Most people who meet me and find out what I do in my spare time quickly realize that history is my passion. As a child my favorite school field trips were always to the historical sites, like Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village where they cooked on the fire, spun wool or flax, and made candles. My earliest “I want to do that” memory was when I was about 7 years old vacationing in Maine. I would ask my parents to drive by the Emerson-Wilcox house in York to look for the “colonial people” who often stood outside awaiting tour groups. I had a Madame Alexander “Betsy Ross” doll (yes I still have her, in excellent condition) and paper dolls from Platt and Munk that were George and Martha Washington, Betsy Ross, kids named James and Dolly, Thomas Jefferson and a mysterious lady named “Sally”. At the time, I had no idea that she might have been intended to represent Sally Hemmings. I still have that box of paper dolls, also in very good condition. All those were among my most prized possessions and I played with them much more carefully than some of my other toys. Playing outdoors, I used to pretend that I was meeting General Gage on his horse in Boston (a Loyalist even then!) and gathering “potatoes” (actually rocks) in my apron. My best friend and I loved playing “dress up” with her mother’s old clothes.
Fast forward to young adulthood. I had to make some decisions about what I was going to study in college and what to do with my life, and in the interest of practicality some of these things were put behind me. I considered history, music, fashion design, interior design but…my parents talked me out of those things as not practical. I studied English literature (thinking I’d teach), with a minor in management (in case I didn’t end up teaching), ultimately leading to positions in corporate America. History was nearly forgotten during these years, but…not quite.
In the early years of my marriage, when the Mister and I were taking a drive we spied a bunch of canvas tents. Intrigued, we stopped. It was a Civil War encampment and we spent the morning walking around and talking to the soldiers and other demonstrators. It was both interesting and disturbing, so we went to the library and borrowed Ken Burns’ Civil War series which had been shown on PBS the year before a night at a time. We were moved beyond imagining and discussed maybe joining those folks. Ultimately we decided the whole thing was “too sad”. We moved on with our lives, giving it no more than a passing thought every now and then. But, eventually we did get involved. Below is how we spent our anniversary several years ago…
Many years later on a Thursday afternoon I received a phone call from a friend. She said “Hi, want to be in the parade on Saturday?” I immediately said yes. She said “Wait, don’t you even want to know the details? You have to get dressed up colonial”. Hearing that, I was even more excited about it. My friend explained that they needed chaperones for the elementary school children who had performed in a historic walking tour of the local village and would be marching in the parade. When the parents were approached most of them said “no” once they heard that they would need to wear “costumes”. I jumped at the chance, marched in the parade and agreed to be a tour guide the following year. We wore hideous costumes from the school department (yep, I’ll spare you all THAT photo) and I decided that I wanted something more accurate for the next time. Over the next year I met a bunch of folks, immediately knew they were my people, and never looked back. I began to focus on historically accurate clothing and found that I loved wearing it…yes, including stays (the 18th century term for what were later known as corsets). Not painful, disfiguring, or dangerous at all…don’t believe those myths…but that’s another blog post.
Although we eventually outfitted ourselves accordingly and attended some Civil War events, our focus and area of greatest interest is the 18th century and the Revolutionary War period. I began to learn period sewing and cooking techniques, how to fire a musket, and all about cannons, battles, soldiers and pirates (we’re PRIVATEERS, DAMN IT!), then discovered that teaching history, even in small doses at events, was FUN! I especially enjoyed talking to the children. Eventually I began to feel that groups that believed “close enough is good enough” with regard to historical accuracy were doing the knowledge seeking public a disservice. We became determined to focus more on accuracy in clothing and material culture, and we’ve recently joined what is known in the hobby as a “progressive” unit. I may…gulp…even begin, with the help of my friends, to make some forays into first person living history. You may well ask, is it all about dressing up and playing like adult kids? I won’t lie. On some level it is definitely an escape from one’s modern troubles. But it’s much more than that. It is researching, studying and teaching history, appreciating different perspectives in a historical conflict, and teaching people something tangible rather than “on this date this happened” in a classroom lecture, expecting them to be interested in and memorize the facts alone. Seeing it, living it, and demonstrating it make the dates and facts of the historical event have so much more significance. Understanding the daily lives of the people who lived during those times; what they wore, what they ate (yes it’s a real fire and we really ARE gonna eat that delicious food later), what items they had at their disposal, and imagining how they felt, gives a different perspective and perhaps even a certain poignancy to the facts in a book about a particular historical event.
With regard to re-enacting itself, people often ask how some of us can bring ourselves to play “the enemy”, particularly in the Civil War, and assume that we as 21st century people still support the ideology of things that are considered politically incorrect now, or are and were just plain dead wrong. Most people don’t have too much of an issue with “British” and “redcoats” for Revolutionary War re-enacting, and the ribbing is good natured since we have been allies with England for quite some time such that the true animosity is gone. We sometimes feel that as middle aged adults we might very well have been loyalists trying to preserve the connection with the mother country if we’d lived then, although I have been in situations since that have made me question that assumption. Studying local history, I think I *might* have avoided paying taxes by associating with certain profitable merchants and privateers who smuggled the goods into Newport RI. Based on my husband’s family history as land owners in southern RI, the family may well have had slaves (not that we would ever consider portraying that scenario) though we have not yet found evidence to either confirm or deny it without a doubt. Some think that when we present a scenario where the woman is subordinate to the man and I submissively do the bidding of a male officer or my husband, or I treat them, or a woman portraying my “better”, with deference, that I ascribe to that in my modern life. Anyone who knows me well knows that is not true. However, we are educating people about the values of the time…it doesn’t mean we agree with them and sometimes a shock is a good lesson. Ultimately, the Revolutionary War was about freedom from tyranny and the independence of our nation, and overall, no one really has an issue with that.