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National Gallery of Art furniture gallery, May 2017

One of the critiques leveled at historic house museums is that they’re often “frozen in time,” specifically a particular moment, rather than reflecting the changes that happened over time. This charge is sometimes leveled at period room installations as well, when all the furniture in a room is from a tight time span– a year, maybe five– when for most of us, the furnishings in our homes and the clothes in our closets reflect a number of years, rather than a tight twelve or eighteen months.

So, when we go out “into the field” (or the house or the milliner’s shop or the tavern), shouldn’t our belongings reflect the multiplicity of years of objects? If I’m a woman Of A Certain Age, won’t I have possessions, from jewelry to ceramics to clothing, from multiple decades? Well…. yes and no.

It’s true that as far as we can tell, John Brown moved his 1760 furniture into his 1788 mansion, but we also know he bought new furnishings, including a large (188+ piece) set of Chinese Export Porcelain (see above).

Up-to-date, stylish, expensive: table settings signaled wealth and sophistication as much as clothing and manners, so whatever JB had before 1788, he wasn’t setting his new table with it. What might he (or Mrs B) have done with it? Consigned it to use by grandchildren and servants? Given it to less fortunate relations? Possibly. And if they had creamware, it would not have been singularly out of place in 1788 or 1800 on any table– it was only 40 years old, and heaven knows my “best” china is from the 1930s– but would they have used earlier pottery, even in the kitchen?

All pottery is not the same: North Devon pottery, while imported to North America in the late 17th and early 18th century, is not what you would expect to find in a late-18th century farm kitchen. It’s here, sure, into the mid-18th century, but in 1799, it’s not the form you would expect to see. So what does that mean for living history folks? Does it matter what you use?

You know what I think: there ain’t nothing like the real thing and that means paying careful attention to details. If you’re portraying a camp follower in 1778, or tenant farmer in 1799, you are not likely to have, say, a Jackfield-type figured tea pot, just as you are not likely to have a salt-glazed squirrel-relief cream jug, no matter how much you adore it.

Time and style matter. The people of the past read each other the same way we read each other. Remember Clarice Starling, with her “good bag and her cheap shoes”? Get on a train anywhere, and you can read your fellow travelers: you can guess income and education levels, marital status, and sometimes interests and hobbies if you look closely. You make assumptions about people based on their appearance, whether you’re conscious of it or not– and so did the people of the past. To portray them accurately, and to help the public learn to read the past, the details matter.