Sunday, August 1, 2010


Many years ago I was lucky enough to work as a costumed interpreter at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. My first role was that of the Widow Wheelwright. At first I would sit in the dim kitchen sewing on a piece of cloth and thinking about how miserable Martha Wheelwright must have been, but as the summer grew warmer I was given permission to move my chair out to the yard where the light for my sewing was better, and where I could see more of what was going on in the busy museum around me. The Wheelwright yard was not much --a patch of grass, a few flowers around the door and some fruit trees taking up most of the space—but I loved it especially on sunny days. Not too long after I started I was given a wooden wash tub and told I could interpret laundry day. I could not have any fire, and I could only have water and soap out in the yard so I would not damage any of the period furniture inside, but it was something else to do, and very nice on a hot day to splash about and strew laundry all over the fruit trees. At one point a small pile of firewood showed up in the yard, I don’t remember who put it there or why (since I definitely was not allowed to burn it) but I had fun stacking it, and telling visitors how I had no income but a neighbor was nice enough to give me some wood for use in cooking and laundry etc.

I spent a year as a costumed interpreter then went back to school, but I returned the next summer to work in the gardens at SBM. I did not get to do much in the Wheelwright yard, it was a pretty sparse yard, but I got to work in a number of different yards and gardens all over the museum:  the 17th century raised beds, the 1940s victory garden, the Victorian flowerbeds and glass house, the early 20th century immigrant yard (complete with vegetable patch and clothesline!) At the same time I was taking classes at schools and museums all over the Pioneer Valley about museum work and public history. In a small amount of time I managed to take three classes on Material Culture, I became good at studying people by studying the stuff they’d left behind. I looked at baroque chairs, early colonial houses, grave markers, tools for harvesting a cranberry bog, and more.

I finally managed to put it all together in a series of papers on the place of the yard in Colonial American life. I was (and still am) convinced that before the age of central heating/AC and electric lighting, people spent much more time doing the sorts of chores we now consider to be indoor chores in an outdoor location. Why in the world would someone sit inside to sew when it was so much brighter outside? Why would one do the messy jobs like laundry and butchery indoors when the cleanup is so much easier outside? I looked at archaeological evidence of paved yards, outbuildings and trash heaps, I studied art history for drawings and paintings of yards in active use, I looked at laws governing fences in 18th Century New England, and much more. I think of all the academic papers I’ve written I am still most proud of those works on the material culture of the Yard.

Just a few mornings ago, when looking at the artwork of the day that is delivered to me electronically by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was struck by this 17th century drawing:

At first I was thrilled because it was only a century off from the lives we are portraying over at Das Geld Fahnlein but upon looking at the drawing, it actually was not much use for us. The details are indistinct, and we’re not portraying peasants doing harvesting sorts of tasks. But I took the time to go look for other drawing from the same series and took a good look at the October drawing:

and looking at that one I realized what had struck me about the first image. They are both yard scenes! Scenes of people working at their daily tasks in an out of doors (but not far from buildings) setting. Looking at the yard scenes made me feel all warm and happy.

A historical movie can have varying levels of historicity but to me if it contains a yard scene, it will have a space in my heart. Ever After has an early scene showing laundry being spread out on the hedges to dry, and the recent Pride and Prejudce movie has some delightful scenes set in the yard, including a montage showing the passage of the seasons reflected in the different sorts of farm work going on in the yard. Pure magic in my opinion!

Some people like to re-create the great battles of the past, some folks focus on clothing, or skills, or on the buildings of the past. If I could re-create anything from the past with no restrictions, I think I would have to make myself a yard. A simple, working yard, paved with cobblestones or hard packed dirt. With chickens and a plot for vegetables and herbs. A nice sturdy fence and some fruit trees. Buildings for the animals, harvest storage, maybe a workshop. And plenty of space to bring out chairs and baskets of sewing so I could sit in the sun and enjoy my yard.


  1. The "yard scene" that first struck me was from "The Last of the Mohicans" (1992 Daniel Day-Lewis). When Major Heyward arrives in Albany and takes tea with Cora and Alice Munro all the "indoor" chairs and table are set up outside in the backyard. It was so strange, and yet compelling, to my modern view point that I remember the scene well.

  2. Gobae - that is a great scene, and has always been memorable to me as well.

    When I worked on an unintentionally primitive farm this summer in France, I was really struck by how much time they spent in the yard. Even when it wasn't being used for work, they sat and read out there, etc.

  3. Thanks for all your comments Kelsey! I'm really glad to see you over here.

    I often feel like we've lost something when we spend more time in front of screens than sitting in yards, but then again, I do love my central heating.