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.


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
WU 4335

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.


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.

Any Old Epaulet


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Details: we sweat them in our historical clothing, our impressions, our writing. I try hard to pay attention to them, but in my work, I have a lot of details to manage. Some fall away– I can no longer tell the ranks of men in daguerreotypes immediately, or recognize a Colt revolver at 10 paces, but there was a time when I could. I have managed to retain at least a general understanding of how military units are organized, a general sense of various units from my state in wars before 1939, and the uniforms associated with those units. (And I know which side a man’s coat buttons on.)

What's wrong with this image? Missouri State Guard uniform coat of Col. Austin M. Standish (Confederate). Missouri Historical Society 1916-045-0001

What’s wrong with this image?
Missouri State Guard uniform coat of Col. Austin M. Standish (Confederate). Missouri Historical Society 1916-045-0001

This helps in my work: knowing what HBT is, knowing what various patches signify, knowing how units were structured and the campaigns they were part of helps me be a better cataloger, curator, and exhibit developer. My job is take the details and make them matter by telling stories about the people who wore the HBT or the machinists’ mate patch or carried an ensign or wore an officer’s coat as part of the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (colored) in the Civil War.

U.S. Flag, regimental. 14th Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. Belonged to Joseph Carey Whiting, Jr., 1st Lt., Co. B 14th R.I. Heavy Artillery. RIHS 1962.24.1

U.S. Flag, regimental. 14th Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery. Belonged to Joseph Carey Whiting, Jr., 1st Lt., Co. B 14th R.I. Heavy Artillery. RIHS 1962.24.1

People matter more than things, but 154 years later, all we have are things those people owned, used, wore, and carried. The things now represent the people. So when someone working on a exhibit says, “any epaulets will do” while pointing at the shoulder boards on a Lieutenant’s coat, I’m not just taken aback, I’m upset, and reply, “If it’s just for color, you can buy them.” Because “any old epaulet [sic]” being loaned by a museum goes through a laborious process of loan approval, packing, delivery and installation. For that time investment alone, “any old epaulet” should not do: museums are not prop closets.

General's Epaulets of William Clark. Missouri Historical Society. 1924-004-0006

General’s Epaulets of William Clark. Missouri Historical Society. 1924-004-0006

I keep saying the same thing, don’t I? There ain’t nothing like the real thing.

We can’t assume that the public doesn’t know or doesn’t care– they often know more than we do, just think of the wildly detailed knowledge some of us have about very particular things– so we owe it to them, and to the people of the past, to use museum objects as more than visual accents.

Whimsical Wednesday: Shoes.


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If you are a historic costumer, living history interpreter or enactor and tell me you don’t have a problem with shoes, and I will laugh at you. Even if you don’t have way too many shoes, chances are good you look at them in museum collections, even if you don’t order them. Shoes are basic to any impression.

I have history with shoes, myself. Not only have my feet always been generously proportioned, but my Grandmother possessed a singular fondness for, and an expansive collection of, shoes.

Shoes. Slippers.

Pair of slippers. 1825-1849. Paul Hase, Paris. V&A 1153&A-1901

Pair of slippers. 1825-1849. Paul Hase, Paris. V&A

Call them what you will, when you hanker to dance, you need them. So, I find myself in the happily distracting position of needing (wanting) dance slippers for April. I thought my search might be fruitless, what with my pedal extremities, but reader: I was delighted and surprised. dscn4592

Yes: they fit! Now the tricky bit is to dye and decorate these slippers to achieve maximum eye-watering potential. There’s a length of silk headed my way that should provide plenty of inspiration.

For tamer times, classic black will always do. Whilst replacing my worn-out sneakers, I came upon a pair of slippers that seemed ready for alteration, so I bought them as a backup, in case the Brontes didn’t fit.


They were inexpensive enough that I didn’t mind taking them apart for modifications.

A grosgrain rosette and ribbon ties later, these will do well enough to extend the life of my irreplaceable Robert Land slippers. I looked at shoes last night, and drew inspiration from some examples through the first half of the 19th century. With the pointy toe, these clearly skew first decade of the 19th century, which is just right for most of what I do. The Brontes will work for later impressions– and I have those as well. All in all, a pleasant mid-week distraction.

Pair of women's shoes, 1801. Gift of Fred Taggart, 1986.31.1a-b. RIHS

Pair of women’s shoes, 1801. Gift of Fred Taggart, 1986.31.1a-b. RIHS

Women's slippers, 1790-1810. American. MFA Boston. 99.664.12a-b

Women’s slippers, 1790-1810. American. MFA Boston. 99.664.12a-b

Slippers, 1835-1850. American, wool, silk. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 66-20-1a-b

Slippers, 1835-1850. American, wool, silk. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 66-20-1a-b

Fitful Friday: Art Still Has Truth


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Pitt and Napoleon carve up the world.

Pitt and Napoleon carve up the world.

It’s been one of those weeks, hasn’t it? Up and down, emotionally, as we all prepare for change. Whig or Tory, these are turbulent times.

I’ve been surprised by recent fabric arrivals in the mail, disappointed when I waited a day too long to register for a dance, and now I’m at loose ends. What comes next?

Last weekend I cut out a black wool Spencer to line in lettuce green silk because why not? And teeny tiny backstitches later, I have one sleeve finished. Focus is hard to come by of late.

I meant to join the Historical Sew Monthly to give my sewing life some structure, and I still can, though I cannot seem to settle down. Clearly, I have Firsts & Lasts that could be made (not always in the time remaining, mind you, so I would have to choose wisely).Re-Make, Re-Use, Re-Fashion? Probably much there as well– at least if one counts the quilted petticoat worn at Princeton, which was remade and altered from its original form.

July: Fashion Plate, could become the shawl gown I’ve dreamt of for years, since, as you can see above, I’ve found one that might work, lured by a fair price on a sizable piece of wool– but wherever shall I wear it? Why can I not get past utility? The Dreamstress’ Kashmiri shawl gown and her research are there to emulate, and explain.

Oh, I have projects and events to research and plan, housework to complete, and plans to execute. But they all seem abstract and unreal at the moment when we hang on the pivot point between the future and the past. It’s been a strange year in many ways and places, and constructive projects help focus.

Art Still Has Truth Take Refuge There

Art Still Has Truth Take Refuge There

Long ago, in the first turbulent times I was old enough to understand, I lived in St. Louis. Then, as now, I think the Art Museum’s motto holds, and reminds those of us who work in or appreciate sometimes frivolous-seeming fields and hobbies that all our actions have meaning. I’ve thought for a long time about the utility of sewing historic clothing, cataloging objects, and running around recreating the past.

Getting outside one’s own experience is incredibly hard; it’s hard to have an open heart, and to encourage openness to others. But that’s one of the most important roles museums and libraries play: we help people develop imagination and empathy. I know it’s part of why I do the work I do. I like to think that ultimately, helping illuminate the complexity of the past will help us all understand the present and make a better future.

I came, I saw, I sighed


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Gunston Hall has been on my list of must-visit places for some time, and now I can cross it off my list. I was impressed by their Room Use Study and remain so. They’ve also done some decent work on slavery, and it shows on their website. So my hopes were high. You know where this is going, right? Yup.

The room in which Martha Washington and Mrs Mason may have had a "chit-chat" about the two Georges.

The room in which Martha Washington and Mrs Mason may have had a “chit-chat” about the two Georges.

Pretty sure the guided tour is dead. Also pretty sure most museums need to look long and hard at the actual execution of their mission. Granted, this was another one of those January R&R visits, when it is entirely likely that the multiple “Out of Order” signs were a mere mid-winter fluke. But day-um, I was underwhelmed.

Granted, this house is older than “mine.” And smaller. And I didn’t ask any questions on the tour because I fear my tone will be far too telling. But there was a small, excited-in-a-good-way child on the tour, and several other adults. When asked by the docent what we were interested in, the group settled on “life.”

WHO touched that railing?

WHO touched that railing? THAT’S why I should care?

We ended up with the incantation of “many famous people have sat in this room.” “Many famous people have touched this stair rail.” I might have heard an audible intake of breath when we were told something was original; my right eyebrow shot up in an expression well known to my friends.

The house is lovely, of course, Georgian balance and all that, and nicely decorated, whether the chinoiserie paper in the dining chamber or the Virginia-Chesapeake Neat and Plain office. But why the default emphasis is on famous people touched this, stepped here, slept here, I do not know. My docents do it, too, sometimes. But what troubles me more is what I came away without: A sense of George Mason and his family.

Red damask on the walls, because "they could have had it." Infelicitous phrasing.

Red damask on the walls, because “they could have had it.” Infelicitous phrasing.

Most troubling to me, being Of a Certain Age, was the statement that Mason’s second marriage, to Sarah Brent, was “for friendship and companionship.”


George and Sarah sign a marriage agreement several days before they are wed, protecting in a limited way Sarah’s individual property. Under the terms of this contract, Sarah gives ownership of her slaves to her husband for the length of her marriage, but regains possession of them should her husband die and there be no offspring between them. Under these same conditions, Sarah is promised as dower 400 acres of her husband’s land at Dogues Neck.

Over the years, it has been pointed out that the marriage agreement between Sarah and George indicates that their relationship was more business-like and convenient, rather than loving. However, the marriage compact also can be seen as a fair solution between two practical people who want to safeguard their property for future generations — Mason for his children and Sarah for the sons and daughters of her sister Jean in Dumfries. In Sarah’s will of 1794, she indeed does pass on to these children and one of their offspring the slaves she regains upon the death of her husband.


That looks to me like a sensible arrangement between two mature adults. The way that a 50-year-old approaches marriage and relationships in any century will be different. Even in the 18th century, a woman of 50 has an established identity, knowledge of the world, and experience in running a household, if not a business.

Why yes, I may well have some baggage, why do you ask?

Why yes, I do have some baggage, why do you ask?

To suggest that sensibility excludes or precludes sex is to miss the point of Jane Austen completely, and is ageist in the absence of evidence. In all likelihood, Sarah is peri-menopausal at least and menopausal at most (it varies widely; some 50-year-old women are still fertile, shocking though that may seem). That doesn’t mean she’s asexual, and while George Mason may well have (probably did) take sexual advantage of the women he owned, that doesn’t mean he’s not interested in, and expecting, a sexual relationship with his second wife.

What all of this suggests to me is a reluctance in museums to talk about sex, unless there are children from a marriage, in which case one can just assume the couple were busy in bed and not actually address it…all in all, a weird thing, and one that turns up in my own museum from time to time.

This is not to suggest that I didn’t enjoy the tour, the house, or the landscape. But I felt dissatisfied, as if the real meat of the place was not to be found on the tour. Exploring the upstairs on our own was much more fun– I would have liked some object labels up there, and downstairs, too– and had more of an air of exploration and discovery.

And that’s what the guided tour kills: discovering for yourself. It doesn’t have to be a full-blown you-paid-for-it Museum Hack bonding experience. It doesn’t need to be a handout with “How many squirrels can you find?”


Exploring, reading labels, listening, smelling, touching: using our senses to learn about a place, a space, an object, a person, will be engaging enough.

With so much good, deep, content on the website, I know Gunston Hall has the material a great tour and historic house museum is made of. I know, from reading the labels about slavery at the site and reading the text about slavery on the web, that they know more, do more, and understand more about the enslaved people than their permanent exhibitions indicate.