Friday, September 15, 2017

If you would not be forgotten...

Following Benjamin Franklin's advice, I thought I'd write something that might be worth the reading. In his Poor Richard's Almanac for May 1738, Franklin wrote one of my favorite phrases from this period: "if you wou’d not be forgotten, As soon as you are dead and rotten, Either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."

In a previous article, I addressed how reenactors can better engage the visiting public and make content relevant to their daily lives. After all, we want them to have a good time and to come back. Recently though, I've noticed that the issue isn't so much encouraging visitors to return, but rather it's allowing reenactors to return (just Google "future of reenacting in the US). I don't mean to claim that reenactors are victims to public scrutiny, rather we need to prove to the public that we are a responsible source of historical information and interpretation. With an increased public enthusiasm for pulling historically-repugnant and presently-irrelevant statues from their pedestals, responsible and accurate public education for our history needs to fill the void. As living historians, we have a unique role in society and relationship with the public that almost compels us to step forward and responsibly teach the history.

Our Role

Before getting into the good stuff, we need to establish some ground rules first. Living historians are interpreters who portray what they learn from various sources. Our goal should be to relate what we learned from our sources to the public through an engaging "snapshot" of past events. As stated in the past, we are teachers whether we agreed to that title or not. If you work at a museum/historical site or just show up to an event dressed up, your appearance alone will present a history lesson to those who look at you.

Like any teacher-student relationship, if any learning is going to happen, the students have to trust you. If they can't trust you, they won't believe what you're teaching them, they'll consider it outright invalid, and/or they will contest it. So from the very beginning, you need to be well-informed and you need to be prepared. Too little information or a lack of confidence in your audience will lead you to trivialize or to make gross generalizations that lead to misunderstandings of larger concepts (i.e. the phrase from the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal," is a generalization that might lead some to believe that everyone was treated equally, until the historical context is explained). Ultimately, that may even permit members of the public to make inaccurate claims based on misunderstood or misinterpreted historical evidence to further modern issues.

I'm all for connecting the history you're interpreting to modern issues. The Museum of the American Revolution does this beautifully in a number of ways. One example of this is the idea that indigenous peoples, enslaved peoples and their descendants, and immigrants have always contributed in significant ways to our country (both during the Revolution and since then to today). When presenting your history through a relevant modern topic, especially hot-buttons ones (i.e. immigration, sexual preference, race, etc.), know your facts so that you don't fall into the trap of generalizing, and avoid modern biases that would derail your presentation. If you find yourself offering a ton of analysis instead of facts, take a step back and reevaluate your approach. Certainly help visitors to understand why the history is significant--some analysis is required--but at the same time, know the difference between historical significance and propaganda. You can take a horse to water, but you can't make him drink it. Similarly, you can bludgeon visitors with your modern take on historical events; they may listen and agree ("yup, uhuh, I hear ya") but there is also a good chance they'll consider you biased and unreliable. As a teacher, you want everyone to learn and appreciate what you have to say, not just those who'll agree with you.

"The defenestration of Prague was an inside job!"

Being Relevant

To contest the assertions that reenacting is a dying hobby and that it's so politically charged now that no one will want to host a reenactment, I instead suggest that reenacting is an excellent way to teach history. Full disclosure: I agree that people who represent hate or oppression in some form don't deserve a prominent and glorified stage for eternity. We place on a pedestal symbols of ideas that we desire to emulate and consider representative of who we are. Instead of fostering ignorant idolatry, we should instead glorify the pursuit of knowledge and lift education up onto the empty platforms once occupied by the "heroes" of an oppressive past.

To remain relevant we need to become an accurate outlet of unbiased un-trivialized information, not a hobby that glorifies outdated and ignorant ideas. Teach history, not propaganda. If we want reenacting to continue, we need to be seen by society as people who are serious about their responsibility to teaching history. One of the biggest problems our society has with certain historical monuments is that they glorify the individual and what they stood for. Removing them is not about erasing the past or disrespecting the men and women who died in the past, but rather a de-glorification of the individuals and the ideologies they were known for supporting. If we are seen as glorifiers of ignorant and inhumane ideas in history, then we will be removed from the same pedestal as those monuments. However, if we can present history from multiple perspectives and place it in its historical context while making meaningful connections, we will have effectively restored confidence in living history. We will have secured our place in society as reliable educators and sources of social, cultural, and political history.

Society could make incredible use of living historians. We are a means for the public to engage with history that books, movies, and statues just can't do. Living historians are in the best position to eliminate ignorance through sharing information and concepts in a way that engages most of the public's senses. We just need to insure that what we teach is supported with evidence, is not reliant on generalizations that serve to trivialize history or to misinform, and is presented in a way that is meaningful and relevant, but at the same time is not propaganda.

What all of this boils down to, for me anyways, is that humans are by nature experiential learners (i.e. by smelling the smoke and witnessing a battle, we are more likely to remember the event being portrayed and relate to it than if we read it in a book). Monuments are static displays that glorify people and the ideas they stood for. They don't move, they can't tell you their history, and they cannot explain why they're there. Living historians offer dynamic displays of information that can do all of these things. If done responsibly, living history will have an important and entertaining role in the future. Let's just all agree to not stand on the empty stone platforms where archaic principles and hateful ideas once stood in their glorified adamant, but to actively interact with and educate our future by standing on the firm ground among them.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Evidence Versus Preference

When Historical Evidence Isn't Good Enough

This has been on my mind recently--it's one of those things that also just keeps resurfacing with no gains in either direction. What I mean to say is that reenactors have two choices when it comes to assembling their kit (i.e. clothing and equipment): basing the items on historical evidence or basing them on what they think looks cool (or "authentic"). So which one should we abide by?

Well there seems to be a pretty obvious answer: actual history, as in that type of history that really happened and is documented. That being said, many refute this answer for a variety of reasons, or at the very least fall into some "gray area" between relying on evidence and preference. And before you start thinking though that I want to separate the "good apples" from the "bad" (and thus toss people in categories and perpetuate cliques), I know that every one of the accuracy-minded reenactors started off at least in the "gray area" between an evidence-based kit and a preference-based one, if not entirely in the "this looks badass" (and I am by no means an exception!). I'm not pointing fingers and dividing people into categories, but what I am doing is offering a place to start from. I offer a new starting point in an argument between two polar-opposites so that we don't have to keep hashing out the same argument all over again from scratch (i.e. when someone posts a Facebook picture of their kit asking for advice, which then turns into an argument about beards). I also may not have all the answers and I don't consider myself by any means perfect, but I do hope this article may inspire at least some change. So let's look at the arguments I've seen over the years and try to untangle them:

1. "We just don't know what they actually had back then."

Do you really not have any evidence, or do you just not like the evidence that you found? I'm sorry if this question comes across as scathing, but it's honest and cuts to the chase. That's the first question you should ask yourself when you're researching for a new kit. I've seen Civil War guys arguing that their "odd man out" kit is accurate because they know that uniforms weren't issued to 100% of the soldiers. As a result, they then justify their imagination-based kit on the grounds that, since they don't have evidence for what the non-uniformed soldiers looked like in that unit, they can make almost anything they want--a "get out of research free card."

If your goal is living history, then you need to do your research. If your intention is Renaissance Faire, then go crazy (I'm not hating on Ren Faires, they simply don't have a strict accuracy-policy as that's really not their point). Primary sources (or sources produced in the period you're studying) are really the only ones you should rely on. That being said, there is value in balancing the primary sources with secondary ones as primary sources have limitations that might not be immediately apparent to you (i.e. "russet" could mean either a color or a fabric type for 17th century clothing, so reading a secondary source that analyzes the use of "russet" based on context would be valuable). Primary sources can be found by looking through "America's Historical Newspapers," searching paintings/watercolors/sketches/engravings from your period on Google search, reading diaries/journals/courts-martial/memoirs/autobiographies/letters, and looking through the footnotes/endnotes of a secondary source (sometimes books will even have a "For Further Reading"section around the bibliography). If you honestly can't find the sources, ask some experts--contact a museum, email a published historian whom you think might have some sources, or post a question on Facebook even and ask for historical sources and not opinions (maybe even email some of the artisans listed at the end of this article, asking for their advice).
Just don't make something up.

2. "People on the frontier were not at all like anyone else."

Snapshot from the Netflix series "Frontier"

This one should technically fall under the previous topic, but I wanted to address it on its own since I've seen this one so often. This is therefore a "I don't have enough information, so I'm going to do what looks cool and seems to work." My first thought on this is: don't impose a modern social philosophy on people you've never met. Just because someone in the 1750s is living on the frontier doesn't mean they've given up their European identity and culture. Until you find a source (and I can't stress this enough: a source for your persona, not a source from the Georgia frontier but you're a New York frontiersman) that explains how frontiersmen abandoned their culture (by say not shaving when their European culture was to shave), don't assume that they have abandoned it. Again, just because you personally in the 21st century would find shaving a pointless activity when you're hacking an existence from the wilderness doesn't mean that was how it was like during the period. Some social norms at the time were different than today and, being a norm, weren't written about. So in the absence of evidence for not shaving on the frontier in the 1750s, we have to assume based on the mountains of evidence for non-frontiersmen that shaving was just a social norm. Now this can get a little confusing especially as I just wrote previously that we need evidence to back up a claim: we have TONS evidence that men shaved in the 1750s and one or two pretty fuzzy ones (pun intended) that claim to the contrary. However, as 99% of male faces were shaved in the 1750s in North America, it's just safer to assume that frontiersmen were no exception rather than to argue with the 1% evidence that they may have been slightly bearded (percentages approximated).

Of course though, shaving is not the only thing, but it is a legitimate example for the "frontier-justification" that happens in reenacting. Just because it's hard to find concrete sources doesn't mean you have a free ticket to make up a kit. Use what you know to be true and have evidence to support. Create a kit with a strong foundation in historical evidence with as few guesses as possible. Such a kit will surprise you with just how cool it looks. 

3. "I'm a white frontiersman captured by Mohawk warriors, escaped, turned-ranger, who is now half-Mohawk, half-European."

Hawkeye from the movie "Last of the Mohicans"

How improbable is this? Also, how improbable is it to have like ten of them at the same event? What's wrong with showing the public at a living history event what was common and giving them a normal experience? This applies not only to the Hawkeyes out there, but also to the overabundance of non-regular troops. Yes, it's fun being unique and looking cool out there on the field, but it also paints a false image of your time period to the public who views the reenactment as a source of education. If half of the British force at the Battle of the Monongahela reenactment are rangers, what is the public going to take away from that event? When considering a new portrayal--especially if you're just starting out--I'd encourage you to start off with something you have lots of evidence for. Like playing a musical instrument (you start off playing "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and eventually get to play the Beatles), you should start off easily with a kit that you can readily document. As you get to know the databases and which sources to trust more, then developing a harder-to-document kit will be easier and better based in history.
Don't be so quick to make things up.

4. "I can't afford the perfect, 100% accurate kit, so this is the best I can do."

Image may contain: one or more people
Photo credit: Wilson Freeman
Driftingfocus Photography
At first glance, I can definitely sympathize with this statement. The last thing I want is for reenacting to turn into some elitist hobby. That being said, you should go into reenacting as you would any hobby knowing that you will have to spend something. If you commission someone to make you a 100% hand-stitched kit using K&P fabric, yes it will be very expensive. If you're not loaded and this is your first kit, don't go that route. In fact, I recommend you start by making your own stuff.

To make your own kit, you really only need to know three types of stitching techniques: the running stitch, the whip stitch, and the (most common) back stitch. Many historical stitches are basically variants on these three. You can learn all three in under ten minutes from Youtube videos. Practice on a piece of dirt-cheap muslin (obtained from a local craft store). Then, assemble your first shirt. Three yards of a light-weight, bleached 100% linen should easily get you what you need and for $30 or less from Three yards of heavier linen could make a waistcoat and breeches (plus some linen for lining). An additional three yards (plus lining) could make a frock coat. Obviously you can use different fabrics (wool and natural-fiber blends, for example) but, importantly, whatever you choose should be backed up with historical evidence. Toss in some buttons and thread and you have a complete kit. Yes this may mean spending upwards of $200 for the clothing. That being said, there is a certain amount of money you need to spend to get a basic kit and get started in reenacting. Although, you could temporarily spread out your spending if you join a unit that can lend you gear as you make/acquire your own kit.

As with any hobby, you can't just show up with $5 and a "winning attitude." This is where I draw the line and say "you do need to spend some money to participate." No I'm not suggesting you ante up a few thousand dollars right off the bat, but you will have to spend something. You can't join a motorcycle club without a motorcycle. You can't start doing archery without a bow and arrows. You can't start a knitting society without needles and yarn. In this case, you really can't expect to start reenacting without a kit.

Okay, so you need a kit, but how does that happen and how much should you spend? As almost every unit will tell you, don't just buy whatever you want from the sutlers. I encourage you to make your own stuff. If you really can't sew or you just don't have the time, then yes, this will be even more expensive for you. That's just a reality if you can't compromise and make your own stuff. There are people out there who can make historical clothing for an affordable price, where they machine-stitch the inside-seams and hand-sew the visible seams--it's not a perfect 100% hand-sewn kit, but it's pretty close and will at least look the part. It'll definitely cut down on the cost of the finished outfit. Another way to save is to find good fabric for a bargain price and give your period-tailor that fabric. You might be able to find a sale on fabric (especially if you found a quality local source) that your tailor doesn't know about.

My biggest point here though is that you start off with a kit you won't be ashamed of in a few years. If you're low on the funds, don't waste it buying off-the-shelf stuff that not only doesn't fit you but just doesn't look accurate. The excuse "I can't afford a good kit" is just not good enough. Buying really inaccurate clothing is almost as bad as showing up with modern jeans and a tee-shirt. By showing the public loose-fitting poorly-researched clothing, it can be almost as inaccurate as just wearing modern clothes. Plus, buying off-the-shelf breeches is really not all that much less than buying partially-handsewn breeches by a local period-tailor. Spending a little extra up front can make a huge difference and honestly, you'll feel prouder about having a more accurate kit.

What it all finally comes down to is historical accuracy.

If you're only going to Ren Faires or a rendezvous, then maybe pure accuracy isn't the goal. However, if you are reenacting for spectators, what you look like will impact their understanding of history. If there are twenty Hawkeyes out of 50 British soldiers at a Battle of the Monongahela event, that's teaching the visitors an incorrect history of the French and Indian War--a rewritten history that you helped to author all because you thought the kit made you look good. If you're walking around your American camp at Saratoga looking like a pirate, it's going to tell visitors that's how American troops looked like during the American Revolution (or in some cases, make all reenactors look bad and discredit all of us). And if you've been reenacting at least a couple years, you already know that we don't need any more "hey look! It's a pirate!"  comments from the spectators. Yes, having hand-sewn visible seams is important when visitors are looking at you up close (though in my opinion, far away, too). Hand-sewn period flat-felled or to-stitched seams look different than machine-sewn seams to the discerning eye. It's such details that can make the difference between "it looks about right" and "you look like the paintings!" As this has happened to me while standing next to other guys in machine-sewn outfits, I can attest that the public notice these things.

If your argument is "this is the best I can do" because of lack of research, sources, or personal funding, you're just saying "I'm willing to give false historical information to the public, but I feel okay doing that because of [insert excuse here]." It's never okay to provide false information to someone (see Harald the Smith's article about this). As I have yet to see someone with an inaccurate kit apologize to the public for not being accurate and explain what they really should look like, the public will just assume that what you're wearing is what's accurate (and you should not have to explain the inaccuracies of your kit anyway). Get your stuff in order first, then--and only when you're ready with an accurate kit--jump in to public events. If you wouldn't join a motorcycle club with a one-wheeled bike claiming that's all you could afford, then don't start reenacting until you're sure that your kit is sufficiently backed by historical evidence. This is not a hobby you can do half-way, significantly because if you're demonstrating to a "modern" audience, you are a teacher.

So to sum up, here are the main points:

  1. When choosing a kit, do your research. Exhaust the internet and then contact museums and other reenactors who may have some documents or insight unavailable to you.
  2. Start off with kits you can easily document. Over time, as you get to know the sources and where to find them, develop "harder" kits that you might have had a difficult time to document from the start.
  3. Come to grips with knowing that this hobby will require you to spend money. If you can make your own, it will cost much less. If you commission someone to make your clothes and you don't have lots of money to spend, have them machine-sew the non-visible seams, and hand-stitch the visible ones (most tailors will charge less for this service than to hand-sew the entire garment). It even helps to find inexpensive fabric yourself, and send it to your tailor.
  4. Don't make excuses. If you find yourself trying to justify something you saw at a reenactment or on TV, it's probably not worth it. Start off with the research and develop a kit/persona from the sources; don't start from your imagination and back it up with sources.
To further assist new and veteran reenactors in assembling an accurate kit, I created a table of artisans--some of whom operate a full business while others accept commissions in their spare time. Each of them though are dedicated living historians who would love to make your next kit or even just a part of it. Click here to see the list!

Thanks for reading! I hope this article inspires some positive change or at least gets people thinking about the implications of their kit on spectators' education.