First, if any living historian/reenactor (or whatever you call yourself) wants to take this hobby to the next level, this is definitely it. But I think it works best when you are really comfortable with the people you experience this with and have worked together at previous events. Because I knew everyone and felt comfortable, it wasn’t that odd to jump into this new role.
The group’s goal was simple: recreate a time period and specific event to the best of our ability using only what the people in the 18th century would have had.
If you want to skip ahead to what I learned about women in the 18th century, scroll to the bold heading near the end.
To return to my list of what I prepared for and expected….
The temps: I’m not sure if this counts as cheating or not, but the building technically had heat. We kept the thermostat low so the heat was not blasting. The inside temp was cooler than I prefer in a building, but it was dry and warmer than outside, so I really couldn’t complain. The socks I borrowed from my friend kept me warm. Early in the morning, I was even warm enough to just throw on a light cotton bedgown while I prepped food and cleaned, so that was nice.
Because I was cold the first night I got there, I slept in my shift and stays and one wool petticoat. I was warm, but I don’t like how rigid my body is when I sleep in stays. I can’t imagine it’s good for me. And when it’s cold, I like to curl in to a little ball and I don’t really have that option when I wear stays. The second night, I definitely had to take them off, but I was really cold in just a cotton shift and a wool petticoat, so I borrowed a big wool hunting frock thing and buttoned it up around my chin – finally warm!! We did have about 5 or 6 wool blankets on the bed, which was awesome.
Sanitation: My friends brought their wash stand and we had soap! Hurray! I could wash my face. I think my face actually looked better after using cold water to wash my face with. So every night now I use cool water even if I’m cold and want to warm up. Using an outhouse with vents that let in cold air is just plain cold. I was reading something about sanitation in 18th cent London and all I can say is that I’m glad I don’t have to poo in a hole I dig myself and bury it. That would be terrible. And I don’t want to use moss to wipe my bum either. Gross.
On to the good expectations. All of those were met. It’s exactly what I expected. Oh and I ate the most delicious smoked ham hock I have ever tasted. Holy crap. I like ham. But wow. We just sliced this meat right off the hock and popped it in our mouths.
For sewing….I did not finish the wool shortgown – yet again. I started to attach the lining to the fashion fabric and the wool and worsted wool are so spongy that they would not fold nicely and the lighting was bad so I made about five horrific looking stitches and decided I just did not have the patience. It was not worth it to me. I did, however, finish my large-ish linen carrying bag. I’m not sure that there’s a technical 18th cent term for it. But I put all my larger clothing items and extra fabric for sewing projects in it. Hurray! I would still like some wooden boxes though because I just feel like that will contain my items better than 5 different bags. But I did get to wear one item that I had not worn yet: my fancy embroidered mitts!!!! I thought when we visited our friends on the hill that it would be an appropriate and not overly flashy way to dress up my outfit.
Now on to the important part: what I learned about myself, life and women in the 18th century from just 48 hours.
I did not go in with any preconceived notions because I did not want to try and predict anything. I did have several epiphanies throughout the weekend, which I feel are rather significant.
The first epiphany occurred when I noticed the weather. The freezing rain Fri night resulted in an unpleasant situation Saturday morning: wet firewood. How is one supposed to cook?! I have no idea. If you did not have leftovers from the night before or something that could be eaten cold (like raw fruit or veggies already in storage, you were screwed and went hungry I suppose). Well the firewood situation resulted in one of the women leaving the house and attempting to get to her car to drive somewhere to search for wood. She slipped on the ice and fell. I realized several things as a result. 1) Had these injuries been more severe, without proper medical care in the 18th cent, loss of life from something simple could be detrimental to the stability of the family. 2) Even a small weather event like icy roads and paths makes day to day activities dangerous and the shoes they wore then are not as sturdy/grippy/warm as ours. Furthermore, if you were not wealthy enough to own a good pair of shoes, then what? 3) If the weather prevented you from venturing outside, you had to stay inside just to keep warm and not die. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly content with a snow day here and there or staying home to relax after a busy day. But if the domestic sphere was your entire life already, no wonder women got bored with sewing, embroidering, and caring for children. Additionally, we did not see the sun for these two days. You have wet firewood, minimal food supplies, icy roads, no sun and you’re forced to be indoors for three months. Good God. Thankfully, the building we were in is sturdy and warm. What kind of an existence would you lead if you were not that lucky? It makes sense why someone like Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice didn’t care if she loved the man; marrying someone who could provide for her was a big deal.
This leads to the other fascinating realization. With our scenario, I was married, but had returned to live with my parents because my husband had been gone for so long that they wanted me close by. Not seeing your husband and not knowing if he’s alive or well because of lack of communication in the postal service and military must have been horrible. Everyone kept asking me, “where is your husband madam” all weekend and I kept saying, “I don’t know. He hasn’t written me.” And the fourth or fifth time I said it, it kind of sunk in. What if he’s dead? What will I do? Will my parents let me continue living with them? I really better pull my weight so they don’t throw me out. (Hello: the 21st century called – your husband is alive and well and you have a lovely house). Emotionally though, I had been very caught up in the situation that was playing out before me. Furthermore, this lead me to display my emotions on my face more easily than I had realized. It wasn’t that I wasn’t having a good time. I was. It was utterly amazing. However, I was in and out of the soldiers’ room for various reasons and every time I curtsied to the corporal and explained my reason for being there, I had a frown on my face. Finally, he called me out on it. Initially, I put on a stoney face to make sure I didn’t bust out laughing, but as the day went on and I became absorbed in my character’s station in life, I was mad that these random strange men had entered our house and my parents let them live with us and I was mad that these men were alive and well in the war, yet I had not heard from my husband. Life wasn’t fair. Hence the frown.
From there, another interesting scenario played out that we were not quite expecting. The eldest Miss Irwin took a fancy to the soldier Joseph Plumb Martin. In the text we used as the basis for this experiment, she was gossipy and flirtatious. So she took it the extra step and thought, hey given these aspects of the woman I’m portraying, would it not seem plausible that she might try to hook up with this soldier to improve her station in life. Well, the man playing my father got caught up in this scenario and purposely left his mitts at the Irwin’s house so the soldier, Joseph, had a reason to go back and talk to the young lady. This was such an interesting turn of events that it really sent a bustle through our little house. We all wanted to call on the neighbors to see how the two potential love birds were getting along. Then when I was at their house visiting, after the soldiers left, Miss I. and I continued to plot about ways we could get her together with this dashing young man. It was really, truly the highlight of our day. Again to reference Jane Austen, no wonder she wrote an entire book about hooking people up with a mate. This was exciting business!!! Today, I see kids holding hands all the time in the halls. There is no social protocol for dating except, don’t make out in the halls because that’s gross. But in the 18th century there were so many rules about not being alone and not touching and how to be a lady/gentleman, it made the wait worth it. There were several times when Miss I and I would fall into fits of giggles over the prospect of her marrying this young man. I guess, nothing really changes from century to century. However, these soldiers who just happened to show up on our doorstep provided us with a huge diversion from our daily humdrum life. This little scenario was definitely the best part of the weekend.
Lastly, I didn’t realize this until I wrote my other post. I was in charge of taking pictures on our end of the property. Whenever I had a free moment, I quickly snapped pics of the soldiers or my “family” and then just slipped the camera back into my pocket. I tried to get a lot of action shots to capture the essence of people’s every day lives. Anyway, when I was putting together my previous post written in first person, I added pictures to go along with it. I took well over 100 pictures and the ones that made it in to the previous post were mainly domestic life pictures. I have so many great shots of the soldiers doing stuff, but technically, I wasn’t hanging out with the soldiers that weekend because I “didn’t know them.” I realized how small the domestic sphere really was. I might have interacted with the soldiers to bring them food or help them with something, but other than that, I was to stick to my part of the house and them theirs. I really wanted to post more pictures of what the soldiers were doing, but they didn’t fit into my narrative at all. So weird!
Overall, this was a fabulous experience. I’m ready to do it again, but in warmer weather. I wholly support 1st person immersion events and everyone should try it at least once, just to see what it’s like. I get that it’s not for everyone, but the more you can throw yourself into an authentic experience, the more appreciation you have for the little things – like Charmin Ultra soft super strong toilet paper and instant running hot water.
Mother met the strangers at the door with the Fowler. She is a gutsy woman who does not appreciate her quiet evening meals disturbed. There was a tense moment while father waited for the man in charge – a corporal – to explain that they were just soldiers in the Continental Army, looking for a house to stay in, not just on this night because of the rain, but for the rest of the winter. Much to my dismay, my parents allowed them inside. Although I support the fight for independence because my parents have told me many stories about the persecution they faced, I was not happy about giving up the largest room of our quaint stone house. Now our dining table is explicitly for use by the soldiers and we are forced to eat at the work table in the kitchen and our other parlor furniture is moved into the kitchen. Our beautiful sitting/dining room has been converted to a bedroom and living quarters for six dirty, tired men for the 8th Connecticut and New York regiment.
Mother spoke with Corporal Runions and made it abundantly clear that while her family will share their food and living quarters, she and her daughters would not be maids and housekeepers for six men. The corporal assured her his men knew how to use a broom. Yet, the next morning I found myself broom in hand, sweeping up clumps of dried mud. Mother was busy making bread pudding and I needed a good reason to look at all the men’s gear and to make sure none of our household goods found their way into a bedroll or knapsack.
A note about our Quaker family: father is Milltown’s black smith.
Mother had ten children, not all of them survived to adulthood.
I am a middle child, and though married, returned to live with my parents after my husband went to fight on the colonists’ side.
Rebecca, the youngest, still lives at home and she will surely find a husband once this war is over.
After midday meal of cold smoked ham, bread and butter, and cheese, Becky and I baked the pudding. Mother is so clever to combine flour, milk, and eggs to left over porridge and apples. While we were tending the coals and waiting for the pudding to finish, our neighbor from up the hill, Miss Christina Irwin, paid us a visit to help mother with her mending. Mother frequently employs Miss Martin’s help because she is very knowledgeable about garment construction. Miss Irwin kindly invited the ladies of our home to tea at her home because they celebrate Christmas this day.
Currently, while their parents are away tending to their other daughter’s pregnancy, the two Irwin daughters, Christina and Miriam, have their aunt and uncle Martin staying with them. The Irwin home is very well tended. While our home is made of stone, theirs is wood and their floors have been stained a nice dark color. The wood work is a mix between natural wood and a beautiful yellow that adds a nice color and warmth to the rooms.
When my sister and I arrived at the Irwin’s we were surprised to discover the soldiers (who were quartered at our house) gathered around their dining room table sharing a bottle of shrub with the Irwin’s and their aunt and uncle. It was a very festive scene to be sure. Apparently, my father had visited the Irwins and Martins earlier that day and had “accidentally” left his mitts there when he discovered that Christina had her eye on the soldier, Joseph Plumb Martin; hence that afternoon, he sent Joseph P. Martin to fetch his mitts. Father is also quite clever to give the young Mr. Martin a reason to see the young Miss Irwin as she is in want of a husband. But back to when my sister and I visited the Irwins and Martins. The soldiers were all seated on one side of the table and they all stood upon Becky and me entering the room. It’s been such a long time since we’ve been in the presence of such gentlemen. Each one offered their chair to my sister and I. Because I wasn’t sure how Becky felt about being in the company of such men, I took the seat nearest a soldier with spectacles and a red mustache. (I had heard his jolly laugh earlier that morning in my home and thought it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about him). Mr. Martin (the soldier), gave his chair to Becky. That left him without a place at the table. But Miss Irwin is clever indeed, and immediately made her sister move over one seat so that the soldier Mr. Martin was left with only one choice: the spot right next to herself.
For half an hour, the soldiers regaled us with stories of battles they’d been through. The carnage is most distressing. It makes me worry even more for my own husband. Though when the women grew weary of such tales, Miss Irwin suggested they sing songs. Each man has a strong singing voice and all of them sounded quite nice together. I especially liked the song called “Spanish Ladies.” The soldiers were even kind enough to ask if we would allow them to sing Christmas carols – as we are Quaker and do not celebrate – and we allowed them this small celebration. I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas songs and wish I knew the words because I would have joined in.
Miss Irwin was kind enough to take me on a tour of her home; I had not visited in a few months (even though we live relatively close to each other) and she had made some updates to her wardrobe and linen supply that she had been wanting to share with me for some time.
The soldiers departed and soon, we journeyed back to our little stone house after a lovely visit. Mother’s second pudding – a bread pudding – was just coming out of the baking kettle when we arrived. This time we didn’t have to save it for a special occasion, but were able to enjoy it later that evening after dinner when the Martins and Irwins joined us for merriment at our home. Miss C. Irwin wore her new Italian gown. It is a beautiful white fabric with small red flowers all over it. She looked most becoming and we both hoped Mr. Martin, the soldier, would agree with us. She and her sister sat either side of him at one end of the table with Mr. Martin, their uncle, nearby to chaperone.
The other soldiers found their cups and much Christmas merriment. Mother did not allow Becky and I to partake in such rabblerousing (I wanted to learn more songs), and instead we served desert to our guests (then ate our own fair share) and visited with Mrs. Martin, Miss Irwin’s aunt. She had much advice about finding a suitable mate, making pudding, and sewing gowns. We have decided on a few new sewing projects for the winter – both Becky and I need new stays.
The previous night I slept in my stays because it was so cold outside and though we are not poor and in need of fire wood, mother and father keep small fires going and pile more wool blankets on the bed. However, after a long day of working and visiting, off came the stays so my body could fully relax. We do not bathe as frequently in the winter because it is just too much of an inconvenience to haul water and heat it, but mother insists on having fresh, clean water in the wash bowl so we can scrub our faces in the evening and morning.
I slept peacefully and soundly that night knowing I am surrounded by such wonderful family and friends. Even though these strangers are now sleeping right in the next room, they are of good character it seems and would go out of their way to protect us against the British. I pray that my husband returns safely and that my sister Becky and my friends, the Irwin sisters find a loving companion of their own.