Do I Know You?: Fleshing Out Impression Biographies

How delighted our newbie is today... after all the hoops they've jumped through, they've received their invitation to an (threatening theme plays) Immersion Event. They're diligently working their way through the packet and out comes the Character Biography. OH PANIC!!! "Who AM I?" they wail. How do I find out who I am? Is this REALLY important to post to the group? What if the group wouldn't know some of the information about me?
First, to truly create the "community" feel of previous eras, your new neighbors will need to know a great deal more about you than your modern neighbors do. This sense of "community" was key to functioning in communities of previous eras. Helping out a neighbor was seen as not only a "nice thing to do" but as an obligation that one MUST do. Much of this sense of community comes from the tribal traditions of early human life. Early humans found that while they could survive alone, they would have a better chance of surviving if they formed communities. As the community traditions evolved into tribes/clans, states, countries the role one plays in the larger community becomes formalized and tradition-based.
     In "our" eras of the 18th and 19th cent. America, we are in a transition from the agriculture-based community-is-family model to the industrial-based family-is-community model. In a community-is-family model, one needs to know about others because that information could bring about the down-fall of the entire community. All actions, good or bad, reflect upon the community and the standing the community holds in the larger world. Everything that is done is done to bring honor to the community. Disputes are mediated in the best interest of the community, which may not be to the best interest of either party of the dispute. In other words... Yes, Dearest Newbie, this information IS important to the whole group, not just your "family". Even a stranger needs to have some information known about them for threat assessment.

It is easiest to start with some basic information and let that lead you to delve deeper. Imagine yourself in the center of a series of concentric circles. Start with information about yourself in the center of the circle. The next ring is information about your immediate family and daily life. Next is your extended family. Next your communities and your public life. Finally your world view and how far-removed events affect your impression.
I will take a common Character Development Worksheet and cover each of the questions. I will give you some suggestions for why the question is relevant and in most cases, an idea of some sources to help you decide on your answers. The questionnaire in most packets leave room for as much detail as you care to include, so you may want to start with a little and add more details as you decide on them.

Center and First Ring: Yourself and Early Influences

Upon a basic introduction, the first information shared is your name. Sometimes a name will be provided for you from the census of the area. Sometimes you will like to consult the census of the area yourself for an actual person of the area. Sometimes you will use your own name. And sometimes you will choose a different name for yourself. I find it is useful to consistently use a few names/impressions where possible, so I remember which name to answer to. :-p Consulting the area census, which is usually available through your local library or through, is often a much appreciated touch for interpreting at an historical park or historical site as it makes the interpretation more immediate to them and tells the story of some forgotten heroes and heroines who founded our communities.
Your birthday is often the next question. Time and Date. com can help with the computations. Your age tells the community what you've seen, what experiences you probably had, and how that might affect how you view the world. We all remember where we were when we heard about famous events and the people of the past were no different. Remember that calender time may have been viewed differently by your impression... maybe the season was a more important counting tool than the month. Perhaps your impression's mother marked family time as between your arrival and Grandpa's exit, or you were born the fall the burning of the tobacco beds got out of hand and burned half the county, or the year Himself was elected president.
A place of birth or home-town is often asked, and rightly so. This is your first community. This is your first introduction to societal and cultural norms. This is where you learn what it means to be part of or apart from a community. Have your people been here for generations, a solid part of the community fabric? Are your people just come to the area, thus you are weaving into the community fabric? Or are your people passing through, a lively accent to the community fabric? Each geographic region was settled by a different make-up of people with specific tribal traditions in language, dress, behavioral norms, and communal attitudes that mark this community as “different” than others. Your first community, or the first community you identify with, is where these traits are instilled in you.

A timeline of major events affecting your impression will usually be included. This can seem very daunting and I often fill this out as I create the rest of the biography. I use this as a “cheat sheet” to make sure my dates and ages add up logically. Sometimes some world events can put personal events into perspective, and I include those here. Also, some events that I consider affecting my impression’s life that are not covered in other categories.

Often information about your parents and siblings is asked about. If you have found your name from the census, a previous census will help with filling out the family tree. If you are choosing your own, viewing a number of families in the census can help you get an idea of the types of family make-up that were common to your area. Your parents are the ones who taught you "the rules" that you are now deciding to accept, tweak, disregard, or openly oppose. They are the ones who introduced you to much of what the world had to offer and taught you how to explore and interpret what you were experiencing. Giving careful consideration to the parents of your impression is important to exploring what your impression might have been taught and how that influences how they act and react today. For much of the past, extended family also helped with these lessons, so don't neglect to include the influences of your Grandparents, Uncles & Aunts, Cousins, Great-Uncles & Great-Aunts. How your parents interact with their siblings will show you how to interact with yours, and how to interact with the community at large.

Your spouse and children are the last part of exploring your period family. If your spouse is attending the event with you as your impression’s spouse, it is important that you consult each other when composing your biographies to keep the information consistent. In the societal norms of the past, women took their communal standing from their spouse or lack thereof. Thus, the information about your spouse, his occupation, and his societal standing are important questions about your standing in the community. At the basic level, one can simply answer “yes, I’m married and we’re normal trade-class folks.” To delve deeper gives an opportunity to comment on marriage in general, your marriage in particular, and how your marriage affects your daily life. Are you doing well? Are you struggling? Are you arguing because he drinks away the rent money? Are you glad he spends all his time at the office because he micro-manages your sphere when he is home?

Community Influences

     Occupation may be one of the simple questions on the Biography Sheet, but it is one of the most important questions to consider about your impression. Each occupation has a reputation, which will color how you as a practitioner of that occupation would be viewed. When choosing an occupation, make sure you can research enough of the details of that occupation to give a convincing portrayal of it. Also, if you are portraying that occupation for modern-day visitors, one will run into the incidence of speaking about that occupation with someone who practices that occupation today. Being able to relate a period occupation to a modern equivalent will allow the visitor to connect with you and the history you are trying to share. The census is a great place to learn about what occupations were common in the area. City Directories were published for many of the larger cities. Some occupations require licensing and those will be with the county and state records in most cases. Your local library can usually point you to which archive keeps those records.

     Education is often asked with the occupation. Formal schooling was often viewed very differently in the past. The educational opportunities your impression had will color how they view education, those with more and with fewer opportunities for education than themselves, and certain occupations. They may feel their education gave them a boost in career or they may be trying to act more educated than they actually are. Education can include trade skills, home-schooling, common sense, independent learning, non-traditional learning…. Not just the time spent in a formalized classroom. To delve deeper, explore how your impression came to know the things they do. Why do they find those important to remember?

     Hobbies and Interests can tell your neighbors much about what is important to you. Most of us need not only an occupation that provides what we need but an outlet for creative expression and fulfillment of the off hours too. Hobbies we share with others can open a conversation, which makes any event more enjoyable. Music, Literature, Science, Nature, Art, Mechanics, Needlework, Cooking and Construction are just the tip of the ice-berg. Many cities had interest groups for persons who shared interests. A City Directory can suggest a few to you.

     A few of the interests are key to how you interact with your community and express your world view. In most questionnaires, this is where they will ask leading questions related to the event and begin to discover how you might interact with other members of their particular community. These questions may be the hardest of all to answer because they are the ones that require both research and thought.

     Asking about travel opportunities allows your neighbors to peg your world view. Is the focus of your impression on our local community or will the larger state, country, and world affect your choices? With a focus-era of 18th and 19th cent. America, we are in the travel revolution. The many new inventions related to travel are bringing the world closer together and taking the local community to the larger world. To delve deeper, how does this make your impression feel? At the fore-front of exciting possibility or overwhelmed by the fast moving choices? Ready to prove to the world we are every bit as good if not better? Very small and without the power to affect much on a large scale? Newspaper Advertisements, Travel Brochures, Travel Guides, and City Directories can all help to give an idea of travel in the past. Journaling was very popular on long trips and many of those survive to give us a glimpse of how a person of the past found a community they were encountering. Many have been digitized by Google Books and the Gutenberg Project.

     Politics were one of the key topics in past communities. How the governance of the communities will affect the daily life was felt much more immediate to people of past communities. Often the drama of politics will make up the bulk of an immersion event. For much of the past, the right to affect politics with the vote was held by only a few persons. Those without the vote needed to find other ways to affect politics and make their political needs known. Most political decisions were published in newspapers and broadsides were hung in a prominent place in the community. Issues for consideration were advertised in broadsides and debated in the editorial sections of newspapers.

     As anyone who has been very sick or gravely injured will tell you, health is an important consideration that affects our lives. It will color how we view the medical profession, medicines, illness, and mental health. It will say much about how we view mortality and possibly religion. It will affect the types of physical activities we engage in. It will affect the precautions we take and the attire we choose. Many of the conditions that affect our impressions have been alleviated by modern medicine and modern sanitation, but they were a very real and quite serious threat to persons of the past. Many of the sanitation rituals and health edicts of today were enacted comparatively recently. While we comply with the edicts and rituals as historic preservationists, to view the world as it was in the past we need to remember in our minds that the pollution was there at the time we are re-creating. Reading the bombast for patent remedies will give an idea of some of the concerns that were commonly thought to need remedy. To delve deeper in the 18th cent. consider the books by Dr. Benjamin Martin, for the 19th cent. consider Dr. John C. Gunn, both are available via Google Books.

     Lastly, your religious preferences should be known to the community. Spirituality and religion were very important to our past communities. Wars and political struggles were instigated because of differences in religious or spiritual beliefs. Consider not only the well publicized ones we all know of today, but the many smaller community level ones also. In many cases, religion will govern not only how one lives, but reading matter, attire choices, ritual, friend and spouse suitability choices, and views on charity. It may affect employment opportunities, group membership, marriage opportunities, voting rights, immigration and emigration, educational opportunities, and community socialization. Many religious congregations sponsored publications, schools, charities, social justice organizations, and social activities for it’s members. Many documents can be found in the archives of the respective congregations and advertisements can be found in newspapers and city directories.

     With thoughtful consideration of these questions, you should be able to begin filling out a Character Biography for your impression for immersion events ...and probably found a few interesting tangents along your journey. Let those tangents lead your further research. Which questions you provide the most detail on will also comment on your interests... and may open up a conversation or gain you a research partner. The questionnaire doesn't need to be daunting, it can be a lot of creative fun.

Some resources:
One can browse the census by years by clicking the dates to the right-hand side, or search by birth year and location. You don't need a name.
City Directories: Choose "Browse the Collection" on the Right-Hand side
Politics: 1840-1860

For Newspaper Archives enter "newspaper and community name" into the main search engine.
For Religious Organizations and Document Archives enter the denomination and the community name in a search engine.