’t find them to be really sturdy for camp use.

Once I had red shoes, I needed a better pair of black ones, so trolling Ebay, I happened to find a reasonably priced pair of handmade shoes. They were from Michigan, or somewhere out in the great white north, and made by a guy that is clearly out of business, since I couldn’t find any reference to him at all online.  These look like elephant skin or something but are rather cool.  For some reason, they seem to fit a variety of sizes from 7.5 to 9 US regular width, and for handmade shoes with no insole they are pretty comfortable.  I wear them occasionally but they’ve essentially become the lending shoes.


My next experiment was to get a pair of white satin Georgianas from American Duchess and have them dyed green by a professional, to match my green sack back gown.

Full views of the sack backs!  Photo courtesy Jeanne G. at the Joy Homestead.

Photo courtesy Jeanne G. at the Joy Homestead, Cranston RI

Well, as they say, the best-laid plans often go awry.  When I got them back from the dyer (specializing in wedding shoes), they were all blotchy and awful, and the lady complained that they were “the cheapest material” she’d ever worked with.  Um, no, they’re real silk and she was used to working with synthetic satin for wedding shoes.  Sigh.  They ended up being dyed black, but at least they fit my original buckles.


I still wasn’t completely happy with the rounded toe, and I wanted a slightly higher heel, and a “calimanco-look” shoe, so I sold these and went with the “Dunmores”, again from American Duchess.  These were a perfect fit for my extant buckles and I happily wear them, very carefully, to indoor events.  As a knowledgeable friend once advised…those buckles were made for a lady to wear, right?  I’d also love to try the AD “Frasers”, because they have a white rand and a thicker heel for mid-century, but alas…not in the budget right now, and as one can no doubt see, I probably have enough shoes!


In between all of this, I went back to Fugawee looking for sturdy leather shoes with medium chunky heels and ended up with the “Debbie” as well as the “Cheri” because I wanted something that tied instead of buckled. Again, these are decent shoes, with a fairly good early to mid-18th-century shape and I wear them in camp as long as the weather isn’t going to be wet or muddy. Then there’s AD’s fancy “Pompadours” just because they look nice with a fancier gown and there are no buckles to get caught on one’s petticoat hem whilst cavorting about with a fyne gentleman-of-fortune.



Photo from American Duchess website.

But I wasn’t done with red quite yet.  I really wanted some red shoes that were hand made and truly authentic, even if I had to save them for better events and wear them outdoors sparingly. Enter Gossville Shoes.  I met Bruce at an event in the colony of Connecticut. Bruce observes the Sabbath on Saturday, so he was only displaying and not selling shoes on the day I was there.  But I HAD to have the red ones, as they were a pretty good copy of the above calimanco shoes (owned by Mary Flint Spofford in 1765) from the Deerfield museum, only in rough-out red leather.  I wasn’t coming back to the event on Sunday, but he allowed me to quickly slip my foot inside the sample to see if it would fit, and indeed it did!  I told him that I would email him my order and would pick up the shoes at a later event.  Several months later, he was at an event at the Col. Paul Wentworth house in Rollinsford NH, and I stopped by on a Sunday to pay for my shoes and have him install my buckles, as I didn’t dare.  These shoes are more expensive than most but really worth it.  After all this experimentation, please take my word for it!



Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes





Mine, all mine! These are polished, rough-out leather

So by now, you think I’m really done, right?  WRONG!!!!  What about shoes for muddy events in camp, Molly?  Well, how about a pair of men’s flat shoes from Flying Canoe Traders?  Flying Canoe has a website, but they don’t have a place to order shoes from there.  They were originally based in Canada, but now have US representatives based in Ohio.  John and his assistant whose name, unfortunately, escapes me at the moment, are extremely friendly and customer service oriented.  Shoes have to be purchased at an event because they will fit you there, and allow you to walk around in their shoes for a while to make sure they are comfortable before installing the buckles and taking your money.  They are a modern shoe, with a modern sole and a rubber heel with a metal shank for support, but they’re comfortable, you won’t slip and fall on yer arse on cobblestones or wet grass, and though purists may object, they look reasonably like 18th-century men’s shoes. The toe box is rather square for my liking and, they ain’t cheap.  But they ARE comfortable and supportive, especially for people with foot, ankle, knee, or hip issues clomping around on the uneven ground in camp.  Both my husband and I have been wearing these for a while, and I own both a smooth-out and a rough-out pair.  The rough-outs from Flying Canoe may be going up for sale after what I discovered this weekend, but bear with me just a bit longer.


I have a friend who is a sutler (Big Bear Trading Company– check them out on Facebook) and a few years ago, a re-enactor was deaccessioning her collection of “stuff” and Bear had it on consignment.  It was mostly Civil War stuff that my friend bought, but suddenly, I spotted the Holy Grail.  It was a pair of beat up, men’s style, rough out shoes from the late 1970s or early 1980s, complete with some cool cut-brass oval buckles and nailed, stacked heels.  I don’t know who made them, but they are well made and may be from G. Gedney Godwin, who still makes and sells shoes.  “Bear! How much are these?” “Twenty bucks Mum”. “Twenty bucks?! Including buckles?!!!” “Yes Mum”.  “I’ll take them!!!!”  “Dontcha wanna know what size they be, Mum?”  Oh yeah.  Turns out they were my size, though about a half size smaller than I take in repro shoes in order to have room in the toe box.  But for 20 bucks I took them and put some of those cedar expandable shoe trees in them to stretch them out. and there they sat for a couple of years because I couldn’t fit insoles or heavy socks in them.  That is, they sat until this past weekend, when I broke them out and wore them with thin silk stockings because it was rainy and muddy out.  I figured who cared about the 20 buck shoes, and if I wrecked them I wrecked them, no great loss, right?  WRONG!  These shoes were incredibly comfortable (all stretched out by now) and I had none of the achy ankles, knees, and hips that I tend to get after an event, even wearing the men’s Flying Canoe shoes.  In fact, I am so in love with these little shoes that after hearing from a shoemaker (Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes) that in fact rough-out shoes in the 18th-century frequently were polished or “blacked” I brought them home, cleaned off all the dried mud, and polished them up with black shoe polish, followed by a coat of mink oil.  I’m planning on purchasing some “black ball“, 18th-century shoe polish made with tallow and ground animal bones, to keep them nice.  Finally, after all the experimentation, sometimes the “cheap” second-hand shoes (well, cheap to me but decidedly not cheaply made) are indeed “the ones”.


Rough out shoes “before”


Rough out shoes “after blacking”. I used modern polishing materials. For now…

And lest you think I forgot the 17th-century?  Oh no indeed.  Two pair from American Duchess for your viewing pleasure.  It is obviously quick and easy to order from AD, and their shoes are good.  They are just mass produced and somewhat “modern” in construction- perfect for costumers (and I mean no disrespect there. Costumers rock!) but a compromise for the progressive living history enthusiast.  For those folks wanting a really, really good 17th-century shoe, there is Sarah Juniper in the U.K. There you have it…if just one person learns from my sometimes expensive mistakes, it will have been worth it.


Being Molly’s first foray into acting on camera.

Since Molly on the shore likes nothing better than being by the sea, and since today is Rhode Island Independence Day, after all, the ruminations concern colonial Newport. We’ll get to the acting momentarily, I promise.  By May of 1776 little RI had had enough of King George’s tomfoolery and became the first to renounce allegiance to Merry Olde England.  Ironically, RI was the last to ratify the Constitution in May of 1790.  RI participated heavily in the triangle trade…sorry folks, we’re in the north so many believe we didn’t have much slavery, but unfortunately we can’t hide the sad and disturbing fact that our little state played a significant role in that trade, and that southern RI and Newport, in particular, had a large enslaved population during the 18th-century.  RI obtained molasses from the West Indies and turned it into rum in the many distilleries in the state.  Newport had approximately 22 of the roughly 30 distilleries in the state.  In fact, an original stillhouse, now a private residence, exists in Pawtuxet village to this day on what was once “Stillhouse Lane” (now Ocean Ave).  The rum manufactured in RI was traded for slaves in Africa, who were then sold to the plantations in the West Indies in exchange for more molasses.  Britain’s attempts to control commerce in the colonies angered Rhode Islanders, and in 1772 Lt. William Dudingston’s harassment of shipping in order to enforce maritime law and prevent smuggling led to the famous Gaspee incident.


Not the Gaspee (actually, the sloop Providence)


Also not the Gaspee but…it’s the closest photo I had.

Cut to the 21st century.  Brown University, in conjunction with both the Rhode Island and Newport Historical Societies, is using a revolutionary technology to tell the story of “an event that took place in revolutionary America”.  Brown’s virtual reality artist in residence, with the assistance of some history students, is using a 360-degree stereoscopic camera, loaned by Google, to tell the story of the Gaspee incident. This team will be using properties such as the Stephen Hopkins House, and the John Brown House in Providence, as well as Colony House and other properties in Newport.  There was a large scene with many extras filmed already, with Lexington’s Buckman tavern serving as the stand-in for Sabin’s tavern in Providence, which is no longer standing. Here’s where the acting comes in.  I was contacted by friends at both the RI and Newport Historical Societies, asking whether I’d be willing to participate.  My “yes” was almost as rapid as a speeding musket ball, which is odd considering that I have no known acting talent.  Ok, yeah I was in the “King and I” musical in high school many, many years ago, but that doesn’t really count, right?  I decided that a) it’d be fun, b) it would be using virtual reality to teach kids history, which would be WAY more engaging than standard classroom lecturing, c) it would be an excuse to wear my colonials on a random day and, d) it’d be FUN!



Thus, Molly found herself making her on-camera debut portraying Samuel Adams’ second wife Elizabeth Wells, also known as Betsy.  Even though I knew it would be only a brief scene where Sam discusses a letter he’s received from RI (don’t you like how I’ve just decided to call him Sam as if I know him?), I wanted to know as much as I could about Betsy before playing her.  I’d hoped to find a portrait somewhere because if at all possible I would try to replicate her clothing and accessories as nearly as time and budget would permit. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find anything other than that Betsy was a “pleasant and hard-working woman who…supported him in every way” and had helped to raise the children from Sam’s first marriage, also to a woman named Elizabeth, who died after giving birth to a stillborn son in 1757.  Betsy was also considerably younger in 1772 than I am now, and my “co-star” was also younger than I, but I hoped I had enough youthful enthusiasm and few enough wrinkles to pull it off.  I knew that old Sam wasn’t all that successful as the town tax collector, and even though he was influential politically and well respected, he certainly wasn’t rich.  So the notion of wearing a gorgeously trimmed silk gown with fancy accessories (like the portrait of Mrs. Hancock) went out the window rather quickly.  I decided that I’d wear a slightly worn blue wool gown with a quilted petticoat, but that my accessories would be slightly more upscale than a middle-class woman working in her home might wear, in order to reflect Sam’s influence amongst the townspeople.  Therefore I chose a white ruffled fine linen handkerchief around my neck, a white embroidered apron, a fine linen cap with a silk ribbon, fine linen mitts, and original paste stone shoe-buckles on higher heeled shoes.


Yep, these antique buckles are really installed on my shoes.  They were worn by some lady 250 years ago, and they were meant to be worn, right?  I carry the shoes in a box, wear them indoors only and really carefully.  Then I change back to another pair of shoes, wrap them up, and carry them out in their box.   They are used for short, special events only. Never outdoors walking around, never for dancing or anywhere they might be damaged.


Miss Dorothy Quincy (later Mrs. John Hancock) also painted by John Singleton Copley in 1772.  Note her very fine silk gown with all the trimmings.  This painting resides in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.


The real Samuel Adams painted by John Singleton Copley in 1772.  Note the plain red wool suit.  This portrait resides in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston.

The gentleman portraying Sam was someone I already knew from the living history and museum world and since we weren’t required to have a hot love scene or anything, I figured we’d manage just fine together.  He chose a nicely worn wool coat, with slightly snazzier breeches and waistcoat, and a fabulous embroidered cap for the indoor scene. Filming was on a beautiful spring day at one of Newport Historical Society’s (NHS) properties, the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house.  I got out of my car in my “colonials” and was promptly greeted by some dude yelling “HEY THE BRITISH ARE COMING!!!”, even though I was wearing a blue gown and there was no red coat in sight.  You wouldn’t know it from the photo, but the house is on busy Broadway right in the center of town near Washington Square, so the filming was interrupted several times by sirens, motorcycles, and loudly idling trucks.  We did some practice scenes in front of the house to loosen up a bit while we were awaiting an NHS staff member to come unlock the house.  Once we got inside, the house was fantastic, and of course, I was drooling.  One of the kids…I mean students…said to me “so you like old houses, huh?”.  Understatement of the year.  I won’t digress too much, but the house is worth seeing for the original details, the beautiful paint colors based on the original colors uncovered on the woodwork and walls, the delft tiles on one of the fireplaces, and the back kitchen with the unusual wall treatment.  Read all about the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house here, and please visit if you get the chance.


The Wanton-Lyman-Hazard house, Broadway, Newport, RI


The Colony House, Washington Square, Newport, RI

We’d gotten our lines the afternoon before and had repeated them aloud at home, and even goofily practiced them in the mirror,  but it was still a bit nerve-wracking.  Sam had more to say than I did, but we both kept stumbling over our lines and how to say them.  I don’t know how many times we did the scene…we rehearsed with one of the students repeatedly before we did it on camera. Once we were on camera, even with hidden cheat notes, we kept saying the wrong thing, forgetting to say something entirely, making each other laugh, joking around when we blew it– you name it.  One of the students stepped in a few times to coach us on how better to deliver the lines and to make other minor corrections these novice actors might need.  Indeed, for the first few takes I was simply saying my lines, trying to put the emPHAsis on the correct syllAble, and generally failing every time.  Forget hand gestures and facial expressions because I’m actually lucky I can walk and chew gum at the same time without tripping and falling flat on my face. Anyone ever fallen flat on her face whilst wearing stays?  Because I have.  Once you’re down, you’re like a turtle on its back and it’s bloody difficult to get back up without flashing your undergarments or requiring a hoist.  Fortunately, it didn’t happen this day, even though my shoe buckle got caught on the hem of my petticoat and ripped it out so that I nearly tripped while standing on the top step of the house.  In any event, by the hundredth read through (in truth I don’t know how many times we actually did it), we both managed to say the lines correctly, with the appropriate inflection, facial expressions, and gestures and we got a “that’s IT!” and a high-five from one of the students. It took us about 2.5 hours all told, while the scene itself was approximately 2 minutes long.  The time estimate was pretty well on the money though.  We were scheduled from 1- 4 p.m. and we finished up at around 3:30.

Front Stepsa

Sam and Betsy on the steps of their home. Sam has just received a letter about which he is quite distraught.  I dunno, we don’t look too distraught, do we?  I think we’re actually laughing at this line… “Surely the colony of RI cannot allow this to occur?” “Perhaps not. And don’t call me Shirley, wifey”.  Don’t worry, THAT won’t be in the final cut.  Photo courtesy Adam Blumenthal, Brown University.


With Adam and the students, setting the scene.  This is a good example of what a shot with the 360-degree camera looks like.  Photo courtesy Adam Blumenthal, Brown University.

It was fun (seriously fun), and while I’d love to do it again, acting well ain’t as easy as you might think.  Many of you are in the drama field and already know this, so for you guys, I’m stating the obvious.  But until I tried it, I really didn’t know what it felt like to act in front of a camera.  I will never again assume that an actor has an easy job and makes easy money.  I can’t imagine having to learn an entire series script and deliver it convincingly. Acting is extremely hard work, and really talented actors deserve all the awards they receive, especially those who do their own stunts.  And older ladies don’t often get great roles, so Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, you’re my heroes.  You’ll no doubt be able to see my small scene of bad acting once the whole thing has been put together, though I highly doubt it will lead to any sort of fame and fortune, thank goodness. Seriously though, if just one kid learns something from it, the whole project will have been worth the time and expense for everyone who participated in, conducted research for, and funded this project.  Besides, did I mention that it was FUN?!  Add that to a gorgeous spring day with the flowers and trees blooming all around, the smell and feel of the breeze off the ocean, and the inexplicable sounding of the fog horn in the distance (there was no fog to be discerned that day), and you’re set up for quite the magical experience.   I’d do it again in a minute, and I can’t wait to see the final project with the performances of all the participants.














Patriots’ Day!

Almost every year for the past ten years or so we’ve been going to an event on the Saturday of Patriots’ Day weekend at Minute Man National Historical Park.  Technically in the town of Lincoln, MA it basically spans most of the original road from Lexington to Concord. We discovered the place in the late 1990s quite by accident when I was scheduled to take a certification exam in Boston very early in the morning and I was seeking a place to stay the night before.  Lexington sounded good. Of course, I had been there as a kid with my parents and grandparents, and I distinctly remembered walking across the North Bridge in Concord as well as recalling the two statues; one in front of the North Bridge and the other on Lexington Green.  What I hadn’t remembered was the rest of the park itself, and it is quite possible that we didn’t even stop to visit the battle road trail in between the two more famous locations.



In any event, Mr. H. and I had an extra day to explore, and explore we did! We walked most of the “battle road” trail, reading all the park service signs along the way marking significant events from April 19, 1775.  I was particularly moved by the markers of the British soldiers who were buried where they fell- young men who didn’t ask for war, and never made it home to their parents, wives, and children at home across the ocean.  It became my tradition to pick a few daffodils and wildflowers from the field near the North Bridge and place them on the grave of the two soldiers buried near the bridge.


When we began to participate in living history in the early to mid-2000s, one of the first events I wanted to attend was “Battle Road” on Patriots’ Day weekend.  At the time, I had less of a clue about historically accurate clothing (eek, yikes, exclaim how you must) but I recalled walking the trail several years before, and I knew the history of the area and what happened on April 19. So we attended in an unofficial capacity and while I’ll spare you the photos of our early clothing attempts, I found the place to be strangely “magical” and just needed to be there every year. Some of you will doubtless understand what I mean.  In more recent years with tightening of regulations in order to show improved historical accuracy to the public, we’ve attended with groups in a more official capacity, and have served as interpreters or participated in staged scenarios during the tactical “battle” in the afternoon.


Hartwell Tavern (in summer) along the battle road and Hartwell Tavern interior (below)



The event can be crowded and there are designated areas for the participants to park in order to leave the major lots clear for the visitors, so we typically arrive fairly early in the morning when there are very few if any, “modern” people out and about.  There might be an occasional dog-walker or bicyclist but generally, all one sees are people in 18th-century dress– militiamen, King’s soldiers and officers, and townswomen with little colonial kids.   That has changed in the last couple of years with the “Tough Ruck” for fallen soldiers taking place in the park at the same time.  However, our routine has always been to take a quiet walk along the dirt road lined with trees and stone walls, past some of the original houses (or remains of such), then to greet our friends.  We contemplate the general alarm of the countryside the night before with the beating of the horses’ hooves of the alarm riders, church bells tolling and the sound of signal gunfire calling the militia out in the wee hours of the morning (generally 3 musket shots in a row, as quickly as could be loaded), how the inhabitants of the homes might have been feeling, and what actually happened that day.  For me at least, it effectively transports to a different time and place.


The event opens to visitors mid-morning, and that time is usually spent visiting with friends who are demonstrating 18th-century life at Hartwell Tavern and the Smith House, as well as talking with and answering questions for the visitors.  We find a shady place for “nooning” if the weather is warm, or a sunny place if it is not, then the main event occurs right after lunch in the afternoon.  In this case, it is a tactical weapons demonstration rather than a “battle” where the soldiers are dropping “dead” on the road, but the way it is scripted and organized is still very effective.  Opposing fire, casualties, and simulated warfare are prohibited by the National Park Service.  This is partly a safety issue, but also a matter of respect.  Many National Parks are on battlegrounds where people actually died, and in some cases, are buried.  Respect for the memories of those people on both sides of the conflict is of profound importance.  The Park Service’s policy is explained here (reference is to the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary War, but the policy is the same).  In any case, at about 1 p.m. the ropes are placed to get the visitors off the road, and we begin to hear firing in the distance. We see horsemen from both sides riding up and down the road, and the Regulars and their officers begin marching east, returning from Concord.





They fire occasionally (black powder “blanks” only) demonstrating their formation for firing, the commands, and their weapons.  We also see the militia in the distance, running to take positions in fields, behind barns, behind stone walls, amongst the trees, etc.  They also fire, but both sides fire at oblique angles to each other to demonstrate their weapons, as there can be no opposing fire.  Still, the way it is scripted, the running up the road, the smoke and the chaos, is quite effective.




For a couple of years when we were not part of any scenarios and remained behind the spectator lines I found a group of kids who were running around with toy guns screaming “AIM, FIRE” and randomly “shooting” each other.  I formed them up, explained the commands, trained them a little to keep them quiet for their parents (I don’t actually know the drill itself), and explained what had happened that day, as well as what was about to happen when the action got to our location.  Then I told them that when the “British” came down the road and reached them, they were going to remain in line, I was going to give them the command and we were going to go for the officers like the militia actually did on that day.  Ok kids, here they come! They were jumping up and down with excitement.  Even better, one of the officers in front was my friend, so this would be quite fun.  I lined the kids up and yelled loudly enough toward them that the kids could hear me but not too loudly (as I didn’t want the soldiers on the road to mistake it for a real command)  “Make ready.  Present. FIRE!” The officer saw us when I waved to him and yelled asking how they dared to fire upon officers!  Later on, a soldier walked through the crowd near us and I told the kids that it was their chance to take a prisoner.  They didn’t, as it was all in jest of course, but the kids got a huge kick out of it.  The parents were grateful that they were occupied for a bit while waiting for the action to get to them.





This year, we were asked to participate in an evacuation scenario at the Whittemore House, a location east of the “Parker’s Revenge” site, where the main action would be concentrated.  This is much further east than the Hartwell Tavern and Smith House, and as a consequence, we didn’t get there this year to see some of our friends.  However, Mr. H. and I were asked to portray Jacob and Elizabeth Whittemore, at their actual house! These houses that are still standing are known as “witness houses” (how we wish these houses could speak to us of what they’d seen!).




Two other friends from our group were asked to portray the Whittemore’s daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Moses Reed.  The family was living in the house on April 19, 1775 and until recently it was a mystery as to why Jacob and Moses didn’t join the militia that day, rather choosing to hide in the woods with their women and children.  It was unlikely, or at least improbable that they were cowards, so it was assumed that they must have been Loyalists.  But if they were Loyalists, would they have hidden from and feared the King’s army?  I don’t have that answer.  However, the real story was recently discovered by a local historian.  Mrs. Reed had at least 2 other young children already (some reports say 3 plus the baby, but we’ve only been able to find evidence of 2 others), had given birth to a baby girl on April 1 and was still feeling decidedly unwell. Mr. Whittemore had lost two previous wives (including Sarah’s real mother Esther *update 2018, we’ve discovered that Sarah’s mother was Mr. W’s 2nd wife, Deborah) to childbirth and it is supposed that Mssrs. Whittemore and Reed remained with their family out of concern for Sarah and the baby.  In fact, Sarah was carried out of the house on a mattress (probably stuffed with straw) when the family fled and hid in the woods as the army was returning to Boston from Concord on the afternoon of April 19, with good reason it turns out, as a skirmish took place in front of their home shortly afterward.  Mr. Reed later joined the Continental army and went on “multiple campaigns”, so there goes the “they were Loyalists” theory. Read about the Whittemore and Reed families in this Boston Globe article.   I was curious about whether Sarah and her baby survived, so I looked the family up on  Sarah Whittemore Reed lived until 1830, dying at age 79, and baby Sarah Reed Smith died in 1865 at the age of 90.  It is significant that she was born at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and died at the end of the Civil War.  So for those of you who ascribe to the old wives tales about how “they all died young back then”, there is your proof, right?


At the appointed time, we waited with our household valuables in a wheelbarrow at the back of the house, Moses with his musket over his shoulder in case we should meet with trouble. Although it is supposed that the family fled from the back of the house directly into the woods, this was a public scenario, so when other townspeople arrived we were to come into the road from behind the house.  A neighbor was waiting along with us with her “great grandchild” in her arms. When a group of other women arrived, it was time.  It was strange and awkward at first, and we had to remind ourselves not to laugh or smile. As we did not have any sort of period-appropriate mattress available, we thought at first to put Sarah in the wheelbarrow, but we quickly realized that wouldn’t work.  So Sarah was supported between her Dad and Step-Mum, bent double with pain, and carrying her “baby”.  Moses was next to us pushing the wheelbarrow, piled high with our “stuff” and carrying his musket as we struggled up the road.  At one point I noticed that no one was speaking, exclaiming or running, which I thought we’d actually be doing if we were frightened, so I shouted to the two young ladies ahead of us, inquiring if they had as yet seen any soldiers coming after us. I then asked Moses if he had the silver, and asked my husband if he’d loosed the animals (better to round them up from the woods than to let the soldiers have them).  Despite our original awkward giddiness, once we heard the gunfire in the distance and were on the road it started to feel real.  It was getting hot in the afternoon and it’s slightly more difficult to run or walk quickly in stays because breathing is somewhat more shallow, so I was sweating and breathing hard. What if my daughter were sick and I didn’t know whether she and her baby would live or die, what if the soldiers came, killed our men and molested us? What if they burned the house down and stole our animals, our money, and our valuables? What would we do, how would we live? If they caught us, should we beg for mercy or pretend to be Loyalist? People began to ask us “is she all right?”, not knowing if something was wrong and we actually needed help or an ambulance!  That’s when we knew we’d been convincing.


We waited and watched the skirmish in front of “our house” from behind the visitor lines, then returned “home”. Afterward, we took a few pics, relaxed on the lawn hoping to be able to talk about the family to visitors (sadly they all left after the action finished), and began planning how we’d make our scenario an even better one next year.  It was a privilege to portray the Whittemore family, and we would like to thank the National Park Service, the hard working park rangers at Minuteman National Historical Park and the Whittemore House, the organizers and participating units of the Battle Road event, and our friends from McAlpin’s Corps of Loyal American Volunteers.  See you next year!