Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Reenacting in a Modern World

Finding Our Place

Photo: Wilson Freeman, Drifting Focus Photography
If you're a reenactor and you have a Facebook account, chances are you've seen the articles and videos with reenactors who are branded as oddballs, racists, etc. This is not a new phenomenon--academics have typically looked down on reenacting, too, as a world of hobby-historians who take creative license when they interpret history (after all, history can't be fun, but must be studied with a careful and objective eye). Ironically, whenever I've seen these articles or videos that denounce reenactors, they were posted by reenactors who felt unjustly represented. So how was this dichotomy born?

"Just a few bad apples."

Just the other day, I read a great blog article from the Dreamstress about costuming etiquette. In one of her points, the author explains that every costumer/reenactor represents the wider living history world, for better or worse. She asks the reader to consider this whenever dressed up (wearing the "uniform" of the hobby, as it were). A kind and generous manner will evoke positive responses from others while a snobbish and dismissive attitude will brand all reenactors as such by those who experienced that individual. This is generally why those reenactors who posted the negative articles and videos about reenactors typically argue that the journalist unfortunately found the "bad apples" of the hobby.

To give an example, let's look at this video by Vice. The long story short is that the journalist Wilbert Cooper--an African American man--was asked by a Confederate reenactor why he didn't join the Confederate unit. His reasoning was that since the Union did not practice racial integration in their units, but that the Confederacy did, that historically, Cooper would should have joined the South. Cooper felt affronted since, to reenact with the Confederacy would mean in a way to support a cause that historically championed the institution of slavery.

Reenacting And Race

So was it fair for the Confederate reenactor to ask this and thus unfair for Cooper to react the way he did? Or was Cooper justified?

Historically-speaking, there were no integrated Confederate units; more often than not, the black men who served in the Confederate army were placed into segregated units and were used for labor (not issued firearms). On occasion, some individuals did pick up a gun during battle, but that was a rare occurrence. So the reenactor was wrong on that account, but he technically wasn't wrong when he said that the Union didn't practice integration (neither side did).

So what about Cooper's reaction? He was absolutely justified, but that's not my opinion. As long as he felt insecure there's no changing it; that was his truth. That's also what got reported in the video. A white person who has not been persecuted because of the color of his skin cannot tell a black person who, perhaps daily, sees racial prejudice how he should perceive of an insensitive comment. Yes, the reenactor was talking to Cooper about joining a group of actors, but those actors are recreating the history of a country that supported slavery, who's approximately 3,000 black "soldiers" were used mostly as slave labor.

To offer another, albeit fictional example, it would be wrong for a person who reenacts a Nazi to address someone who has publicly declared himself as a Jew, asking him to join the Nazi reenactors (with the premise that the Jew would reenact the Jewish Police Service). That would be very wrong. Some might argue that because World War II was more recent than the Civil War, this example is invalid, but the truth is, both are equally wrong for two big reasons: they both require the reenactor to understand that the individual they're addressing was victimized by their historical "side" and the examples also require that the reenactor tries to justify the negative aspect of their side with a "but we did make exceptions!" (i.e. "we did support slavery, but we did have black soldiers," or "we did execute millions of Jews, but we also hired some to work with us"). Thankfully, I haven't heard of this latter example happening.

Unfortunately, racism is not the only problem that needs addressing in the living history community. One that is perhaps more pervasive due to the number of women in the hobby and the unfortunately few instances of public outcry is sexism. Like racism, sexism is a major issue in society today, and so it finds itself in living history. One issue I see and hear about a lot in 18th century reenacting is how some female camp followers are forced into cooking duty for their unit as the men soldier around. Historically speaking, cooking was part of a soldier's daily life; if they didn't want to cook, they could pay camp followers for their culinary service, but even that was rare. Instead, camp followers were often hired to clean laundry, mend clothing, and they sometimes also served as nurses. So from an historical standpoint, having your unit's camp followers do your cooking is just inaccurate. The unfair part? They feel chained to the kitchen (which can take a good deal of time for a large unit especially when cooking over a fire) and don't get to explore the event like the guys do. And I haven't even said anything about the historically sexist role of women fulfilling the "housekeeping" role for a family because their patriarchal society dictated what was "proper" for them.

So how can reenactors become more inclusive and fight rampant sexism? And how could Cooper's experience with the Confederate reenactor have been handled in such a way as to create a positive and comfortable living history environment?

One great take-away we can gather from this incident is that reenactors need to remember that it's still the 21st century. No matter how you're dressed, racist comments and sexist beliefs make you intolerant, hurtful, and unfriendly. If we as individuals represent a large community, we need to leave a good impression. We are also responsible for educating the public if we attend public events. Let's now look at what awareness of and sensitivity about modern issues can look like.

Presenting Race And Gender

When addressing race and gender as a living historian, you have to walk a fine but concrete line: there's the historical context within which you are reenacting and there's also the modern standard of respecting all humans. It is morally wrong for a white person to interpret historical racism as part of their persona--this should go without saying. Similarly, it is morally wrong for a male reenactor to perpetuate historically-sexist ideals around a living history site. You must always keep in mind that, despite wearing historical clothing, you are a 21st century human as is everyone else. That being said, I do not advocate for erasing the past; race and gender should be addressed, but because racism and sexism negatively affected so many people and parts of it are still alive today, we need to address it with care. This requires ceaseless research: reading and listening to stories from those who historically experienced the racism or sexism of the period as well as 20th and 21st century experiences. Hearing/reading modern experiences can help the living historian who may not have experienced it to better understand the wider context and to more tactfully realize a way to bring up the issue of racism or sexism in the reenacted period.

The best way to address the history of race and gender at a living history event is to plan it out first. If you follow the steps--goal, context, history, debrief--you can better prepare yourself and your audience for addressing sensitive issues.

So first, what is your goal? If you want to talk about it simply because "it needs to be talked about," there's a higher chance you'll get it wrong. Develop a clear goal--what you want your audience to get out of your presentation--before you work out the rest of the details. Three examples include: "women played a major role in the late-18th century army," "the White House--a symbol of a "free" nation--was built on the backs of slaves," or "the first black people in British North America arrived in chains, but were probably hired as indentured servants and eventually granted freedom by the Jamestown settlers."

After determining a goal, you should work out the details of your presentation--what you plan to explain to your audience. Within that though, you need to first consider two things: context and the history. When you first start your presentation, you should explain the role of race or gender in the society you're teaching about. It's often helpful to make connections to today. For example, if the society in the time period that you're representing supported the institution of slavery, mention that to your audience. Explain that although slavery was later abolished, issues around race are still prevalent. It's often also helpful if you explain here that while still prevalent, racism is abhorrent and none of the historical ideals of racism are accepted at your historical site. Similarly, gender can be contextualized by explaining that women did not have the same rights as men, and while we have made some strides in fixing this, it is still a patriarchal and sexist society. Pointing out that sexism is not tolerated here is a significant part of the context that you create. Establishing context is important as it sets the tone for your presentation while also teaching historical perspectives (i.e. "then" versus "now").

Once the context is explained, the history should naturally follow. This is usually the easy part for the living historian who has read-up on the topic. However, I do advise that if you plan to talk about race or gender, that the sources you draw from should be legitimate and unbiased and that you read many sources to get a wider perspective. As I wrote earlier, I recommend not just reading about historical race and gender, but also modern issues that relate to both. Knowing what to say and how to phrase things derives primarily from reading current publications on race and gender issues today.

The last planning step that I recommend is the "debrief." This is perhaps as crucial as establishing the context. This is the point after relating the history that you conclude your presentation, offer a "so what," and relate this back to today. This is when you remind your audience that everything you presented on happened X-number of years ago, but parts of that history still remain.

I recommend following this step-by-step planning process for any program or presentation, regardless of content. It basically follows the office presentation format of introduction, main points, and conclusion. When discussing sensitive issues though, each part needs to be meticulously planned so as to not offend the audience or relate inaccurate information, and because you represent living history. An audience that leaves an insensitive presentation will discredit not only your knowledge but the wider community of living historians (the example offered by Vice comes back to mind).

Walking The Fine Line

Presenting race and gender in sensitive ways to the public is a great way to improve the educational quality of your presentations as well as the image of reenactors. However, sexism inside the hobby is not just about presentation, it's also how you treat your own unit members. As I wrote earlier, women who followed an 18th century army rarely did the cooking. More often than not, they mended clothing, cleaned laundry, and served as nurses. These are phenomenal portrayals for camp followers to take up. These portrayals also draw the public in and allow the camp followers to talk about the skill they're representing and women's roles in a military camp. It's something to do that gets women out of the kitchen that they otherwise feel obligated to do (i.e. "none of us guys can cook, do you think you can handle it?" or "we're awfully busy marching around...") or are "volun-told" into doing it. Either the guys will figure out how to make cooking work or, worst-case scenario, you get to do some unit-shopping for a less sexist unit.

One other area I see a fair amount of is what reenactors sometimes call "women in ranks" or "galtrooping." The argument of old-style, male-centered units is that soldiering was done by men historically and therefore women can't portray soldiers. This needs to end. It's the 21st century--a time when we should theoretically be tolerant and inclusive. If a woman wants to portray a soldier, she should be afforded the opportunity to. Where it becomes an issue is if she is not held to the same standards as the men are. She is more than likely aware that, historically, only men were hired as soldiers, and so therefore, her appearance needs to reflect that. Steps should be taken to firstly pass herself off as a guy, and secondly, as a soldier. For more information on this, I refer you to my friend Wilson who published a wonderful article on his blog, Historically Speaking, offering advice to women who want to or already do portray male soldiers.

You Represent Living History

Photo: Alexa Price
This is what it all comes back to--you represent living history. You are a 21st century human who portrays an historical figure. You are not that person. You live in a modern world where we should be treating everyone equally and with respect. How you act outside of the living history community determines your character as a person, but how you act while dressed in kit has implications for the thousands of other reenactors that the people you encounter may meet. If we want to see a change in how the public views reenactors, we need to be that change. As someone who wants to hoist up living historians as positive examples and fonts of knowledge, I just ask my readers this:

  1. Never forget that you and everyone around you are 21st century people who deserve respect.
  2. Remember to approach modern sensitive issues with the awareness that they demand.
  3. Do your research, and not just of historical things, but modern issues such as race and gender that may spill over into living history.
Thank you for reading! I hope this article inspires some change and gets fellow living historians thinking about the role of modern issues in reenacting. I'd love to hear what you thought in the comments section below.

Upcoming Topics:
  • Experimental Archaeology: On Drying, Curing, and Aging Tobacco

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Making A 17th Century Wood-Core Leather Scabbard

Before stepping foot in the store to buy materials, the first step with any historical project is the research. In this particular case, I had to find not only the historical examples but also useful articles on how to make a wood-core scabbard as the only scabbard I have ever made was all-leather for a rapier. I would like to fully credit Ye Olde Gaffer for his article on making historical scabbards. It was the primary method that I followed when I made my own. I would also like to point out that I am not an armorer and I am not a big collector of edged weaponry, so I was going into the project with a limited knowledge-base. I learned most of what I know now from this project as well as from a couple friends--Fred Scholpp and Terry Bond--who provided help with details that I struggled to find on my own.

After researching 17th century scabbards, I readily arrived at the conclusion that the most common construction for a sword that has a thicker blade than a rapier was a wood core with a leather covering. That being said, they may also have been first wrapped in parchment or thin leather only to be further covered with a rich fabric such as velvet. Here are two great examples--photo credit to Fabrice Cognot, borrowed from MyArmoury--of two wood cores for rapiers with parchment covers. The V&A Museum also has a fantastic example with the leather still covering the wood core (which I heavily relied on for this project), and the MET has numerous examples online, though unfortunately most of the pictures in their collections are of the sword only. The best I could figure with regards to their construction is that they were made of two pieces of wood--poplar is what seemed to be commonly used and also available in modern markets--which were both chiseled out and glued together before being covered.


To make my own, I had to pick up the correct materials. I bought two poplar boards that are 1/8 inch thick and 4 inches wide. Since the hanger I'm making this for is 2" wide, I had to trim the boards a bit before carving them. I also needed vegetable-tanned leather (this is one of the more historically accurate methods of leather tanning and it also makes the leather stretch which is needed to make a smooth covering for the scabbard) which I bought from a reenactor-supplier. The final item was the chape which proved harder to find than anything else. I eventually decided on a simple design I saw both in a painting by Vrancx and Bruegel the Younger, The Aftermath of a Battle (images cropped from the original, above and right) and de Gheyn's The Exercise of Armes (cropped from the original, on the left).
The design is pretty basic--a cone with a small "ball" on the end. These two sources are just two examples of what was popping up in my research. When looking for chapes, the design was the same--little or no embellishments--and mostly made from silver or a similar metal. The leather's color varied the most from a pale tan to black. In this instance, I chose something in the middle, with a tobacco-brown dye.
As for other furniture on the scabbard, I opted to stay plain, so I didn't buy a locket (often also referred to as a "mouthpiece;" it is a plate of metal wrapped around the throat with a clip or frog to secure it to the hanger). If you look through Vrancx's paintings, the scabbards of the trained bands appear to not have a locket. That being said, it appears that the primary method for securing the scabbard to the hanger was a clip (sometimes also referred to as a "locket." I will use "clip" for this article though to avoid confusion). While I couldn't identify this in the paintings, most of the extant scabbards from the early 17th century do have a clip, such as the one in the V&A Museum--picture at right--and the countless in the Windsor Castle's collection. I ended up buying a "French and Indian War era bayonet locket" from a sutler for the clip.


To start, I laid out the sword on the two boards 1/4" from the side and traced it out. Using a set of chisels, I then went to work scraping out the tracing. Armed with the mantra "measure twice, cut once" I carefully made the cuts. It was tedious work but well worth it. Once I carved out one side, I matched it up with the blade to insure it fit. As soon as the other board was carved out, I clamped both pieces together, as though it had been glued, and tested it by sheathing my sword in it. With the success I was hoping for, I un-clamped the boards and finished them.

If you decide to try making a wood core yourself, keep in mind that sand from sandpaper will break off and become embedded in the wood. Such grains of sand will scratch up your blade and will be impossible to remove later, once you glue the halves together. I do not recommend using sandpaper at all for this step, especially as chisels work very well and you can scrape the wood with a chisel to achieve the same results as using a fine sandpaper.

Once the halves were glued together, I then used a combination of sandpaper (perfectly fine for the exterior of the wood core) and chisels to remove the excess wood on the edges and shape the core (chisels for the major wood-removal and sandpaper to finish it and curve the edges). When shaving down the tip, I had to also fit the chape on. Based on the V&A scabbard, the chape would be glued onto the wood and the leather covering would sit flush with the chape (see picture at left). This was the only clear example I found where 2-3oz leather was used. With the two rapier cores above, the parchment used may be glued under the chape or it may have ended at the chape. Regardless, the vellum used was paper-thin so under or flush with the chape, it wouldn't have mattered. So once the wood was chiseled down and finished with sandpaper, I glued the chape onto the tip.

The next step was a personal-choice to ensure the longevity of the scabbard. I used a spray-can of varnish to seal the wood so that the wet leather wouldn't start the process of rotting the core. I understand that this was probably not practiced in the 17th century, but I also don't want to have to make another scabbard for the same sword for a while.

After the varnish dried, I wrapped the dry leather around the core and cut out the piece I wanted. I did my best to have the edges match up, giving myself a little extra as a precaution, especially at either end. I then set aside the leather for the next step.

The next thing I needed to do was alter and attach the clip. For the first alteration, I used a Dremel tool cutting disc to cut off the small "stub" on the clip that points upwards, and a grinding wheel to smooth and round where the stub was. The idea was to make it rounded from the arm of the clip to the base to match the shape of the V&A example a bit more closely. For the second adjustment, I cut off the two little prongs that would normally be used for attaching it to a bayonet scabbard. Once the clip was shaped and polished, I chose the spot to attach it on the wood core by testing it out in my hanger. While not verified as historically accurate, I decided to glue the clip in place first as I wanted the guarantee that it would not move in the future. After the glue dried, I wrapped hemp twine around the base of the clip and the wood core which is my best guess for how they may have been attached historically (see picture at right).

The next step was adding the leather to the core. I wrapped the dry leather around the core and made a small cut where the clip would stick out of. I also double-checked the fit of the leather and that the edges overlapped a tiny bit. Once satisfied, I soaked it for about half an hour and re-applied it to the core. I followed the V&A scabbard's example (at left) and ran a glover's needle with artificial sinew (my linen thread was too thin for leather-work) knotted at the end, from one edge of the leather to the other, about 1/4" from the edge, starting at the mouth (I started here because if I started at the chape, the leather might stretch so much over the course of sewing that the cut I made earlier in the leather for the clip on the other end would not match up with the clip). I did not pre-punch the holes since the leather is very thin and I trimmed it as I sewed.

The key here for the rest of the stitches was sewing the leather in a spiral manner, not unlike lacing a jerkin or stays. I started a stitch by inserting the needle down and into the right edge of the leather, across to the left edge, then up through the underside of left edge. I would then give the thread a good tug to tighten it and cause the left edge to slip under the right before poking a hole past the first and continuing. This manner of sewing creates a spiral-effect with the thread, creating the appearance of holes are all at a diagonal to each other. This is the best way to keep the edges flush and perhaps also to prevent the holes from ripping through to the edge (latter point is speculative). I then sewed the seam all the way to the chape and knotted it off. The final step, after the leather dried (since it would shrink a little when dried), was trimming excess leather at the mouth and the chape.

Trimming the chape was fairly easily accomplished with a pair of tiny sharp scissors. For the mouth, I opted to glue the excess leather down on the exposed wood at the opening. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a single image of the mouth of extant examples to entirely verify this except for the one at left (close-up of a scabbard and Venetian Sciavona basket hilt sword sold at auction by Andrew Bottomley). While it doesn't show the opening, the tightness of the leather and its smoothness at the mouth suggest to me that the leather wraps around the mouth. If the leather ended right at the mouth, I would imagine that the leather would appear a bit tattered after three to four hundred years. I realize that this is just conjecture, but I figure that if I discover later that the leather should end at the mouth and not cover it, it's easier to subtract leather than add. Once I trimmed the leather enough to just cover the wood at the mouth, I carefully applied glue to the wood and pushed the leather down on it. Since the leather had been tightly stretched while sewing, I found that I didn't need to fold it at all to make it cover the opening--it fit perfectly.

The completed scabbard next to the Armour Class hanger.

If you would like to make one these yourself and you find that you need some advice, please do not hesitate to send me an email. I would love to help you out and see the projects you've made. Similarly, if you've made one in the past and you have a picture of it online, please paste the link in a comment below for other readers to see. Thanks for reading!

Upcoming Topics:
  • Camp diversions: or how to entertain yourself at events
  • "A doublet of fustian... and breeches of canvas"

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Making a 1716 Kit

Part Two: Construction and Completion

After about two and a half months, the entire suit is complete. I learned a little in the process, but it was mostly the tedious hand-sewing that I know many historical tailors are familiar with. In all, the suit contains five yards of velvet and about four yards of linen, hundreds of yards of linen thread, about one hundred meters of silk buttonhole twist (82 buttonholes), and sixty-six pewter buttons.


Constructing the suit was really no different than making a 1750s or even 1770s one. The biggest differences are the number of buttons and buttonholes, the length of the waistcoat and coat, and the additional set of buttonholes on the back skirts of the coat.

I started the sewing with the waistcoat, then the coat, and finished with the breeches. I left all of the buttonholes and buttons to be added last (excepting the buttonhole placket on the breeches which is half-covered once sewn on, so I added the buttonholes first to it). Unfortunately, by the time I finished hand sewing everything, my buttons still had not shown up. As it turned out, by mid-June, the supplier was just getting around to casting them despite reassuring me in April that the buttons would be gold-plated by the end of May. Well, when I called last week, the buttons were cast but the plating-company closed for two weeks right before getting to my order. Needless to say, the sutler sent me a set of the buttons in plain pewter for this weekend's event. I'll have to pop them off once the gold ones come in and swap them out for the September event. So right now, I have shiny pewter buttons that work, they're just not gold-plated as intended.

Since having to wait on the buttons, I just went ahead and sewed the buttonholes hoping that the dimensions I received for the buttons were accurate. I went with two-inch buttonholes for the coat front, cuffs, pocket flaps, and back skirts. For the waistcoat, I sewed one and a half inch buttonholes on the front and pocket flaps, and one-inch buttonholes on the breeches. I chose these sizes based on the size of the buttons and what I estimated in the collection of paintings and extant examples I had found. I feel that, after having sewn 82 buttonholes, I'm nearly an expert at it; practice is really the only way to master the art of making buttonholes.

Once I came back from a bit of a holiday in New England, I found the buttons waiting for me. I started last night and finished sewing them on about noon today. They fit the buttonholes perfectly (so the dimensions were in fact correct) and the pewter looks good with the dark green velvet. I'll still switch them out for the gold later, but they'll definitely work for now.


As soon as I finished sewing the buttons on, I tried everything on. I have a thin cotton shirt with ruffles at the neck and cuffs and pewter sleeve buttons. The white stockings are pulled over the knees but tied under them with a black silk ribbon. For the cravat, I really had only two choices: embellished or not. Embellished cravats are made from what looks like white fine linen or silk with lace at the ends. Since most lace available today is either made with synthetic thread or in an inaccurate design, I opted for the plain white linen cravat with the ends tucked into my shirt. Both styles are accurate for the period, but my decision was based on availability of resources rather than personal choice (I'd prefer the embellishment of course!).

Finally, to top it all off, I'm wearing a periwig fitting for the 1710s: a mass of curls, just a bit longer than shoulder-length with a part in the middle. I am fortunate to have a modern wig-dresser in my town who was able to supply me with this. While it is synthetic, it was intended for normal, 21st century use so it looks and feels remarkably realistic. I've also been told that synthetic wigs are so much easier to work with than human hair, so the choice was easy to make for me. For anyone interested in buying an historical wig, I will recommend the shop I bought this and my 1770s wig from: Hollywood Fashion Wigs in Old Town Alexandria, VA.


It wouldn't be proper for me to write about this whole kit without putting in a bit of advertising for the event I made it for: the 300th anniversary of Governor's Spotswood's Knights of the Golden Horseshoe. Hosted by the Germanna Foundation, the event celebrates the governor's 1716 excursion into the Virginia frontier. I will be portraying John Fontaine, the chronicler of the expedition. This weekend (July 15-17), members of the historical society will take pre-registered visitors on a bus tour of the 1716 route, a conference, a gala and silent auction for the donors, and a small encampment. We will be open for the general public as an encampment the weekend of September 16-18. For more information on this, please visit the Germanna Foundation's website.

Upcoming Topics:
  • Making a 17th century wood-core leather scabbard
  • Camp diversions: or how to entertain yourself at events
  • "A doublet of fustian... and breeches of canvas"

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Role of First-Person Interpretation

Photo Credit: Lee Winchester
First-person interpretation in a living-history context is when a reenactor adopts a specific persona and does not wander from it; they are that one person in that one year. Historic sites often use this method to make the site seem more "real" for the visitors. Or does it?

I was first inspired to write this post when I read the comments on a friend's Facebook posting. My friend tossed out a question as her status about what her friends felt was "the opposite of fun." One of the responses, from a teacher, was: "historical reenactors [when] I'm supposed to indulge their solo performance like it's normal. It gives me the WORST secondhand embarrassment of all time." What surprised me was not this comment but my lack of surprise at reading it.

What if most visitors really just get lost right from the beginning with the initial greeting from a first-person interpreter? Perhaps you've been to one of these historic sites or events--maybe you did first-person interpretation yourself. When the historical figure greeted the visitor ("Good day," "Madam," "Sir," etc.), how did the visitor react? In my experience, I've seen them hesitate, uncomfortably return the same reply, not respond while walking away, or sometimes just awkwardly reply "hi." Regardless of their response, they've almost always crept back within themselves, becoming more reluctant to respond for fear of "ruining the moment," answering in a way that is inappropriate to the period (i.e. using 21st century phrasing), or non-consentingly feeding a performance, as in the earlier example. So does first-person historical interpretation have a role in living history when the goal is education and visitor-involvement?

My personal philosophy at living history events is not to be in character while talking to the public. I want the spectators to be comfortable to the point that they will ask their own questions and actively learn. When put on the spot or compelled to partake in a performance unexpectedly, most people experience anxiety and embarrassment. If a spectator purchased a ticket to see a reenactment or visit a museum, they consented to a form of learning involving the receiving of information. What if you bought a ticket to see a movie, sat in your seat at the theater, began watching the film, and then suddenly the movie pauses and one of the actors greets you and expects you to respond in front of the audience without providing any context or information? It'd probably startle you and, being put on-the-spot, you might feel unsure of how to answer properly and perhaps a little embarrassed. But what if you knew this was going to happen?

Bridging the Gap

First-person interpretation has an important role in living history, but one that must be carefully instituted otherwise it would lose its raison d'etre. I believe that there are two main "disconnects" between spectators and first-person interpreters: understanding what is a "show" versus what is "interactive" and knowledge of history.

Photo Credt: Helen Wirka
To address the first: understanding what is a "show" and what is "interactive." I wonder if spectators would feel more comfortable if museums or historical sites prepared them in advance for first-person interpretation. Perhaps when advertising for an event, the historical site could promote it as "interactive." By listing it as such, it might allow the visitors to prepare themselves and to go in knowing that their participation is expected. That being said, many museum-goers are still accustomed to the "look but don't touch" mantra of the traditional museum. One possible way for spectators to voluntarily opt in to interacting would be if the historical site offered a sticker or similar object that would indicate that the visitor wearing it is willing and ready to participate. Those interested in the old-school museum/historical site experience can also enjoy the event, but in their own way and through observation.

The museum or historical site might also indicate "boundaries;" that is to say, when a spectator could interact with the living historians and when it would be inappropriate to. This might apply more to reenactments where battles or demonstrations are happening or at sites like Colonial Williamsburg where they put on reenactor-only performances.

As for the second disconnect--the lack of knowing what the reenactors know--perhaps museums or sites could distribute the information. When purchasing tickets, it might be helpful for the first-person interpretation site to offer the visitors a "conversation" card (example at left) that lists things most people would know at that time and place, talking-points about "current events," as well as common phrases. This wouldn't have to be complex, and indeed it should be simple, but it would help to bridge the anxiety and pressure that spectators often feel when not knowing how to participate.

To download a .pdf of this example I made using the Braddock Day event (at the Carlyle House in Alexandria, VA) as my inspiration, click here. If you would like the Word template I used for free, please send me a request using the "Contact Me" form on the right; I would love to see this used!

As a Reenactor

Photo Credit: Alexa Price
Now these ideas only apply to the historical sites, so how can an individual reenactor navigate through all this? As I mentioned before, I personally don't care to take on a first-person role. I feel that keeps the spectators at an arms-length away and it prevents me from using all my resources as a teacher. They tend to be shy and unsure of themselves (even if they really know the history) and while I can explain how to start a fire with flint and steel, I found that by connecting it to a modern lighter, spectators tend to relate more effectively. All of that being said, sometimes I do have to adopt a person for a special event. How can I also reach out to spectators and not alienate them?

The biggest take-away from this (as I might say to my students), is that if the person is unwilling to participate, then do not force them to. If the museum or historical site does not offer a way for spectators to opt-in or -out (like the aforementioned stickers), then it's on you to decide whom to interact with and when. Obviously, the best scenario is one in which the spectators start the conversation, but you can't always rely on that. You need to use your best judgement to determine who wants to engage in dialogue with you.

One of my favorite things to do is present an easy question that almost forces the spectator to agree with what will become my argument. "Bonjour madam. I am _____ sent here by the governor of Canada to seek justice. Tell me, do you agree that it was unjust that Washington killed a French ambassador in cold blood?" Of course the event surrounding the "Battle" of Jumoville's Glen was far more complicated, but if I'm a French officer trying to gain support for France, I'm going to manipulate the facts. Call it propaganda. Regardless, I usually get a "yes." That's all I need. I greeted the visitor, didn't stand there awkwardly waiting for an embarrassed reply, but went right into my question. I put the effort of starting a dialogue in my hands, since I was prepared for this whole event and she wasn't. I also purposefully asked a question that was void of many facts and provided my own information (propaganda). She didn't need to know any background information (and I was kind of counting on it). I then immediately follow-up with a brief background on why I'm here, provide a little more specific information and ask a follow-up question that's purely opinion-based and gets the spectator thinking about the current issues.

This manner of interacting with the public is different than what I wrote in a previous post about engaging spectators. When doing first-person interpretation, you can't link modern things, people, or events to what you're doing; that would be anachronistic. Instead, the greatest tool in your kit is your--and their--humanity. Human traits like greed, lust, survival, and pride are present in most historical events. If you can't be a 21st century person in period clothes, then your best option for staying in character while interacting with 21st century spectators is to appeal to their humanity.

So my suggestion, as a living historian, who wants to engage spectators while doing first-person interpretation is to:
  1. Decide what human trait you plan to hook the spectators with when you begin your conversation. Are you going to emphasize survival at your frontier fort/town? Are you going to emphasize honor in your military cause? How about pride in the family you've started?
  2. Greet them (this notifies them that it's time to interact) and immediately provide some context (don't wait for them to respond to your greeting).
  3. Ask an opinion-based question that does not require any background knowledge but works with your earlier-chosen human trait.
  4. Following their answer, feed them more information and be slightly more specific.
  5. Ask them more opinion-based questions about what you just told them. If you're really good, this is when you can get a feel for what really interests them and where you can turn to next in your conversation.
One way that I've seen go wrong (unbeknownst to the sites) is when two reenactors debate each other and then turn to individuals in the crowd and demand their opinion (usually looking for support). While I admire the idea and know that this works very well in a classroom, as a reenactor who doesn't have a whole year to establish a comfortable learning environment, this is not the best plan. When asked to join in an active argument, most spectators shut down or are hesitant to participate, lest they get something wrong or offend the other character. You'll occasionally see someone--like at the Salem Witch Museum--shouting "burn her!" but that is a rare customer. By creating a performance and demanding participation at the end, the switch from "observation" to "interaction" is too quick for comfort and results in the example I mentioned at the very beginning of this post: embarrassment. If you're trying to get them involved, you're more apt to confuse them and make them anxious. It's much clearer to the public if you leave the performance as an "observe" experience. Perhaps the reenactors can then separate after the performance and interact with the public as previously mentioned.

Before you participate in any event, think to yourself: why am I doing this? If it's for the public (some events are not), then determine what you want the spectators to get out of it and which approach will be the most successful: first- or third-person interpretation. Regardless of what you choose, just remember that you're a teacher, whether you acknowledge it or not.

Upcoming Topics:

  • 1710s Kit: Part 2
  • "A doublet of fustian... and breeches of canvas"
  • Camp Diversions

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Making Souliers de Boeuf

It only just hit me the other day: my first French and Indian War reenactment of the year is happening in one month at the Fort at No. 4 (Charlestown, NH). The souliers de boeuf I made two years ago have developed sizable holes in the soles, so I need to make a new pair. My 1710s kit will have to be put on hold. Now, I don't claim to be an expert--this is the second pair I've made--but I thought I'd share my experience and how I made them based on what I learned from research.

So what are souliers de boeuf? They're oxhide or "beef" shoes, made from sturdy leather that are formed around a wooden last. During the French and Indian War, Lieutenant d'Aleyrac described them in Aventures militaires au XVIIIe si├Ęcle as "oxhide shoes are made in a completely different manner than the French leather shoes, they have a sole as thin as the top which envelops all the foot at the height of the quarters; then, on this piece of leather, one sews a smaller piece of leather covering the top of the foot; this style is most convenient to walk in the woods and in the mountains." These shoes do not have any system of closure--no buckle or ties--but stay on the foot due to the tightness of the fit and the length of the top which extends to the ankle and curls upwards.

One interesting piece of information that I picked up recently while researching souliers is that, unlike the typical reenactor soulier de boeuf which is dyed a reddish-orange--like my first pair--they do not have to be dyed. In Catherine Cangany's article Fashioning Moccasins: Detroit, the Manufacturing Frontier, and the Empire of Consumption, 1701–1835, she writes that in 1757, a "burial record of a drowned man in Quebec noted that in addition to European-style clothing, the deceased wore "undyed beef shoes."" Undyed oxhide has a pale-tan color, like this image of a Canadian's souliers (albeit this watercolor is from the first half of the nineteenth century). Plenty of other sketches and watercolor images of souliers from this period and into the nineteenth century show natural-colored, undyed leather. For Anglo-American reenactors (yes, you too can wear these), especially on the Pennsylvania frontier, Joseph Doddridge, in his book Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars, writes about smearing his shoepacks (or souliers de boeuf in the Canadian context) with blackball, presumably for waterproofing.

Before beginning the construction, you should watch the Office National Du Film Du Canada video on making souliers. This helped me considerably in making my own. Captain Harvey was filmed in 1979, making a pair of bottes sauvages ("Native American boots") for the guy filming him. While bottes sauvages are probably not accurate for the French and Indian War (I saw one reference to these a long time ago and haven't been able to find it since. These are best known for their use in the nineteenth century), the first 20 minutes show how souliers de boeuf are made. It's only the remaining seven minutes that he adds the leg to the shoes. Don't worry if you can't speak/understand French, everything you need to know is shown.


The first thing you need is a shoe last. It shouldn't be a left or right. I made mine by gluing 2x4s to the height of my ankle, then shaving it down until it was the shape of my foot, with no curve to the left or right.
You'll also need an awl, two strong leather needles, a hammer, heavy linen thread, beeswax for the thread, a very sharp knife or razor blade, and a couple paperclips or some thin wire. For the leather, I use 12oz vegetable-tanned cowhide.

Making the pattern:

The finished pattern (I made mine from a piece of leather, though you could use wood or even just a brown paper bag), should look like an elongated "D". I started by tracing my wooden last (if I traced my foot, the pattern would end up slightly curved either left or right), and then added two inches all around. The addition is for the sides of the shoe, so you'll want to double-check that this is the right height for you. If you have an arch or thick feet, you might want to add more. The way to check is to put your foot right in the middle of the pattern and lift the sides up around your foot at a 90-degree angle. They should be only slightly taller than the height of your foot as you'll add the top--or vamp--later on to cover the top of your foot. Another thing to look out for is that the sides shouldn't be rubbing up against your ankle bone--they should be just under the bone. I then traced out the pattern onto the leather and cut out two pieces. The last thing I did was notched with my knife where the toe seam would start and end. This is done simply by bending the toe back to the "heel" and cutting a thin notch inside the bend.

Preparing the leather:

In order to sew them and gather the toe, they need to be pliable. I placed one of the leather "D"s in warm water until it was soaked. Next, I made small cuts halfway through the leather along the toe's edge from the first notch to the second. These cuts, spaced 1/4" - 1/2" apart will help me in the next step, allowing me to sew a line of heavy linen thread through the center of the leather along the edge. To do this though, I need to run a piece of heavy linen thread (that's slightly longer than the toe curve) through some beeswax to increase its durability.

Gathering the toe:

This step just involves sewing the beeswaxed thread from one cut to the other without poking through to the outside. Honestly, the best thing to do is watch Harvey do this part in the video linked to above. When you start, make one big knot that can't be pulled through your holes. This is an important step as you will be pull very hard on the thread later on. As you sew up around the toe, you'll need to pull hard to force it to gather. When you make it to the very tip of the toe, match it up with your wooden last. Insure that you've gathered it sufficiently--not too little and not too much. You may also want to pause here to re-soak the leather if it has started to dry out. 
Once you're sure of the gathering around the toe so far, continue sewing and pulling on the thread until you get to the notch on the other side of the shoe. Work the gathered toe with your hands, stretching the leather or pulling the thread until you're happy that it matches up with the last. The last thing you need to do is hammer the last into the gathered toe. Make sure it's snug and the sides are pulling around it nicely (see the picture above under the "Construction" section). When you're confident, make a big knot and tie it off.

Adding the vamp:

The vamp pattern is made simply by inverting your half-sewn shoe and tracing the top. Harvey's method of lining up the vamp with the shoe and then lightly tracing the contour of the shoe along the vamp with a knife is the best way. Cut it down to shape and then double-check that it will fit by laying it on top of the shoe (as in the picture at right). Your seam will start and end where you began and ended the gathering seam from earlier. For the length, I cut the vamp as long as my shoe and then, in the final step of this whole process, I'll cut it down to size.
Once you cut the vamp from the leather, soak it in water to make it pliable. While you do this, you should also re-soak your shoe to keep it pliable.
Here's the tricky part: you need to cut a line on the outside of your shoe--about 1/4" below the edge. It needs to cut no more than halfway into the leather. This cut will not only guide your stitches for the vamp, but it will also hide them. For a reference, see the picture below in the "Sewing the Vamp" section.

Sewing the Vamp:

I added the vamp by making a hole starting in the line that I cut along the side, through the center of the leather, into the side of the vamp and then out the top about 1/4" from the edge. I then run two threads through the hole, in opposite directions, with their respective ends knotted (for a clearer image of this, see the picture in the "Sewing the heel" section). This is the method for sewing the vamp as well as the back and the heel.

Here are two very important things that you need to remember when you do this step: the first is that the shoe last needs to stay inside the shoe the entire time. It helps you drive the awl through the leather to make the holes and it helps to keep the shape of the shoe. 

The second thing I found very helpful is that, after pulling both
threads through the first hole, make a second hole on the exact opposite side of the shoe (where you intend to end) and another right at the tip of the toe. After making the hole in the side and vamp, run a paperclip or wire through it and twist the ends together (again, do this where you intend to end the seam and right in the middle of the toe). The wire will hold the vamp in place and help to prevent you from twisting the vamp as you sew up the toe (you'll notice how the shoe is gathered and "puckering" around the toe which is always troublesome when you have to sew it to the vamp).

I then just sewed up the "vamp seam" from one  end to the other and knotted it off. You'll probably need to soak the shoe once or twice during this step to keep the leather pliable.

After sewing the vamp on, I always like to test it out by trying the shoe on. It's always reassuring when it fits perfectly and I have a little extra leather in the heel (extra is better than not enough!). After trying it on, I place the last back into the shoe and hammer it as far forward as possible. You may also want to hammer the vamp seam lightly to help shape it a bit.

Sewing the heel:

I purposefully left some extra leather at the heel in case I made a mistake earlier on the toe, so I need to take a little leather off. I hold the shoe between my legs while I stretch the leather on one side around the heel of the last. I'll make a slight cut in the leather where the center line of the heel is, then repeat with the second side. Then, I cut the excess leather off.

The next step is sewing it. Using the same stitching technique as in the vamp seam, I drive the awl in, pull the two threads through in opposite directions, and then repeat. I sew this seam until I'm about half an inch from the bottom where I knot off the ends of the thread.

The next step--cutting the bottom of the heel--is a little tricky. I take my sharp knife and, starting 1/4" from the last stitch, carefully cut 1 1/2" from the center of the seam to the right, and then another cut from the center to the left. I then match the curved bottom piece that I'll call the "heel flap" to the back of the heel. The heel flap should stick out so, like when I matched the vamp to the shoe, I trace the back of the heel along the heel flap with my knife. I then cut off the excess leather from the heel flap and double check that the heel flap does in fact match up with the heel back. The flap should be a bit wider and thus "pucker" a bit when you match it up with the heel back.

Finishing the heel:

After trimming the heel flap, I soak the back of the shoe for a few minutes to make it as pliable as possible. Once done, I turned the heel inside out (as in the picture at right). Using the same stitching technique as you used for the heel back and the vamp seam, make the holes with the awl from the heel flap into the heel back and run two threads through the hole--from one end of the seam to the other. Make sure, like in the other seams, that you're driving the awl through the leather so that the awl does not punch through the right side of the leather, otherwise the stitches will show. Once finished, knot the threads.

This last part is critical to your future comfort: shove the heel of your last into the right-side of your shoe's heel (with it still inside-out). Hammer the inside of the heel seams (mostly the heel-flap seam), especially where you put your knots. This just helps to flatten everything out so nothing pokes your heel when you put it on later. After hammering the first time, turn the heel right-side out, shove your last into the shoe, and hammer the outside of the heel seams for extra-insurance and to flatten the seams from the outside.

Finishing the shoe:

Before you remove the last, determine the shape of the shoe's tongue and cut it down to size. Hammer any seams that look too "bumpy." Lastly, remove the last and try it on!

Upcoming Topics:

  • Role of First-Person Interpretation
  • 1716 Kit: Part 2

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Making a 1716 Kit

Part One: The Research and Pattern

Sketch of John Fontaine
c. 1730
In 1716, John Fontaine joined a week-long exploratory mission of Virginia's frontier, led by Governor Spotswood. Their journey, which began officially on August 29 upon leaving Germanna, was chronicled by Fontaine. Among the most important observations of the expedition, his description of the "German town" is one of the first historians have of early Germanna, founded originally in 1714. To celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the expedition, Germanna is hosting a gala and a living history event this summer. One of the organizers reached out to me and asked me to portray John Fontaine. As such, I had to make a kit appropriate for 1716. Unfortunately though, Fontaine never described what clothing he wore or brought with him--I had a lot of researching to do.

Firstly, as a gentleman visiting Governor Spotswood in Virginia's capital--Williamsburg--I figured that a rich outfit would be in order. What's more is that Spotswood recorded that each gentleman on the expedition took at least one servant with him. Since Fontaine never left an inventory of his clothing, I turned to portraits from the 1710s. My most useful source was the Portrait Timeline. In addition to this, the couple dozen other paintings I found online as well as photographs of extant clothing suggest a relatively high percentage of velvet in addition to plain silk and wool.  I ultimately decided upon a dark green velvet for the outer fabric (matching Sir Charles Shuckburgh on the right, painted by Michael Dahl).

For the lining, I chose linen as it is the most common fabric used for this purpose. The buttons are gold-plated pewter cast from originals. The design, something like a sun with a number of rays emanating from it, seems to match closely with some of the originals in the paintings that I found. This time period saw many types of buttons besides metal, to include cloth covered and passementerie in particular. I opted out of further embellishments for a couple of reasons: one, it seems that in the portraits of individuals who wear velvet, there are only a couple examples with braiding (Sir Charles Shuckburgh being one)--most are plain with no trim or embroidery. The second reason is that, while Fontaine was a gentleman, I don't see him as someone so wealthy as a knight or magnate as to have a fully decked-out suit. I don't have a clothing inventory from him, so it's already a guess that he might have worn velvet; I'm going to keep it simple.

From Leloire's Histoire du Costume
For the pattern, I am using Suzanne Gousse's French soldier's small clothes and justaucorps that I have not only tailored to myself, but have modified for the 1710s. I had to lengthen the waistcoat's front by five inches while leaving the back at the original length (see this extant waistcoat, albeit from two decades later, for just one example of the longer front) as well as opening the arm holes (since they were intended for sleeves). The buttons and buttonholes also extend the entire length of the front. The breeches pattern did not require any alterations. The justaucorps will need a few minor adjustments: the first is that the sleeves are three-quarter length, so I had to shorten the original pattern a bit (the cuff ends about mid-forearm). The second is that the buttonholes will extend to the bottom instead of waist-level. The third is that the back center skirts need to be slightly wider to accommodate for the false buttonholes.

So far, I have completed the waistcoat save for the buttons and buttonholes. Those will be added at the very end as my finishing touch. Part Two of the 1710s kit grand adventure will contain pictures of my work in progress.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Engaging Spectators

"Is that fire real?"

Photo credit: Jess Bruce
Back in February, I attended a brief class on historical interpretation at Jamestown. As a new volunteer for the site, I needed to attend a class on how Jamestown suggests that living historians engage and interact with the members of the public. My biggest take-away from that session was making your mundane, every-day task/gear/clothing relevant to the public. When I first understood that this was the point of the session, I reflected on how I teach in my high school classroom. It was much the same way--if I don't make the content relevant to my students, they won't care enough to stay awake.

Now, to be fair, reenactments are not classrooms in the usual sense of the word. Spectators also voluntarily spend money to attend; they're there to see a show and learn something. For that to happen though, we need to engage them, ourselves. Certainly, some members of the public will be outgoing enough to ask a ridiculous question like "is that fire real?" just to get the conversation started, but if you want to avoid that question and future embarrassment, be the one to initiate the conversation.

Engaging spectators is much like television ads. It has to be brief, entertaining, and relevant. Just last May (2015), Time published an article about how humans' attention span has dropped to eight seconds. You don't need to be a high school history teacher to notice this on a daily basis though. So how can you make a total stranger understand in a short amount of time why some complicated historical concept or artifact is important? You need to first make them connect with it.

Ask Simple Questions:

The truth is we ignore what we can't identify with (tell me this isn't true about today's American society). I see it in the classroom and I see it in politics. Here's a great way to make your history "lesson" come alive, in a way that I've personally tested in the classroom and at events:

Ask simple questions. This was something I picked up in my master's program for teaching as well as at Jamestown's training session. When you see a member of the public walking by your camp or your demonstration, create a discussion with them. The old "sage on the stage" model of relating information (think Ben Stein as the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) is no longer considered the most effective way to teach (surprise!). Instead of telling the spectators everything you know about the role of women in an 18th century military camp, try instead to hook them with a question and encourage them to apply themselves to your "lesson."

Photo credit: Helen Wirka
"Have you ever been camping before?" This question requires little effort to ask, but now I've hooked the spectator who was planning to stroll by my lean-to like they did for all those tents nearby. I made the spectator identify with my 250 year old camp. I just made the first step to establishing a personal connection. Most spectators have either been camping or have at least heard about it to understand the premise. It just helps me to bridge their prior knowledge of camping as a hobby to camping as part of an army.

When formulating questions for discussion, you should keep in mind the goal (what you want the spectators to get out of your short interaction) and the relevance (the connection to them). My goal while asking the camping question is to ultimately relate how French militia in the French and Indian War lived in a military camp. My relevance was camping as a pastime versus camping with the army. The "relevance" is a modern connection that is usually a common activity that people experience or have seen. From my training session at Jamestown, I realized that the "relevance" could also be a common emotion or motivation. When you have a moment, think about what aspects of the reenactment you want to talk to people about and what the relevant point could be. Almost every activity at the reenactment could be explained with modern parallels, but some examples of emotions and motivations to consider as your "relevance" include survival, greed, protecting family, hunger, power lust, etc.

Asking basic questions is an easy way to quickly grab the attention of a spectator since, by the nature of being a question, they know you're expecting them to deliver an answer. It's also a great way to mentally prepare the spectator to enter the imagined 18th century camp you so effortlessly entered Saturday morning. Finally, it provides you with a glimpse at what they may already know so you may work off that. There are certainly other ways to hook spectators and students, but I've found this method to be the easiest and quickest.

Great conversation-starter examples:
  • "Why do you think a farmer like me would need a gun?" could lead to a discussion on defending your family from frontier raids, hunting for survival, or opposing a tyrannical government.
  • "When might I need to wear this apron?" could lead to a discussion on cooking (since aprons are still used today) or other work that might otherwise dirty your clothing.
  • "What are some ways you know of or have used to start a fire?" could lead to a discussion on flint and steel, flintlock muskets, or cooking.
  • "Why do you think my friends and I are all dressed the same?" could lead to a discussion on uniforms (connected with sports teams or a job hat requires uniforms) and military life.
  • "Just looking at my setup, how might doing laundry today be different to how it was done 200 years ago?" could of course lead to a discussion on cleaning clothing before the use of washing machines.

Conversation-deterrer examples:
  • "What do you want to know?" usually leads the spectators to answer something like "I'm just looking around." What else should you expect when, chances are, they haven't learned anything yet to be able to ask questions on their own.
  • "Why do you think Cornwallis went to Yorktown?" Unless you told them the answer previously, the only ones who could answer this successfully are the Revolutionary War historians, and even then, that's a loaded question. They know that getting the answer wrong may be embarrassing, so they might not risk responding.
  • "Yes" or "No" questions: these usually don't go anywhere and they don't allow the spectator to share their experience and thus make the connection.

Keep It Simple:

I fall into this trap every so often both in teaching in the classroom and at reenactments. I get so excited while explaining historical strategies, for example, that I don't realize that I lost the attention of my students or spectators. Start a conversation by asking a simple question. Get the spectators hooked. Then gradually feed them information, remembering that they are trying to find how it could be relevant to them. If you start going off the deep end about cloth-covered buttons, you might lose your audience's attention. Describe concepts--the big ideas--and constantly ask them follow-up questions to keep them thinking and connecting (and remember, keep those questions simple, too).  Those follow-up questions can also be useful at gaging interest and how well you've been relating your information. You know you did it right when they start asking questions, themselves. That shows their comfort with the level of engagement you created as well as with taking the social risk that comes with asking a question.

So how can we as living historians encourage spectators to come back and learn the history we love so much? Make your information relevant, involve them through questions and discussion, create a comfortable learning environment, and keep what you have to say short and simple until they ask for more. Most importantly, and it should go without saying, be patient; that might even mean starting your conversation with "why yes, that is a real fire."


Have you tried any of this before? Did something not quite make sense? Please let me know what you think by writing a comment below.

Upcoming Topics:
  • The role of first-person interpretation
  • Making a 1716 kit