Becoming an Exhibit Prop

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We all have those Hamlet-like moments, don’t we?
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable | Seem to me all the uses of this world!

But in this case, I can attest to being and not merely feeling flat: lo, I am cutout exhibition furniture.

Thanks to Mr B’s casting call on behalf of the New-York Historical Society, a number of friends and acquaintances and I are now part of the scenery of the new exhibition, Saving Washington, up through July 30.

The behind the scenes of being a prop is pretty entertaining.

The changeable green-red sari gown was made for this photo shoot; we were asked to wear strong colors, and since the exhibit was meant to represent one of Dolley Madison’s “squeezes,” dressing up was in order– and hard for me to do, since most of my gowns are day dresses at best.

I started this November 22, and carried it on airplanes several times.

The sleeves appeared to be a complete failure at first, until I figured out I could pleat the design to form a smaller, graphic band at the bottom. Sometimes I start without knowing how a thing will turn out…including most days when I get out of bed.

December 9 completion level: wearable.

At least it was finished enough to wear to the photoshoot, and it appeared again, with a real hem and a ribbon to keep it on, in Salem last month. I’m pleased enough with the color, and how well it doesn’t go with most things to call this a success– and finished!

In situ.

History Hurts

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We have been here before: terrible stays, stays in need of minor mods, and “it isn’t history till it hurts.” New this past weekend was the Busk Bust Blister (Bursting) which didn’t make History hurt, but sure did bring a sting to the wind-down afterwards.

 

These new stays are, so far, the best I’ve ever had and well worth the blood, sweat and swears it took to make them. Gowns do seem to fit better over these stays; they held up well at muggy Monmouth and in polar Princeton, but the last two rounds at Ti left me feeling like I’d taken a hoof to the ribs.

What gives, kidneys? At least this time I made it past Fort Ann and all the way into a private room in Glens Falls before I had to free the sisters and release the lower back.

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But this time, there was a bonus: the previously indicated Bust Blister. On the left side (I’m right handed), I developed a fairly robust .25” x .125” blister that crowned the top of a nearly 2” red mark, mirrored on the right by a less red and slightly less long mark. The culprit?

The Busk of Doom, of course.

 

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Strictly speaking, I should not sport a busk when I desport as Captain Delaplace’s serving woman, or as a refugee cooking up the last of the bread, eggs, and milk. I’ve earned these marks and (potential) future scars by dressing above my station, and need to adjust accordingly.

Step one: Rounding down the busk edges (now in the capable hands of Drunk Tailor).
Step two: Foregoing the busk when working.
Step three: Wearing partially-boned stays when working.

Two is the easiest; three is the hardest. Which do you think I am, therefore, actually contemplating as a necessary next step?

But of Course: Step Three, Pathway to Finger Cracks and Stained Stays.

d'oh! surgical tape made this *much* better later.

d’oh! surgical tape made this *much* better later.

Fortunately I have people close to me who will ensure that I work through steps One and Two before embarking upon step Three, but I certainly want to know more about (and will look much more closely at images of) working women in the third quarter of the 18th century. My suspicion is that women who are performing labor that requires movement– up and down before a fire, back and forth across a floor, bending over a tub– may not be wearing stays made in exactly the way high style stays are made for ladies who bend over an embroidery hoop, glide back and forth across a ballroom floor, or move up and down the stairs of a well-built home they supervise.

Or my busk pocket is too big, my busk edges too square, and my actions too fast and continuous.

Paul Sandby. At Sandpit Gate circa 1752 Pencil, pen and ink and watercolor. RCIN 914329

Paul Sandby. At Sandpit Gate circa 1752
Pencil, pen and ink and watercolor. RCIN 914329

What are these women wearing? They certainly look fully boned. What can I change to make my stays work better for working? No matter what, where there are variables, there are experiments to run, and that’s what really makes history fun (even when it hurts).

Workshop Wednesday: Accessory to the Past in June!

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Neck stocks: just so.

Neck stocks: just so.

Drunk Tailor and I will be up to more mischief this summer, and you can join us! We’re teaching a class this June at Historic Eastfield Village. Among the things you can learn to make are chemisettes, reticules, gaiters and neck stocks.

We plan to start with the basic question: who are you? And what does that mean for what you wear? What visual and extant sources can inform your choices? From John Lewis Krimmel to Sophie Du Pont, images help paint a picture of a distinctive early American style.

Mrs Pabodie attempts to remember when she was born (1771). Photo by J. D. Kay

Mrs Pabodie attempts to remember when she was born (1771). Photo by J. D. Kay

Collections from Rhode Island to New York contain examples of early garments that help us understand how people dressed in the early 19th century, as well as diaries that tell us how they lived. Fortune telling? Sewing for money? Bored with quilting? Church as a social experience? There’s much more to the early nineteenth century than Jane Austen. Come find out more this June.

Serving Delaplace

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With 400 miles between us, Drunk Tailor and I have few chances to explore the past together, so I was both delighted and nervous when he agreed to join the British Garrison 1775 event at Fort Ticonderoga as one of Captain Delaplace’s servants.  Even better, we were also joined by the itinerant Deep North Yankee who wandered around the Fort (possibly seeking roofing shingles, of which he is much in need).

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Friday nights are always magical, candle and firelight (and only the warmth of the fire) as we drink cider and talk about history. But morning always comes: Saturday, cold and clear, Mr S and I woke and blinked across the room at each other, and I wondered to what degree I really wanted to ever crawl out of bed…only hunger and an eventual need to pee (and fear of a Sergeant) propelled me.

Yup, you cook 'em on a board.

Yup, you cook ’em on a board.

First order of business: breakfast. Mr S, supplied with his corn meal of choice, made us johnnycakes, which provided perhaps more interpretive than nutritive value. Still, they were warm and tasty and he is the only person I know who can make them; my efforts end up as FEMA disaster sites.

Captain Delaplace’s servants were tasked with cooking for his mess, so Mr S and I got a start. We had a chicken, an onion (I traded onion # 2 for some bacon), butter, carrots, potatoes, a butternut squash, salt, and some port. I don’t know where this English serving woman of 1775 encountered mis en place, but she accidentally introduced coq au vin to the Captain’s table with the dinner meal.

Captain and Mrs Delaplace dining, manservant in attendance

Captain and Mrs Delaplace dining, manservant in attendance

The Captain and his Lady dined on chicken braised in butter and bacon with root vegetables in a port sauce; we servants waited until they were done before we could eat. (Confession: I need to eat a lot, and have a sensory overload problem, so when visitors fully crowded the room, I had to dash across the parade ground for a Clif Bar and an Ativan before I could continue to wait for my dinner.) In the afternoon, dishes were washed at the table, as was common (at least in early New England), dried, and set away, while the Captain’s lady and child played in the cabbage patch between the beds.

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When the room was empty, servants were able to eat (huzzay!) and found the meal very tasty indeed. I would certainly make this again, and learned more about cooking– a typically female task I generally try to avoid– than I had expected to. Then we had yet another round of dishes before it was time to tidy the room and make ready for tea or supper.

To that end, we cleared the table and broke it apart to reveal the floor and hearth, which needed to be swept of bread crumbs, squash peels, dead leaves, and other detritus. The best way to sweep an unfinished floor in the 18th century (per Hannah Glasse et al) is to strew the floor with wet sand and then sweep. I mixed sand with lavender-infused vinegar and threw it on the floor; this keeps the dust down as you sweep months of dust and dirt out of the corners and from behind tables and chests.

The trick is to sweep in one direction (more or less) from the back of the room to the front, and then to gather up the sand (here in a shovel) and pitch it off the landing. Much was thrown out the door and over the stair rail, just as servants would have done in 1775. (And I am told it is soothing to nearly hit the sergeant, but perhaps that’s merely hearsay, if not heresy.)

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When we were done, we restored the table (Drunk Tailor noticed the height of the ceiling, and wondered about hanging birds in cages whist awaiting the return of the tabletop), fully reset with cloth, candlesticks, plates, and knives, ready for the supper we didn’t cook, as we skipped away at the close of the day to find our own meal in Glens Falls, where live music is inescapable on a Saturday night.

A Saturday in Salem : Jane Austen Ball

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Closure: green silk satin ribbon.

Closure: green silk satin ribbon.

With many thanks to the Quintessential Clothes Pen, I was not dancing with myself Saturday last at the Jane Austen Ball in Salem. I was there on a bit of a whim, knowing that the ball happened in February and looking for something to do on a winter weekend– and, as it happened, I actually had a dress to wear. Of course, it wasn’t finished until Friday night, although I had worn it in December for a photoshoot.

Dressed for the weather: I only seem to wear this pelisse in February.

Dressed for the weather: I only seem to wear this pelisse in February.

In the past year+, I’ve been trying to do more and regret less, which seems a bit contradictory: if you do more, might you regret more of what you do? The trick for me, especially in dealing with my baseline high-anxiety self, is to do more things that seem scary but are actually fun.* That’s how I found myself traveling up to Salem between snowstorms to stay in a tiny little room in a historic hotel. It’s a pretty quick ninety-minute trip on a good day, but I know myself well enough now that staying overnight is the safer, less-stressful option for an excursion like this.

Salem on a snowy Saturday was busy, streets crowded with people as I walked to the old Town Hall, feeling very much like a character in a novel. (Having just finished Remarkable Creatures, the scenes of Elizabeth Philpot walking in alone London came to mind as I did attract some attention in my pelisse and bonnet.)

The Town Hall was crowded; I arrived a little late, as dancing was beginning under patient and direct tutelage, so I had the pleasure of watching several dances before I joined in. While not everyone was wearing early-Federal/Regency clothing, the crowd still provided an excellent sense of the social mixing and festivity of a scene from the past.

Unforgivable hotel room selfie to record the dress

Unforgivable hotel room selfie to record the dress

Joining in was even better, to be in the swirl of people and skirts, to pay attention to my feet– my shoes were a little slicker than I would like– and to count the rhythm of the music. While I spent years in ballet class, it is true that those years were surpassed by years in mosh pits and on dance floors of questionable clubs. Country dances made me think of four-dimensional math, with the patterns made by the combinations of active and helper couples, the reversals of direction, and the changing positions of partners: it was like being a living fractal.

*With some exceptions including rollercoasters and sky diving.

“Exteriorizing,” or, Showing the Past: Part II

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Part II of the two-part guest posts by Sharon Burnston. Part I is here. ( Just below, if you are scrolling)

In the previous blog post, I explained the concept of “Yes, and”. But in the case of the naval press gang reenactment last summer in Newport, the “Yes, and” dialogue that I expected didn’t happen. When the press gang invaded the tavern I was mistress of, and started grabbing sailors, I attempted to intervene. This would have allowed me to put into words, for the benefit of the public watching, what this intrusion into our community would do to the town, in terms of the loss of the local men both collectively and individually.

Melee in the Square, Newport RI, August 2016

Melee in the Square, Newport RI, August 2016

In attempting to defend my customers, I as tavern mistress could have functioned as a token representative of all the other women of Newport, all of whom had economic, social, and maybe personal ties to the impressed men. The public would have had a better chance to grasp what the impressment actually meant to the people of Newport. But this failed to happen. Nobody in the press gang picked up on my gambit, they went about their business with a very convincing and no doubt authentic silent ruthlessness. One brandished his club and snarled, “Silence, woman!” which effectively shut down my efforts entirely. However one of my “customers” picked up on my gambit and began pleading to be released on account of his wife and children, but he got essentially the same response that I did, and he was also shut down.

Alex Cain impressed in Newport, August 2016. Photo by Philip Sherman, Newport Daily News

Alex Cain impressed in Newport, August 2016. Photo by Philip Sherman, Newport Daily News

I didn’t put all that effort into my tavern and tavern mistress impression just to be a scenic backdrop for the press gang. It was my expectation that there would be interaction between the tavern owner and the naval crew, which would serve to better educate the public by exteriorizing what we roleplayers were thinking and feeling about what was happening. My mistake was in taking for granted that this would be obvious to the other role players, and that the naval crew would give me a “Yes, and” response for the benefit of the audience.

In short, I think we could have done a better job of *interpreting* what was happening if we hadn’t all been quite so focused on doing it as *authentically* as possible. I do not in any way fault the guys who were portraying the naval crew. To their credit, they played their roles with superb accuracy. If anything the fault was mine for assuming we’d be all on the same page, and ready to interact with one another. It is my opinion that as an interpretive exercise, this living history scenario would have benefited from being just a teensy bit less “authentic” and a little bit more theatrical.

A Cribbage Party in St. Giles. Thomas Rowlandson, 1787. Royal Collection Trust.

A Cribbage Party in St. Giles Disturbed by a Press Gang. Thomas Rowlandson, 1787. Royal Collection Trust.

In talking afterward with members of the public, I found too many of them confused, they saw the action but didn’t really understand what was going on, nor what was at stake for the various individual characters involved. It would have been so easy to get the essential points across while the scene was unfolding, and it doesn’t take long, a few sentences exchange is enough. But all participants have to understand in advance the merits of this, and be prepared for it when it happens.

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In my opinion it’s great, but not enough, to know the best possible historical information on the event we are presenting, and to replicate the clothing and equipment so meticulously. We also should be prepared to join together to learn how to portray it in the most informative and articulate way possible. This can only make our first-person historical reenactments even better than they already are.

“Exteriorizing,” or, Showing the Past: Part I

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This guest post was written by Sharon Burnston. Sharon and I will be co-teaching an interactive workshop on first person impressions this June. “Exteriorizing” is an important part of developing an impression that works not just to represent a character, but to tell a story. Part II will appear tomorrow.

John Gilmary Shea, The Story of a Great Nation (New York: Gay Brothers & Company, 1886)after 444, says "page 475" University of South Florida clip art collection.

John Gilmary Shea, The Story of a Great Nation (New York: Gay Brothers & Company, 1886)after 444, says “page 475” University of South Florida clip art collection.

The first time I was ever “abducted” at a living history event was during an F&I scenario 35 years ago. I was dragged off into the bushes by scary looking strangers, and it was all very well researched and convincing.

But one thing I realized, upon reflection afterward, is that a really accurately portrayed scenario isn’t always in all ways the “best” scenario, for the participants or the public. In real situations that are terrifying, the usual physiological/behavioral responses are those described as Flight, Fight or Freeze. That’s what real people do when that sort of thing really happens. At the time I was abducted by “the French and the Indians”, I put myself into the moment, imagined how I would really feel if it were actually happening, and I froze. I portrayed terror so well, my abductors looked at me oddly, wondering if I was okay. But y’know what? The spectators, standing 30 feet or more away, couldn’t see my face, couldn’t hear my shallow breathing, and they got nothing out of it.

The Abduction of Daniel Boone's Daughter by the Indians. oil on canvas by Carl Wimar, 1853. Washington University Kemper Art Museum. Gift of John T. Davis, Jr., 1954 WU 4335

The Abduction of Daniel Boone’s Daughter by the Indians. oil on canvas by Carl Wimar, 1853. Washington University Kemper Art Museum. Gift of John T. Davis, Jr., 1954
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I realized that I had actually failed to do justice to the interpretive moment, I should have done something less lifelike and more communicative. I should have screamed for help, in detail, loudly, and at length. In real life, this would have been a risky thing for a captive to do, but in a reenactment interpretive setting, it would have been useful. I mean, I knew precisely why my character was terrified, but did the public? If I had screamed and carried on, it would have given me an opportunity to put into words what the 18c abducted woman knew about what was going to happen to her. It would have been a better scenario in terms of educating the public if I had, in a word, exteriorized what my character was feeling into words, for everyone present to hear.

The problem with my having learned this sort of thing experientially and so long ago, is that I tend to blithely assume that other folks whom I regard as skilled 18c role players also know it, because to me it is by now so obvious.

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Last summer I participated in a brilliant re-creation of a different kind of abduction, a reenactment of the British naval press gang that abducted American sailors out of Newport RI harbor in 1765. Over 60 of us from all across New England worked hard for months to research and develop our impressions in order to make this event as convincing and accurate as we could. For the most part, we succeeded magnificently. But I came away dissatisfied and I think some of the public I talked to did also. That was a helluva scenario, meticulously planned and carried out, and we did it so well! But I think we could have done it one or two notches better, and here is why I think so.

First person role playing has far more of theater about it than perhaps we living historians care to admit. Drawing upon theatrical strategies can allow us to better communicate our knowledge to the audience, by exteriorizing our characters’ thoughts or feelings into dialogue the public can hear, even if doing so might slightly violate the strictest historical purity of our role playing. After all, don’t we claim to be doing this in order to educate the public?

The strategy I have in mind is the collaborative trick referred to in improvisational theater as “Yes, and”.

“Yes, and…” refers to a basic concept in improv theater. If a participant throws a gambit at you, don’t shut it down. Accept it, whatever it is (“Yes”) and then add something of your own (“and…”) to expand on the idea and keep it going. “Yes” means being receptive to the contributions of others. “And” means offering something back, to further the collaborative process.

How would this notion apply to a living history role playing scenario? Stay tuned to find out!

Sleeping on the Job

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Last night, as I lay in the tester bed we slept in on What Cheer Eve, I wondered again what it was like to live and work in the house over the course of its life, and how the servants had been treated. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the notion of “service” was still evolving in New England. Help was common, and while northern and urban slavery existed, and we know the Browns traded in and owned enslaved people, we have no evidence of them in the house.

We know there was a white woman between 45 and 60, and four “all other free people,” we have names –Mary, Jonathan, and Gideon– for some of the people associated with the family, but don’t know their details. How did the Browns treat them? What was the relationship like? Were they invisible? Thanked? Chastised?

Goody Morris makes up a bed. Photograph by J. D. Kay

Goody Morris makes up a bed. Photograph by J. D. Kay

Diary entries that record “my babe takes tea with Ma’s Mary” suggests that there was some level of familiarity, and hints at the friendly relationship children and servants sometimes had in these houses, when both were seen as less civilized, less refined, and (clearly) less educated than the adult homeowners. Physically, service stairs kept chamber pots, laundry, food, servants, and children out of view, sequestered into smaller, dimmer, less-finished spaces.

Petulant Alice faces her first hurdle, Kitty and Goody Morris. Photograph by J. D. Kay

Petulant Alice faces her first hurdle, Kitty and Goody Morris. Photograph by J. D. Kay

We’ll never really know how the Browns really treated their servants, or felt about them; these are people who matter only enough to be remarked upon in passing. Perhaps even more frustrating is that we’ll never know what the servants thought of the Browns, of their businesses and moods, loves and appetites. These barely-documented people could tell us so much, if only the past could talk.