Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Connection in an isolating age

Effective re-enactors understand that we must form a connection with those with whom we share history. We also lament that fewer people are understanding history, especially the less pleasant aspects. This leads to a more tenuous connection with those who need the connection most.

I interpret history near Washington, D.C. The requested interpreters are young, white men who portray Civil War soldiers. I am not young, male, nor portraying a soldier. Most of the people with whom I am sharing history are not in that demographic either. Are we really making the connections that lead to understanding history?

While I can talk about the Civil War soldier and the battles of the area, they can't "see" the battle from the soldier's perspective from my telling. They can't relate to a young, white, male soldier. They can't "see" themselves 155 years ago. 
To effectively share history, I need to show a different perspective.

When I share about a battle, I share the perspective of a middle aged white woman, a businesswoman, a professional care-giver. The middle aged white women can relate to my perspective. They can "see" what that battle may have been like for them.

A friend is a white man of middle years, a professional man who has worked hard for his settled position and establishing a secure home for his family. The middle aged white men can relate. They can see the choices they may have made through the choices depicted by my friend.

The demographics of the DC area are changing rapidly.
It's one thing for me to include the stories of black Americans in the hospital systems as I speak of women in the hospital systems, that makes a connection with the black citizens of modern DC, albeit tenuous. The connection is that much more strong when my friends who are black Americans tell the stories of the USCT, or the free teacher on her first day, or the enslaved cook who "ain't nobody's mammy!" Suddenly history is not just the story of some white man in a boring book, it's a living, breathing person like them.

With a wealth of immigrants coming to the DC area, I've been working on portrayals of several immigrants. When one of my portrayal shares her fears of leaving all she has known for an uncertain welcome, or wading the paperwork river to citizenship, or trying to make a life amid anti-immigrant hostilities; they can see they are the newest in a long tradition of making America home.

When we share these different perspectives of a battle or of The War in general,  those we share history with can connect. They can "see" themselves 155 years ago; the choices they might have made, the challenges they may have faced, the opinions they may have held because of their experiences. They know where to begin to ask questions and explore experiences, because the interpreter shares mutual challenges. History is more tangible. History makes a connection. History is a Person. One can connect with a Person.

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And if you are so inclined, please sign this petition to have a visitors' center and park rangers assigned to the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington D.C. With a Visitors' Center and rangers, this national monument can further the interpretation and connect with DC's and Visitors' experiences of History. Petition.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I am, I am SuperWoman... or not.

SuperWoman Syndrome

The romantic ideal that women of the past did all the cooking, cleaning, sewing, child-rearing, gardening, entertaining... for their families without resorting to Professionals. Did it perfectly. Did it from scratch. Did it without mistakes. All while passing on the homey values to the next generations.

Were there women who were SuperWoman in the 19th century?
Yes there were. We have Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray, Oprah. 
They had Eliza Leslie, Elizabeth Acton, Miss Beeton, the local woman every woman loves to hate.
Most women, though, were not SuperWoman. They may have made the best pie in the county, but had to hire out their sewing. They may have put the local tailor to shame, but everyone was scared to visit her house until The Girl came by to "help" with cleaning.

Newbies, you do not need to be SuperWoman either.
As a matter of fact, it would be more accurate if you were not.

Almost all women could do the "basics" of cooking, cleaning, sewing, and child-care. They had their focuses too. 

  • If you do not sew, keep the professionals employed. (Most will work long distance and attend lots of events, the better to reach their customers in person.)
  • If you do not cook, make arrangements with someone who does.
  • If you need help at an event with your children, chances are good other mothers will too, so get a co-op play date together.

...and what you tell the Public does not need to be the arrangements you as a re-enactor make for the event.

In many cases, it over-represents SuperWoman for you to tell the Public that you have made as much of your family's clothing as you have. We don't have the same ready access to professionals, ready made shops, and second hand markets, so we have fewer choices. 

I am a tailor. I spend the majority of my time clothing menfolk. Did I make my dress? Yep, sure did. But I look the Public in the eye and say that I employed the local dress-maker... who got a nice frock for her husband in exchange and the transaction was happy on both sides. Does this "hide my light" on my dress-making skills? Yep, and sometimes that is needful to present history as it was instead of stroking the modern pride. Besides, tailoring and dress-making utilize different sewing and patterning skills and knowing one does not mean one knows the other.

We have examples of 19th century women who made the clothing for their family, including tailored garments. In many cases, it was the necessity during the war years that caused women to think "yes, I think I *can* do that." So in post-war years we see many more home-crafters daring to make their own clothing, using professionals less, and professionals using machine work. It's part of the innovations the war years caused on garment manufacture (like standardized sizes in menswear.) Look carefully at those sources and how often the author mentions extended family and neighbors doing household/farm work for her. She's not really SuperWoman either.

In short, though, Dearest Newbies You do NOT need to be SuperWoman to be a re-enactor.

Friday, April 15, 2016

I am the very model of a modern...

Dear Newbie has indulged today in a movie set in our favorite era of history. The movie is set in 1862. The dresses are from fashion plates of 1862. The suits are from cutting plates of 1862. The carriages, traps, buggies are all straight out of the 1862 catalog. The dishes on the table are documented to have been introduced in ...you guessed it... 1862. The action is accompanied by songs published in 1862. The entire scene dates to precisely 1862... so why does it seem so "off"?

The production team has used what we have come to call "Model Year Syndrome." We in re-enacting sometimes do something similar.
Progressive Military will often lament, "He thinks all soldiers were sprung full grown from the head of Mr. Davis in 1861!"

When we look through our recipes, housewares, and well... almost everything but clothes... we often fall into this Model Year Syndrome. We forget that we didn't spring to life full grown in 186x, so sometimes our knowledge needs to be outdated for 186x.

Take our favorite food recipes. Many will rely on recipes and cook books published in the 1850s and 1860s. This is a great start, because we can at least document the recipe as being available to some citizens in 186x. But we haven't considered where our portrayal would have learned that recipe. Would our portrayal have learned that recipe from a book or would she have learned it from watching her mother, grandmother, or another female relative? 
For my portrayals, I am roughly 40 years old and would have begun a household in the mid 1840s. I tend to rely on recipe books from 1800-1845 to learn what my portrayal would have been making in the 1860s. 

I likewise look to housewares with introduction dates between 1800-1850 to outfit my home. my portrayal would not have bought all her household goods at the same time, nor would they have needed replacement at the same time. So, a mix of "Model Years" is appropriate.

This can also be applied to "common knowledge" like home medicine, household cleaning techniques, handwriting styles, a whole host of everyday knowledge. Who you are and how you would have learned what you know are major factors in how out-dated or up-to-date your knowledge is on a subject.

Sure, it's cool to show off the "latest, greatest, most scientific" Widget of 186x to the people we share history with, but our portrayals may have had to be content dreaming of how the Widget would make their lives better, rather than owning one themselves. 
Don't forget, too, that just because something is available does not mean it is appropriate for everyone in every situation. 

So, Dear Newbie, enjoy a movie that mixes clothes from 1860 with a buggy from 1853 with recipes from 1812 on dishes from 1850 accompanied by music published in 1861. Ah! Much better! So real! 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Stallion Dressed As Colt

We live in a culture obsessed with being young. All the supposedly great things in life are associated with being young. Youth offers open possibility, healthful physical activity, vibrant creativity, unbound optimism, and faith in the hopefulness of the future. "Gather Ye Rosebuds while ye may" and all that.
There is the other end of the spectrum, being Old. Becoming Old is to be avoided at all costs. Old People are rigid in their opinions, tied to their traditions, afraid of change, feeble in their movements, dull in their conversations.
There seem to be only two options, you are either Young or Old.



Many re-enactors are taught to measure the success of their "Look" against a photograph from the era. The closer they come to matching that photograph, the more successful their portrayal is deemed. There is a major pitfall in this method for the menfolk. The men who portray soldiers are looking at photographs of young men. The average enlisted soldier of the Civil War era was 22 years of age. The average age of officers was 26 years of age. Theaverage age of the men portraying those soldiers and officers is older, often much older. They still hold their Look up to photographs to compare.

     So by the time the re-enactor portraying a soldier makes the decision to add a civilian portrayal, he's looked at hundreds of photographs of men in their late teens and twenties.
When searching out a photograph of a civilian to emulate, they gravitate towards photographs of the young men who look like soldiers out of uniform.



 

When they are presented with a photograph of a man in his late-middle years he looks stodgy, formal, Old... they are not that Old. They can't use that photo of an Old man because they are still young, active, vibrant men... just with responsibilities, family, civic activism, occupational experience... but they aren't "Old".

In the mid 19th century, Society took a different view of the middle years. They still encouraged the Young to enjoy a time of learning responsibility with a safety net and they still eshewed becoming Old as a burden to be avoided as long as possible. There was also a time in the middle.

Men in their middle years had the best of both Young and Old. They had the energy, optimism, and vibrancy of youth tempered with the authority, experience, and sense to enact change. Men in their middle years are the foundation of mid 19th century family and society. They are the civic leaders who bring their communities through War. They are the business leaders who bring trade, commerce, industry, technology, and social justice into the modern world.
In short, that stodgy man with dark hair, impressive beard, and a frock coat is not Old. He's an active, vibrant man affecting change on his world... just like you, Dear Newbie.

So, how does this paragon of Middle Age dress?
He chooses his attire based on the tasks of the day, just like you do. What "Look" does he need his attire to convey?
 If the answer is authority, responsibility, and stability; he will choose "business dress." For most of the 19th century, "business dress" meant a frock coat.

The fashions of frock coats changed up over the 19th century. A man in his late 40s in the 1860s would have lived through the introduction of a frock coat as the standard daywear, courted women in the frock coat at it's tightest, gone to War in a loosening frock, and luxuriated in the further loosening post-war styles... all before Ft. Sumter was fired upon. A frock coat was no more uncomfortable to him than a suitcoat is to a modern man. Perhaps not his favorite, but worn when appropriate because it IS the appropriate thing to wear in the situation.

In photo collections of university classes, the Professor is usually the one in the frock coat. While the scholars may show up in a square paletot of the latest fashionable cut, the professor would get a meeting with the Dean about "professional image" if he tried it.
The physician wears a frock coat because he needs his patients to have trust in his knowledge, learning, and techniques. He, too, needs to convey a seriousness, stability, and trustworthiness that comes from "professional" dress.
The lawyer, too, presents his cases in court and meets with clients in professional dress. The respectability, trustworthiness, and professionalism is conveyed through "professional" dress.

Were we to see these same men or any man of similar occupation at home on Sunday afternoon, or enjoying the Ag Fair or a base ball game, or having a drink with friends in the tavern; he may very well choose a loose paletot. Should he take leave of his practice to volunteer with the US Sanitary Commission or take the family on an educational Tour of Europe, again the loose paletot is the practical choice and any tailor worth his price would see he chooses conservatively fashionable style elements.
Consider blue jeans today. Almost all men have a pair of blue jeans (or several). The professor, physician, and lawyer wear their blue jeans to watch the ball game, go out with friends, play tourist, and volunteer on the weekends. Rarely will they wear blue jeans to teach a class, meet patients, present cases. Even then, a nod to "professional dress" is made or he faces a censure from a superior or mentor.
So too are blue jeans worn by men of all ages, but not necessarily the same style. The young men in "skinny" cuts differ from the men in middle years in "relaxed" or "classic" cuts, and differ too from working men in "boot cut" and "Western" cut.

The paletot we learn from Mr. DeVere on page 82 of his Handbook of Practical Cutting on the Center Point System (1866 edition) is,
 "...one of the most elegant styles of overcoat, and the one which is best calculated to suit all figures, all classes, and all ages. It may be cut of every degree of fullness:
* there is the close-fitting style, so well calculated to display the graceful figure of youth and early manhood;
*there is the medium style, which, while it displays the figure to the best advantage, combines that ease and comfort desired by those who have reached maturity,
*we have the square-cut style, so generally preferred by men who are given to athletic sports, from the great facility it gives for muscular action;
*and lastly there are the looser-fitting styles, so admirably adapted for men of middle age, who have arrived at a certain degree of corpulency."

There are some styles that were worn by men of almost all ages, but the context of when, under what conditions, helps sort out the "spot on like a photograph" from a near miss.
When looking at photographs to choose a style... make sure several men of your actual age are wearing that style and pay attention to the situations under which that style is used in the 19th century.




Friday, April 17, 2015

Assessing your events, and what that can tell you

Military fellows have it a bit easier. With a basic outfit and gear set, they can attend almost any event they'd like with assurances their portrayal will be appropriate to the event scenario. Maybe they're portraying a Pennsylvania infantry volunteer instead of their core Massachusetts infantry volunteer; but it's still a Federal infantry soldier.

Non-military men have it a bit different because our portrayals change drastically based on the portrayals appropriate for the specific scenario. And we need a suit and gear for them all. From a plantation owner with a medical degree in Virginia to an apothecary in Pennsylvania to a farmer in Maryland to a canal boatman in New York to a river boat pilot in Ohio to a statesman in Washington City giving a speech.

The first step in compiling a functional Wardrobe Toolbox is assessing the events you do to see exactly what portrayals you do most and what their wardrobe needs are.

Make a list of your events in the last three to five years. Then notate some information about what your portrayal was at those events.

Of course start with the obvious, your occupation and a generalized category for your economic and social status; but don't stop there.

The activity we see your portrayal engaged in or the occasion depicted at the event- At many events, the event depicted is a special occasion or an interruption of the daily routine of our portrayals. If your events only include a work day, you can likely skip the Sunday Suit. Allow that not seen wardrobe piece to be a presence in your mental inventory rather than your physical one. In other words, if you asked your portrayal to list his clothing, he would tell you he owns a Sunday Suit, but you've only ever seen him in a denim trousers and work-shirt in the wagon.

The season of your events- these guide the types of weather protective garments you'll need. If your events center in the warm months, you maybe don't need a top coat but will spend the extra for a great straw hat.

Interior/Exterior- like the Season, this guides the types of protective garments you'll need. If a lot of events are outdoors in morning grass, those rubber over-shoes are a priority, whereas all the interior winter events means you can skip the snowshoes.

Number of Days you dressed for the event- this will guide how many of each garment you'll need minimum.

If you were to put that information into a spreadsheet or chart, using a set group of terms, you would quickly see the patterns emerge.
You might see that you portray a professional class and trade class man in the medical professions, in transitional seasons, mostly in historic buildings, for at most 4 days.
From that, you can start compiling a wardrobe of professional class garments that can be dressed down with choice less nice pieces, some rain gear and and warm layers. You would see that you could skip the full dress suit and the heaviest winter top coat. You'd see you'd like about 5 shirts and drawers for the 4 days you'll dress.

You could also use this assessment to chart your gear, from your bedding and dishes to your Personal First Person.

Resources:
Event Assessment Template


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Advice on a Wardrobe Core

A Dear Friend is trying to make sense of what his civilian wardrobe for re-enacting should consist of. Today, I will use a friend's wardrobe as an example to try to shed more light on the topic of a "mix-n-match" wardrobe core that I introduced in "Best Bet Wardrobe for Men and Older Boys". Other postings that might be helpful include: "A Citizen Considers His Wardrobe" and the series, "Do I Know You?"

Before one can discover what garments will be most appropriate, one must first evaluate the types of events, occasions, and tasks he will attend, paying attention to the aspects of life that will affect clothing choices. That’s the subject of an article of it’s own, so I will draw your attention to the pertinent information.

My friend is in his middle years, with a professional class background to call upon, and lives in a temperate climate. His re-enacting season usually lasts from late March through early December. He seldom camps, but does attend events where leisure attire is convenient. He prefers to tailor his portrayal to the event scenario. An average season will see him portray a factory worker, a farm worker, a small town physician, an apothecary, a plantation owner with a medical degree, and a surgeon with the Federal Army medical department.

With such a list one might think my friend is a “clothes horse” to have so many suits of clothing and question how anyone can afford to have clothes for each of those portrayals.

He has created a wardrobe toolbox. Think of it like Legos or trading cards. One has several starter packs to choose from and each “world” has expansion packs that will compliment the starter pack.

My friend’s starter pack consists of 4 shirts (2 white, 1 calico, 1 check), 4 pair of drawers, 6 hankies, 6 pairs of socks, a pair of shoes, a pair of dark blue wool trousers, a wool waistcoat/vest, suspenders/braces and 2 cravats (one green, one black).

His first expansion pack gives him pieces appropriate to working portrayals. It includes a wool over-shirt, a neckerchief, and a soft cap. He has a further expansion pack for cold weather that includes a wool pilot coat, knit comforter, and mitts.

His second expansion pack gives him pieces appropriate to office and professional portrayals. It includes a wool frock coat, a plush top hat, and a pocket watch with a locket fob. His winter expansion pack here includes a wool shawl, leather gloves, and a walking stick.

Just like Legos, separate pieces are available to offer more variety. My friend chose to add a second pair of wool trousers in a cheerful windowpane check, a snazzy silk striped waistcoat, and the Death By Fuchsia cravat. He also added a sporty coat to take his working class portrayals to town or his wealthy portrayals on a casual outing.


Because he avoided pieces that were appropriate for only upper or only lower classes, most of his garments can be worn in the appropriate occasions no matter the “class” he’s portraying. 

As he's gown and expanded as a re-enctor/living historian, different garments have become the focus of his core and he's sold off some of his original starter pack to re-invest in solitary pieces he now has the experience to know he'll find more useful. 

Start small, build slow, invest in quality rather than quantity, maintain carefully. 


Links:

**Please note the photos are property of the respective photographers and may not be mined, reprinted, or copied without express permission of the owner. There is a good reason names and photo tags are not used here. Please respect that choice. Thanks. :-)




Thursday, July 11, 2013

Portrayal Series: Second Hand Clothing Dealer

Recently I have been privy to a few Dear Newbies who are considering whom to "portray." Also, I recently put together a new "portrayal" that was kinda special. It seemed a perfect opportunity for a new series.

A Bit of Background...
I had the opportunity to participate in the Civilian Town of Purdy for the 150th Anniversary of Shiloh by the Blue Gray Alliance. This gave me a chance to explore a new method of civilian re-enacting at a large "battle event." I was impressed with the possibilities of this event model. When the opportunity to participate in the Civilian Town of Gettysburg at the Blue Gray Alliance 150th Gettysburg came up, I wanted to come up with something special.
One goal of these civilian towns was to give civilian re-enactors a chance to create a "camp" that was a bit more like a "town," only with canvas standing in for permanent buildings. A few hearty souls dared to select artisanal crafts and aid societies to "display", but most selected to feature a canvas home. With a firm belief that homes are only a start to creating a "town," I wanted to add some period commerce to Gettysburg.
I am a tailor of re-enactment attire "in real life" and recently added in a ready-mades line. I am often called upon to illustrate the various layers of civilian clothing worn by people of the mid 19th century. I have created clothing for several mannequins to demonstrate this. In short, at any given time, I have a lot of 19th century clothes I can call on.
A favorite topic of mine is how people of the 19th century acquired their clothing. Putting my clothing stash together with a desire to add commerce to Gettysburg and share how people acquired clothing... I chose to portray a second-hand clothing dealer.

Clothing Dealers of the 19th century:
In an era when clothing patterning was still in the hands of elite artisans, every garment produced must be used to it's full. The second-hand clothing markets answer this need in many ways. Modern folks tend to hear "second hand" and associate with inferior goods and inferior work, worn by inferior people. Such associations tell only one small part of the second-hand story.


How clothing becomes "second hand" in the 19th century:
  • Garments produced by tailors or dress-makers that have gone unclaimed by the customers for whom they were produced might be sold to a second-hand dealer for re-sale.
  • Wardrobe from someone who passed on might be sold to a second-hand dealer by surviving relatives.
  • Garments might be sold to a second-hand dealer to off-set financial obligations or facilitate a new purchase.
  • Prisoners, Asylum Inmates, and Poorhouse Inmates might have garments sold to a second-hand dealer to pay for their treatment. (There's a good reason second-hand dealers are known as "ghouls" and "vultures" in period literature.)
Garments might be sold to second-hand dealers several times in their lifetime, finally bought by the "rag-n-bone" who would sell them for pulp or scraps.

A person starting as a second-hand clothing dealer would begin with a pack basket of clothing and travel from town to town, stopping at farms along the way. When business picks up, he might acquire a cart or wheelbarrow and may decide to stay closer to an urban area. He would make a point to attend the Market Day given in most small towns. Some larger urban areas had a market building and clothing dealers were quick to rent stalls there. A few clothing dealers would acquire buildings of their own for their enterprises.
The occupation appealed to many recent immigrants.
Canal Street Market in Cincinnati, Ohio ca. 1860 by Henry Mosler   Notice the clothing stall on the left, as indicated by the cage crinoline hanging from a fly peg



We acquired the 1860 Federal Census for Gettysburg early in the research process. There was no market building listed, but quite a few listings of "clothing" in the "occupation" category. I knew from other census research that "clothing" as an occupation might mean two things, either a second-hand clothing dealer or a ready-mades dealer. Voila, I could be in Gettysburg as a second-hand clothing dealer and it's supported by the census.

What's the difference?
A ready-mades clothing store is filled with clothing that not been owned or worn before. Second-hand clothing has been owned and likely worn before. Ready-mades is like Old Navy, Second-Hand is like a thrift shop.


Shop lay-out:
Because second-hand grew out of pack baskets and market stalls, some disorganization was needed. Clothing was sorted into loose categories and then displayed in piles. The customer sorts through for things they like, they hold them up to assess fit, and they buy or not. A few items might be featured on pegs along the wall.
Piles of sorted mens' and boys' clothing on one of two tables
The two tables and a peg in between them
 



















My "shop" was a tent fly attached to a tent, so I had a ready supply of "pegs" for as long as my tent was supported. I added two tables (yep, modern plastic folding tables... period folding tables would have been ideal, but one works with what one has.)
Tent Posts filling in as "pegs" for "better items"

I chose a unique method of shop identification that may have been an "inside info" item missed by many. Painted lettering in the glass windows was used extensively in the 19th century to identify and advertise shops. We read accounts of damage to shops in Gettysburg due to vandalism and looting several days before we were to portray. I chose to "think like a 19th century person" and cover my "broken window" with a blanket and attach a paper identifying my shop. This let me get by with a less professional looking sign and added a conversational bit.
Blanket covered "window" with paper shop sign

Interactions with others:
I now had physical space, inventory, and background history... next up was customers. Shopping in the 19th century is different than shopping today in many ways. I put together both an introduction sheet and an FAQ to illustrate some of these differences for fellow participants.
One of my greatest failures in this was the confusion of my enterprise with a merchant of re-enactment goods (sutlers), like those seen at most events. "Is it *really* for sale?" was heard more times than I can count. To my great shame and embarrassment, I responded less than graciously to some of the latter friends who asked.
If I were to do this impression again, I would insist that all garments are "props for interaction."

Event organizers brought up how accounting and inventory control would be handled. We agreed the period method of credit accounts that must be settled up would work nicely. I created personal account books for this purpose. For inventory control purposes, we also agreed that only persons associated with "our town" would be allowed to make purchases.

A typical interaction:
The customer enters and expresses they are interested in a certain garment, say a girl's pinafore. They are directed to the pile of aprons and pinafores. They look through and find one they like. They ask, "how much?"
The haggling begins. (like a modern used car purchase, the quoted price is just a starting point for negotiation of the purchase price.)
We come to agreement on the price.
I list the purchase in the customer's account book and in my day book.
Off the customer goes with a new (to them) pinafore and their personal account book.
At the end of the day, I transfer the listings from my day book to the account ledgers (which are organized by customer's name.)
When the customer comes in to settle up, the personal account book and my account ledger must agree or we look for errors.

I greatly appreciated those who did attempt to interact with me appropriately. I regret the confusion for those who misunderstood the sales status. I hope fellow participants learned a bit about shopping in period.

Thanks to N.W. Briggs for the photographs of my display. Please do not mine without permission and credit. Thanks. :-)