18th century clothing, common dress, common people, interpretation, living history, Paul Sandby, Research, resources
Sometimes I think I’ll forgo the dressing up and going out in public, and just do the research; the world that exists in my mind is pretty satisfactory, and within it, Boston doesn’t have the GPS-killing skyscrapers of the financial district or the motor-powered vehicles that seem bent on killing pedestrians. Instead, it has horse-drawn vehicles, equally ready to run you down.
But: in thinking about the people on the margins, the people in the backgrounds of images, the people casually mentioned– “so hard to find a cook when you need one”–in letters, I’ve been looking at even more images. Here, a mountebank, illuminated by a torch, performs on a washtub outside a tavern (Good eating every Day) for a crowd of men, women, and children. Much texture here, and many people one could aspire to be.*
Let’s get the watchman out of the way.
Is that a snarl or he is just happy to see the mountebank he can bash over the head with his prodigious stick? He’s carrying the obligatory lantern, here apparently made of tin with horn, glass, or mica windows. It looks like he’s slung it over the stick, where it is caught by by the knob to keep it from sliding.
It’s a Great Coat, really: the button-embellished flap (pocket slit?), the deep sleeve cuffs, the taped buttonholes all serve to make this coat impressive and intimidating.
On his head, a rakishly angled black wool hat worn over…a cap? Help me out here, gents. It looks like a linen cap that covers the very crest of his ear. Is that possible? Or he is tonsured? If so, you’d think he’d want a cap for the cold…
Next up: the girl with a basket. She raises a lot of questions for me when I zoom in close. Yes, Virginia, she really is wearing a cast-off regimental under a short red cloak. I’ve never understood how women came to possess these coats, but look closely and you’ll see the blue cuffs and plackets on the sleeves, the pocket flap sticking up just below her basket, and the long skirt of the red coat. (That’s a dog, not a killer shrew, between her feet.)
Her hair is a mess, too; we can speculate on reasons for that, but let’s go with a long, busy day as a servant, and not freelance corner-based activities.
What’s in the basket? A bottle? A decanter? A funnel? Hard to tell. Is she someone’s serving girl, sent out to the liquor dealer? If she is, why that coat? Is the man in red next to her grasping her elbow? Possibly…(and doesn’t he have a nice red double-breasted coat?)…and if that’s a uniform he’s wearing, is that her connection to the coat she is wearing? So many questions.
In the center background, there’s a young woman escorting a male child; she may be an older sister, but I think it’s also likely she’s a nursemaid. In the background at the left, two ladies are seen from the back, clearly wearing neat caps and jaunty hats. They’re moving away from the mountebank and the crowd, probably on their way home, respectability leaving the dangerous streets.
It’s as much a mix of people as you might find outside the Pret a Manger on State Street today. Somewhere in that crowd, there is someone to be.
*In a nod to riots recent, let us note there are 5 or 6 women shown here, 14 men, 5 children, 2 dogs and 1 monkey. That’s a 40:60 ratio of women to men. Children are, in general, grossly underrepresented in living history. Let’s talk about that someday.
“Children are, in general, grossly underrepresented in living history. Let’s talk about that someday.”
Indeed we should.
When I was doing my 18th c American infanticide research, reproduction demographics was one thing I investigated. In 18c America, the average spacing of births was roughly 2 years. Think of the implications of that–it suggests that the average healthy woman of childbearing age got pregnant every 24 months, then was pregnant for the next nine months, breastfed for another 9-12 months…..and then did it all over again.
I would have to reconstruct my other sources, but I do remember looking at birthrate (births per population), completed fertility statistics, etc, and came to the realization that at any given moment, at least in mid 18c Philadelphia, 1 in 5 women of childbearing age was pregnant, and another 1 in 5 was nursing.
Forty per cent of the population was sub-adult, i.e. children. That’s 4 children for every 6 adults.
When are we ever likely to see that population profile correctly represented at a living history event?
I don’t think we’ll ever see an accurate population profile represented in living history. I’m delighted when we’re out with a Certain Very Young Lady and her father has the opportunity to talk about how common the sound of a baby crying would be in 1814, or 17-whatever.
Even if we have too few children, having children reminds us that they were part of history, too: what would their perspective have been? How did events shape them? It’s not just about adults. History is everybody’s story.
My remarks also alluded to aspects of women’s history which are inadequately represented today, specifically the impact of reproduction and the constraints it placed on women’s agency in a society without good reliable methods of birth control. Nor should I neglect to mention the high infant/child mortality rate; what effect did *that* have on the lives of mothers? And fathers too, FWIW. That’s one I cannot even begin to wrap my mind around, it being so alien to our current expectations that of course our children will live to grow up.
Try as we might to place ourselves into the experience and mindset of 18th c women, there are aspects of their reality which continue to elude us.
I am trying to bring my little one with us as much as possible. If you are ever in need, let me know, I’m happy to dress him up and have him represent.
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