To be or not to be historically hairy

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Mom: “I noticed you stopped shaving your legs, and I was wondering-“

Me: “-If that was because of laziness, or history, or feminism?”

Mom: “Yeah.”

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.

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Barefoot history…

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.

 

On Guard 3/19/1775: A Photo Essay

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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Beds too needed to be aired out and re-made.

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“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.

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Outside in the parade ground again, soldiers did maintenance on the fort’s equipment, including re-painting a horse cart.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Crafting Women’s Military History

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2012 – My first season at the Fort.

Its International Woman’s Day today, and I thought this would be an appropriate moment to talk about what it means to be a woman working at a military history museum (or at least my museum). When I first started working at the Fort (several summers ago, as a seasonal interpreter) I was the only girl. This turned out (perhaps to no one’s surprise) to be a little challenging. I was literally out numbered and outgunned; at this 18th century military site, I was the only person on staff who didn’t regularly pick up a musket. While the boys shared research on military drill and musket cleaning,  I researched on my own, trying to find the information I needed to justify my role at a woman in an early modern military setting.

 

This June, just over three years after I took my first job at the Fort, I returned as a member of the full-time staff. Before accepting the position, I vowed to myself that this time I would make the time for research so that the female staff (four of us now – huzzah to that!) would have a place in the site’s interpretive narrative. Even with this firm resolve, the challenge remained. At our first major summer event – a reenactment of a major French and Indian war battle – I could not find a single scrap of evidence for women present with the armies on either side. I spent the event talking to tourists and trying to circumlocute around the fact that we couldn’t document any women being present during the events we were recreating. It was disenfranchising, and not much fun. I came out of that weekend feeling that there had to be a better way to talk about women’s roles.

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Preparing for a well-researched event: get your research together, build your impressions, and have a photo shoot. Everybody loves a photo shoot.

We had two months before our next major event, and we (myself, my female co-workers, our curator, and even some of my male co-workers) set about doing the sort of research we would need to develop strong and accurate women’s living history portrayals. With this event we had the advantage of knowing that at least one of the participating armies – part of General John Burgoyne’s 1777 supply chain between Canada and Saratoga – was supported by soldiers’ wives and tailed by loyalist refugees. We compiled information out of memoirs and orderly books, scenting out traces of the women who lived and worked as part of the British army in America. I compiled that information into a set of clothing standards, detailing who the women present for the event would have been, and what they would have worn (something which we had always posted for various groups of soldiers, but which had never previously been assembled for female reenactors). And we also used our research to develop several different roles for female interpreters. The impressions included camp laundresses, officers’ servants, and “petty  sutleresses” who roved the encampments selling fresh produce, soap, and other goods valued in a military setting. It all came together beautifully; it was a smashing success.

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I came away from the weekend glowing with satisfaction over a job well done. I’ll happily take the credit for instigating this push towards a more full representation of women’s history, but the success of the venture derived from teamwork: My boss and co-workers were wonderfully supportive, and helped to create room for female-gender-specific interpretation. Our curator send dozens of pertinent documents and articles my way, and my fellow female interprets brainstormed endlessly to find creative and engaging ways to interpret the history we were uncovering. Six months and a handful of events later, interpreting women’s roles at the fort now feels like a no-brainer, rather than a struggle.

I am proud to work at a site where my colleagues are willing to take on the challenge of researching a minimally-documented and marginalized group, such as women in early modern military contexts. I am proud of the women’s history we have  found ways t to highlight. I am proud to be a women, and to share the history of my nation, my culture, and my gender.