Dear Humans, I’ve just finished the first year of my masters in material culture.* You will be unsurprised to hear that I’ve learned a whole lot of things. You may also (especially if you’re slightly older and wiser that I was last July) be unsurprised to hear that a lot of them were things I wasn’t anticipating.
Below is, I hope, a slightly humorous and somewhat edifying list (at least if you’re younger and/or less wise than I am at this current moment in time) of some of those things.
On Going to Grad School: You can choose to go to grad school because you crave more education, or because you need some more letters after your name to get the job you think you want. Or you can go because you don’t like what you’re doing now, and a masters degree gives you two whole years to think about what you might rather do without having to apply for a new job. Don’t worry. Lots of other people did it for that reason too.
On Grad School Being Hard: If you’re wondering if you’re smart enough for grad school, don’t worry. Or rather, don’t worry about that. If you’re like me, when people told you that grad school was hard, you thought: “oh gosh. I’m going to have to think big hard thinky-thoughts that will make my head hurt.” Because that’s what it means for school to be hard. Sadly, this is not the case. Certainly grad school is full of challenging (or at least rather interesting) ideas, but so far it has yet to prove a serious intellectual strain most of the time. But of course there are still ways for school to be hard. For example, being assigned between one and five hundred pages of reading a week, per class.
On Reading: Here’s a lesson I didn’t figure out till most of the way through my first semester: don’t read everything. You can’t anyway, and its not really the point, apparently. The point is to only read the important bits. And if that sounds like a bit of a mind fuck to you (how, one might ask, is one supposed to know the important bits without reading all of them?) you would not be alone. All I can say is: don’t worry too much about it, and practice saying “fuck it!” and skipping a reading or two from the beginning, just to see what it feels like. Otherwise you may not survive.
Also (and this is a bit of advice I was given that really really helped): you can read everything later. The books will still be there once you graduate, but you won’t have access to your professors, or everything on JSTOR for free, or (in my case) the museum collection, or (in your case, perhaps) all the cool equipment in the lab. Take advantage of that stuff while you have it and don’t worry about the fucking reading so much.
And ALSO: you will learn how to not read – it turns out this is a skill. (Possibly you learned this in undergrad or middle school or something – I did not.) You will start defining a well-written book as one where you can read only read the first sentence of every paragraph and still get the point. An even better-written book is one where just the first an last paragraph of every chapter will do.
On Your Grades: No one cares how you do. I mean, you almost certainly do, but probably not a lot of other people. No one is going to clap you on the back if you work yourself to the bone getting an A. Later, when you don’t work quite as hard and still get an A, you’re going to hate past you a little bit. There will be a point when you’re proud of yourself for getting a B because it was the result of you acting like a semi-rational and calm human being, instead of an insane research robot.
On Research: Just because you’re really excited about your thesis topic doesn’t mean everyone else is. Despite that, it’s worth having an elevator speech about why your thesis topic is cool. Mostly just try to sound enthusiastic. People will smile and nod, and get off on the third floor.
*On “Material Culture Studies”: If you thought doing a masters in Material Culture would make defining “material culture” for people easier, you were wrong. When you’re talking to an engineer, and they think you said “material science” just nod and go along with it until you can excuse yourself.
While saying “I study old stuff” is technically accurate, it generally does not do a whole lot to clarify the situation.
If you think you might need to actually explain yourself to someone, or they’re cute and you’d rather they not think you’re a total nut, try a concrete example: “We all wear clothes/sit in chairs/use tools. People in the past did all those things too! We can learn a lot about them by looking at the stuff they made and used!” Or try: “I’m a historian, but instead of reading books, I read things!” (Note: enthusiasm and conviction are both necessary here. This can, ultimately, be a bit of a hard sell for some people.)
On Telling People You’re in Grad School: Just because you think it’s really cool that you’re in this awesome program with all these amazing opportunities, it does not mean that everyone else is going to be impressed when you tell then you’re a grad student. Especially when you then can’t explain what you’re studying. Whatever you were doing before probably sounded more interesting, or less elitist. Or both.
On Working Hard: It is possible to spend approximately four straight days alone in your house doing school work, and then you should probably a) go outside and get some sun and b) talk to some other humans. Knowing all of this stuff won’t do you any good if you go crazy in the mean time.
And Finally: Crying to your mom about how everything is horrible is just as relevant in grad school as it was in preschool. It has a very decent chance of fixing everything too, so call your mother.
One last thought…
On Not Sounding Totally Bleak: Just to clarify, I am having a really wonderful time in this program. I’m having an even better time now that I’ve stopped pretending I’m going to read every word of everything I’m assigned. I’m even almost ready to start thinking about what to do with my life afterwards!
Dear Readers, I’ve been busy! I’m hurtling through my second semester of graduate school. It doesn’t leave me much time for blog writing, but occasionally I write something for school and think “that belongs up on Our Girl History!” This is one such essay, reflecting on a recent class trip to London and a lovely little book in the Winterthur Library collection. It’s a bit longer than my typical posts, but it comes with end-notes! Enjoy…
On a gray January morning I walked north, from the intersection of Gray’s Inn Road and a short street called Baldwin’s Gardens, in Holborn, London. I was headed towards my second stop of the day. In front of me a park blocked my path. A sign just inside the gate read “Coram’s Fields” and below that “no adults permitted, unless accompanied by a child.”
I turned to walk around this dedicated children’s space. As I circled the park, my destination came into view: the brick Georgian-style structure of the Foundling Museum. In front of it was a sculpture of Thomas Coram, creator of the Foundling Hospital, which opened on this site in 1741.[i] I was here to learn about the life of poor children in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London, and to view some of the museum’s collection of tokens: small objects, often scraps of cloth, left by mothers to identify their offspring when they were given up to the hospital in hopes of a better life. Unlike the things my classmates and I had been viewing for the past few days, the objects on display at this museum would not be chased silver, inlayed mahogany, or brocaded silks. This was a place to explore material culture not from the top down, but from the bottom up. This seemed appropriate because although my reason for being in London was to study British design history, the object through which my study was focused was a small book made to teach poor early-nineteenth-century girls to sew and knit.
The textile tokens in the Foundling Museum’s collection, written about by John Styles in Threads of Feeling, were the perfect resource for learning about the needlework proficiency of Britain’s female poor. Styles notes that some tokens also display a distinct lack of aptitude.[ii] He cautions us not to take needlework skills for granted. I would like to echo Styles’ sentiment. As I have explored the 26 pages ofInstructions on Needle-Work and Knitting: as derived from the practice of the Central School, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London, I have gained an appreciation for the many ways in which needlework is not to be underestimated. As Styles points out, we cannot assume that stitching is a universal skill. Rather it is one which was taught, and taught to girls both rich and poor, on both sides of the Atlantic. In general, these girls learned similar practical skills, but they might put them to work is very different ways as they went through life. Finally, the skills which were learned through needlework could be much richer and more expansive than simply putting needle to fabric.
In the early 1800’s, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London, was the address of the National Society’s Central School. Here both boys and girls studied reading, writing, and at least some arithmetic; other lessons were divided by gender. [iii] Needlework was one of these. In 1829, the school published a book designed to help its teachers give instruction in this field. To supplement the sparse text, the book contained nine samples of sewing, embroidery, and knitting. Though the book is short, the samples both literally and figuratively flesh out its contents. When one picks up this volume in the Winterthur Library rare books room today, it has the strange three-dimensionality of a book stuffed with more than words. Flipping through the leaves, it becomes clear that its true lessons lie in the little girl’s miniature pinafore, the man’s shirt which when spread out is barely bigger than my hand, and the tiny knitted stocking, which might fit colonial Barbie, and must have been knit on needles almost too small to see.
The book is precious – the scale of its contents makes it quaint, but those contents also store an invaluable body of information. Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting contains not only a curriculum, but also a hint at the sewn objects relevant to the lives of its students, and, in all likelihood, the products of their own hands, since it must almost certainly have been the students of the Central School who populated the copies of this book with its samples. John Styles reminds us that we cannot assume that every woman knew how to sew, but with this book, we can explore what many of them did know. This curriculum is a chance to understand the potential needlework skills of a whole class of girls. However, it is even more broadly applicable than that. Many of the book’s lessons were also learned by wealthier girls, girls from other parts of England and in America, and girls of previous generations, and later ones – up to and including the present day.
There are other universals to be found in needlework as well. For example, in William Hogarth’s portrait of Captain Thomas Coram which hangs inside the Foundling Museum, the captain wears a voluminous red coat, shirt sleeves peeking out beneath its cuffs.[iv] Though painted almost a hundred years before the publication of Instructions on Needlework and Knitting, the visible collar and sleeves on Coram’s shirt resemble those of the quarter-scale sample garment. Shirts like this were worn by virtually every man, from philanthropist to pauper school boy, throughout the early modern era. Each shirt was sewn by someone, almost certainly a woman. Male students of the Baldwin’s Gardens school may well have had shirts provided by the school, where they were made by female students as part of their instruction.[v] These children’s mothers may have made shirts for the men of their families, or may have worked for wages sewing for others. More well-to-do women may too have sewn for their families, or they may have hired domestic help who were skilled with a needle, and then supervised their work. This type of needlework, known as plain sewing, and its products, such as men’s shirts, women’s shifts, baby clothes, and household linens, was omnipresent in this era. Though Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting contains directions for many of these, their form was also generally understood, and changed slowly over time. These textiles demonstrate a base level of design knowledge that was suffused throughout a culture. Though shirts were an essential part of the fashionable man’s wardrobe, they were just as essential to the humbly dressed. The sample shirt illustrates that an understanding of the design and manufacture of such a garment was not restricted to the trend-setters, but belonged collectively to society.
Though the shirt sample appears at first glance to be almost perfect, it is hard not to take it with a grain of salt. Designed as a didactic rather than a true garment, does it really represent an accurate copy of an 1820’s shirt? As both a skilled needle worker and a lover of doll clothes myself, I was at first suspicious. However, when I flipped through Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting and unfolded this particular sample, I immediately thought of another shirt – this one full sized – that my class had seen the month before. This shirt was a new addition to Winterthur’s textile collection.[vi] I was fairly confident that the two garments resembled each other closely. When I had a chance to compare them, I was glad to find that my memory had not failed me. With the book’s shirt-making directions for reference, I noticed the same seam techniques used on both.[vii] Both too shared a gathered front placket, buttonhole placement, and cuff style. Even the small triangular side-seam reinforcement appeared on the sample as a tiny sliver of linen. The only significant difference was the type of sleeve reinforcement applied to the two garments. The shirt in Winterthur’s collection has minimal provenance. While it seems unlikely that it was made by a poor London school girl, this book suggests that such a girl certainly could have made such a shirt.
The girls at the Central School did produce shirts, along with a wide range of other sewn goods. The final page of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting lists the prices at which such goods should be sold. Earlier, the text explains:
In order to provide suitable work for the lower classes, the Ladies’ Committee have countenanced a Penny Club, to which those children willing, subscribe weekly, and are allowed to purchase for themselves and parents cloathing at the prime cost of materials, without any chare for making.
It goes on:
In schools where the children are clothed, the lowest classes may easily be supplied with work, if the Mistress be allowed to have the materials for the clothing long enough before it is wanted, so that time may be afforded for the little girls to do the easy parts.[viii]
This quote demonstrates that the needlework education being provided to girls at the National Society’s schools fulfilled two objectives; it created a structure in which girls could sew garments for sale, modeling the wage-earning activities many of these girls would explore later in life. It also taught the skills needed to clothe a family, as modeled by the girls’ classes which worked to provide clothing for the schoolchildren themselves. Writing about nineteenth-century Philadelphia schools, Nina Lerman explains that girls in this American city both learned and performed the tasked needed to run a house at their schools. Part of this was production, as female students regularly made all of the garments and textile goods needed for the running of such a school and “as in any ordinary household, the quantity of sewing accomplished by the girls varied more closely with the number of people wearing clothes than with the number of people sewing them.”[ix] Both in Britain and America, schools were a space for girls to practice housewifery. They were also, however, a space in which girls learned vocational skills which might later be used not to run a house, but to earn wages.
While female students at any school of this era typically learned needlework, they also studied other subjects. The schedule for the Central School, for example, taught reading, writing, and cyphering to both boys and girls before lunch. After lunch, the boys continued these subjects, while the girls did needlework. From four-thirty to five, all the children studied arithmetic tables.[x] In other instances, the boys learned their own gender-specific skills. After the American Revolution, “Academies” for both boys and girls sprung up all over the new republic. As we might anticipate, the girls learned needlework. Boys might study surveying and navigation instead.[xi] Unlike the school which published, Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, these academies were not for the destitute. Both types of institutions, however, found value in teaching similar subjects. As a line from a school sewing manual published in 1821 highlights, education was deemed valuable for all:
It is extremely desirable that those nations which have adopted the System of Mutual Instruction for the Boys, should be put in possession of that part of the plan which is calculated for Girls; as they have at least equal claims upon the benevolent exertions of the friends of morality and virtue.[xii]
Though boys’ and girls’ education shared a certain degree of the curriculum, I would argue that girls’ lessons – even those concerned with words and numbers – were reinforced in a uniquely sensory way. For many girls all of their lessons came together in the tactile textile activity of embroidery. Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting’s second to last sample demonstrates the skill of marking, where colored thread is used to stitch identifying marks – generally initials or numbers – into household linens. As part of learning these skills girls could create a basic reference sheet of embroidery stitches such as the sample in the book, or a needlework picture, complete with elaborate motifs and moralizing text. In either case, more academic lessons were applied along with needlework skills in order to shape letters and numbers.[xiii] Through this process, girls used not a pen, piece of chalk, or even a finger in a sand table to shape their letters, but a needle and thread. Meaning, process, and technique came together as each letter was formed on the cloth. In an age when women were understood to have a predisposition towards design skills, this practice can be seen as both symptom and cause. Presumably transforming other schoolwork into artwork was “natural” for females. At the same time, the emphasis on this type of quasi-artistic skill in female education almost certainly fostered those same design tendencies in girls, regardless of their inherent ability. The fundamentals of girls’ education taught them to think about design.
The works that these young amateur designers embroidered help to support this idea. Though I have yet to find an example from the Central School, other girls at British charity institutions created samplers with elaborate scenes, and long moralizing texts.[xiv] Girls from both charity schools and wealthy family in America and Britain have left their mark on the historical record in the form of embroidery samplers. These objects are united not by location or by class, but by eighteenth and early nineteenth century girlness, embodied in a designated gender role and a shared skill. Along with their collective power, samplers also represent individual young women in a way no other part of the historical record can; on samplers, girls recorded their names and ages in their own hands and in the uniquely feminine script of embroidery.
As John Styles pointed out, not every woman grew up with a proficiency in sewing, but as Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting highlights, the skill was valued enough to be taught to the poor. Though that education was relatively rudimentary, understanding its role as a unique and uniting element of girl’s education makes its other applications more meaningful. Many wealthier girls and women imbued their textiles with the more diverse lessons of their own educations. Philadelphian Ann Flower, for example, created a sketchbook full of pen and ink and watercolor images. They vary from stylized illustrations, to close copies from printed sources, to her own original embroidery designs.[xv] Ann drew these pictures in part to help develop her own artistic ability, a skill which manifested in her needlework. Her skills in both design and embroidery shine through in a needlework picture she created in 1763.[xvi]
Both Ann Flower’s sketchbook and needlework picture reside in the collection at Winterthur, a fitting home considering both the museum’s collecting policy, and its proximity to Philadelphia. Around the time of Ann’s birth in 1743, another woman was drawing flowers and contemplating colored silk threads across the Atlantic in Spitalfields, outside of London. Many of Anna Maria Gathwaite’s designs for luscious silk brocades are now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Just a few days before I explored the site of the Central School and of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, our class stopped into the gallery of Spitalfields silks at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There Dr. Zara Anishanslin explained that wealthy British women of the mid-eighteenth century might have chosen another way to unite knowledge with textiles by purchasing silks designed by Garthwaite, who regularly included detailed botanical representations in her designs for Spitalfields’ weavers. These motifs reflect Garthwaite’s own interest in botany.[xvii]
A century after Garthwaite drew flowers into her silk designs, Sarah Peters founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. There women were trained to use what was perceived as their innate design sense to create patterns for the American textile industry. In doing so, they learned a respectable vocational skill.[xviii] That skill reflected generations of women and girls before them whose education had focused on practical textile-related crafts in order to help them earn a living and run a home, but which also unwittingly developed their “feminine” design sense. A similar communal understanding of design was at work in the girls of the Philadelphia House of Refuge and London’s Central School, as they stitched shirts, caps, and pinafores for their classmates.[xix]
Sitting in the rare books room at Winterthur, flipping through the pages of Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, I realized that the lessons found in this book were ones I had learned as well. The two-hundred year old assumptions about femininity, design, and textiles crafts embodied in this book, though lessened by time, still exist in the twenty-first century. Growing up female, I understood that I was supposed to care about line, shape, and color, and that if I expressed an interest in sewing, I would not be discouraged. In a much more literal way though, I learned the lessons of the needlework manual: among the folders full of notes from my undergrad is a fat three ring binder. Like Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, its covers are bowed around its irregular contents, which consist of plastic sleeves, each holding typed directions for a style of seam, hem, or collar. Each is accompanied by a sewn sample. One plastic sleeve even contains a miniature shirt. This was the coursework of my college clothing construction course, and the foundation of my study of historic dress, which provides the rudiments of this paper. Like the girls at the Central School, I learned to sew by copying examples. Like generations of women before me, learning that skill meant has also meant absorbing ideas about design which benefit me even now, as I reflect on the connections between what our class saw in England in January and the objects we see every day in the collections at Winterthur.
My first reaction to Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting was a personal one: I related to the lessons between the book’s pages because I had learned similar lessons myself. But after contemplating it in relation to brocaded silks and linen shirts, and having kept it, and those who learned from it, in mind as I walked the length of Baldwin’s Gardens in the January rain, I would argue that it deserves a place at the center of a broad web of connections. Those connections bring together girls from past and present; the lower, middle, and upper classes; Britain and America. As a whole, that web illustrates how design permeates the world around us, and allows us to see the designed world from the perspective of a girl with a needle in her hand.
[i] John Styles, Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770 (London: Foundling Museum, 2010), 11.
[iii]Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting: as derived from the practice of the Central School, Baldwin’s Gardens, Gray’s Inn Lane, London (London: Printed for Roake and Varty, F. Rivington, and Hatchard and Son, 1829), 3. John Britton, The Original Picture of London, enlarged and improved… Twenty-fourth edition, etc (London: Longmans & Co., 1826), 271-3.
[iv] William Hogarth, Portrait of Thomas Coram, 1740, on display at the Foundling Museum.
[vi]Linen Shirt, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden, 2000.021.001.
[vii]Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, 9, 13-14.
[viii]Instructions on Needle-Work and Knitting, 4.
[ix] Nina E. Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life”: Technological Knowledge and Social Structure in Mid-19th-Century Philadelphia,” Technology and Culture 38, no. 1 (1997): 38-9.
[x] Britton, The Original Picture of London, 272-3
[xi] Margaret A. Nash, “”Cultivating the Powers of Human Beings”: Gendered Perspectives on Curricula and Pedagogy in Academies of the New Republic,” History of Education Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2001): 247.
[xii]A Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework in the Elementary Schools of the British and Foreign School Society. 2nd ed., rev. and improved, (London : British and Foreign School Society, 1821), 8.
[xiii] Leena A. Rana, “Stories behind the Stitches: Schoolgirl Samplers of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” TEXTILE, 12, no. 2 (2014): 159, 164.
[xiv] See Rana, “Stories behind the Stitches” for further discussion of British schoolgirl samplers.
[xv] Ann Flower, Sketchbook, ca.1753-1760?, Doc. 1244, Downs Collections, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden.
[xvi] Ann Flower, Needlework coat of arms (Embroidered hatchment), 1763, Winterthur Museum, Library, and Garden, 1958.2226.
[xvii] Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: hidden histories of the British Atlantic world, (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2016), 62. Visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and lecture by Dr. Zara Anishanslin, January 19th, 2018.
[xviii] Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life,”” 50-51.
[xix] Lerman, “”Preparing for the Duties and Practical Business of Life,”” 38.
Have you ever found yourself encountering an injustice in the world which you feel you must fix? Have you had the experience of fighting for that change until you run out of energy? Have you gotten to the point where you walked away? Me too.
The flood of “me too”s which inundated social media this past week sure upset me. It upset me because it is painful to know that people I love, and a huge number of people I have never even met, have been hurt. It upset me in a more complicated way as well: it reminded me that the way we treat women’s stories today is an extension of how we treated women’s voices in the past, and how we treat women’s voices of the past.
Living history is a community in which many people feel like they have permission to revert to some mythical concept of historical gender roles (which are seldom rooted in close research). In the context of military reenactments, this manifests particularly strongly in the idea that women play merely supporting roles, which go under-researched, under-appreciated, and under-discussed. Though this is changing, some combination of our culture’s ideas of what is “important” in history, and its latent sexism, means that it persists even in the most progressive settings.*
One of the conversations which occurred on my Facebook feed about #MeToo revolved around living history, and the ways in which harassment and sexual abuse occur within the reenacting community. I’m glad this conversation happened, but I found it distinctly upsetting, as it brought to the surface a profound frustration which I had put aside several months ago when I left my history job for grad school.
It reminded me that history and living history too often see women as inferior. Too often living history re-tells stories in which women’s voices are perpetually drowned out. #MeToo highlighted for me that when I want to scream and fight for my friends who have been catcalled, and touched, and asked to do things they do not want to do in situations where they cannot refuse, I am fighting the same fight as when I ask for stories of women in history to be presented alongside those of men. Drowning out women’s voices in history is an act much like drowning them out in police reports and newspaper articles. It contributes to a mass conspiracy of silencing which #MeToo was an attempt to break out of.
The effort to amplify and share the voices of women in history is one of those causes about which I feel so strongly that I cannot contemplate it without seeking a way to correct it. When I say that women’s history is important, it is because when we do not tell it, there are more people who “just didn’t know it was like that” and who wonder “why didn’t you just say something?” When I left my history job back in May, I had used up all my energy to fight. I paused my efforts to advocate for these stories because it felt like going down to the station to report the injustices of history and not being believed by the officer on duty. Desperately in need of a break, I have gratefully pushed it to the back of my mind for five months. It resurfaced this week, and I find that I am as mad as ever.
It’s good to Fight for What is Right, but boy did I not miss how angry this makes me, and how blue it makes me feel. I’ll keep fighting this fight, but if #MeToo has convinced you that women’s voices are there to be heard, today and in the past, then I would gladly accept your help.
*I count myself in good company with others who are working to make this no longer the case, but I’m not sure that any of us are there yet.
Today in class we were learning about woodworking tools. The instructor brought out a moulding plane to demonstrate how it worked. For those of you who don’t know, a molding plane is used to carve a detail along the edge of a piece of wood. If the baseboards in your house have a fancy edge at the top, that’s moulding. One super-common shape for moulding is an “ogee,” which is a sort of “s” shape that’s real common in the sort of furniture we’ve been learning about. I like ogees. I don’t really care about the shape, but I really like saying the word: “Ogee, O.G., Oh Gee!” It’s the perfect sort of word – a homophone for something funny.
When our professor brought out the moulding plane in class he pointed out that this one was not, in fact, and ogee design, though it was similar. I couldn’t help myself: “So would that make it an ‘aw gosh’ plane?”
If you’ve ever met Our Girl History in real life (and lets be honest, most of you have. It’s not like this blog has all that big of a readership), you’ve figured out that I really, really like puns. And before you point out that puns are the lowest form of humor, or something like that, I know! Puns can be stupid, but they can also be so, so good. For me, puns are about keeping my mind in shape – thinking up puns is an act of constantly considering language. A pun is the result of a word lodging in my brain, and me flipping through every word I’ve ever heard that sounds like it, looking for something clever. Sometimes it’s about synonyms, or words that look the same on paper but sound or mean something completely different. When I come up with a pun, I’m greasing the wheels of the part of my brain that deals with language.
The good news is that those extra-strong wordplay muscles get flexed in all sorts conversation and writing. The bad news is all this practice only makes me better at coming up with puns.
If you’d like a demonstration of the sorts of things that can happen when you just sit around and do silly things with words (or if you’re wondering where Little OGH got her start), I can’t recommend to you highly enough A. A. Milne’s delightful poem Sneezles, which I read the other night when grad school had me down. As it has done since I was very small, it pleazled me greatly, and I hope it does the same for you. And next time you hear a pun remember, it’s no joke – puns can make you smarter.
They bundled him
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head.
They examined his chest
For a rash,
And the rest
Of his body for swellings and lumps.
They sent for some doctors
To tell them what ought
To be done.
All sorts and conditions
Of famous physicians
Came hurrying round
At a run.
They all made a note
Of the state of his throat,
They asked if he suffered from thirst;
They asked if the sneezles
Came after the wheezles,
Or if the first sneezle
They said, “If you teazle
May easily grow.
But humour or pleazle
Will certainly go.”
They expounded the reazles
The manner of measles
They said “If he freezles
In draughts and in breezles,
May even ensue.”
Got up in the morning,
The sneezles had vanished away.
And the look in his eye
Seemed to say to the sky,
“Now, how to amuse them to-day?”
Some of you know that a few months ago I left my job at The Fort in order to begin a masters program in American Material Culture at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Going back to school represents a significant change in my life. In some ways though, this is just the end effects of an older and more painful change. Reflecting on this has inspired some ideas around thinking, craft, and self-identity.
The summer before my final year in university, my right wrist started to hurt whenever I sewed. It kept hurting over that whole school year, as I worked through my final year of a combined honors degree in Early Modern Studies and Costume Studies. It got worse, and after graduation, I began looking for a remedy. I managed to get my arms to a place where they were mostly free of pain, so long as I adjusted my activities around what they could handle, but gripping a needle for more than ten minutes was beyond what my wrists could take.
Three years later, I am still processing this ax-blow to my sense of self. I have been making for as long as I can remember, and at 23 I had been sewing for almost two decades. They say you need to put in ten-thousand hours to truly master a skill, and I had done my time. Now it didn’t count. Making my living through the meticulous hand-stitched replicas of historic garments that I loved was no longer possible, so who was I?
It was the summer of 2014. I thought about grad school. I’d earned a combined honors degree after all — half in craft, and half in hardcore humanities — and I’d done it because as much as I like to make, I also like to think. Environments that focus on craft work can be frustratingly shallow in the intellectual department, and so perhaps this was my opportunity to explore another side of myself. I very nearly got in to the one program I applied to, and then I didn’t.
I got offered a job at The Fort, and I spent a couple years as a costumer (in a position where someone else did the hand sewing). I spent my long commute thinking about history, gender, and identity. It was that thinking which inspired this blog. But underneath that train of thought were other ideas – ones that didn’t have to do with dress, or women’s roles in military history, or hairy legs. They were ideas I hadn’t dared to think back when I was a seamstress, because they had been so thoroughly off topic. I thought about what it meant to make; about the process of inventing; about the evolution of technology. I thought more than I dared to admit about my mysterious fascination with water powered mills.
Injuring my wrists had thrown my life off it’s course in a profound, if not particularly dangerous, way. After two years stagnating in my comfort zone, it seemed like the only thing to do was to embrace the new direction. I re-applied to the program at Winterthur.
Now, a week into our Summer Institute, I’m pondering self-identity again. I am so very excited to explore a range of interests that I might never have given the time of day if circumstances hadn’t forced my hand — or perhaps I should say my wrist. At the same time, I’m not ready to give up being an artisan, even if I’ll never be the seamstress I was, uninjured, at 22. I don’t want to get out of school and go back to spending my commute thinking big ideas, because it’s the only spare time I have. Neither do I want to relegate craft work to the realm of “hobby.” I would like a life where mind and hands work together to create a greater whole. I’ve got two years to contemplate what that might look like, and I hope I figure it out.
I just got off the phone with a good friend of mine. She’s planning a civilian living history event at the end of April. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about interpreting peacetime British garrison life on the eve of the American Revolution next month. Her event will fall on my birthday, while she has work on the date of mine. We found ourselves clamoring to express why exactly each event is worthy of the other’s attendance, despite schedule restraints. It became a discussion of what makes an event worth going to. Both of us are sick of trotting out the stale history-book stories. In the age we live in, we don’t have time for “edutainment” that doesn’t teach something we care about. So what are the stories that urgently need to be taught?
I find myself desperate to teach history that will inform the world I live in now, and which perhaps has a chance of correcting its flaws. In light of this past Saturday’s march on Washington, I feel even more firmly than before that women’s roles must be incorporated wherever possible into the typically battle-heavy world of reenactments. I want to create much needed visibility of this full half of the population in a portion of history which is so often left to the men. Long on my mind, but sparked by other comments made after this weekend’s march, I also want to make discussions about First Nations peoples possible. These two examples are of course the beginning, not the end of the list of subjects which should have prominent places in the history we present today.
I want to do more than say “these people were here too” though. I want their narratives to be intrinsic to the stories we tell, and to inspire self-examination. I want discussions of laundry to be a tool for talking about health, about equal pay, about essential personnel. I want those portraying native fighters to have a chance to talk about exchange and appropriation of culture, then and now; about being understood, and misunderstood. I want these narratives – little heard, and much needed at this current time, to be given room to shine at the forefront of interpretation.
For my friend’s sake, and my own, I will push myself to tell a new story at next month’s event. Neither of us is interested in reliving boring history. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t think it’s interesting to spend the day weeding a garden, or darning socks. It means we want to tell stories that aren’t stale, that no one has bothered to consider before now, and that truly have something to say.
Before getting off the phone we dared each other “plan something cool, something worthwhile, something I’ve never done before, and I’ll be there!” Forget the American Revolution for a second, living history is ready for – is already embarking on – this revolution. Dare to interpret the untold. Put the marginalized at the forefront. Tell a story that scares you because the message is has to share is important. Be a radical historian today.
A brief reflection on the value of studying the way things worked “back then”.
On a hot August day this past summer I stood in a crowded second-floor barracks room of the old fort that is my workplace. I was on duty in our military tailor’s post; sweating into my gown, and drinking water from a redware jug to keep myself from stumbling over my words as I spoke to a constant stream of late-summer tourists. I paused my banter for another drink of water, and a man piped up with a question about my scissors, dubious of the quality of tools available to an eighteenth-century craftsperson. I smiled, this being a topic I am fond of, and responded that, in the grand scheme of things, 1777 wasn’t really all that long ago; technologies such as eighteenth-century tailors’ shears were quite similar to their modern equivalents.
I heard a voice from the doorway and turned, seeing a twelve-year-old girl step into the room. As she snapped my photo on her phone, she stated with youthful self-assurance that “they didn’t have technology in history”.
I understood the meaning behind her words, and yet I was startled by the scope of her statement. It was hard to know where to start: with the idea that the word “history” could be used so broadly, or “technology” so narrowly.
Her comment stayed with me long after she left the conversation and the museum. Technology is manifestation of the ancient Greek concept of techne: the realm of human art or skill. To this end, every tool we use and every invention created today, or last week, or millennia ago is, in truth, technology. Both antique sewing shears and the iPhone 6 qualify. Through the eyes of my young visitor though, technology encompassed only new ideas, and so could not exist in the past.
I saw a flaw in this logic, for there is a first time for everything: the first knife, the first stained glass window, the first computer. At that moment in time, each is cutting-edge. Many antiquated objects have since evolved almost beyond the point of recognition, but many others survive still in nearly their original form – tailors’ shears for example: so functional that they need no re-design, but so familiar that we cannot conceive of them as technology, until we think back to an era when they did not yet exist. In the study of material culture, we cannot afford to let the word “technology” be relegated to modern times. An object which was the first of its kind might at once be very old and entirely new – the foremost technology of another era. Not only does an understanding of this allow us to explore that age, it also helps us excavate the foundations of our contemporary material lives as we follow the story of that once-new idea on its evolutionary journey through time.
My conversation with this young tourist caused me to appreciate that there is value in understanding the full life cycle of a design, as it gestates in the mind of its inventor, is born imperfectly into the world, and is then remade many times over, remaining much the same or evolving almost beyond recognition. It remains a function of techne – the artfulness of humanity – be it old or new, useful or obsolete. In either case, when viewed through the lens of technological innovation, the study of material culture teaches us not just about the material lives of ages past, but also about how people went about the process of improving their lives. To study material culture is to step inside the inventive human mind.
For the third year running, I participated in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s “What Cheer Day” this past weekend. WCD is a first-person living history event which seeks to bring to life for a day the John Brown House in Providence RI, with a cast of characters ranging from maid to matriarch. I played the former for the past two years, but a few months ago when Kitty Calash contacted me about this year’s program, she offered me a different role: that of Alice Brown, the Bad Daughter. Of course I said yes. I’ve always been better at dramatic characters than meek ones, and this would be an opportunity to misbehave splendidly; a comic role, or so I thought.
One of the reasons why WCD is such a fun event is that the Brown family has all sorts of drama. But perhaps the most scandalous single event is the wedding of Alice Brown to John Brown Mason on July 16th 1800, just a day before she gives birth to their daughter. Kitty asked me if I would play Alice, circa fall 1799. The scenario would be the youngest child of the family straggling home the morning after a party. Feeling none-too-well, she would be put to bed, the doctor called, a diagnosis made: bun in the oven.
Because this was to be first person, I had to research my role. Researching for first-person interpretation (where you interact with the world as if you were a particular historical figure) is different from other types of historical research. In this case, historical facts on topics like politics weren’t particularly relevant, as Alice probably didn’t follow politics all that closely, and even if she did, she wouldn’t be expected to converse on political topics. The research I needed to do was much more self-centered: I needed to think through how Alice would react in the situation she was about to find herself in. Unfortunately, the way the cookie crumbled I ended up with less time for research than I would have liked. Though I was able to do a spot of reading on sex and premarital pregnancy in colonial and federal New England, I didn’t get a chance to plan out Alice’s every thought the way I might have liked.
Here’s how Saturday went for me/Alice:
Alice arrived home, looking rather bedraggled in her party clothes from the night before, and was immediately issued in to see Mrs. Brown, concerned over her daughter’s tardy return. Alice attempted to explain herself before begging off to go change out of her party clothes. Upstairs she encountered her sisters: widowed Abby, mother of three but with only one surviving, and Sally, long-betrothed but stilled not married to her darling Mr. Herreshoff. They were mildly sympathetic; Alice was something of a brat.
Soon Alice’s symptoms (only partially faked, as a bad night sleep led to greater accuracy than I had originally planned) caused her to climb into bed and the doctor to be called. Between him and the experienced Abby, her condition was discovered.
Here I ran into my first unanswered question: Was this news to Alice? it was possible that she already knew she was pregnant, and was simply keeping it from her family, but it was also possible that she was unaware. I, however, hadn’t decided what my character knew and what she didn’t.
Next, Sally became upset: after half a decade of engagement, she remained unmarried. Her impetuous younger sister on the other hand was now almost certain to be married to the husband she wanted (or at least lusted for) within the next 9 months. If Alice didn’t get married, that might be even worse however, as then Sally would have to deal with the scandal of a sister giving birth out of wedlock.
This produced another unanswered question: in late 18th-century New England it was not uncommon for brides to go to the alter already pregnant. Often it was an effective way of forcing the issue of marriage, and not unintentional at all. Was this true for Alice? Was this young woman innocent or wily? I hadn’t really thought about it. And no doubt just like Alice, I hadn’t thought about poor Sally’s feelings either.
Finally Mrs. Brown sent for Alice in order to decide what would be done with her.
By this time. I was truly anxious – my own uncertainly about the role I was playing had translated into Alice’s anxiety about how her family would deal with her behavior. Alice and I retreated into our respective shells and let the other participants push the scene.
Alice’s brother James was called in and sent to Mr Mason’s house to inform him of her condition, and negotiation conditions of an engagement. While this was happening Alice returned upstairs in the company of her Aunt Ruth, who was firm with her wayward niece, but still kind underneath it all.
Throughout all of this, visitors were wandering through the house and interacting with the characters. As with all first-person interpretation, we did our best to answer their questions while staying in character. By this point in the day however, I was having a hard time not associating with Alice. As the day’s events unfolded, not all visitors were sympathetic towards her plight. Some reveled in asking me hard questions, which Alice surely deserved, but which came close to hurting my own ego, tied up as it was with the character of Alice.
By the end of the day, I had been Alice the self-righteous girl just wanting to have some fun, the melodramatic youngest child needing to be taken care of while sick in bed, the chagrined young woman whose family has just learned she is pregnant our of wedlock, and the person who felt the need to defend her choices to a public who thought she was in the wrong.
I had gone into the day assuming I would play a the humorous roles of a silly young woman, obsessed with parties and the fellow she had a crush on; in reality, I had been cast in a drama. However, by observing where my preparation of Alice’s role was weak, I re-learned a valuable lesson: from the outside, it is easy to observe the actions of others, but from the inside, those actions are motivated – must be motivated – by intention. This was true of the historical figure of Alice Brown, and whether or not I did my research, I’ll never be certain of what her true motivations were. This style of living history – the first-person portrayal of an individual – is an interesting reminder that history is composed of thinking, feeling, people, not just battles, political movements, and dynasties.
In this, the late summer of 2016, I find myself living in a world where daily newscasts seem like thinly veiled cried for empathy: whether it be United States politics, international conflict, or disputes in European beachwear, our world is made up of myriad cultures trying – and these days often failing – to understand each other and co-exist amicably.
Multiple cultures also co-exist at living history museums like my work. One is the world of tourists seeking entertainment and education, and the staff who aim to provide it. The other is the fictional time-warp created to drop those same tourists centuries into the past. Conflicts arise frequently between those two cultures, and it is my job (or at least my goal) to resolve them wherever possible by means of knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, empathy.
Most of these cultural conflicts are small. They take the form of quips and questions through which visitors express their discomfort with the idea of stepping into the past. As a historical interpreter, these statements of lack-of-understanding are often directed at me in the form of questions: “aren’t you uncomfortable in that?” and “is that really what you would have been doing?” Perhaps the most important comment I hear however is the simple “I just cannot imagine what it would have been like to live back then!”
That is my cue; the point in the conversation where I pipe up with the simple statement of “try!” Try to imagine your life – the life of suburban parent, a well-traveled retiree, a seven-year-old about to head off to second grade – superimposed on daily life in 18th-century America. See what happens when you open yourself up to the possibility of understanding. To help with this, I open myself up for questions about my experience of what that life is like. Questions on how comfortable my clothing really is, how my lunch tastes, and whether or not I *have* to mend the soldiers’ breeches. From time to time I even get asked what sort of underwear I’m wearing, and whether or not, in this context, I would actually have been a prostitute. I do this because I understand that living history is a uniquely fictional culture, where blunt or even rude questions can be asked without giving offense, and where honest answers to those same questions can lead to a very frank understanding of why a different culture is, in fact, different.
I try to set up the world they are observing within the cultural context in which it makes sense. I explain the practicalities behind the clothing us interpreters wear, but also illustrate how fashion leads to impractical clothing in any era, drawing a connection with the peculiarities of their own sartorial choices. I point out analogies between their daily lives, and the lives that we reenact so that they can situate themselves in “our” world, rather than simply observing it as the “other”.
I do this because I believe that taking the time to empathize with what life was like at a military fort in the 1770’s is a skill. One that can translate into empathy with any other group or culture which is at first perceived as so strange and foreign as to be beyond comprehension.
History encompasses countless cultures from which we are temporally estranged. Our present-day world is also made up of diverse cultures which seem impossibly distant from our own. We are separated from them not by time but by geography, religion, politics, wealth, and more. I hope that visitors to my living history museum take their trip to the eighteenth century as an opportunity to practice understanding a “foreign” culture and that they come away from their visit with the tools they need to relate to a life that at first they “could not image” living.