“Been employed these several years past”

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Part One of a Series

Occupied Philadelphia at the MoAR is one of my favorite events. It’s not too far, in an urban setting, and makes visible the history of the Revolution that’s hard to get at, the history of everyday people. Last year, I portrayed a follower of the 17th Regiment of Foot and a petty thief; this year, I wanted to do portray a woman in business. I’d settled on a milliner because that’s a trade I know well enough to portray–though I could not find documentary evidence of women in the millinery trade during the early months of the Occupation, nor could I satisfactorily justify selling hats, bonnets, and jewelry to a population facing inflation and food shortages. Happily, just two weeks before we’d have to pack the car, the program manager posted exactly what I needed, but had missed by not looking late enough into October: an ad placed by a woman in business.

Advertisement placed by Elizabeth Weed, Pennsylvania Evening Post, Thursday, October 23, 1777.

This is what I’m always looking for: someone to be, a solid place to start the research that takes me from the general to the specific. Who was Elizabeth Weed? She was only a little tricky to find. Records documenting Elizabeth Delaplaine Dickinson Weed Nevell are scarce. Based on the date of her first marriage, to William Dickinson, in 1755, she was probably born between 1730 and 1735, making her about 44 to 47 in 1777. She was widowed by 1768, the year she married George Weed, who had lately been the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital until 1767, and was then a practicing pharmacist. Weed, born in 1714, had studied and practiced medicine in Connecticut and “West New Jersey” before moving to Philadelphia around 1760. After his death on February 1, 1777, Elizabeth Weed prepared and sold the medicines George Weed taught her to prepare, and, presumably, to dispense.

Portraying a widow six months after the death of her husband seemed plausible: I have a grey wool tabby gown (with a Fort Ticonderoga white wash stain) that seemed reasonable enough for “second mourning”– until I discovered that Elizabeth Weed had purchased a house for £600 just before she married her third husband, Thomas Nevell. A widow of means was going to require a new gown and accessories in addition to the materials of her trade– two research rabbit holes at once (plus Thomas Nevell, since he provided Drunk Tailor with an ideal role for the weekend).

Period prints provided some guidance, and since widows took up the trade of ‘doctress’ often enough, some provided a glimpse not only of clothing, but also of the material culture of 18th century pharmaceutical practice. Fortunately, I had a gown-length remnant of black and white silk in the strategic fabric reserve, as well as a remnant of black silk for a mantelet.

Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (Sarah Morris). Oil on ticking by John Singleton Copley, 1773. Philadelphia Museum of Art, EW1999-45-1

When she married George Weed, Elizabeth had already lost one husband, so an English gown with robings seemed a reasonable choice. Mrs. Thomas Mifflin’s grey silk gown lurked in my memory as inspiration (or justification) for the style of gown, though not for the meaning.

In many ways, the material trappings of widowhood were the easiest part of this project. I’d done some research on late colonial and early Federal mourning customs in a previous life, and had a sense of what was expected of bereaved widows in the 18th century. Clothing and accessories would signal status, and guide the behaviour of others towards me (in this case, keeping Thomas Nevell at a respectable distance). I could have chosen a gown already in my wardrobe (grey wool, green wool, blue wool) but inhabiting the world of the widow from the skin was important to me as a means of fleshing out a real person for whom I had scant information.

I Want [peppermint] Candy

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A friend regularly sends me bonnet descriptions from the inventories she’s researching; one description was of a white silk bonnet with a red cherry silk lining from Rowan County, N.C. in the 1770s. Hot stuff, right? Less hot if you made it in white linen, but even North Carolina has winter sometimes. I made two, of course, in sightly different shapes.

Bonnet Number One

Strawberry shortcake? Whipped cream and cherries? You tell me, but I always maintain that bonnets are the cupcakes of costuming: pretty, fluffy, low-calorie and quick to make. 

Once she’d sent me the description, I got hung up on finally finishing my wrapping gown. 

There are enough events where I sleep over that a wrapper for the morning is a useful thing. My characters don’t rate the silk of the one I made for Potts Grove Manor, but I used the same pattern with a reproduction cotton print from Burnley & Trowbridge. I love it– but I do feel a bit like a candy cane. 

Bonnet Number Two, Lampshade Style

Because I’ve seen so many instances of sun shade bonnet (herein known as “lampshade,” making one up in that form seemed like a good idea– and the crowning glory to the red and white striped wrapper. 

Now I really need a cherry red silk quilted petticoat to wear with this ensemble. Some other autumn, when I have more space and time perhaps. 

Go Big When You Go Home

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heading north

A year after moving, Virginia feels like home, even as I continue to experience accent-based misunderstandings and yearn for different apples. But if home is where the heart is, my home is split between the place where my kid grew up and goes to college, and where I live now. After having all vacations cancelled (thanks, Fairfax County Jury System), we scheduled one for the end of the summer, a chance to visit friends, antique (and buy a new school wardrobe for a college sophomore).

You can never have enough eagles or feathers.

The trip hinged on the Militia Days event at Old Sturbridge Village, with Drunk Tailor mustering as a member of the Oxford Light Infantry or “Ollies.” The OLI has a ridiculously shiny and ornamented shako, which contributes to the appeal of the impression. The early Federal-era militia units certainly appeal to me, with gold buttons, chain, tassels, and plenty of eagles everywhere. There’s a lot of visual myth-making to unpack there, and the fact that the muster re-enacts a sham battle makes it ever so much more so wonderful and New England. This is meta-enacting (or re-re-enacting), and I am all for it.

A new time period meant a new dress. And a new bonnet. And new hair– that last complicated by the new summer haircut. (I had a wool gown from the Turkey Shoot several years ago, but wool in August at Sturbridge is possible but not recommended.) So, what to wear? I remembered some lightweight chintz gowns in the Kyoto Costume Institute collections, and happily there’s one on their website (my copy of the book is still in storage). While I prefer the audacity of many of the reproduction cotton prints, the hand of the quilting cottons is often heavier than I want, so I ordered a print from India– one that has been used for many other dresses in different time periods.

The pattern is a straight-up version of the Past Patterns Lowell Mill Operative’s gown. The first 1830 gown I made was from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin pattern, which did not fit as well over the collar bones; the Past Patterns neckline resolves well and fits like a dream– the only change I would make the next time around is to make the back pieces smaller. I had way more overlap than I really needed, but otherwise, I was lucky that this required no adjustments to fit pretty well. Every now and then, it’s nice to have a break from drafting my own patterns and fighting with fit.

Codes of Conduct & Rules of Civility

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These have been a tough couple of years. We are, once again it seems, in a period of polarization and increasing political violence. In times like these, when disagreements flare brighter and behavioural norms are changing, even the things we do for fun can be affected. From online fights that turn nastier than ever to onsite behaviour that runs the gamut from passive-aggressive to hostile, the real world creeps into our fantasy worlds. I have experienced and seen behaviour that I find unacceptable. It was subtle, but not acceptable. When I posted about it online, a lively discussion ensued.

From that, an idea was born: Sharon Burnston suggested a Code of Conduct, which I heartily endorsed. Drawing on her experience organizing and managing events and groups, Sharon wrote a draft code of conduct. Now, with edits and suggestions from others, it is available on her website.

“We are all here at this site/event for the same purpose, to portray events that happened here in the past for the benefit of the public, and for our own enjoyment. We agree to follow the site’s rules for fire safety, gunpowder and weapon safety, curfew, alcohol consumption, and whatever other restrictions they require of reenactors. Just as we have agreed to adhere to standards for our clothing and our kit, it is appropriate that we agree to adhere to standards for our behavior. The standards for our behavior are modern, not period. We are interpreting history, not re-creating historical attitudes to class, gender, or race. We are 21st century people, and 21st century expectations apply.

In its simplest terms, treat everyone else as you would want them to treat you. Don’t be a jerk. But to break it down into specifics, and in order for this community to feel welcoming to the largest possible population, we expect everyone to endorse the following standards of behavior. Anyone who cannot adhere to these simple rules will not be invited to future events.”

Don’t be a jerk.

Seems so simple, right? Apparently not for everyone, because not everyone embraced a fundamental grade-school lesson:

“I will take responsibility for both my actions and my feelings. I have the right to have my feelings respected, I have the right to be heard and understood, I have the right not to feel pressured or browbeaten. I extend the same rights to all other reenactors and to the public.”

For me, this presents an interesting conundrum. You see, I kinda started this when I announced online:

Now, this is in fact a wimpy way to deal with a person who I think treated me pretty shabbily at an event, and who made clearly misogynistic comments at that event, and has posted white nationalist stuff on social media. A quicker-witted person than I would follow Sharon’s precept six:

“I will call out these inappropriate behaviors in others. If I see something, I will say something – either to the offender directly or to an authority figure – a captain, event planner/organizer, or someone I trust. I will stand in solidarity with my fellow reenactors and pledge to stand up to bullies, abusers, and other unpleasant behavior to ensure the safety and comfort of those around me.”

This last is easier for some than for others. It gets easier when one can believe that one will be listened to, heard, and taken seriously. And that is not on the person reporting: that’s on the person hearing. When someone’s feelings are dismissed, or another’s actions excused (he’s a good guy; he’s just insecure), the status quo is maintained, the ranks secured, and the world unchanged. It will take all of us to make places safe and pleasant to be it. A code of conduct we can all agree to is a good place to start.