Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hitting close to home

I just stumbled onto this and found it depressingly funny - I don't know about you guys, but this has basically been my life over the past 6 years or so. Just for the record, I can't say I'm much of a fan of that "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it" phrase.

funny graphs - So You Like Reading About Dead People?
see more Funny Graphs

Saturday, August 6, 2011

"We sound good, man."

Sorry for the infrequent updates lately. But here's a little humor I thought I'd share just for the heck of it. I'm not always a Dane Cook fan, but Mrs. Flattery showed me this clip and I found it pretty amusing (is it just me, or does everyone think of the "most interesting man in the world" commercials when you hear a sentence begin with "I don't always..."?)

Just as a warning, there is some language so I apologize if it offends in any way (or you could just heed my warning and not watch it if it does).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

First exposure to reenacting, or, the Battle of the Raccoons

A raccoon with a killer eye, preparing to attack Mrs. Flattery

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m still relatively new to first-person interpretation. My experience so far spans less than a year, although since it was a regular part of my previous job (at some points I was in first-person 3 or 4 times a week) I round it out to a full year. Recently Mrs. Flattery convinced me to participate at some Civil War reenactments, which I had never tried before, and after experiencing two different events I thought I would share my outsider’s opinion on it. I prefer not to bad mouth any of the locations or any of the specific people that were there, so I’ve decided not to say where these reenactments took place. I also apologize for the lack of pictures in this post: for some reason it never dawned on me to take any while we were there.

Mrs. Flattery and I portrayed civilians at both events, which of course got me some good-natured (I hope) jokes from the soldiers at my expense. My story was that the Mrs. would not allow me to enlist this early in the war, as we had just bought a new farm and she couldn’t be left alone to manage it herself (as an aside, after planning things like that out I believe Mrs. Flattery and I actually explained that to a whopping three or four people – ah, first person really starts to make you paranoid about the questions you’ll get). We had our own fairly large wall tent and Mrs. Flattery made historic meals with the help of a friend who joined us at the reenactments.

Not our wall tent, but a similar one (image from

First, I’ll start with the cons that I noticed. If it seems like I focus more on the downsides in this post, it’s because I think criticisms usually require more explaining - overall, both events were very fun experiences for me. Let me also stress that these are my own personal opinions about the downsides to reenacting; in other words, I have lazy moments and there’s a lot of work involved in historical camping. The main con for me was the set up involved. Part of this problem was situational: we were only able to stay one night on the first weekend, which was a lot of set up and tear down in just 24 hours. But even during the second weekend the amount of work involved always had an air of futility about it. I’m the kind of guy who likes to finish a job and have the peace of mind that it is done and over with, so even after we got the tent set up the tearing down stayed on my mind the rest of the weekend. It kind of had that old high school “Sunday isn’t really a day off when you have to go back to school Monday” feel to it.

A few of the people there made the experience a little less fun as well. One man came storming through our area about 5 minutes after we finished setting up the tent and started asking everyone nearby what group they were with. He then announced that we were all in the spot that his unit “always camped in” and stormed off (I don’t know which he was implying: either that he thinks so highly of himself that everyone should have known ahead of time where he planned to set up, or that we all should have packed up and moved 50 feet away for him. Either way he’s an idiot.) On the other extreme, some people obviously just did not care that much, especially about historical accuracy, which kind of makes the event as a whole look slightly worse (apparently both events were known as being slightly farby). Overall though, most people there were pleasant and tolerably dressed and I tried not to let one or two bad apples ruin the experience for me. And to me, that’s the important thing: reenactments are supposed to be informative and fun. The “battles” themselves were largely unimpressive, which may have been the fault of the locations or the type of reenactors there, but the reason this was an issue for me was because any public that had a budding interest in the Civil War or reenacting itself probably left with a stale outlook on that moment in history or the hobby. And I was not alone in my opinion, as I heard a number of spectators make similar comments to each other about how the reenactors didn’t seem to care or even enjoy it all that much. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, though, as the location of the “battles” may not have been ideal and the weather on some of the days was pretty rough.

The locations weren’t necessarily bad, however we did run into an incident with raccoons at one of the events which Mrs. Flattery dubbed “the Battle of the Raccoons”. On the second weekend we were camped at a spot next to fairly thick woods, and after getting the tent set up we went to get food (we didn’t cook Friday night since it was hard enough just getting things situated). When we got back, Mrs. Flattery noticed a raccoon was digging around our tent. After I chased it off I discovered that it had pulled my bag out from the side of the tent, somehow figured out how the zipper worked and unzipped it, and began rummaging around. Other reenactors nearby had similar problems. A whole bag of peanuts and saltine crackers were the casualties in this blitzkrieg, and the next two nights we built “Fort Flattery” by piling up boxes and firewood around the perimeter of the tent.

Two last gripes: the drives to and from were difficult and the firewood was crap. But now for the upsides and things that I enjoyed, which in the grand scheme of things outweighed the downsides for me.

As I stated earlier, most of the reenactors were friendly enough and it was a blast being around so many people with similar interests. There were also a wide range of portrayals there, from infantry and artillery to civilians and even “prostitutes”, and it was nice seeing a variety. The camping was pretty fun, and Mrs. Flattery made a mean breakfast and lunch – she hardly took a break the entire time. And I have to admit that even the setting up was fun in a way, especially when you saw the camp site start to take shape. There were a lot of knowledgeable people there, and I was particularly impressed by the talent of two guys who played a fife and drum remarkably well. Lastly, both weekends had relaxed atmospheres which was a big relief for me considering this was my first exposure. Some might have complained that they were too relaxed, but for me it was acceptable.

Anyway, there were a number of minor downsides, but overall it was a fun and enjoyable experience. The downsides (with emphasis on the cost involved) were enough to prevent me from reenacting every weekend, but I plan to attend more in the future and maybe even try my hand at “fighting” (that is, if the Mrs. lets me).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

History Dork Alert!

Yesterday I was digging through an old hope chest that I started sometime around the 7th grade and had filled to the brim by the end of High School.  Apparently I felt the need to save EVERYTHING, most of which I can't even decipher what it is or think of a single reason for having kept it.  This thing is basically a huge time capsule that will leave archaeologists centuries into the future scratching their heads as to why I felt the need to save a bottle of water I purchased on my 7th grade trip to Washington D.C.  Basically the thing is full of junk.

However, among the piles of old school-work and random bottles of water I did find a few things that gave me a chuckle and inspired me to share with you.  These items are some early historical documents that help validate my claim to being a "History Dork."

(Please excuse the blurry pictures, all these items were glossy and couldn't be photographed with a flash.)

Exhibit A:

My American Girls "Samantha" paper doll set.  I think I learned about American Girl sometime around age 13 which is about the age most girls give them up.  I however, reveled in my discovery and read the books from cover to cover.  And apparently, played with paper dolls.  Please note: on the back of the package it says for ages "7 and up".  They did not specify a cut-off age limit, so I feel validated in my having them into my early teens.

Exhibit B:

When I was young, I was a participant in a yearly "thing" called Young Authors.  Students wrote books, went to the local community college to all meet one another, and win prizes for their writing skills.  Again, when I was 13, I was playing the computer game "Oregon Trail" frequently.  I then had the bright idea to use it as the basis for that year's Young Authors book.  Essentially I played the game through, and wrote down key events as they happened.  I then used to events to shape a story about a woman traveling on the trail and wrote it all up as though it was her diary.  Above you see the cover of "A Journal by Melissa Trane", supposedly written in 1848.  It is made of "pleather" all stitched together in a crazy quilt fashion.  I even burned the edges of all the pages to reinforce that old-timey look.  But wait, here's the best part:

POLAROID pictures! For some reason I felt the need to illustrate my story with rapid-develop film whilst trying to represent an era where photography had only been in existence for less than a decade.  Go me.  Pictured above are one of my sisters and her two friends, all of whom I suckered into putting on dress up clothes and posing in our backyard as though they were out on the trail.  Please note the Teflon pan my sister is pretending to cook with over a non-existent fire.  Awesome.

Exhibit C: (Living historians with knowledge about 1860's clothing, brace yourself!)

Oh.  My.  God.  It's me in a "snood".  Lord help me, this should be burned.  Here I am 13, (apparently I hadn't begun to pluck my eyebrows yet) and this was done at a 4th of July festival by a caricature artist.  This was at the beginning of my reenacting career, and as you can see, it was a rocky start.  The big crochet collar. The bangs. The white rayon snood.  The dress which I know for a fact was still being closed with Velcro.  (I later made my mother take the Velcro off and turn the "for show" buttons into functional ones.)  Somehow I went from THIS, to being on the cover of a respected Civil War Civilian living history magazine.  It took a lot of research, willingness to learn and change what was wrong with my impression, and time.  But if I somehow managed, I guess there is hope for all those snood-wearing history dorks out there.

Civil War Photographs

Not sure if this is a help to anyone out there, but I thought I would pass the link on. The yahoo news article claims that these are rare Civil War photographs . Personally I doubt they are anything ground-breaking, as I'm pretty sure I've at least seen picture 1 before. Either way, if Civil War era photographs are your thing then here ya go - just in case they are of great use to someone out there. Feel free to comment if they are/aren't.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Mess of Things

Someone please hit me over the head and put me out of my misery.  My thoughts are spinning 'round and 'round, swirling in a vortex filled with floor cloths, dress designs, domestic manuals, oil lamps, stone churches and chickens.  Yes, chickens.

Mr. Flattery and I are in the midst of planning out our new first person characters for this upcoming summer season at The Museum.  We will be working in the house I have called "my" house for the past year and a half, but this will be the first time we are officially together.  Heck, this will be the first time I have been officially placed with anyone, our staffing doesn't normally allow more than one person per site, but this year my house is getting re-vamped to better represent a working farm and thank God and all that is holy, someone in management actually realized that there is no way one person could manage all there is to do alone.

The museum has been portraying "The Years", meaning an 1861-1865 cycle.  I came in at the end of  '64, Mr. Flattery at the end of '65.  Now we have cycled back to '61 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and will get to experience things from the start.  A fresh start and a new farm project, I have a feeling we have our work cut out for us.

I have the tendency to go overboard in my planning for anything and everything, and creating a new character is no exception.  There is so much to think about, I've always said doing first person requires you to have a lifetime of memories to draw from that don't actually exist, and one must be able to do so at a moment's notice.  For us our personas will develop during the summer months and will culminate in the fall with the "Supper Season".

The museum hosts historical dinners set in different eras, one of which takes place in my (sorry Mr.Flattery, OUR) house.  They last about 3 hours during which you are in character constantly.  You had better have a lot to talk about or it's going to be a loooong night.  It's not a one-shot deal either, for each era there are around 6 different dates visitors can choose from to attend, so we can be doing this 3 hour-dinner upwards of 6 times.  Again, very important to have plenty of conversation material.

If you have seen the cheerleading movie "Bring it On" you may remember the head cheerleader Torrance (played by Kirsten Dunst) saying that for their squad, cheering at a football game is more like a practice.  What they are really preparing for is the big cheerleading championship they win every year.  That's how I feel about this year- the summer season is really a long drawn-out rehearsal for the Suppers.  We lost several of our experienced first-person staff recently and I'm feeling the pressure to be in the lead for the new people.  Is it hot in here?  I feel a slight panic attack coming on.

I do sincerely apologize if my this post is not very eloquent or even making any sense, but as I said my mind is a swirling vortex.  As I am writing I keep thinking about how I want to do more research on painted wood floors.  By the way,thank God for my iPhone.  Whenever one of these research attacks hits me and it feels like I want to know the answer RIGHT NOW I can always pull out my iPhone and Google it.  Ahhhh, Google. I have a feeling Mr. Flattery is going to have to sedate me on a regular basis to prevent first-person-persona-planning overload. I have even begun to have conversations in character in my head.  Is it possible for my new character to develop into a multiple-personality disorder?  Again, someone please knock me out!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Problem with Civil War Handguns

One question about the Civil War that I get quite often from people (my dad, for one) pertains to the use of revolving pistols. In movies like Gettysburg we see the officers blasting away with their pistols and the question often arises: if it can shoot so quickly, why weren't all the soldiers issued a sidearm? Well, there were actually a lot of reasons why - but first let me apologize to the Civil War gun affectionados out there who may stumble onto this article: while I have read up on the subject and find it interesting, I am in no way claiming to be an expert. So go easy on me if the terminology is a little off. On the other hand, feel free to chime in if there is any pertinent information that I left out.

Two of the most common handguns in the Civil War and the types I'm referring to in this post are the Colt Army Model 1860 used most often by Union troops and the Colt 1851 Navy Revolver preferred by the Confederacy. However, it appears that most if not all handguns at the time were the same basic idea. The first and usually most obvious drawback to these types of weapons was their range. Various sources argue that the maximum effective range was anywhere from 50-100 yards. Not horrible, but as rifled muskets became more of the norm this range became increasing useless; for instance the Springfield Model 1861 musket was still very accurate even at 400 yards, meaning someone using a revolver would be under fire for 300 yards before they could shoot back and actually have a remote chance of hitting something. Additionally, that is the maximum range; whether or not a particular soldier was accurate with a handgun at 100 yards is a different story. This disparity in range and accuracy also implies that if you were on the defense you would essentially be waiting for a bayonet charge before you could use your pistol, as your opponent would have little reason to get within 100 yards of you when they could simply stay out of your range and blast away. Ignoring the fact that hand-to-hand fighting was fairly rare during the American Civil War, that leaves a pretty small window of opportunity for using the gun unless you're unit is constantly on the offensive and storming the ramparts.

To be fair, most people I talk to seem to be implying that the revolver could have been used as a sidearm only for occasions such as bayonet charges; in the mean time, they could still use a rifled musket for long-range fighting. The problem with this though is the added weight. A soldier would already be carrying their rifle, ammunition, and other various possessions (canteen, bedroll, etc.). Adding an extra gun with the ammunition and maintenance tools it would require would be added weight and take up space in a soldier's pack on the march, something soldiers were already griping about. It would also make movement and efficiency in battle clumsier. Apparently, though, a number of soldiers did buy their own revolvers during the war but ended up selling or even tossing them aside the next time they went on the march. When you consider that marching occupied most of the army's time during a campaign, the name of the game would be weight loss, not addition.

In addition to individual efficiency, the supply and cost were added headaches for officers and quartermasters who were always battling inefficiency. If individual soldiers were issued handguns as well, each man would require two different calibers of ammunition. This is not only added confusion for an already confused system of supply, but also added cost. Most revolvers were sold in the $15-20 range: a huge investment for an entire unit and more than a month's pay for an individual soldier. In the instances during the Civil War when soldiers were issued repeating rifles and handguns they occasionally found that the heat of battle caused them to shoot more recklessly; essentially, a faster rate of fire entails that ammunition will be expended faster. So while a particular unit might hit their opponent harder at the onset, they will end up taking themselves out of the fight faster as well by running out of ammunition if they are not extremely disciplined with their rate of fire.

The last, and perhaps the biggest, downside to the use of revolving handguns in the Civil War was the reload time. Apparently the rather simple method of placing pre-made slugs into the chambers had not been invented yet, or if it had it must not have been perfected for widespread use. The process during the war was fairly lengthy, meaning that once you fired all of your rounds the gun was useless until there was a break in the battle. First, a measured amount of black powder was inserted into each chamber from the muzzle end of the revolver. After that the bullet was added and packed in firmly with the loading lever. Then a variety of materials could be used to seal each chamber so that when one was ignited it would not cause the other five to misfire. Finally, caps had to be placed on the nipple of every chamber. This video shows the process.

I've never been shot at before, but I imagine the process is rather difficult to do in the thick of a firefight. And as I pointed out earlier, if you can only use it in close quarters combat it really becomes difficult to reload once you fire your six shots.

The American Civil War came at a crossroads in military history. Many repeating weapons, particularly sidearms, just weren't quite there yet. For officers, whose purpose was to command not fight, they were useful in certain circumstances (if only in those "Oh, shit!" moments during a firefight). However, for the common soldier they were impractical to buy, carry, and use.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Spider decorations

I am not a fan of spiders - Mrs. Flattery can testify to that. I recognize the benefits to having them around and I think they are interesting, but try as I might to think rationally about it when I'm confronted by one I still can not get over that innate revulsion that I feel. I invariably feel horrible but it usually ends up becoming a "this-town-ain't-big-enough-for-the-two-of-us" situation, particularly in the winter when it seems even more cruel to toss them outside.

This phobia of mine makes working in historic buildings and museums fairly interesting (one school group was witness to a legendary duel between yours truly armed only with a broom and a gigantic wolf spider armed with olympic speed). But my phobia also made a particular 19th century decoration style catch my attention: that is, the use of spider motifs as house decorations. After seeing it for the first time, I have been noticing more and more depictions of spiders in historic homes (keep your eyes out the next time, maybe the next house you visit will have some of their own). It seems that while a few mythologies and legends do depict spiders as malicious in one way or another, many cultures actually view them as symbols of good luck and good fortune. The more I read about the topic the more myths I find, but it is intriguing how many of them are tied to luck or good fortune. Here are some of the interesting things I've learned through the use of Mrs. Flattery's "School of Google".

First of all, while many people have viewed spiders themselves as good luck, just as common is the belief that killing a house spider (emphasis on house) will bring bad luck to someone (this would certainly explain a lot of things about my life). Most of the rhymes and sayings regarding this seem to focus on the idea that killing spiders, who are industrious and build homes like us, will injure our own homesteads or work ethic. However, one rhyme that I found here at Purdue's website focuses less on the symbolism behind spiders and more on their practicality:

"Kill a spider, bad luck yours will be
Until of flies you've swatted fifty-three."

Certain Native American cultures, for instance some of the Pueblo Nations, believed that "Spider Woman" created the entire Universe. An article at a website called Natural History Mag claimed that ancient Indian texts tell of a very similar story. The Greeks also saw spiders as the weavers of fate and destiny. I know very little about religious stories and texts, but a lot of people online talk about how spiders supposedly spun a web over the entrance to the cave that hid the baby Jesus from Herod; there are similar stories online about David and Muhammad as well. Some people link these myths and religious stories to the beginning of the belief that spiders are good luck, or at least something you should not harm. To me, luck and fortune seem pretty interchangeable with fate and destiny.

The second page of that Natural History Mag article I mentioned also discusses how there are superstitions about spiders and medicine, where they are used as charms for warding off certain illnesses. For example, it was believed that enclosing a spider within two nutshells and wearing it around your neck would help prevent ague. Additionally, some thought that getting spiders to breed and wander around your house as much as possible would prevent gout.

I'll end things on a pretty cute story I read at this website regarding a German tradition of hanging spider webs on the Christmas tree (I'm paraphrasing, the website tells the story better in my opinion). The story goes that traditionally families would let their animals inside the house to see the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, since Jesus himself had been born in a stable. Spiders, however, were not allowed in because wives did not want to clean the cobwebs off of everything. The spiders were always really sad about this, but one evening they were allowed in late at night by Santa Claus (or the Christ Child, according to some versions). They excitedly ran all over the tree looking at the decorations and left behind spider webs wherever they went. In the morning, the housewives found the spiderwebs on the tree but instead of being angry they thought it looked even prettier. Today tinsel is used to imitate the look of spiderwebs.

There is interesting history and symbolism behind even the oddest things.

Edit: (Hopefully to avoid any copyright issues) The spider picture at the top was from Additionally, I found another interesting symbolic meaning to the designs: the intricate webs that spiders make represent our own lives and remind us to be careful about the choices me make every day. Basically, we are constantly "spinning our own webs" in life. Kinda poetic.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Living History as Reality TV

For the past decade or so there has been  a new TV genre known as "historical reality television", where ordinary people are dressed up in period clothing and tossed into a historic setting to see if they can survive the "olden days".  As far as I am aware, it began with the BBC production of "1900 House" back in 1999.  It also aired on PBS here in the U.S. where I watched with rapt attention as the Bowler family tried to survive in middle-class 1900 London.  As soon as it became available on video in my local library I checked it out, and often.

Soon other eras were explored in historical reality television.  I haven't personally seen them all as some aren't available in the United States, and as they aren't all filmed by the same production company I may be totally unaware of their existence.  Regardless, here is my running list, I have seen most but will denote those I have not with a *.

1900 House: 1900, London. (1999)
1940's House: WWII, London. (2001)
Manor House (aka The Edwardian Country House): 1905-1914, Scotland. (2002)
Regency House Party: Regency era, England. (2004) (Half historical reality show, half actual dating reality show.)
Coal House: 1927, Wales. (2007) *
Coal House at War: 1944, Wales. (2008) *
Outback House: 1861, Australia. (2005)
The Colony: 1795-1815, Australia. (2005)*
Frontier House: 1883, Montana. (2002)
Colonial House: 1628, Plymouth Colony. (2004)
Texas Ranch House: 1867, Texas. (2006)

There are more, but I can't find much info on them as they are foreign.  Up to this point the shows all have something in common: the participants could not be reenactors nor professional living historians as not to have a "leg up" on any abilities required to live in the past.  (As both a Civil War reenactor and a professional living historian I must say that despite my background and skill set, I still don't know that I could survive [with my sanity] being cast in one of these shows, let alone living the real thing.)  Most of them have a filming duration of just a few months and it seems that for a lot of the participants, a few months was plenty.

After Texas Ranch House things seemed to be rather quiet on the historical reality television front.  Sure, I would rent and re-rent all the "House" DVDs from the library from time to time, but it frustrated me that no one was producing any new documentaries depicting more time periods.  What about a show set during the Civil War?  Separate the men and have them off living as soldiers would (minus the actual dying in battle/from disease etc. of course) and have the women back at home trying to run the farm and household, waiting to hear if their soldier-husband/father/son/etc. is even alive or not?  I realize I'm being very broad and cliched here, but hey, no one is paying me to actually produce this thing...  Or, set one in the later Colonial period, just prior to the Revolutionary War.  World War One, anyone?  "Biblical" times?  There is a plethora of opportunities for good TV here. Actually, one of the foreign versions (I believe it was from New Zealand) was set in the Stone Ages.  Now that would be pretty neat to see someone from 2011 try and survive.

Finally, this past December a Facebook friend of mine posted a link to a YouTube video that caught my eye.  It was titled "Victorian Farm", and lo-and-behold it was a new (January of 2009) "House" documentary!  This one is set in rural England circa 1870's/1880's (I believe).  I began watching it on my iPhone in between scenes during The Museum's Christmas program.  I made it up to about part 6 and loved it.  There were some really great tidbits in there about laundry, cooking and farming that I really wish I could go back and take notes on, but alas, it seems it has been taken down due to copyright infringement.  I'm pretty sure it's not available in the U.S., which is rather disappointing considering I never got to at least finish watching it on YouTube. 

A key difference I noticed with Victorian Farm was that instead of having your "Average Joe" family donning historical costumes (and as with many of the other "House" documentaries, promptly stripping most of them right back off again, citing discomfort), is that the participants in Victorian Farm actually are historic professionals in one way or another.  The woman, (Ruth) is a domestic historian, and the two men (Alex and Peter) are both archaeologists.  Although one could say they have that previously mentioned "leg up" on things, they still have to put in the work and learn as they go.  Another interesting change was that instead of having the project span only a few months, this time they stayed an entire year.  I liked this concept, since at the end they would actually get to see their farming results instead of speculating if they would have survived or not as done in other shows such as Frontier House.

While looking up information on Victorian Farm just now, I found that there are even more historical reality shows I was unaware of!  One being Victorian Pharmacy, again set in what they describe as mid-19th Century England. They start off portraying  1837 and progress forward to the end of the Victorian era. Ruth, from Victorian Farm, also appears in this version.  And- it's on YouTube!  I'm embedding the first part below, watch it while you can! 

The other documentaries are called Edwardian Farm (guess what that's about?), Tales From the Green Valley (1620's Wales), The Victorian Kitchen Garden, The Victorian Flower Garden, The Victorian Kitchen, and the Wartime Kitchen Garden.  Whew! Again, these are only available in the UK unless you get lucky and find them online.  It seems like I will have to put in some serious YouTube time!

If there are any more of this type of historical reality show that you are aware of but I haven't mentioned, please tell me!  I've been dying for something new since 2006 and am excited to see what else is out there!

Monday, January 24, 2011

The "Quaint" 1800s

I have acquired a few pet peeves while working at museums, and none has bothered me more (so far) than the number of visitors who comment on how living in the 1800s, or in the past in general, seems so "quaint", or even "fun". Often this is followed by some Thoreau-like statement about how they would love to leave everything behind and live like the pioneers and settlers did. And I can't really blame the visitors for thinking this way: candle-making/butter churning/farming/etc. may look somewhat fun for the five minutes or so that they watch us do it, and for most of us interpreters there are definitely worse jobs to have than portraying historic chores and tasks. I for one certainly used to think pioneer-living seemed like a lot of fun, and I still catch myself every now and then pondering what it would be like. However, historians really should cringe at such statements, and every time I hear comments like "I would love grinding corn every week for breakfast" (people have literally said this) I feel a little more crestfallen that I have not really gotten through to yet another person. The time period may be interesting to study or learn about (it certainly is for me), and it may actually be kind of fun to try it out for a weekend. But what I'm generally trying to portray in my interpretation is that life back then was incredibly difficult and dangerous (i.e. not fun). I don't know about any of you, but when I show or describe how people used to make candles I'm trying to stress how easy we have it today, not vice versa. I've gathered a few points that I think fly under the radar a lot but really help to illustrate that it was not fun and games.

For a lot of people, I am immediately able to crush their dreams (mwahaha) when I point out the use of outhouses and chamber pots. Let's all be thankful us living historians don't have to interpret that fun cleaning chore at museums. Nothing makes us appreciate the comforts of the present day faster than the thought of needing a restroom and having to use a jar with virtually no privacy. And while this may seem comical to some of the visitors, it was a rough , everyday reality in the 1800s. True, it wouldn't kill us to use chamber pots today. But given a choice I'll take indoor plumbing.

The list of discomforts does not end with restrooms, either. The psychological issues could be intense in the 1800s, especially if we put modern-day people in their shoes. One woman traveling out to Ohio in 1810 wrote in her journal that her party had just crossed a river where a wagoner had fallen and drowned just a few days prior. For a single woman who had left most of her friends and family hundreds of miles away and was traveling into an completely unknown area with no guarantee of success, this sudden realization of the dangers involved undoubtedly would have left quite an impression. And if they did succeed in getting their new home established, the well-documented boredom that accompanied 19th century rural life, particularly during the winter months, would take additional tolls on one's psyche. I feel ridiculous when I have to say this to the occasional stubborn visitor, but boredom is the opposite of fun. And it doesn't strike me as too "quaint" either.

Another unpleasant reality of the 19th century and wilderness living in general is the lack of sanitation, as well as other health issues. Open up a journal or chronicle from the 18th and 19th centuries and count how many time "ague" or the "bloody flux" comes up. Again, not too pleasant to deal with at all, let alone several times a year. The incidence of rotten food is one condition that always hits home with me personally. Granted, 19th century stomachs were probably hardier than ours today, but eating rotten food is not pleasant regardless of whether it makes you physically ill in the end. And considering the amount of work put into raising/growing it, when the food did reach the point where even 19th century stomachs couldn't handle it it would have been yet another psychological blow when they had to toss it out. Makes the disappointment I feel when my store-bought lettuce wilts seem pretty trivial.

In addition to the discomforts and hardships of 19th century living, the dangers that people faced in the previous centuries should also make most visitors feel grateful. At this point I'm starting to run out of steam, so I'm just going to list a few of the things that have stuck out to me while reading over the years. To start, let's not forget the wagoner who drowned and the danger of the settlers' journey itself. And once the farm was established, there were plenty of other dangers to look forward to. James Buchanan, traditionally considered one of the "log cabin presidents", was the second of eleven children; three of his siblings died in infancy, and only one of the ten brothers and sisters survived with Buchanan past 1840. Keeping in mind that Buchanan was born in 1791 and that he was the second oldest, it seems likely that most of them died before they were 40. On that note, my brief search through google for the average life expectancy in the 1800s didn't turn up much (again, I'm really running out of steam here), but my intuition says that it probably wasn't much higher than that - if anyone knows feel free to share. James A. Garfield, the last log cabin president, had two of his seven children die in infancy, and that was nearly 80 years later and under better living conditions than a frontier cabin. They died of diphtheria and whooping cough, two very treatable diseases today. Wild animals were another problem for families, especially on the frontier, whether it was bears breaking into your barn and killing your livestock and thus threatening your food security or cougars trying to rip through the roofing of your house.

As I said earlier I really can't hold it against people who admire the lifestyle, and I think I know what they're trying to say: there's something about living simply and making it on your own that is appealing to a lot of people. But while it may be enjoyable and interesting to learn or portray, it's important not to romanticize the time period - to me, doing so is tantamount to rewriting history. It was serious and often dangerous work for those who experienced it, and they can plainly tell us that through the journals and stories they've left behind.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sewing Project: Tucked Petticoat- Part 2

To begin working on my tucked petticoat, I consulted Elizabeth Stewart Clark's article on how to make a basic petticoat.  Basic, as in, no tucks.  I knew I would have to figure that part out on my own by searching the Sewing Academy forum and good ol' trial and error.  There are apparently detailed instructions on tucked petticoats in ESC's book "The Dressmaker's Guide, Second Edition", but alas I work as a historical interpreter earning minimum compensation and cannot afford it.  This makes me sad. I also knew that if I wanted to recreate the original tucked petti from the MET I would have to carefully amend a few things in ESC's instructions. 

I started by studying the original and trying to gauge the ratios used to form the design.  

When I looked at the tucked area up close, it appeared to me that there are 2 sections of 5- .5 inch tucks, with a .5 inch space in between each tuck.  If the tucks are .5 inch, that would make each section including spaces in between 5 inches long.  This was important because it also appeared the hem line was just over an equal length, meaning I would have to make the hem deeper that ESC's recommendation of 2.5 inches if I wished for it to appear balanced. 

In between the two sections of tucks is a section left untucked but decorated extensively with embroidery.  Upon taking my sewing gauge and laying it upon my computer monitor, it was equal in length to each section of tucking, so 5 inches.  Just above and below the embroidery is a small span of "blank" space equal in length to one tuck, .5 inch each, making the embroidery section add up to 6 inches total.  As I would not be doing the embroidery, I decided to take that middle section and the hemline down to 5 inches to match the tucked sections.  It would go 5" hem, 5" of tucks, 5" blank, 5" tucks. I work well with balance. 

Please notice that all my math depended on my assumption that the length of each tuck was .5 inch though out this whole planning process.  This will come back to haunt me later...

Following ESC's instructions, I determined my panel length to be 58 inches.  This included my adjustments for a much deeper hemline and adding 10 inches for all the tucks.  (A .5 inch tuck actually uses 1 inch of fabric.  As I don't have the Dressmaker's Guide, I had to do a small tuck on some scrap fabric to figure that out.  Oh how I wish I had a mathematical brain.) 

I also decided per her chart that I wanted to make a 4 panel petti, which with my fabric being 44" wide, would bring me to just under 176" in circumference factoring seam allowances.  This is on the fuller end of the spectrum when it comes to petticoat circumferences, but I tend to be a tad lofty with my dreams when doing projects like this.

I had already pre-washed, dried and ironed my fabric (to minimize shrinkage in the finished garment) so I set to cutting my panels using ESC's ripping method. I then seamed my panels together, leaving about 10" unsewn on the last seam to serve as a placket. I then put in my 5" hem "on the round", meaning as I measured, ironed and pinned my hem line the fabric was being pulled around my ironing board as opposed to being laid straight across had the end panels not been sewn together.  I started hemming this way a few months back during a wool petticoat project, but didn't realize there was a term for it.  I was so glad to see it mentioned on the Sewing Academy Forum and that it is a recommended way of doing things like hems and tucks.

Working "On The Round".

After the hem is put in, ESC moves on to balancing and gathering the waist in her basic petticoat instructions, but as I had 10 tucks to do, I was kinda on my own.  I wasn't (and am still not) sure if there is any correct way to do a tuck, but I finally figured out a way that seems to work for me.  I laid my petti on the ironing board (still working in the round) with the wrong side facing me.  I then fold over the hemmed edge whatever distance I need to get the correct measurement for the tuck.  In this case, I am going 1.5 inches past the previous stitch line to accommodate for 1 inch total of fabric for the .5 inch tuck, and the other .5 inch is for the gap in between tucks.  (I am so sick of typing "tucks" right now!)

Direction to fold fabric for tucks (my way).

Measuring out next tuck length.

I use a sewing gauge to get the initial length right, measuring from the last seam to the fold.  I only use the gauge once to accurately measure what number it brings my hem to on the yard stick I've laid in between the fabric.

In this case, by adding my 1.5 inches from the last seam line, my hem line now falls to 14.5 inches on my yard stick.  This is how I gauge for the rest of the ironing process.

To more advanced sewists than I, it probably seems as though I have taken something very simple and made it very complicated.  However, I am very much a "show me" type person, and unless I can be shown hands on or have a detailed pictorial, I have no clue what is going on.

I began my tucks, ironing at the 1.5 inch line then running a 1/2 inch seam on the machine to actually create the tuck.

I wasn't actually doing a tuck when I took these, so I apologize for not being exact on my fold and things being a little wonky.

Things progressed fairly smoothly for me as I continued making tucks up the petticoat, and after doing a couple I started timing myself.  To measure, iron, pin, sew, unfold and iron flat each tuck, it takes me about 50 minutes.  I don't know if that's good or bad, but I'm pretty consistent with that speed.

I was pretty pleased with my progress, but by the time I finished my first section of 5 I realized something was off.  If I were to continue, my top section of 5 tucks would end up somewhere around the middle of the petticoat, instead of stopping much closer to the bottom as in the original:

Then it hit me: I had based all my measurements on the assumption the tucks were .5 inch.  Only, based on how I was doing, they were really twice as deep as they should have been, making the original petti's tucks more likely around 1/4 inch.  I felt sick.  I had been so careful, and now my beautiful petti was all messed up. 

I don't know why I had assumed .5 inch from the beginning, but looking at the original on the MET's site the only measurement given was the center back length of 44.5".  That number alone along with the fact the tucks stopped so low to the bottom should have told me they were smaller than I was assuming, but my brain doesn't work like that.  Ugh!

I literally mulled over what to do for an entire day.  I toyed with the idea of taking all the tucks out and starting over, but that wouldn't be kind to the fabric and would take forever.  I pondered continuing as is and having the top of the tucks end in the middle of the petticoat, but I really didn't want them up that high.  Or, I could continue as is but leave out the gap in between the two sections and just have a series of tucks going up, which design-wise seemed rather boring compared to that of the original.  In the end, I decided to let go of my hopes of recreating the original and going with the third option.  I put in the rest of the tucks going straight up the petti all in a row.

That's where I have stopped so far, but will begin balancing the waist, gathering the waist and putting on the waist band hopefully sometime this week.  At least I don't have to think about tucks or the word "tuck" anymore.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

This One's For You Nell!

I'm just popping in for a moment to post this video I came across years ago for you all to enjoy.  Many of you may have already seen it, it became rather popular among those within the living history/reenacting community.  If you haven't seen it, watch it, it's hilarious.  If you have already seen it, watch it again, you know you want to.  It's that good.

LNwCOB - 1864 Baseball
Uploaded by ccob. - Check out other Film & TV videos.

Personally, I am always distracted by the ladies' costuming and the reaction of the girl in the pink dress trying to do first person despite Conan's derailing, but I can watch this over and over.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sewing Project: Tucked Petticoat- Part 1

Oh what, dear friends, have I gotten myself into?  I have been in what I will call a "winter funk"  for some time now, compounded by the fact that this is the off-season at the museum so I have not been working since Christmas.  Last week I decided it was time to pull myself up by my shoelaces and force myself back into some activities which normally I enjoy, but have been too depressed to participate in as of late.  To alleviate my melancholy I set myself to working on a sewing project that will not only keep my hands and mind busy, but also provide me with a beautiful yet functional garment to wear once I return to work.

Having purchased 7 yards of beautiful white 200-thread count Robert Kaufman 100% cotton Kona fabric last month with a coupon from Jo-Ann's, I went to work making an over-the-hoop petticoat.  I started my project by visiting Elizabeth Stewart Clark's website "The Sewing" to print out her instructions on how to make petticoats.  I found the guide to making a basic petticoat under the section called "The Compendium", where you can also find several other how-to guides for historical sewing projects.  All the instructions are in PDF format, and while I was there I printed out all the other guides to set into a binder for future use.

Next I perused Mrs. Clark's historical sewing forum to see what other hobbyists had to say on the subject and to pick up any tips and tricks before I made my first snip.  Here, among all the wonderful conversations of a truly knowledgeable group of people, I came across this picture of an original petticoat now displayed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection database:

Oh.  My.  Word.  Here is a closeup view of the tucking and embroidery at the bottom:

Lovely is the only way to describe it.  Even though I hadn't planned on making a tucked petticoat, after seeing this I knew I had to. I wanted to try and recreate the tucking on the original, minus the embroidery in between. Tucks weren't something I had ever done before, so I knew it would be good practice.  Unfortunately I must leave you at that.  I need to get back to work before I head off to bed, so the rest of this petticoat adventure will have to be continued another time!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Introduction/A Newbie's Thoughts on First-Person Historical Interpretation

I should begin by stating that I am still completely new to the first-person style of history, especially compared to those who have been doing this their entire lives. I have probably amassed something like a month's worth of reenacting experience my entire life, so it's needless to say I am no expert at it (and I still don't consider myself a reenactor - at least not with only a month's worth of experience). However I thought it would be interesting now that I at least have my feet wet to contrast my thoughts on history and historical interpretation today with how I felt about the subject at around the time I graduated college in 2009.

I started off wanting nothing to do with first-person history or reenacting. In fact, when I applied for my job at the living history museum I basically told my boss that at the interview. I went into college hoping to eventually become a professor or perhaps a museum historian. I focused on the American Civil War, although at the undergraduate level your "focus" usually means the difference of two or three classes. Throughout my years at Ohio University I heard numerous sarcastic remarks from professors and students about the idea of "playing history", and I more or less agreed (my apologies to anyone who is offended, but even today I find the number of people who push themselves too hard and get heat stroke at reenactments a little over the top). Without getting into too much detail, the prevailing attitude I witnessed at college seemed to be that serious historians go to grad school and eventually become professors or go into research of some sort. Not all the professors thought this, but my strong impression was that most did. A very small part of me agrees with the argument even today, although my moral objections to grad school (it's a money-making scam) prevented me from pursuing that route. The reason I partially agree today is that it is incredibly hard work to get through graduate school, and I give those who are dedicated enough to pursue that route a lot of credit. They must be serious to put themselves through that. Since graduation, however, I have come to realize more and more that universities do not have a monopoly on the proper way to teach and learn history.

There have been a number of experiences that have changed my mind since leaving college. For example, I used to avoid books on the Civil War by Stephen Sears. Why? Because he did not have his Ph.D (or at least that was my impression at the time, feel free to comment if you know otherwise) and a small part of me wondered if that would somehow change the truth of what the author was saying. Then I read Controversies and Commanders, a book where Sears debunks or confirms a lot of the prevailing legends about certain generals in the Civil War using actual facts and evidence instead of generalized statements like "McClellan was a bad general because he lost" that I saw in the books of even some of the most distinguished authors (as an aside, my favorite part of the book was his defense of General Hooker. Aside part 2: McClellan was bad, I'm not arguing against that). Not bad for one of us simpletons without Ph.Ds!

My experiences volunteering and working at museums has caused the biggest change in my views on history. Most, if not all, of the employees and volunteers there have nothing more than their bachelors degree, and sometimes not even that. And yet I see way more passion about the subject than I did from many of my fellow students at OU, and in some cases they're even more passionate than the professors. Of course some of the interpreters are a little iffy about the information, but a lot of them are incredibly knowledgeable about the subject, and not just with random facts and talking points. When I was still very new at the historic village I work at, my co-writer Mrs. Flattery trained me on one of the houses I was to be in charge of interpreting. When I asked her how she knew so much about the house, I found out that much of the information came from her own reading and research on the internet (things like the misreading of "Flattery" happen to everyone, by the way). She wasn't just told what to say by the higher-ups or some employee manual. She went and found her own information beyond just the dates and bland facts about the house and was able to create an interesting interpretation that actually helps visitors see the importance of the structure and time period, instead of random talking points about the date the house was built and how many rooms there are.

This leads me to another realization I've had since graduation: it's not just about what I think is the most legitimate way to interpret and portray history, it's also about what the audience wants. I don't mean we should cater to the masses and make everything like Pirates of the Caribbean; what I mean is that people have different ways of learning history, and there is no one method that is best for all. My preferred way of learning history is to find specialized books on related topics and getting as in-depth about it as I can. It's not the only way I research or learn history, but it's how I usually approach a new topic. To other people, though, that gives them too much unnecessary detail for what they need and they get bogged down with all the various aspects of something as big as the Civil War - there are bookshelves worth of related topics. In that case, reading as many generalized books about the subject as possible may be a better route, where you get only the information that is necessary or relevant while still avoiding some two-paragraph treatment of the subject from a high school textbook. Other audiences approach history in a casual and curious way, or perhaps they learn best visually: in that case, I think reenactments or historic villages is the way to go. There are many other "audience" types out there, and each one has a different way of learning history.

Today, I'm in more of a gray area regarding historical interpretation. All methods of interpretation are legitimate so long as the facts are correct (or at least backed up with examples and evidence). I still can't really call myself a first-person interpreter, but after trying it out I realize that some people enjoy learning history that way and for that reason it is an important method.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I Believe Introductions Are In Order- or- What's in a Name?

~Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Mrs. Thomas Flattery. Welcome to my first post.~

No, that's not really my name, but one that I have adopted for the purposes of this blog.  It was originally created for one of the characters I portrayed during a late-Victorian era supper at the living history museum where "Mr. Flattery", my co-author and I work.

You see, I am a history dork.  Always have been, always will be.  When I was very young my mother made the mistake of reading aloud to me from "Little House in the Big Woods" by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  It has all been downhill from there.  That book led to my sisters and I dressing as Mary, Laura and baby Carrie that Halloween, thus providing me with my first "historical" costume. (I use the word historical very loosely here, as it consisted of a prairie bonnet, white turtle neck shirt and a calico skirt with an elastic waistband.)  Regardless, I wore that costume proudly and often, making up stories and scenarios with my sisters as we played "Old-Fashioned" until those costumes fell apart.  Literally.  My skirt shredded at the seams I wore it so much.  These antics continued for years in the privacy of our home.  My father's tube socks were commandeered as stockings, the un-leveled grassless yard at our newly built home became the rough open terrain for our wagon train to cross.  You know, back when kids had imaginations...

This continued on until I was 12 years old.  That fateful summer, I attended the annual 4th of July fair in my hometown.  As I was perusing the craft booths and food carts I came across a group of people dressed in wool uniforms and long hoop skirts.  Curiosity piqued, I began asking questions and discovered they were involved in a hobby called "Civil War Reenacting".  I had never heard of such a thing.  These were adults who dressed up in old-fashioned clothing and pretended it was the 1860's?  In public?!  Sign me up!

I am very thankful to that group of hobbyists for giving me my "in" into the living history world.  However, for me, that was just a jumping-off point.  Looking back they weren't the most authentic-minded bunch, more of the "put on a skirt, white blouse and snood"  variety.  Not much better than my prairie skirt and bonnet.  Very nice people, but after a few years with them and other similar groups, I felt there had to be more to this hobby.

By my senior year in high school things finally began to change.  I networked before I knew what networking really was. I researched.  I began to learn what it was that I was doing right, but more often than not, I learned what I had been doing wrong.  I was lucky to meet and become acquainted with some of the more prominent and knowledgeable people in the living history/reenacting world.  I put a lot of energy into improving my impression, and began practicing speaking in first-person, etc.

After high school I took a job with a living history museum about an hour from where I lived.  For me, it was a dream come true- getting paid to do what I enjoyed as a hobby!  After about a year there I moved out of state with the intention of going to college, which- long story short- didn't happen.  Fast forward to 2009 and I found myself back right where I started- at the museum, wearing 19th Century clothes and portraying a young Civil War era dairy farmer's wife / widow / prominent lawyer's wife/ widow.  (That is just the rundown for my main character.  I have several.)  This brings us to August 2010 when I met Mr. Flattery.

He was the new guy at the end of the summer season.  He started off working in the craft section, mainly demonstrating candle making.  One day there was a sudden change in staffing needs, and as a spur-of-the-moment deciding he was selected to be the new "butter guy", replacing me in the dairy farm house when I was to be moved over to another site.  This led to our becoming better acquainted as I trained him to churn butter, during which time I decided to give him his first first-person persona.

I had been doing some research  on the original owners of the historic home in which we worked, and while perusing original census records on I came across the record of a young Irish farmhand who had lived with and worked for them in the mid-19th Century named Thomas Flattery.  Or at least, that's what I thought his name was. It wasn't until after he had been portraying my farmhand for awhile and borrowing the name "Mr.Flattery" that I went back to look at the record again.  There, to my dismay, I realized I had misread/mis-remembered the hard to read handwriting from the old census.  It turns out the original farm hand's name was Thomas Haggerty.  Oops.  Doing some quick Googling around, I found that Flattery was at least an actual Irish surname, being derived from the  native Gaelic O'Flaitre Sept that was located in County Offaly.  We decided to just keep using the name Flattery, as he was not attempting to portray the actual person in the first place.

Late in the fall we both participated in putting on a supper set in the 1890's.  For this we had to develop new characters and decided that Mr. Flattery would portray his own son of the same name.  We wrote it out as though the first Mr.Flattery (1860's) ended up marrying his employer Mrs. Richards (me) after she completed her 2 years of mourning for her second dead husband. (Quite the unlucky and scandalous one, aren't I?)  They produced a son, also Thomas Flattery (1890's.)  For this supper I portrayed the wife of the 1890's Mr.Flattery, Lilly.  So, if you are following along, I was playing my own daughter-in-law. Or, to put a weirder spin on it, I was married to my own son. Ew.  Trust me, with so little staff and several different programs/time periods to portray at the museum, our characters are all inter-related in similar fashion by now.

So, that's me, Mrs. Flattery. I tend to write about history from a less-than-formal point of view.  Like I mentioned, I didn't go to school for this, so I attend what I call the "School of Google" and do my own research when a topic comes up and interests me.  I also prefer social history as opposed to military.  I like learning how people really lived and am less than interested in memorizing names and dates.  I hope you come back to visit often, It has been a pleasure having you with us.