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.