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 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!