Saturday, 16 June 2018

Striving for Accuracy: Attempting to do Living History While Surrounded by Pirates, Belly Dancers and Bill Lynch shows

The state of living history in Nova Scotia is dismal. While there are a few people and historic sites that are trying to do quality, accurate interpretation, sadly, they are few and far between. The problem stretches back as far as Brian Mulroney, when he decimated Parks Canada, and laid off all the historians. It may reach further back than that. And it's not just a Parks issue.

In this past year, I have seen museum sites wanting to hire curators, but are only willing to pay them 10$/hour, and give them 20 hours/week...looking for PhD candidates. I have noticed an influx of Jack Sparrow characters showing up where living history events used to happen. And yet other sites lay off, or outright fire anyone who might have a clue how to do actual historical research, in favour of the people in accounting who know how to crunch numbers and make more money for the directors.

It's depressing.

We have the history. We have the natural beauty of our environment. We still have the tourism numbers...but those won't last if we don't stand up for what makes Nova Scotia beautiful. If everywhere you look, tourists are faced with yet another McDonald's, another holiday fairground, another strip mall of the same stores they find at home, those tourists will simply stay home.

And yes, sometimes, it means spending a bit of money to earn money.

I just finished my third comprehensive exam, save for some minor editing, which I will likely have finished Monday. Then I can send it off. It's an interpretation plan for a small museum in nova Scotia, a house museum. Very cool living history could happen there, if the directors and full time staff can open up to the ideas in my paper. It may also make it relevant to the community at large, bringing in folks who usually walk right on by on their way to the closest Tim's.
On a recent visit, close to their opening day, we walked in to find staff dressed in 'historical costume' to give us a tour. Unfortunately, they weren't really in historical costume, rather, they were dressed in pieces of historic garments, over their modern clothes. There were modern coffee cups, and water bottles left out on the table in the historical room. One of them was on her cell phone, and simply left it sitting on the table when they offered to give us a tour.

My first thought was, 'why don't they just wear golf shirts?' The half hearted attempt just showed me that there was a lack of knowledge, and a lack of care.

This spring, I have been fortunate enough to attend some outstanding living history events in the US. OUTSTANDING! Almost all run by young professionals and volunteers. Every minute detail is carefully considered in their clothing and accoutrements. Participants are vetted to ensure a quality product will be provided to the public. And the Public! The sheer numbers of people turning out to watch these events is outstanding as well. At Lexington Mass, there were several thousand spectators lining the Battle road to watch a half hour/45 minutes of interpretation. I was gobsmacked.

Then I asked, why can't we do that in Nova Scotia? We have the history. We just have to care.

We have to care that our historical wardrobes are correct for the period we are interpreting. We have to care that we are wearing all the appropriate pieces for that wardrobe, that they are finished properly, and fit. No safety pins please!
And we have to care a bit more about the venues that we participate in. It's all great fun when the Bill Lynch comes to town, but we don't have to be the side show to the side show. We can find other, more historic venues to pitch our camps in. We can make an offer to the small, struggling house museum to teach their staff what they should be wearing, and how to wear it...hell, some of us can even teach them how to make their own clothes...and maybe grow our numbers in the process.

Minute Man started off as a small event. Carefully vetting participants to ensure quality programming. Fellow living historians offered to run workshops in the winter months to help others up their living history game. This year, the living history people also numbered in the hundreds. Small hundreds, but hundreds nevertheless.

If we don't change our mindset towards living history soon, we will be left behind. We need to dig out those 'best practices' standards for our group, the umbrella organization, and maybe the sites we want to attend, and really look long and hard at our kit. The progressive people are leaving us behind...just like those 1976ers, smoking cigarettes and looking to drink beer and go 'pew, pew' with their buddies for the know, those guys you just don't want to invite around anymore. Like your embarrassing, drunk uncle.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Food of our grandparents

Grandma's Butter Cake

I've been thinking about food lately. No, stop. I think about food ALL THE DAMNED TIME! You see it's a security thing for me, as I am sure it is a security thing for many of you. We buy groceries first, before anything else, before bills are paid. Food!

I'm a bit anal about the quality of my food too. If I am going to the effort to eat something, to carry around those calories, it'd best be the best quality food I can buy. We don't eat packaged. That means that I spend a lot of my time cooking. It's a trade off. I cook so that I don't have to eat from a box. I also eat seasonally. I put up preserves when fresh is in season and cheap so that I can eat that good food year round. It was the way we were brought up. And you know what? Eating this way is usually far cheaper.
Now, I realize there are 'food deserts' in the world, there are a lot of them in North America, the land of the free and wealthy...even in Nova Scotia. That's a whole different blog post though, and what I really want to talk about here is grandma's food, how she taught us to cook, and how that is lost to many now.

I just finished making a batch of citrus chutney from the end of season oranges. Normally, at this time of year I make marmalade, but this year I wanted to switch it up a bit. I needed a change. Pierre had been taking oranges in his lunch for the week, and I had been thinking of getting him to save the peels for me, but it turned out I didn't really need any point in history though, they would have been saved and preserved.
The last time I made marmalade, there was too much pith in the mix, that white bit of the orange peel, and it turned out bitter and would not set up! This time around, I was much more careful to peel the rind from the pith and chop that rind finely. To that I added the pulp of the citrus, and then a good large wack of sugar, some cider vinegar, raisins, and a small bit of Pierre's pepper blend. I boiled it up and got it into jars late last week. Then we packed the car and went to Ticonderoga. The jars sat on the counter.

At Ticonderoga, Gibb Zea was doing an experiment with salting pork. He got the salting down pat! In the staff kitchen, in a large glass barrel were the pork bits in the brine and salt. It looked good. He told me that it was an experiment, that he had been reading about salting meat in the period. On the Saturday, he made a stew with the salt pork, to compare with the fresh pork I was braising for the officers. Gibb did freshen the pork, but we all found the stew to be still too salty. I found out later, that while he had changed out the water several times, he had left the freshening part too late and didn't allow enough time.
Remember, he was going from written documents. Written in a time when some things were simply common knowledge. Nobody needs to eat salt meat any more. That knowledge is lost...

Or is it?

In the Maritimes, we eat salt fish to this day! It's one of those comfort foods that we eat when we are home, like grabbing a donair, or fried pepperoni. Fish cakes and eggs, with baked beans and green tomato chow for breakfast is still one of those things many of us crave. Many of us grab breakfast at the Ardmore Diner, but some of us still know how to do this from scratch.
In the Maritimes, there are often fish trucks parked in local parking lots, selling the catch of the day. We buy direct from the fishermen, and we buy what was caught...there's no ordering special, it's what the guy has. One day, on my way home from school, there was a truck parked at the foot of our street, at the old gas station lot. Grandpa had sent me down for some salt cod for Sunday dinner. I came home with a giant fillet of cod. Cod are huge, and the fisherman who caught this one, split it open, cleaned it, salted it, and sent it to Nova Scotia. So I'm walking up the street with a giant, rock hard fish, still with it's skin. Grandpa had expected I would come home with a bag of cod bits, not a whole fish.
Oh, well. The money was spent. Time to deal with the fish. Down in the laundry tub, next to the washing machine went the fish. He filled the tub with cold water. It was Wednesday. Every day the water was changed out for new cold water until the fish was pliable enough to deal with. It was at this point that I understood why the farmers out west used the salt cod we sent them during the depression to shingle their roofs. No, it didn't work out well, but if you've never seen a salted cod before, how would you know how to deal with it?
So when the cod was fresh enough, probably on Friday evening, Grandpa took it back up to the kitchen and skinned the fish, putting the edible bits into a large pot of more cold, fresh water. By Sunday it was fresh enough to cook (boiled in more fresh water until hot and cooked through). We ate it with boiled mashed potatoes and lots of butter. It was still salty.
I thought of this experience when I was talking to Gibb about his salt pork project, and how I could explain that more time was needed, that salt meat takes days to freshen, with the water being changed out daily, or even more often? Then I thought of how a soldier would be able to freshen pork while on the march. He wouldn't be able to do it properly, for sure. I suspect a lot of time they were eating really salty stew, much like we did on Saturday. Boiled potatoes, cooked in the stew would pull out some of the salt, but still.

There are things that we do today, that will be lost knowledge to our grandchildren. I think about those things a lot. Like how to roast a chicken, which chickens are the best to cook. What eggs look like when they are fresh from the chicken. How dirty eggs from the chicken's back end can stay on the counter, but once you wash them, they need to go in the fridge. And how all of that is different from buying food in the store, all sanitized and packaged. What exactly is a chicken nugget? You don't really want to know...

I got home from Ticonderoga and noticed that my chutney hadn't set up, again...No Biggie, back into the saucepan it went, with more sugar, lots more sugar, and more boiling. I don't really have a recipe, I just know that with acidic foods, more sugar is needed to get them to set up. Liquidy fruit is similar in that it also needs more sugar. I finally got the chutney to a good sticky consistency, and reprocessed my jars, new snap lids (the first ones went in the trash, as they'd already been used and the seal won't be good enough a second go around...even for fruit). I got my chutney in the jars again, and processed again. And this time, it worked. I have good, jam-like consistency. I am happy.

When I get back home to Nova Scotia, I will need to start teaching my grandkids how to cook. They will be a good age to start learning. I don't want to leave them all my grandmother's and grandfather's recipes, with no idea how to use them. The 'builder's mug' measurement only works if you know what a builder's mug is.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Spring: It's summer living history season

Sorry about the hiatus, I've been reading a great deal, preparing for, and writing my comprehensive exams. I have one left, due the end of June, so will probably be flying low around here for a bit yet. I wanted to give you a bit of an update on events that I participated in over the last few weeks.

Battle Road: Lexington and Concord Mass

We signed up for this event and was very please with the process and feedback I received from the organizers. This event is vetted, meaning that you have to send in images of your kit and clothing for approval by the board. There are fairly rigorous standards to follow, but I see these as more helpful than a hindrance. The guidelines give you an image of what to work towards, so you don't end up with substandard clothing and accoutrements. The feedback I received on our submission not only helped me for the event, but also helped me to improve some items for my second exam, my studio practice.

The event was centred around the evacuation of Lexington leading up to the first battle of the American Revolution. We would portray middle class people pushed out of their homes, the first refugees of the war, if you will. Many of these folks would not have chosen which side they were loyal to just yet, they would have been displaced in the early morning, not knowing which of their neighbours to trust, or even if they would have a home to return to, or when. Questions surrounding what you would hastily pack and bring with you in case of an emergency have been at the forefront of my mind since beginning this degree. Here was a chance to put those questions into motion.
We arrived for the event wearing our best dress, Pierre in a black wool ditto suit, me in my grey striped linen gown, as if preparing for a normal, middle class day. We carried a snap sack full of silver and pewter, cutlery, candlesticks, that sort of stuff...easy to turn into money stuff. I also carried my china tea set, the most expensive thing I would have owned in the period, having been imported from the orient.

There were comments made toward us about those terrible British soldiers. Our fellow living historians did not know either of us, or our background. We were simply people on the road, displaced like they were. We kept quiet about our Loyalist leanings while those 'patriot' folks were around. For us, this was great fun, being able to re-enact the history of the place, the beginning of the war, but underneath it all, I could feel the tension, and had a better understanding of how it must have felt for those people so long ago. The very real threat of not having a home, and being afraid of your neighbours. I know that what we are taught in history class is different than what is taught in the American classroom. To Americans, Loyalists are the losers of the war, the enemy even. To us, in Atlantic Canada and Ontario, those same Loyalists are our grandparents. As the day progressed, I would have a greater sense of that disconnect, as one of our travelling companions portrayed a British soldier, and despite also being an American, was treated differently because of that red coat. It was an interesting experience.

The day itself helped me to put into perspective what I have been reading on Interpretation methodology. I saw the event a bit differently than I would have a few years ago. The events of the Lexington weekend were impressive in their quality. I understood the need for tight guidelines and vetting of the living history people. The events had tight foci, and we needed to appropriately fit within those contexts. Every event I attend and participate in now will lead to a better understanding of how I will need to develop my dissertation. It was good practice.

No Quarter: Fort Ticonderoga

The second event of this spring happened just this past weekend, and I am still trying to process it. So, please bear with me.
In history, just over two weeks after the battles at Lexington and Concord, the New Hampshire Green Mountain Boys would take over a garrison of unsuspecting British soldiers on the edge of the colonial frontier, Fort Ticonderoga in New York, on the edge of Lake Champlain. The garrison there would not have known yet, what had happened in Concord and Lexington just a few weeks earlier. They were living their quiet, daily lives. It was a relatively small garrison of just 39 men, with their wives and children, living apartment style within a crumbling fort.
On the Saturday, Pierre and I would spend the day cooking for the officers. We were able to discuss the differences between the quality of food stuffs between the officers and enlisted men. The staff had prepared a stew of salt pork, cabbage, and root vegetables for the soldiers that day, and were serving it out of big kettles from the other side of the room. Pierre and I were braising a fresh pork roast, to be served with apple sauce, leeks and bacon, and a spring green salad. Still, all foods that I would have been able to obtain this early in the season, but prepared in an entirely different manner.
We were also in garrison, and so able to have and use more of the material culture we have been collecting as part of our interpretation over the past few years. It was nice to have my things at hand, and to be able to use them, much like a family in garrison in the period would have had. I was able to discuss the similarities and differences between what it would have been like to be a military family in the period, vs. what it is like to be one today. The progress we have made, and how recent much of that progress has been. Bits of knowledge that I have held onto since my days at the Halifax Citadel came in handy as I interpreted a soldiers wife living in barracks.

The taking of the Fort programming occurred as a special program on Saturday evening. We were divided up amongst the barrack buildings and at dusk, the interpreters portraying the Green Mountain Boys burst through the gates and rounded us all up. These interpreters had spent the last 24 hours on a route march from Vermont to the Fort in New York, crossing lake Champlain by boat on Saturday. I had no idea what to expect apart from what would happen theoretically from the script. It helped set the scene a bit further having spent the whole of Saturday in a quiet Garrison of British soldiers, doing day to day tasks.
When we were forced out of our barracks and rounded up in middle of the parade square, I honestly felt a bit of fear. We had just spent the last hour in the darkened barracks waiting while the public was escorted into the fort and given a brief preamble to what they would be seeing. Many of us napped during this hour, it had been a busy day of interpretation for most, and not a great night's sleep the Friday evening before. We were literally woken up, pushed out of the barracks and rounded up in the middle of the parade square by about 40 men with muskets. It really was a bit overwhelming, even though we all knew the script. I thought about what it must feel like to wake up in the middle of the night from a smoke detector, only to realize your house is actually on fire and you can't save anything. I was on an adrenaline rush. It was an amazing experience.

Once the evening program was finished, we were able to take questions, one on one, from the public. many asked what it must have felt like. Still shaken from the adrenaline, I was able to discuss these thoughts with them. I think we all left with a greater understanding of the events of Spring 1775.

Sunday was another quiet day. In 1775, the Green Mountain boys had taken over the garrison, but didn't really know what they were going to do with it. The Interpreters put their British uniforms away, and civilian clothes were put on, as the patriot soldiers were all civilian men, not a standing army like the British forces. There were demonstrations of the differences between the two 'armies', and similarities as well, as many of the people in America at the time still felt like British subjects. They were simply rebelling against perceived oppression from a King and Government across the ocean.

Pierre and I were able to talk about the material culture we were packing up from the weekend. What it must have felt like in an age before mass communication. What it must have felt like to be forced to take a 'side' in a war that you may not have even wanted to be a part of, if it fully was even a war...

I hope we get to go back and do more interpretation at Ticonderoga. It was one of the highlights of my living history experience. Both Ti and Lexington offered an outstanding degree of accuracy in kit, material culture, and interpretation. I am still gobsmacked by the experience.
We are quickly approaching the 250th anniversary of it all, the 250th anniversary of my family arriving in America and being pressed into service to the Crown. That man could not read, and signed his 'name' with an X. I hope to have a better understanding of his life when I am through, and can put into words for him, what it must have been like.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Who Am I? Persona development and research in Living History

I have always thought this was an important and very loaded question. Important, because it shapes who we portray when 'in the field' at events. Loaded, because we can address tricky aspects of our shared history, or, make such a mess of them that we can be thought of as racist.

Ask yourself who are you.

If you're a soldier, that's easy, you wear what you are told to wear by your unit, you do what you're told to do...

Easy, right? If you answered yes, then this article may not be for you at this juncture in your living history career. Tuck it away for another date.

For the rest of us, being told what to do and how to dress just isn't an option. If our bodies prevent us from being a line soldier, either through extreme gender shapes, or any other reasons, we might have to look at other options. If we live nowhere near a military installation or unit, being a soldier might not be an option. If we are getting a bit too old for that sort of profession, it may be a good time to look at other options.
So who are you?

I've often said that the easiest personas to portray are ones that are close to our own modern lives.  When you break down who we are to the basic ideas, we are business people, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, children, our ethnicity comes into play in a huge way for most of us. Are we religious? If so, what sort? Are we alone, raising a family through death or divorce?

These are all easy questions to answer and give a good groundwork for persona development.

So I will give you my persona as a case study so that you may use it as a guide to help you in yours. First off, my body is overtly feminine, so I dress as a woman. I would look like a very silly shaped man, and I am really femme, so this wasn't something that entered into my thought process. I am feminine. I am also a wife, a mother whose children are grown. I am a military wife too. This all speaks to my social standing in the world, how much money or class level I'd be in, what social roles I portray. I am an artist and craftsman, I am intellectual and work with my hands. I also come from a very Catholic upbringing, and still hold to many of the tenants of that religion. I come from the Gaelic culture.

Ok, if you know me, you can picture me in your mind's eye.

Now picture me in eighteenth-century clothes.

I am a soldiers (sailor's) wife of a certain age. I dress in middling class clothing, wool, linen. I wear many petticoats, stays, a gown, maybe a shortgown (jacket), and I dress modestly. I make clothing for people, and am often seen making or repairing the clothing of the clothes of the people in my group, or military units near me. My clothes may be old, but are in good repair.
And something you might not know about the Gaelic culture if you didn't grow up in it, we all tend to appear stand-offish, but love to be around people. We don't make eye contact, or like to be touched, but love to let loose with our friends with music and good cheer.

So who is my persona? I've just told you. I may change it up a tiny bit, to accommodate the event we are attending. At Louisbourg, I am fresh off the boat, waiting on a land grant so that I can set up house before the next sailing season, I might run a tavern to make a little bit extra money. At Ticonderoga, I am a Loyalist woman, walking to Canada, depending on the event...if the Americans are in power at the Fort, I am a spy, down from Canada with my Mohawk husband. If in later years of the war, we may be straight up Americans looking to supply the Fort with provisions. If I am in Annapolis Royal, I am a Loyalist again, travelling with the military from New York or Charlestown, waiting on a land grant in the Valley, I hear there's good farmland to be had.
I am always a Gaelic woman of a certain age, with a husband who may have seen military service. I am middle class, no higher. My clothes may get dirty, but will always be in decent repair.

Now that I have given you my case study, my persona, ask those questions of yourself. And then start doing some research. What would you wear, what would you own. Create a research binder to help you keep track of all these ideas in your head. Please don't fall into the trap of copying another, fellow re-enactor. Doing that results in a badly played game of telephone, and causes 'fashion trends' in the profession that may not have actually been fashionable in the period.

Look at a lot of art! If you are lower or middling sorts, look at Hogarth, Sandby, avoid oil paintings featuring ladies and gents in fancy silks or velvets unless you are of the upper sorts. Hogarth and Sandby tend to be genre painters, every day folk in morality lessons. Portraiture holds a whole other layer of semiotics that you have to be aware of. It's a good place to start developing your eye though, telling your mind what you should look like...that can be vastly different from what your modern eye thinks you should look like.
Read books, not just the history of the period, but also the material culture and clothes. Read newspapers of the period, what was available at the shops? What were the runaways wearing and stole?

It tends to be far less expensive and much less frustrating, if we all start with who we are and work from there. Then we can make or buy only what we need, and not make costly and frustrating mistakes along the way...I'm not the only one with a closet full of silk gowns I'll never wear again in their current state. They will eventually get repurposed into modern garments, because I get dressed up for the Mess once a month, something my 18thC persona would never do. That's a lot of $40/metre silk I really didn't need to buy.  It's pretty, but really...

As I begin to develop my own research binder to present for my comprehensive exam in research/creation, I hope you'll all start one too.

Start by asking the question, who am I?

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Maker vs. Craftsman: Why the Material in Materiality Should Matter

I'm not sure why, exactly, the tech industry has co-opted the term 'maker'. Maybe it's because they are finally realizing that Western society is growing weary of the unsustainable, throw-away culture of the late 80s through 2000s. Maybe they realize they can't easily pawn the newest IPhone scam so readily...
Those long line-up days are dwindling.
I'm still not entirely sure tech understands craftsmanship though, given a few conversations I've listened in on the past few weeks. Sure they understand making, but not the heartbreak that comes with honing one's craft, for years at a time, making mistakes, understanding the benefits of quality materials that can make a quality end product.

If it doesn't work, they'll fix 'it' in the next update.

And that has me wondering if many regular folk understand the need for quality materials.

Two summers ago, I embroidered a stomacher for a friend's wedding. A stomacher is the triangular shaped part of the bodice of an 18thC gown that covers the breast and belly. Her gown was silk, it called for an embroidered stomacher, and she was feeling in over her head.

She sent me the kit she bought...

When I sat down to begin, I read over the instructions to see if there were any differences between them and what I had planned to do. Ok, there were a few, but nothing major. But when I pulled out the thread to begin stitching, I realized that what had been enclosed with the kit was nothing like what the instructions called for. I'm pretty sure my friend bought the kit as a whole, threads included, as she is not an embroiderer, and would have asked me what I wanted to stitch with. When I looked at the kit again, I was glad she didn't attempt it, as she would have been spectacularly frustrated. The kit instructions called for stranded floss, what was included was silk sewing thread.

Now, I know what I'm doing with embroidery and could make it work. The stomacher was embroidered, built, and sent down to her with enough tome for it to sit with her gown for a couple of weeks before the wedding. I'm happy with it, I think I did a good job.

But not having stranded floss meant that there's not a lot of shading to the flowers. Sewing thread cannot be divided into smaller strands, to be blended with other colours like stranded floss can. So the flowers are a bit blocky.
Am I making sense?
My current embroidery project is entirely my own devising. I'm using linen as the ground, and silk floss for the embroidery. I designed the pattern based on extant pieces. The embroidery itself has shading, because of the stranded floss I have. I'm really enjoying the project and can't wait to see it finished, I'm really proud of it, and will include the process in my studio exam coming up in the Spring.

Currently my reading has been about how we can use the creation process in our research. It's a bit like preaching to the choir, as that is how I work out how things were made in history, by making them. But it's really nice to see philosophy to back up what I have done my whole career. Making samples, full sized projects, writing about what I've done, looking at how my reproduction differs from the extant, make another, test the theory, and then watch the thing as someone wears or uses it.
A Forbes article from last year describes this process as 'Learning through doing', "this learning technique was used heavily by craftsmen to train their apprentices. It was a perfect fusion of do-it-yourself wherewithal and immersion learning"(Craig, 2015). The author laments that this form of education has been transitioned into a method that is more formalized in the way we learn in mainstream academia. I'm wondering if the tech world is simply laying out their trial and error process, with the culture of updates and patches to fix the tech they sell, for all to see. Something that craftsmen of the past kept hidden from the public through the apprenticeship process.

And maybe that's really a good thing.

Why yes, I can roughly draft out garment shaped directly to cloth, it comes from my years of training. I know the shape of the pieces almost by heart, I know where the measurements need to be laid out. I'm sure that many of your grandmothers could do this too, having had a similar experience of time, and learning from mistakes that you never saw. This does not mean that what I do it 'easy' or less valuable. There are things that you do that I struggle, tech.

So maybe what I'm really getting around to is, try that thing that you want to make, but don't expect it to be perfect that first try. And maybe, just maybe, think about how much your time is worth before trying to undersell that craftsman you want to buy that product from. Could you really afford to spend your time perfecting that craft enough to make that beautiful thing?

Think about the actual time spent in learning that skill.

We all deserve to live comfortable lives, to be able to pay our bills, to buy groceries. Everyone's craftsmanship has time behind it.


Chachra, Debbie. 2015. "Why I am Not a Maker: When Tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who teach, criticize, and take care of others." The Atlantic, January 23: 6.

Craig, William. 2015. "What is 'Maker Culture,' And How Can You Put It To Work?" Forbes: Entrepreneurs, February 27: 4.

Friday, 13 October 2017

the material culture of pickled beets

The last couple of years, I have been canning in a bigger way than much of my adult life.  A lot of this is due to me not having a full time job. When I was working, this would be a very busy time for me, as I took in all the historical costumes that had been issued out for the year. I would be basting kilts, mending dresses, more laundry than I could shake a stick at.

I'd come home in the evenings exhausted.

When I was working full time, we ate a lot of quickly cooked meals, usually while snarfing a loaf of bread due to our 'very busy lives' and not eating well during the day. I've noticed that since I've been home, more or less full time, between classes and such, we've begun to eat far more healthily. And I've begun to can my own preserves.
This was something my mum taught me how to do when I was a kid. It was always cheaper to buy things in bulk and make our own, and we grew up poor. Our freezer and can cupboard got a work out. Spaghetti sauce, chili, this thing with ground beef, tomatoes, spices and rice, and canned goods were mostly of the fruit and vegetable kind. As I got older, and we were able to visit the farmer's market, I just made more and more. Moving here, with the market less than a kilometre's walk, I can a lot.

I understand how privileged I am to live in a place where the hundred mile diet is a reality, and it's actually far cheaper to can my own stuff than to buy from the grocery store. There's no such thing as a food desert in the Montreal region.

Today, as I processed 15lbs of beets for the winter, I was thinking about how privileged I am to be able to can goods in this century as opposed to the eighteenth century. Things that I take for granted today are many. So I thought I'd write about my morning, and compare it to the daily chores of my eighteenth-century counterpart.
I started the laundry, in a machine, where I could control the heat of the water, and whether is was given an extra wash cycle or not. I could also just pour in the detergent, not having to make my own. I buy that in bulk too, and thanks to very modern ideas on skin sensitivities, that detergent is dye, scent, and many 'p' words free. I sorted the darks first, because Pierre is getting short on undershorts. These happily went on their washing way while I went back upstairs. My work on that task done for the moment.
I then set my beets on to boil. There was no drawing of water from the well, I simply poured water in from the tap to cover. I'm also on 'city water' so there's no worry about my well running dry at the moment. There was also no lighting a fire under the pot either, I simply turned a knob to the desired temperature. While the beets boiled, and the laundry churned, I drank coffee and knit, and listened to a podcast of a lecture from Yale university.

Think about that for a moment...

My coffee came from a machine that automatically turns itself on in the morning, and makes the exact same pot of coffee every morning. In the Montreal region, I was able to listen to a lecture on the American Revolution from Yale University, several hundred kilometres away. I was able to sit and knit while all of this was going on around me. Chores that each would have taken days to do by hand.

Then as I was processing my beets, I realized that a simple thing like the jars and snap lids I use are different from those used in the eighteenth century. Snap Lids! That one invention alone has made home canning so much safer than even 150 years ago! Probably even just 75 years ago. My grandmother still would fill the top half inch of her jars with wax before sealing with the lid, and there was no boiling the product after it was canned to further seal it in the pressure canner. It was more like do the best you can, and then hope for the best. In the eighteenth century, things were processed differently, and a pickle, like my beets would have been stored in a crock with a wax seal. But more to the point, most of my processing work is peeling the little beets. I don't have to make the sugar, I don't even have to scrape it from a cone. I pour it from a bag into the saucepan. I pour my vinegar from a big jug I also bought at the store. No making my own vinegar or verjuice either.
In between, I wipe down the kitchen periodically with clean, white paper towel to keep the dust and condensation down. I change the laundry over to the dryer, start a new load. And I continue to listen to the next lecture from Yale in the que on my iPad.

All in all, I've had a busy day. But my morning's work would have taken a week to do in the eighteenth century. I also can because we like the taste and texture of my beets over those bought in the grocery. It's cheaper, tastier, and gives me a sense of accomplishment. I'm not canning to preserve the harvest, worrying about whether we will have enough to eat in March and April...though it is a running joke in our house whether we will run out before next fall and have to resort to eating store bought.
And I can look in the cupboard and think that if we are posted and move before the end of the winter, I can take everything with me. Unlike many Loyalist women, I don't have to leave my hard work to someone else to find.

Yale lectures on the American Revolution: 'Who were the Loyalists

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

striving for the common, Authenticity? or Historical Accuracy? Which term is best used?

I have done my time making pretty dresses to wear to make me feel pretty. I think many young women go through that phase. I have a closet full of silk gowns that I will never wear again, that will become evening wear eventually, to be worn at the mess. Right now, I'm far more focused on the common woman, what she wore, how she worked.

Why? Mostly because standing around looking pretty in a silk gown bores the life out of me. At an event, even more so. I can't even knit in a silk gown. Standing around looking pretty is all you can do, and that smacks of patriarchy to me.

Our historical personas achieve far more accuracy when we don't fall far from our actual lives. The white lie we tell while in historic dress is far more easy to keep track of when it's our actual life, but in a historical setting. My persona is a loyalist woman, married to a man who may have once been in the military, he certainly has that aire about him, he may have been a sailor at one's best not to ask him, just let him sit by the fire and make coffee. After a drink or two at the evening tavern, he may open up a bit more about his past. Me? I watch people and knit socks, or repair clothing items brought to me. I dress in fairly common clothing, I'm not afraid to get them dirty. I sit on the ground, or a tree stump, or a box. I drink beer.

This is my actual life, as well as my historical life. Not that difficult to keep track of.

In my modern life, I am watching how people move about their days because I was taught to be a people watcher. I'm also writing a PhD in the humanities, which is a department that is all watching how people interact, with society and with each other. My focus is on the living history community, on living history programs at museums and historic sites, and the clothes we wear while performing those programs. I enjoy looking at the why behind the clothes we wear, who we are and what our influences are play a large role in what we wear.

So where am I going with this?

Well, there's also a huge debate over how problematic the term 'authenticity' is, especially with regards to how it is used in regard to living history. I struggle with it, because we are not, could never be 'authentic' eighteenth-century people, we live in the post-post-modern age. We are influenced by things that were unheard of in the eighteenth century, and we cannot possibly know what it would feel like to be those people, as we have not lived those experiences. Even the current refuges crossing the border into Canada at the same point as their eighteenth-century counterparts have had different experiences. They drive to the point of crossing, they carry tiny computers in their pockets that allow them to stay in contact with the world, and there's nobody currently shooting at them, or hunting them through the 'frontier' of New York state. Once they arrive here, they are treated with a semblance of respect as they are 'processed'. A far bit different than the eighteenth-century loyalist following the same route. I can study the two situations, using one to help me to better understand the other. But that's as far as it can go, really. Hoping for a better understanding.

And it's that hope for a better understanding that sets many 'progressive' living historians apart from the run of the mill re-enactor. Artur Hazelius (1833-1901), who founded one of the very first living history programs in the world, Skansen open air museum, Sweden, "believed that material culture could be understood only in terms of its cultural environment" (Anderson, 1986, p19). As progressive living historians, we strive for better understanding through the use of material culture within the context of it's cultural environment. We aren't in search of simple 'fun', rather, we find the fun in understanding our forebears more through the making and use of that material culture in those environments. We are passionate about it. Recently, on a Facebook conversation, it was noted, "if any event deserves to be portrayed with respect shown to historical accuracy, with participants showing up dressed and equipped correctly and no liberties taken, surely this should be one of them" (name withheld to protect the conversation participants*). I believe that each and every event held at a museum or historic site deserves this level of attention. Our understanding of the lives lived, and possibly lost, deserves that kind of respect.

To think otherwise, shows a complete lack of respect, honestly. If ignorance of the law is frowned upon in modern society, ignorance of history within the living history community should be frowned upon as well, especially if you are invited to attend a living history event by a museum or historic site. Don't get me wrong, an event announcement 'is' an invitation to participate, and so, should be considered with respect. When you walk on site, you represent the museum or historic site, and so should strive to put your best foot forward with regards to the material culture you wear and bring with you. Everything. If it is not historically accurate, to the very best of your ability, leave it at home, or maybe find a private event to bring it to.

We have collectively learned so much about historical material culture in the past 30 years, there really is no excuse.

*There have been quite a few Facebook conversations over the past week with regards to levels of historical accuracy of kit being seen at living history events this year. Each and every event deserves the same level of accuracy as the one considered with this quote. The person speaking, summed up my thoughts on all the conversations I was privy to. It's been a frustrating week in my head, as I formulate my thoughts into a cohesive argument. We will never be authentic eighteenth century people, but we can, and should, strive for historical accuracy so that we can better understand those people who came before us.


Anderson, Jay; Time Machines: The World of Living History; American Association for State and Local History, Nashville 1986