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.
You go to a museum to learn a story by means of the objects they have on display. You go to a zoo to be entertained by the animals. You go to a living history museum to to see people bring the past back to life. People who, in their historical clothing, are part zoo animals and part museum objects. They are also, quite often, knowledgeable historians and talented craftspeople, but perhaps you do not notice this. You do notice them, photograph them, as objects, as zebras and giraffes, on display for your enjoyment.
I’ve got a friend named Will who does living history as a hobby. Our friendship revolves largely around tossing barbed witticisms at each other. At a reenactment a few weeks ago, sitting around the tavern table and passing the punch bowl, he tossed a comment my way that I wasn’t able to forgive him for. It was a revolutionary war event, and I was portraying an army woman – the wife of a continental soldier.
What he said was: “you’re too pretty* to be a camp follower”.
A bit of “no I’m not” – “yes you are” ensued while I recovered from this blow. You see, Will did a remarkable thing – he crafted an untouchable insult: He successfully objectified me, shredding any sense that my knowledge or skill were the more relevant factors in determining my ability to accurately portray a soldier’s wife, and he did this through a comment that everyone else at the table perceived as a compliment. (For bonus points he made me feel uncomfortable. That wasn’t a comment I expected or wanted from a friend.) When I brought this up with him a few weeks later, he said that since we had a relationship based on insulting each other, he had thought of the most insulting thing he could say to me. I offered him my congratulations, because he certainly succeeded.
Aside from the simple horror of being so sharply objectified, Will’s comment touched a nerve; I’ve had the feeling since this spring that “looking pretty” while doing living history is a bit of a problem. This first came to light when I finished a new gown in March. It is pink – a nasty, insipid, little girl sort of a pink that I bought on a lark because I thought it would be funny to make a dress in such a ridiculous color. (There is a perverse pleasure to be gotten from making something historically accurate which is also godawful ugly.) But everyone else seems to think it is pretty, and when I wear it, visitors to my site take my picture; they take it instead of talking to me. My knowledge and skills become irrelevant; superseded by my appearance. It seems to me that wearing a “pretty” dress means being a museum object, rather than a museum educator.
Because of this, Will’s comment had a second meaning of which he was unaware. Looking pretty while doing living history is a problem: it makes it much harder for me to have meaningful, educational interactions with people. To this end, I do not wear that stupid pink dress all that often. I was not wearing it at the event where I got into this little verbal dog fight in which Will struck such a significant blow. And yet, he was able to use the crime of looking pretty against me, to diminish me and my work.
I didn’t come up with the zoo analogy from the opening paragraph – that’s one we throw around at work a lot (when people touch our cloths without asking, put their fingers in our lunches, and interact with us solely through their camera lenses). It stems from the frustrations of a team of deeply knowledgeable people being viewed not as historians, but as figurines in a moving diorama. Our goal is not just to illustrate but to educate, but often we fail in this mission because of how we are perceived.
The “pretty” problem is a part of this. It is an additional hurdle I and my female colleagues are required to jump over, put up by a society that is used to objectifying women. A society where an older male friend doesn’t have to think twice before throwing out a comment that revolves around physical appearance. It makes me so sad. The only fix I know is not to sit quietly while photographed, but to talk to the people who face me through their iPhone cameras, and hope they go home with not just a photograph, but some historical knowledge, and a small sense of the person who they learned it from.
*A note on my physical appearance: I am a healthy, normal-enough person in her mid-twenties. That’s it. I’ve never been in a beauty pageant, so I don’t have any more solid information for you on the topic of my looks, nor do I want it. If you feel the need to form your own opinion, let it remain that: your own.
Last week I gave a presentation for a National Endowment for the Humanities teacher’s course being hosted by my work. The title of the talk was “Army Women in the American Revolution: reading between the lines to learn about life behind the lines.” It covered ways in which to examine primary sources which do not overtly address women’s history topics, in order to glean information about the roles of women with Revolutionary War armies. My aim was to promote the idea of women doing women’s work as a valuable part of the historical narrative. Internally, I hoped my audience would make the connection to the way women’s Revolutionary War history is typically taught, where, as often as not, the subject is covered by merely rehashing the stories of two extraordinary women, doing what is traditionally considered men’s work.*
I am of course talking about Deborah Sampson, who lied about her sex and enlisted in the continental army under a false name, and Mary Ludwig Hays AKA Molly Pitcher, who worked alongside men on a cannon crew at the battle of Monmouth. I do not want to suggest that these women are undeserving of our attention, but I’ll admit to being frustrated that our contemporary historical narrative seems to stop with them. The reason we fixate on the names Deborah Sampson and Molly Pitcher is because they fulfill our need for “heroic” female role models. However, as role models they are problematic, since they are more extraordinary than exemplary. There are next to no other accounts of women serving as soldiers in the American Revolution; Sampson and Hays don’t serve as icons for other faceless women combatants. Instead, they unfairly represent a population of women who did indeed serve alongside the troops, but who did so in more traditionally female roles. I perceive these two women’s inclusion in the historical record, to the exclusion of others, as yet another way in which “male work” (even as performed by a woman) is considered more valuable than the less “heroic” roles traditionally fulfilled by women. In this way, the stories of Sampson and Hays cause us to perpetuate the undervaluation of other types of labor.
In part I understand why the narrative is so skewed. As a researcher it is impressively hard to find information on the average experiences of Revolutionary War army women. The women who followed 18th-century armies had roles so ancillary to the idea of men standing up on a battlefield and shooting at each other that they have been almost universally overlooked by the writers of that era, and (partly because of that) of this one.
As I read officer’s orderly books and soldier’s memoirs these days, I dog ear any page which references women. And since that frequently produces no results at all, I also note references to laundry, baggage, the ill or injured; to marching orders and reprimands for the sale and consumption of alcohol – any quip or comment on which I might build my understanding of women’s typical wartime roles. I do this because I crave an understanding of the work so fundamental to daily life that no one paused to describe it. These women washed, nursed, cleaned, marched, and were forgotten. They contributed hugely to the success of the military communities they were part of, but they did so in such commonplace ways that everyone forgot to mention it. I choose to take note of women being women, even – especially – when it seems unimportant.
I do this because I want the next generation of history text books to do more than throw around the names of two unusual female combatants; I want them to point out that we do not have the names of most of the women who marched with the Continental Army, but that they were in fact valued and valuable. Their work was significant precisely because it was routine: without laundry, without nursing, without someone there to peddle the simple goods that made life bearable, those short lengths of time during which men (well, mostly men) stood up to fight would have been nearly impossible. I want to be allowed ordinary role models. I do not want to have to live up to the exceptional every day, I want permission to embrace whatever work I excel at, and be valued for my contribution, whether or not it is “heroic”.
*I realize that I run the risk of making it sound as though women should only be acknowledged for traditionally feminine, and men for masculine work. This is not what I intend; I love the idea of celebrating the exceptions to gendered labor in order to break down the idea that labor should be divided between the sexes. However, I am deeply frustrated to think that women’s work is so entirely undervalued that a woman might only receive recognition if she stepped into a masculine role.
Friends, my quest for well-documented and well-rounded roles for women in military living history goes on, but this past weekend I feel as though I had a victory.
Opening Weekend saw my museum’s staff running a living history event the theme of which was the construction of a redoubt*. This was an activity which we could document to the year we are representing (1777), and nearly to the day of our opening weekend (early May) as well.
To round out the event, we also set up a market to sell foodstuffs and other goods to the soldiers. This market seems to have been something of an institution at this site. Its presence and location are noted in orderly books the previous fall, and again in February. The “traders and hucksters” consisted of local inhabitants, and members of the military community such as licensed sutlers. The probability of women running or helping to run said stalls was high, and so the market stall became my project.
My co-conspirator in the execution of this program was Ms. F. (long-admired from afar by myself for her bad-assery in going it step for step with the men on many a re-created soldiers’ march). She arrived on Friday, and much to my satisfaction, we proved a capable and relatively self-sufficient team in the design, assembly, maintenance, and running of a productive and profitable market.Though we required extra hands to raise and stake out our shelter – a detail of men was kindly sent our way by Lieutenant S. to fulfill this function – the design and execution of the stall set up was in our own hands. This produced a deeply satisfying sense of ownership with the whole project.
It had been decided that the soldiers at work digging the redoubt would be “paid” in continental currency (2 1/3 dollars per man), and that money would be valid at the market. The site would foot the bill for some provisions, and soldiers would be able to “buy” said provisions to supplement their rations of meat and flour.
Though documentation exists for the costs of various goods sold in the military camp that year, exchange rates and values proved exceptionally hard to pin down, as they were given in several currencies, and fluctuated with supply and demand. With the realization that the relative value of continental dollars, Spanish silver, and half a dozen other currencies was beyond the scope of my research time, I did what any good business woman would: I decided to let the market drive my prices: rates would rise and fall based on the market’s supply and the soldiers’ demands.
What did we sell? Early May in the north country means little new produce, though we did rustle up some green onions and asparagus. Otherwise, vegetables were last year’s cellar crops: cabbage and carrots (these proved more popular than the spring greens anyway). Other goods were chosen because they allowed us to discuss some of the more interesting points our research had uncovered: the exceptionally high price of cheese was mentioned more than once by soldiers writing home from this post, and so we had to have some for sale. Likewise, drinking-chocolate was a frequently discussed food stuff, and so we set up a brazier in order to cook pots of wine-chocolate (brewed with a portion of Madeira, and a genius invention if their ever was one), to be sold by the glass.
Operating the market felt a bit like being children playing shop: the soldiers gave us their fake money, and we made-believe it had real value. But, just as in the best games of make-believe, we achieved a level of realism: we truly made a miniature economy. Just as the market in 1777 was supplying a self-contained and captive market at this isolated military encampment on the shores of Lake Champlain, we too had a captive market of busy soldiers. By selling foodstuffs which the reenactors could plan to buy ahead of time, there was a necessary level of interaction between us (the sellers; women) and the soldiers (our customers; men). This same level of interaction occurred when soldiers received orders to assist us in setting up the stall, and even when we bribed Private Bevan into splitting firewood for us in exchange for a cup of chocolate. Our artificial marketplace made for genuine interaction between two sets of gendered** activities. In my experience in living history, this is very very rare. Almost never do the “women’s” interpretive projects feel like anything besides a side show. Never before have I felt as though I, a woman portraying a women in a military setting, have had so much value, or been so integral to the running of a camp.
I believe that the level of interaction between reenactors and the market was largely due to the way in which research and information was shared with event participants. At some of our other recent events, research about “womens'” or “camp follower” interpretation has been shared selectively, with those who would be participating in the activities. For this event, I wanted to make sure that knowledge of the market stall would be more broadly distributed, so that not only the sellers, but also the buyers would understand the context of the display, making interactions more meaningful. To this end, the market stall research was shared with all of the participants. Likewise, we drummed up interest by posting updates on our plan for the market directly to the Facebook event page, in the same way information about the redoubt itself was being shared.
This was an important step, because instead of isolating those specific persons who would be participating in the execution of the program, we normalized the presence of the market (and the women running it) by putting this research on an equal footing with the research and information going out about the military activities at the site. This normalization of non-military activities, and women’s roles made this event more satisfying for me, and I think more cohesive and well rounded for all.
*Redoubt: a fortification with walls; sort of a mini-fort. In this case six-foot high wall of earth and sticks, on the perimeter of a 40’x40′ square.
** Running a market stall is far from a gendered activity in the 18th century, but for the purposes of this living history event, it became the “women’s project”, as the men were largely occupied in redoubt construction. I should add that another piece of marvelous “women’s” interpretation was happening simultaneously in the garden, where Miss Margie and Miss V. were industriously doing laundry. They too encountered positive interaction when sweaty, dirty soldiers dropped off shirts (and in one case, overalls) for a wash, once again paying in their Continental Dollars.
Young feminist historian that I am, I have always enjoyed this quote. It is only improved by the fact that its originator is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the fantastic Harvard historian and material culturalist, and author of A Midwife’s Tale, The Age of Homespun, as well as other books.
For years, I saw this line as an endorsement of bad behavior – it suggested that breaking the rules was laudable; the only way to do great deeds, and leave one’s mark on the world. It was permission to misbehave.
Last week, however, I realized that interpretation was deeply one-sided. A colleague and I were preparing a presentation we were giving a few days later at the New York State Council on Social Studies. The topic was “Army Women* in the American Revolution,” and our plan was to share research I had done into the roles these soldier’s wives often played within armies of the era (working as laundresses, nurses, etc), and the ways their lives were recorded. After that my coworker would share curriculum material she had created to help bring some of this information into the classroom. Our impetus was an abiding frustration that “Women’s Revolutionary War History” often revolves around a small handful of women who participated in the war effort in traditionally male roles, such as Deborah Sampson, who hid her gender in order to enlist, and Mary Ludwig Hays, who manned a cannon at the battle of Monmouth.
Both these women effectively made history by misbehaving.
The women we were planning on presenting on however, were the hundreds of women who followed their husbands on campaign, and sweated, laundered, nursed, and marched behind the baggage carts with children on their backs. They had played approved roles within the armies they followed. For that, they have been largely left out of the historical record. The minimal mentions of them we do have often still revolve around rule-breaking: in orderly books of the era, army women are told off, ordered around, and threatened with being thrown out of camp for selling alcohol, for demanding higher wages, for walking anywhere but at the back of the line when the army was on the move, etc…
While driving home from work after spending the day assembling a slideshow for our presentation, Ulrich’s quote popped into my head, and I saw that truly I had missed the point: it is not for me to change my actions – to misbehave – in order to find my role in the historical record (though surely this does have merit). Rather, my efforts should be directed at the historical record itself, so that well behaved women might at last be represented by our history books.
Mom: “I noticed you stopped shaving your legs, and I was wondering-“
Me: “-If that was because of laziness, or history, or feminism?”
Me: “All three, I guess”
I had this conversation with my mother last fall, a time of year when a New Englander whose primary social scene is folk dancing hippies can easily avoid ridicule for having hairy legs. As both warm weather and tourist season approach, however, I’m thinking more about the state of my calves.
The museum will be opening in May, at which time the staff – myself included – will transition from research to recreation. For 40 hours a week we’ll transform ourselves into a stinky and hard-working eighteenth-century army. That’ll make me a raggedy camp follower, or soldier’s wife, a role in which I may well lack a decent pair of shoes. No shoes means no stockings, no stockings means bare legs. You’ll have figured out my dilemma by now: it is a struggle between modern conventions of beauty and historical accuracy. Usually spring is a time for renewed attention to one’s legs, prior to sundress season. However, 250 years ago a woman too poor to own shoes surely does not expend her few resources on depilation. A true recreation of her appearance would involve leg hair. And not stubble, but the real grown-out stuff. Luckily, my legs haven’t seen a razor in half a year. If I want that “authentic look”, I’ve got it.
Honestly, this is the longest I’ve gone without shaving my legs since I hit puberty, a time when hair removal was seen by girls my age as a sort of rite of passage. Thinking about this recently, I remembered an occasion from several years ago: when I was in 6th grade, a classmate of mine proudly showed off the razor she’d gotten for her birthday. It was sleek and ergonomic – it was more curvaceous than we were. For her, shaving her legs was a step on the road to adulthood. Paradoxically, hair once shaved appeared to grow back darker and thicker. While body hair indicated adulthood, so did the privilege to remove it. This act however only augmented its return. I wonder now how I could have missed the irony that, at the age of twelve, my classmate felt that she became more of a grown-up by removing a biological indication of encroaching adulthood.
As a tween I too succumbed to the cultural ideal of smooth legs, something which I have kept up – more or less – since then, mostly because shaving my legs seemed simpler than explaining to people why I didn’t. At some point in the last decade however, I realized the irony of my middle-school classmate’s excitement over her first razor. Since then I’ve been pondering the significance of shaving my legs. Until recently the side of the scale which weighed cultural norms around women’s legs has outweighed the side containing my own disinterest in hair removal. In the next six weeks I have to decide if historical accuracy will tip the scales in the other direction.
Truly, history, feminism, and laziness will all play a part in my choice. However I fear that no matter what I choose, I’ll be called out on it. Either a tourist will noticed (and comment on!) my smooth ankles below dirty petticoats at work, or my hairy legs will be viewed askance by strangers on weekend swimming outings. If I’m really lucky, I’m wrong about this, and no one will comment either way.
Exactly a month before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, 23 soldiers from the British army’s 26th Regiment of Foot – many of them old or “worn out” – and their families are stationed at a dilapidated fort 130 miles south of Montreal. Less than two months from now the fort and its valuable artillery pieces will be captured by colonials preparing to drive British forces out of Boston. For now however, the fort’s occupants are unaware of political unrest. Its crumbling walls contain stone barracks, some of which have been turned into apartment-like spaces, housing soldiers along with their wives and children. Much like at Fort Crown Point before it burned to the ground two years ago, the local inhabitants occasionally stop by to sell produce, or peddle their skills.
Captain Delaplace, commander of the guard, no doubt employs one of his soldiers, or one of their wives to prepare meals for him and his family, to clean, and to launder. Other soldier’s wives perform the latter duties for the enlisted men, and cooking is done by one member of each mess of six or so individuals, women included. The captain owns livestock, and they too are cared for by soldiers or soldiers wives. In the spring, the old French gardens will be planted. In the mean time, the guard eats pease and pork.
The day-to-day existence at the fort includes less military rigor than one would expect of a command that was larger, or younger, or closer to civilization. Because of their maturity, many of these men have families – wives and children, some possibly grown to adulthood and living nearby. Though a sentry is posted at the fort’s entrance, an attack is far from expected and it is easy for civilians to gain admittance. The married men share bunks with their families not, as regulations stipulate, with their fellow soldiers. The fort’s well water is not healthful, and some of the soldiers are sick. Though the fort is held by the British army, this is the least-warlike it has ever been since its construction began in 1755.
This was the scenario we re-created this past weekend. The setting opened up an opportunity for us to focus on many elements of day-to-day life that tend to get lost in the shuffle at battle reenactment. Delighted by this, we ran with the idea. Every space we had was occupied with a different task, as we cleaned, cooked, mended, made new, and repaired. Men and women worked side-by-side accomplishing the jobs that needed to be done. Their tasks were different, but of equal importance. Our interpretation did not favor one over the other, but simply followed the routine of a busy day.
Spaces were cluttered with the accumulated objects of a long posting: tea pots, candle sticks, ceramics; simple luxuries too inconvenient to be carried by a marching army, but which one might expect have “at home”.
In the parade ground, soldier’s wives washed soiled linens. This task, a necessity for any army, is one we’re getting good at. Miss V. braved the chilly march weather and spent all day at the hard work of scrubbing.
Without any grass to lay linens out on, shirts and shifts were hung up inside the soldier’s barracks, were the mess of the noon-day meal is clearly evident, something which would likely be unacceptable in a proper Garrison.
On this bright March day, cleaning seemed like an obvious activity. Kitty spent the morning sweeping and mopping the upstairs officer’s barracks. Three experimental mops were made for this purpose, based on the limited documentation available for such things. All were put to work, and were successful to varying degrees.
Beds too needed to be aired out and re-made.
“Domestic” spaces were completed with busy peg boards holding the clothing of all the fort’s inhabitants. Gowns and stays dressed the pegs, along with waistcoats and cocked hats.
Outside in the parade ground again, soldiers did maintenance on the fort’s equipment, including re-painting a horse cart.
In the evening the company gathered together, enjoying the warmth and light of the barracks building’s small fireplace. One of the three grenadiers in the guard brought out a fiddle.
Even the sergeant relaxed, trading his hat and neck stock for a scotch bonnet (the 26th is, after all, a Scottish regiment) and printed cotton roller.
At the end of the day, we were tired from a job well done. Not only were the floors clean and the the cart newly-painted, we’d found a way to delve even deeper into the history of which we are the custodians, telling a fuller, richer, grittier story than ever.