Sunday, December 30, 2012

When Did Winter Get So Busy?

Happy 2013!

A couple of years ago Stephen and I jumped at the chance to attend the Sudbury Militia’s 12th Night Ball because it gave us a chance to dress up and have fun during a very quiet time of year. We’re planning on attending this year but instead of being the only event, it is just the beginning of a very busy winter.

After the 12th Night Ball, there is one weekend with nothing historic scheduled (yet), then our local SCA hosts a big winter market called Birka which is an old home day for us, and only a half an hour away.

The weekend after Birka we’ll be quite a bit further afield when we attend Military History Fest out in Chicago. We spend three days in tons of different timeperiods catching up with old friends, making new friends, and teaching and learning.

The weekend after MHF there is a Pride and Prejudice Ball put on by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers on Saturday, and a workshop by The Hive on Sunday. Two weeks later there is a New England Reenactor’s Trade Fair where Das Geld Fahnlein will have a recruiting table.

All that before March! Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, December 23, 2012

You Have To Believe

I listen to NPR a lot, and recently on the way in to work (my temp work while the museum is closed) I heard a story  about a man who plays Santa Claus at this time of year. He said the most important thing, for him is he must believe that he is Santa. Even in the face of teenagers and beard pullers he must believe, once he puts on the suit, that he is Santa.

How true!

As someone who spends quite a bit of her time as someone else, often in the face of teenagers and (even worse) retired age men, I must believe that when I am dressed as Mrs. Shapiro and enter museum grounds, I am Mrs. Shapiro. I am in my kitchen preparing meals for my family. When in camp and I get dressed as Hanne Reischach, I am Hanne. On the march in foreign lands with my husband. If I don't believe it, who else will?

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, December 17, 2012

Tea Brack

One of the exciting things about this past year at Strawbery Banke is that I have been able to explore a lot more food history. I had spent the last couple years teaching myself about medieval foodways, but it was awesome to look, first at colonial food, then Jewish cooking, and finally getting the chance to dip my toes into traditional Irish fare.

For Candlelight Stroll I am in the kitchen of the Victorian mansion, portraying an Irish servant, so when asked if I wanted to do some cooking, I jumped at the chance. The dichotomy of a girl coming from a culture of starvation (1850s Ireland) to become the cook in a house where almost any food is available in almost any season is extremely fascinating. Some of my bosses talked about the decadence of Victorian cooking, others about the long traditions of Ireland. At first I was at a bit of a loss, I had a short time to read up on two different food cultures, and I did not have a lot of museum support since the regular season was over. Still, I knew some basics: pies and puddings are good Victorian celebratory fare, tea and soda bread are good Irish traditions.

I called on my own Irish connection and my aunt Kathleen came through. She mailed me a copy of A taste of Ireland in Food and Pictures by Theodora Fitzgibbon. What a great book! Kathleen had marked her favorite recipes and I picked out one that looked good, a fruit-cake-like dessert that seemed festive enough, called Tea Brack.

The recipe book, surrounded by at least some of the ingredients
The gist of Tea Brack is you take a bunch of dried fruit and soak them in tea and whiskey overnight, then bake them into a cake.  I bought some golden raisins, used the dates and apricots I already had in the house, with some currants from Das Geld Fahnlien’s supplies (those supplies are living at our house this winter.) I made up a pot of Earl Grey and asked Stephen for a cup of whiskey. An entire cup. I probably should have halved the recipe, but by the time I figured that out it was much too late. Stephen is a bit of a whiskey snob so he has plenty of whiskey in the house, but it is all pretty expensive stuff. He sighed mightily as he poured me a little from this bottle and a little from that to make up a full cup. The house smelled lovely overnight, as the sugar and liquids were absorbed by the fruits. When I added in the dry ingredients it was an incredibly wet cake, but I poured it into two loaf pans and a round cake pan. It was supposed to cook at 300 for one and a half hours, but I started it a bit late, and needed to take it to the museum. So I started it at 300, then 20 minutes in Stephen turned it up to 320, and 10 minutes later I turned it up for 340. At exactly an hour we pulled all the cakes out of the oven, they were done.

The tea rack sits among the other goodies and looks splendid
Photo by Jess Boynton
The round one came with us to the museum, and it looked great on a plate among our tea things. We tell all the folks that come to visit us about the recipe from home, just like mother used to make, with tea and whiskey (that’s how you know it is Irish.) It tastes lovely too, the whiskey flavor has toned down a bit since that first night, now it is just nice and fruity with a smoky tone to it. I’d make it again, but definitely halve the recipe, and possibly make it a little more cakey.

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, December 10, 2012

Becoming Lizzie, Again

At Strawbery Banke Museum folks look forward, or at least plan for, the Christmas program all year long. Called Candlelight Stroll, the grounds are illuminated, there is hot cider, a bonfire, caroling, Saint Nick, and all of the historic houses are full of roleplayers. This means that people who have been roleplayers in the past come back for the three weekends of stroll, folks who are not normally roleplayers get into costume, and they even hire some outside folks, usually musical outsiders.

By August of this past season the other interpreters were asking me where I would be at Candlelight Stroll. They asked me if I’d be the third sister making Latkes in Shapiro kitchen. I love Shapiro, but two Mrs. Shapiros are probably enough. So I went to my boss (the one in charge of education) and asked if there was a different role for me, or if they had any holes they’d like to fill. She asked if I was musical, and had any reenacting friends who were musical… they had spent the last few years looking for a group to provide a drunken Irish servant party in the kitchen of the Victorian mansion.  I jumped at the chance for three reasons: not Shaprio, I would get to hire a few of my friends, and I would get to reprise the role of Lizzie Sullivan.

The last Candlelight Stroll that I worked at Strawbery Banke was the Stroll of 1999, and at that time I got to play Lizzie Sullivan, the 21 year old Irish maid employed by the Goodwin family. I was alone in the kitchen and behind the barrier but I was not allowed to touch anything, so I mostly chatted about all the pies I had made to help my older sister Sophie, the cook (who was downstairs in the cellar gathering root vegetables and stored items.) I had been portraying Lizzie once a week for most of the summer, using the Irish accent taught to me by my mom’s best friend (I have her first name as my middle name), who is bona fide Boston Irish. I wore a costume that was made for someone much bigger than myself (I told people it was my sister’s spare dress, the Goodwin children had just ruined mine.)

My love of Irish history goes back to my first Living History experience, in eighth grade, where the computer teacher and the English teacher taught us about the Irish potato famine so we all could write a journal from the perspective of a real immigrant who made the journey to Boston in the nineteenth century. So when, the first time I worked at The Banke, I was asked to play a Nineteenth Century  Irish Servant I was thrilled to do so. When I went back to college after working at The Banke I did a whole Independent Study and wrote up my Lizzie Sullivan script, with a lot more bibliography thrown in.

Lizzie Sullivan & George Rose,
photo by Jess Boynton, taken in our den.
This past summer, not long after enquiring about this year’s available roles, the Event Coordinator approached me and asked if I really could provide a drunken (acted) party with music for the Goodwin kitchen. I assured her I could, and would start to gather a musical servant posse right away. The first person I approached was Stephen. He is a better roleplayer than I am, plus he plays the Irish drum and we know a lot of the same Irish songs. I searched around for another instrumentalist (I only sing) and ended up with our good friend Kristina of Silver Thistle who, besides being an excellent historical costumer, is also a historical roleplayer and knows a lot of the same songs from years of acting at Renaissance faires. She also lives not too far from Strawbery Banke. Kristina made up a lovely dress, Stephen dug out his mid-nineteenth century clothing from our dabbling in the Wild West, and I borrowed a Strawbery Banke costume. In fact, I was given the same skirt that I wore 12 years ago. It fits me much better now. We rehearsed some drinking songs and some Irish songs, Kathleen (mom’s best friend) sent me a lovely cookbook of old Irish recipes, and we have had a lovely party in the kitchen for the last two weekends.

Lizzie and Sophie Sullivan in Goodwin Kitchen
There are no more barriers in the Goodwin kitchen, and we were told we could eat and drink (as long as it was not too messy.) I provided some food, the event staff provided some, the education staff provided others. It can get cold since the door is so often open, but we have hot water for tea, and a lot of layers of clothes. Goodwin house always has a large number of Junior Roleplayers for Stroll (I'll have to do a separate post of Juniors.) The Juniors, playing some of the grandchildren, string popcorn for our little Charlie-Brown-type tree, and make animals and fruit out of marzipan. We don't sing all the time, since usually there are so many people in the house we are all carrying on different conversations with different visitors. We always get to sing every sing once, and our favorites twice. Even the juniors join in on the songs they already know, or get to know the more time they spend with us. We tell jokes and tongue twisters, and tease each other all evening long while we spread Christmas cheer and maybe a little education too.

We’ll be there for one more weekend, I can’t wait, but I’ll be so sad when it is over. I have a lot more to share with you, hopefully I’ll be getting up a few more posts soon, including some cooking adventures, and future plans.

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, December 3, 2012

My Season at The Banke

Last Spring when I found the notice about openings in the interpretation staff at Strawbery Banke I was at a particularly low point. Temping after the loss of a very good job, feeling like I was not advancing in my field, knowing that I was a drain on my family’s pocketbooks, and not feeling qualified for any job that I might actually want. I saw the SBM notice on their Facebook page. Apparently the usual methods of advertising the position usually yielded a lot of folks that had no idea what they were getting themselves into, but putting the notice up to those who had already “liked” the museum on FB meant that they only heard from people who were really interested in the job of Interpreter at Strawbery Banke.

I was in a place not dis-similar from the last time I had applied for that same job, back in 1998. At the time I was half-way through college, feeling rather lost and depressed, not really sure where I was going. Back then, working at the Banke showed me that one could be a professional in the field of Living History, or at least history, and set me on the way to where I am now. This time my loving family all agreed, maybe it was time to go back and get re-energized, see if the field had changed, and if the Banke had anything else to teach me. I’m so glad I went for it.

There are four variations to the “front line” staff job at Strawbery Banke. There are the Interpreters, who wear modern clothes and speak about the history of the different houses from a modern perspective. There are the Museum Teachers, who teach special workshops to school groups, scout groups, special tours, and those who request specific learning experiences. The demonstration folks have specific skills like weaving or hearth cooking that they practice and teach. Then there are the Costumed Role-Players, who portray specific people from a specific time in the neighborhood’s history. The initial job posting was for interpreters, but during my interview I managed to convince the poor fella interviewing me that I could do all of the above, I hope over the course of the season I proved my worth.

I jumped right in last May, learning workshops, hearth cooking, regular interpreting, and the role of Mrs. Shapiro. By mid-summer I was capable of working in just about any house on the property plus doing research for new program proposals. By fall I had multiple roles, new programs, and had made a whole lot of new friends.

Most importantly, I got to spend the summer doing something that I love. I don’t know why teaching history by doing is my passion. I mean, I know why I think it is a worth while endeavor, and I think I know why I am good at it. But why do I give almost all of my energy over to this when it will probably never earn me a living wage, be enough to support a family, leave me with even the hope of a retirement even if I put it off until I am 80?

I just love it.

And this past year has made me so happy. There has not been a single day where I did not want to go in to work. Okay, maybe I spent some time wishing it was not quite so early, that there were more days in the week, and definitely that my commute was not nearly so long; but any time folks asked me how work was going, I could genuinely say that my work was awesome.

I have two wishes this holiday season. One of them is a secret, the other is a hope that I get to spend more time doing what I love.

Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Curling My Hair

Have I mentioned that I’ll do almost anything for history? This month I’ve done something that I never thought I’d do. I curled my hair. I know most American females try this at some point, but I never had. I’ve seen a curling iron, my grandmother owned curlers… ya.

Strawbery Banke has a special program during the month of November for schools that might not have enough money for normal field trips, and for schools particularly learning about harvest holidays. For this program I have taken on almost all the available roles, including a new-to-me role in the parlor of the Governor’s Mansion. Way back when I started at Strawbery Banke in the ‘90s I also worked the Thanksgiving program, and I also got a new role. I played Lizzie Sullivan, the Irish maid stationed in the kitchen helping groups of school kids learn about Mottoes and put together charity baskets. This year Lizzie is going to make another appearance, but not until December (so stay tuned!)

The new role is a front-of-the-house role, I am playing Susan Goodwin Dewey, the youngest child of Governor Ichabod Goodwin and Sarah Parker Rice Goodwin. Susan is recently married to a naval officer and living at home with her father the former governor, her mother, a few other sisters, some nephews and nieces, and the 4 servants. When given the new role I knew I would not have time to do justice to a full formal Victorian outfit, so I asked for a museum owned outfit, and luckily they had a lovely one that mostly fit me. The day I tried it on I was discussing accessories with the head of Role-Players and she said that I should curl my hair. Curl. My. Hair.

I looked through my Victorian costume books and photo books, I looked at fashion plates and decided that yes, it would be better if I curled my hair. My hair has a little wave to it, but only a bit of a curl if my hair is short. My hair is not short at the moment, it is fairly long, and heavy, it is not at all curly at this length. My first step in figuring out how to curl my hair was to put a desperate call out on Facebook. I have awesome friends who suggested sleeping in paper curls or rag curls. So first I tried to wet down my hair and sleep with little strips of paper in my hair. I wore a knitted hat over top and it was not too bad, but I did not part my hair beforehand, and they turned out more frizzy than curly. The next time I tried it I used scraps of rags and a spray bottle that was half water and half setting lotion. When I took the rags out the next morning I had long loose curls that I looped around a bun. Not too bad for my second try!

Half rags half curls
Spikey paper curls
Then came the Monday I was to appear as Mrs. Dewey. I put in the rag curls the night before, put them all under a 1940s style turban I’d made so I could sleep without worrying about them. Monday morning I borrowed My niece’s hairdryer since they were still wet, and tried to heat set the curls. Got into all the dress layers (we are required to dress at home before driving to work) and had a fairly uncomfortable drive to work. I was blasting the heat to try to dry the curls some more, and taking out a few of the rags while cruising down the highway, all while stuffed in a corset bustle skirts in my driver’s seat. Really not my favorite way to drive. I appeared at our morning meeting with the front of my head still in rags, but the back all curls. I’m afraid I might have distracted most of my fellow museum workers as I took out the rest of the rags, but I did have a fairly presentable hairdo by the time the kids showed up to talk Thanksgiving with Mrs. Dewey!
Me as Mrs. Dewey, with really curly hair.

Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, November 8, 2012

End of the Reenacting Season

I’ve been trying to think of things to say about the end of this reenacting season and not finding any real pearls of wisdom. But I thought I’d share my mundane thoughts, hope you’ll forgive me.

My reenacting season really starts at Military History Fest in February in Chicago. We’ve been heading out there for 8 years now and we have friends that we only get to see once a year. We also get to show off all our different eras, shop, teach, and meet cool new people who do what we do. It is not the same convention it was in the early years, but it is still a nice vacation into history in the middle of the second-most-oppressive month of the year. This past year I debuted a little 1920s bathing outfit I made up with Help from this American Duchess tutorial I wish I had pictures, but none of them came out. We’ll have to try again next year.

In the spring we brought out a new 12th Century reenactment. Which both fun but overshadowed because I had just started at Strawbery Banke Museum. I love volunteering and creating a reenactment from scratch, but being paid to create historical personas within historical settings was too big a draw. I’m not sure when we’ll get to pull out the 12th Century stuff again, we do not have definitely plans for next year yet, but I hope we do get to pull it out at least once during the upcoming year.

Other than that there was a little WWII work, and since then I’ve picked up 2 more dresses and a bunch more accessories. I’ll show them to you as soon as I remember to take some photos, I promise. There was also a nice trip to Delaware to meet up with other people that do first person stuff.

The era that has taken up most of my energies for the past few years barely made it out of the storage bins this year. Our Landsknecht Guild had one spring event at a college where they were holding a Medieval Conference, one summer event at a small Renaissance faire (a town fundraiser) and our annual appearance at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s fall show. My relationship with this show is so complicated I usually avoid talking about it, but I don’t want to leave it out either.

CT Faire is where Stephen and I put most of our energies for so many years, running the cast entertainments from 2001 to 2007. By the end of ’07 things needed to change, and in 2009 we formed Das Geld Fahnlein as a way to continue to do Renaissance history and contribute to the faire, but in a way that felt better. When at the faire I rarely venture outside of the encampment, mostly because I am conflict averse, and over anxious, but I have fun in our little world, teaching about the life of the wandering soldier and the frau that look after the soldiers. We cook, we mend, we laugh, teach, fight (pretend) and even nap on occasion. This year was different, we were a smaller group. Of the five founding members, only Stephen was there most of the time, real life got in the way for most of us. I was only able to make it two weekends, and one of those weekends, faire was cancelled on Sunday. The whole thing felt strange, I had trouble getting excited about being there. I’m not giving up on it over one iffy faire, but I think we’ve got some work to do to re-vitalize the unit.

Is there anything else in store for the rest of the year? I’ve got a few things coming up through the museum, but I’m going to save my museum stuff for its own post.
Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Since starting in as a reader of blogs I've seen the blogger awards the we give each other going around and I thought they were rather silly. A lot of that sentiment was due to the fact that I was sure I'd never receive one. But ho ho, now I have! I admit I'm really thrilled. The lovely Elizabeth at Sew 18th Century  has awarded me the Versatile Blogger award  and even mentioned admiring my historical versatility. Thank you so much Elizabeth!

Accepting this honor means I need to:
1. Thank and link back to the person who nominated you.
2. Paste the award to my blog.
3. Tell 7 things about myself.
4. Nominate 15 other blogs.

The first two are complete, here goes with number three:
1. I suffer from wanderlust. Every few years I get the incredible urge to pick up everything and change my scenery. I almost always end up giving in in some way, the most recent "move" being from a job in the Upper Valley to one on the Seacoast. I'm hoping that one holds me for a while.

2. I am a cat person, not a dog person. I love my cat, snuggling, sharing the couch, even sharing the laptop keyboard. I totally do not understand dogs; they are noisy, smelly, and incomprehensible. At the moment the house is occupied by one cat and two dogs, and I think the balance will have to change pretty soon (Stephen watch out.)

3. I love the way I look in hats. I'm not crazy about the rest of my looks, but I almost always feel better with a hat on my head.

4. My current quest involves the search for the perfect storage solution for each of the timeperiods I acquire. Wooden boxes for the Medieval and Renaissance stuff, baskets for the 18th Century stuff, hat boxes and wicker for the 1920s, suitcases for the 1940s… I have not yet reached my goal, but I'm having fun in the search.

5. I am not a leader. I am a fantastic follower, I excel at solo tasks, I love teaching others. But give me a group that I am supposed to lead and disaster inevitably follows.

6. I am a very picky reader. I love to read, but I would rather read the same book for the 8th or 9th time than read a book that is not really my style.

7. I do not like onions. I've tried. I cook with them, I don't mind a diffuse onion flavor, I love garlic. But eating onion bits themselves give me the shivers. I pick them out of everything I eat.

Nominate 15 blogs! That is not an easy task. But it has meant that I've taken a closer look at both my Google Reader list and my bloglist here on the right. I've removed some of the blogs that are no longer active, I've removed some of the blogs that I've just stopped reading. Some of the ones that I most look forward to have been moved into my favorites folder, and those new moves are the ones that I am going to recommend here. These are the blogs that as soon as I see they have a new post it brightens my day. If I see they have a new post and I am not in a position to sit back and enjoy them I will save it to savor at a more appropriate time. These are the ones I would be very sad to loose, and some day I  hope to meet all these lovely folks to tell them their sharing has meant so much to me.

Companie of Saynt George one of the coolest European groups that I am aware of. Their blog always inspires me.

Applied History is an incredibly thoughtful blog using lessons from the past towards our future.

Skills, Scotch, and Surviving My husband's blog. He is a great teacher and knows a ton about a lot of random stuff.

Re: Living History Though Dan mostly reenacts Ancient Celtic life, he has a lot of good things to say about Living History as a hobby.

Historic Cookery One of the first blogs I started reading and still one of the ones that I most look forward to.

The Warp and the Weft is a lovely blog by a merchant out in California who makes trips to France, looking for unique items. She has a great eye.

FDIM Museum Blog really juicy clothing posts.

Laura Callaghan Illustration Pretty illustrations, with a retro feeling to them. I am so jealous of people who have illustration talent.

The Fashionable Past I am in awe of the sewing in this blog, totally impressive.

Wearing History Another impressive sewing blog with the addition of some really cool patterns for sale!

At the Sign of the Golden Scissors The authority on all things Rev War sewing related.

Storied Threads A friend of mine who is making her dreams come true.

Casey's Elegant Musings Casey has been posting less of late, but she has a lovely sense of style and history. Her sewing is also inspirational.

Romantic History Sarah sews for her entire family, and writes well about it.

An Historical Lady The photos of this lady's colonial home are amazing, and she's here in New Hampshire!

That is it for today's post, hope you find these other blogs just as inspiring as I do!

Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Listening to others' stories

Strawbery Banke Museum role-players use a method of interpretation called First Person Interpretation  in our daily interactions with visitors. Since I was trained at Renaissance Faires I am very comfortable with first person, normally I have no problems making my way through a different century than those people around me. This season is my first reenacting someone in the 20th Century, and I am finding that first person is much harder the closer that you get to today.

When people walk into Shapiro house, especially folks of a certain age, the exclaim over the sewing machine, the ice box, the big stove, the carpet sweeper; many of them remember their parents having very similar items. As Mrs. Shapiro I chat about coming to the USA from Ukraine and many visitors have family stories also about emigrating from Eastern Europe. Mrs. Shapiro's story is important, but the visitors' stories are just as important. Why does first person interpretation make this a particular challenge?

When a visitor who looks to be old enough to be a grandmother herself comes in talking about her grandmother having a sewing machine just like mine, the real Mrs. Shapiro might react with incredulity that someone of her grandmother's advanced age would be around to have something so new. When a visitor mentions growing up with the same type of plumbing and had it in the house until the 1950s, is Mrs. Shapiro supposed to accuse the visitor of making up tales of the future? How could someone visiting her house have grown up in the future? In the buildings that are centuries earlier a gentle scoff in the direction of a visitor that is trying to play with the interpreter is fine, but as a museum professional I can not very well negate the personal connections that the visitors are making. I would not want to.

But I can not drop out of first person, that would not do at all. So what am I to do?

Sometimes it is enough to nod and smile. For Mrs. Shapiro, English is not her first language, so I play it that she probably thinks the mis-understood the individual words, but she understands the main point: a personal or family connection to her home. If folks go on too long I get a worried look on my face and then very deliberately say that I do not understand. Usually that is enough to make it clear to the visitor that Mrs. Shapiro must remain in 1919 while they talk about their own past. Sometimes I can steer them to talking about iceboxes, or immigration in a way that is less time specific so we can both talk about it.

Sometimes, I am lost for what to do; so I just go back to my cooking, cleaning etc. while the visitors chat with their own companions. I hate to walk away from a conversation, so if anyone out there has any advice on how to stay in first person while acknowledging the validity of modern visitors' stories, please let me know.
Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pies and Cabbage

Adventures in Historical Cooking
I've had many adventures in historical cooking over the course of the season at Strawbery Banke, including a newly found love of baking pies. who knew. My mother might be the most surprised about all of this.

As the season cooled I have thought of firing up the bake oven at Wheelwright house (where I cook at the hearth most Thursdays) but was reluctant. I've never done it before, it has been a fairly warm season, and I would feel bad firing it up without a good supply of items needing to be baked. Things came together recently when I had two days in a row in Wheelwright, and the weather has turned decidedly chilly. I took day one to read some of the materials in the house compiled by earlier hearth cooks and to make a ton of pie crusts and various fillings. 

I knew that the oven itself did not have a flue, it uses the main fireplace flue. I was worried about getting a fire started in there because of the airflow, but it turned out to be no problem at all. I started a good fire, kept adding to it, and all morning I watched the oven get hotter. By the time I thought to put an oven thermometer in there it was up to 650 degrees. Yup. I fired the oven. I raked the coals out, mopped the ashes with a soaked broom, then waited for it to cool down before I put in the first two pies. I did not wait long enough. The first two quickly burned to black. I waited a bit longer, and the next two turned out edible if you picked the burnt bits off the top. Ah well, I learned a lot.

I seem to have an admirer at the museum. I do not know what I did to deserve the praise I've received, but it does mean that I've attempted several cooking methods I might not have without of the confidence of others. This weekend in Shapiro house I made Sauerkraut. Actually, I started sauerkraut. It was not nearly as hard as I had thought it would be; I collected cabbages from various gardens throughout the museum, washed them, chopped them and then put them in a big crock and smashed the cabbage bits with a big masher. When possible I got kids to help me with the mashing, I probably should have got the adults to help me too because my hands were sore by the end of the day since I had made butter the day before and the motions were very similar. The reason why I saw I only started it is because to make sauerkraut the cabbage must ferment in its own juices. So I won't actually know if I've made sauerkraut for another couple of weeks. Just in time for the Museum season to be over. Sigh.
Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Reischach Research

The Guest House in the center of the tiny hamlet of Reischach. The home of our fictional manor house.

I'm back in a blogging mood and I have a ton of things to write up, but before I did that I wanted to share some final history-related thoughts on our European vacation. A big part of the fun for me was the history research we got to do, specifically regarding out 16th C. Bavarian stuff. Since I do not read German my research in this area has always been limited, though I've done what i can. The fun part about being on vacation in Bavaria, was that the whole thing was research, in a variety of different ways!

The Southern Bavarian countryside
The scenery:
We motorcycled through the Bavarian countryside around the town that we'd picked for our fictional manor. I was amazed at the fertile farm land that we passed through! I had no idea there'd be the number of cows (though actually mostly it was the smell and the animal feed that alerted us to their presence. It is true that I do not know if that area was as cultivated in the 16th Century, but I feel fairly safe if I get into a discussion with a visitor about our home back in Reischach I can talk longingly about the farms and fields and not be giving false info.

The Art:
We did not go to many art museums, but we went to one in Munich with a ton of artwork from the 16th Century. Some pieces I'd been using as research for years, but had only ever seen on the internet. It was awesome to see them in person, get really close and get a feel for how close to reality the artists might have been trying for. I think I found the next dress I have to make…

Hans Wertinger, um 1470-1533,
Maria Jacobaa Herzogin von Bayern
Nursery Rhymes:
On our last day I stopped into a bookstore and went to the children's section. I picked up a CD of traditional children's tunes and a lyric book to go with them! I know that a lot of american traditional kid's tunes only go back to the 19th C. but now that I have them I can do some research to ascertain which are the older ones. It has bugged me for a very long time that we do not sing in camp, but in our modern lives we are almost never without music. I know folks walk into our camp and exclaim that it is so authentic because we have folks cooking, sleeping, repairing gear and all sorts of mundane tasks, but the fact that no one is singing while they work really bugs me. Easy to learn, stick in your head, nursery rhymes will hopefully be a good place to start.

Read this entry on entry page

Reenactment European Style

Stephen and I are not too long back from our fabulous vacation. We toured quite a bit of Europe and had a smashing time. Since we are history buffs we did a number of history related things including two historical buildings that have been recently restored.

The first one we went to was The Residenz in Munich, the traditional seat of the Bavarian rulers. Much of the original building was destroyed in allied bombing during World War 2, but has since been restored, and filled with fancy furniture. I have to say, the whole tour was a disappointment. I knew we were touring an old building where hundreds of people had lived out their lives, but once we got past the massive medieval hall the ace felt pretty lifeless. We spent the next hour and a half touring tiny rooms covered in elaborate cloth, where a few pieces of fancy furniture had been set out. Every room was labeled with a different purpose, but the chairs and fancy side tables looked all the same to me. I could not imagine anyone living in those rooms. I could not picture the book tossed carelessly on the setee, or the bored servant sneaking a biscuit while they dusted. The whole thing felt sterile.

I had the complete opposite reaction at Castle Malesov in the Czech Repulic. While planning our trip I checked the calendars of the European reenactors whose blogs I follow, and lo, one of the most well respected groups that I have come across was taking part in a reenactment not too far off our scheduled path, in a medieval keep that was being restored. I emailed the owner of the keep and the blog admin and both assured me it would be a great time to visit. Stephen and I did not have room on the motorcycle to pack our own reenacting gear, but thought it would be fun to attend as members of the public. The GPS almost got us lost, but we did eventually find the town of Malesov. I thought I saw the big square keep to our left, and when we turned left encountered a marvelously dressed medieval lady hurrying down the street. We had arrived.

Stephen and I both take pride in our ability to sniff out anachronisms, and work hard in our own reenacting not only to be as historically accurate as possible, but to make sure it feels right. Starting at the ticket takers at the front gate the reenactment at Malesov felt right. Our hands were stamped with a carved wooden stamp, not a mass produced rubber thing. There were guards at attention at the gate. The few vendors were all selling out of hand hewn market stalls, and all the tables and goods storage containers were 13th Century in style, not a single cloth covered rubber tub in sight. The stairs did not have railings, the kids played along the wall where the drop was quite precipitous. I did see one cell phone pulled guiltily out of a pouch, one reenactor with a camera, and one pair of sneakers slipping out from a discarded rucksack, but all in all it was easy to imagine how the keep would have been 700 years ago.

The comparison is not exactly fair, Malesov was full of fascinating people, the Residenz was not representing a period in history that I am particularly interested in. But even just looking at the furniture in some of Malesov's unoccupied rooms felt more real, I could imagine butts on the seats, and a tired body leaning against the table, someone tripping on their way into the room spilling whatever they were carrying and cursing the mess. I'm not sure the reconstructed Rezidenz has ever imagined the touch of any individual, let alone a clumsy one.
Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Introducing Mary Stavers Fraser

Almost two months ago I started feeling like 4 days a week at SBM was one too few, and only one day as a role player was also too few. So I started dropping hints, to those just above me on the chain, to the person vaguely in charge of role players, and finally to the head of my department. I even mentioned I had quite a few outfits from eras represented by different SBM houses. Three weeks ago I was finally able to get into my 1770s clothing that some of you may have seen last January here and head on in to the Banke. I was set to play the eldest daughter of the tavern keep, recently married to a Captain John Fraser. There was not a lot of research done on Captain Fraser, but quite a bit done on Mr. Stavers and his family, they were a vaguely loyalist family, harassed through much of the Revolutionary war, but they stuck it out and by all accounts that I have read ran a successful tavern through the war and in the years to follow.

The problem with role playing in the William Pitt Tavern is that if someone calls in sick and no one is able to come in to cover for them, the interpreter in Pitt tavern will cover the empty slot, because Pitt tavern is the location of the museum's alternate entrance and ticket booth, so there is always someone else in the building. I'm telling you this because the first day I showed up in all my finery, one of my co-workers called out sick. The very first day. The weird part was they called out for the house shown about the year 1783, so actually my clothes were still appropriate. That house happens to be our hearth cooking house, and I am a hearth cook, so qualified to cover it. That house also happens to be Wheelwright house, the first house at SBM that I ever role played in. So there I was 13 years later, back in the house that I started at. Yup that was odd.

But since then I've been able to spend two days as Mrs. John Fraser, eldest daughter of the tavern keep, and I've enjoyed both days very much. I give tours of my father's tavern, that I assure visitors is usually much more active, but there is a horse auction scheduled for later in the evening, and everyone is out in the stables looking over the animals to be auctioned. There actually were horse auctions held at the tavern, so this way I get to talk about one of the lesser known but very important aspects of tavern life. I also discuss politics, but only 1777 politics, I make the families loyalist tendencies known while letting people know that most of our neighbors are firmly for independence. I wish I could say that most people get it, but I'm still figuring out how to convince folks that for Mary the year is 1777 and not 1943 or 2012.

In only two days (plus the months I've been contemplating the new role) I've learned a few things about Mary. She is Daddy's girl, and will not spend a lot of time in the kitchen unless she has to. She sees herself as the welcoming committee, the tavern's own concierge. She shares my habit of leaning against walls (Mrs. Shapiro definitely does not.) Mary also feels fairly ambivalent about her new husband and his career. That could be because I was not able to shake up any research done on him, I do not know what type of ship he captains, where he hails from, even how long he lives. It also gives her a reason to spend all day at her father's tavern.

If anyone wants to stop by in the next month, Mary Fraser should be in Pitt Tavern most Fridays, fingers crossed.
Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Local LH?

Today I attended Hillsboro, New Hampshire's Living History Event. I found out about it because it comes up toward the top in a Google search of "living history." I did not know about it because I live less than an hour away, nor because I am connected to the local LH community. The truth is, I am not connected to the local community. My LH community consist of those folks I've met through the Connecticut Renaissance Faire or Reenactorfest, and to confound that I don't do wars or typical American history. It just has not turned out that way. But there are local folks doing this history thing and in a time period a little more accessible than the 15th century. So I went to Hillsboro hoping to pick up something for my kit, learn local history, and possibly make some connections.

I sabotaged myself by arriving late and not having exact directions so I was anxious and self conscious by the time I arrived. The woman who sold me the ticket assured me that the reenactors at their encampment would stick around after 3 pm and I chose to believe her rather than trust my own experience which said that they all had to go to work on Monday and would pack up early. I stopped by the encampment, drove over to the Franklin Pierce Homestead for a quick tour, found my way to the lovely original town center, then trotted back to the encampment to discover the site covered in cars and half the tents already down by 3:30. In the little time I had I did get something out of the trip.

I went in intending to chat up the Rev War folks, in their encampment but the first person who acknowledged my existence was wearing Nike sandals with her colonial skirt and short gown. The next group had a good looking set up, but the cheese on their plate was still in its Stop & Shop wrapper, and their fruit was covered in stickers. I try not to be judgemental, I know we all do it for different reasons, but really, can't you at least remove the plastic? I did get up the gumption to ask one person where they were based, I think the guy was disappointed that I did not ask him a question about history, I'm just not that interested in warfare. He did answer me, it turns out he is from one town away from where I live. Why did I not ask any follow-up questions? I don't know, I just did not feel right.

I did manage to add to my kit. There is a pewterer (pewter smith?) in Hilsboro who had awesome spoons at reasonable prices. After 3 years, the Reischachs will finally have decent spoons! I saw a lovely local town that I had driven through many times but not actually seen, and at the very end I got to chat with someone who will hopefully be of great help in the chicken project.

So in the end I had a good day, but please people, remove the stickers from your apples. Read this entry on entry page

Friday, August 10, 2012

Death of a Podcast

The Living History Podcast is dead, long live the Living History Podcast.

Stephen and I love living history, we've been involved for ages and plan to be for the rest of our lives. But the ways we approach history, and LH change with time.

Over three years ago we thought a good way to connect might be to put out a podcast, focusing on the issues and topics that would be of interest no matter what time period one happened to be interested in. We purchased a domain name, some server space and some microphones, came up with a list of topics, then got all our friends to listen to our first attempts at podcasting before launching the podcast in December of 2009. We actually kept it up fairly well with only a few interruptions until July of last year. We made a few friends through the podcast, but we never reached large audiences. We needed to set aside time each week for the two of us to sit down together to plan, rehearse and record, and while that was a bit of a strain, it was not a bother when we had something to say.

But we still have things to say! We still are very involved in LH, and looking for ways to continue to reach out. Why exactly did we stop recording the podcast? Why did we let the domain expire and the web hosting lapse? I guess we both lost interest in the medium. We were not reaching the amount of people we wanted to, the feedback was not worth the effort anymore.

Now we've got to think of a new way to reach out to the LH community, because we are both still convinced that there is one, and that we could all benefit from more sharing amongst us.

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Power of Suggestion

When school was still in session I ran a number of Strawbery Banke workshops on the topic of Archaeology. One of the locations the school kids and I visited during the workshop was the back yard of the Rider-Wood house, where we could talk about Widow Mary Rider and how we could learn about her life. In the back yard there are some bushes, plants, the back door step, and a recreated outbuilding. Half of the outbuilding might be a wood shed, or some other type of storage, that part does not really matter because the other half is a re-created privy. It is a multi-holer, some covered over, some just a hole into the darkness below. I always send the kids in and tell them they will have to tell me what the building is used for when they come back out. The usual reaction is that the kids jump up from where I've made them sit and they rush into the building, bottleneck at the door, and as some of them get their first glimpses the shrieks and the moans start. At least a few dramatic 4th graders will even come out holding their noses. They all tell me that it smells horrible in there.

The funny thing does not smell horrible in Mary Rider's Privy. The thing is a small wooden shed that has never actually been used (to my knowledge.) It smells like wooden shed. I've been in there many times to check after the kids have come out, it does not matter whether the day is hot or cold, it smells like unused building. I could never convince the kids of that though. Read this entry on entry page

Monday, July 30, 2012

Now I'm Cooking

If anyone had asked me even 6 months ago if I thought in the span of a week I'd make pie crust, noodles from scratch, cook up 3 pounds of strawberries, and stew a roast in prunes, well I would not have believed the first bit let alone all the rest. I don't cook at home because both Stephen and Alysa enjoy cooking, and they both hate washing dishes. Usually at home by the time I am hungry enough to want to eat I am too hungry to cook.

But when food is a method to learn about history, I'm finding my appetite for cooking is fairly unbounded! there are 2 houses at Strawbery Banke where cooking takes place: Wheelwright House, where a modern person shows off 18th Century hearth cooking, and Shapiro House where Mrs. Shapiro makes kosher meals on a coal stove that has been converted to gas. I am assigned to both houses at various times over the course of the week, and I always end my week with Saturdays in Shapiro.

One of the ways that the museum saves money on supplies is by asking us cooks to bring raw ingredients in, with the understanding that we can bring home anything we cook. It guarantees the museum a variety of food offerings while Stephen and Alysa get to take a break from cooking to try things like sweet & sour cabbage stew, and Colonial meat pies. I am having so much fun, learning by cooking, and helping teach museum visitors about the seasonality of food or about the rules of koshering. It is a little nerve-wracking trying to plan out menus in advance so I can purchase the ingredients, luckily I build enough time into most mornings that I can stop at the store on the way in to work if necessary. So far I have not had any major failures, I have burnt some fritters when I was too busy chatting with the school children to remember to flip them, and this week it was too hot for my pie crust to hold together, but for the most part I've been very pleased with my undertakings.

In Shapiro I am working from the International Jewish Cookbook. It was published in 1917 and is available online here and my mother found a version printed in 1947 with ration substitutions added in. I started the summer by making a chicken soup (so traditional) and followed it the next week with Cholent, a Jewish dish made up on friday night and stewed all night so it could be eaten on Saturday. Since I was cooking on Saturday and serving on Sunday I made a sweet & sour cabbage soup the week after, stewed beef with prunes & sweet potatoes the week after that.

My biggest cooking accomplishment in Shapiro House came on a day when one of the other Mrs. Shapiros called out sick, and I got to cover in the middle of the week. Since I did not get time to prepare I was dependent on the supplies already in the house. In looking through the little pantry I found plenty of flour and sugar, a box of dried up prunes and a jar of apricot jelly. My mind went instantly to hammentashen, so I used my smartphone to look up a recipe that sounded the most like the way my mom makes them, dug up some yeast and went to town. Before that dy I had never made any recipe with rising dough on my own. But when you have all day and no-one is required to eat what you make it seemed like a good time to take a risk.

I set the prunes to stew in some water and made my dough, went to lunch and when I came back the dough had risen nicely and the prunes were well stewed. I spent the rest of the afternoon making small batches of little triangular pastries that turned out delicious.

Colonial hearth cooking is its own unique experience but this post is long enough. I'll have to tell you all about my wheelwright exploits at a future time.
Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cluck Cluck

About a month ago now I received an email, sent to all members of the SBM educational staff asking if anyone had any interest learning more about chickens, with the possibility of the museum starting a livestock program.

Strawbery Banke does not currently have a livestock program. Some of the tenants who rent apartments at the museum have dogs, there is a local cat named JD that considers the museum his territory, and there is a woodchuck that has taken up residence under the carpentry building (he has reduced Mrs. Shapiro's turnips to stalks.) but no deliberate programs. There is historical evidence of livestock in residence, I have heard stories of Mrs. Shapiro's chickens as well as the chickens raised behind the WWII Corner store. And I imagine with more research we could find plenty more evidence spanning the earlier centuries as well.

But Portsmouth is a small city, and SBM is right in the downtown area, so there is a lot of regulation zoning, and historical commissions in between SBM and a livestock program.

I'm sure you've figured it out by now, I answered the email. I was given the opportunity to attend a lovely workshop on backyard chicken farming at Hancock Shaker Village. Alysa came with me, so we got to tour the village in a freezing cold downpour. We were saved from misery by the adorable baby animals filling up the barn. Alysa fed the calfs and kids all afternoon while I learned all about chicken care.

But caring for chickens is not the only consideration in a museum setting. I reported on the workshop but only in brief because I did not feel like a chicken care report was needed. In the meantime, I've gone back to school.

Yup, I did not have quite enough on my plate, so I enrolled in a master's level course on museum evaluation. So far I am finding it fascinating and overwhelming at the same time. I am really enjoying learning about social research methods, as well as keeping up to date on the museum world. For the class our big project will be an evaluation of our own. Preferably at a museum with which we are affiliated. Guess what I chose to do mine on?

One of the questions I have about hosting chickens at SBM is the impact on visitors, so I mentioned in class the possibility of doing a visitor survey about chickens, and the professor thought it would be a great idea. We even used chickens at Strawbery Banke for a program theory mapping activity.

I let my boss know I'd be willing to put in some more hours to write up a study on the feasabity of a livestock program at SBM and that I'd like to do a visitor survey for my class as part of it. I got the okay late last week and now I've started slowly gathering my resources for a full out study. I must say I'm pretty excited at the prospect of engaging in a big study like this, and I'm just as interested to see what I will learn!
Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Immigration + role playing = love

My first role playing experience was playing an Irish immigrant in high school, and ever since then I've been interested in immigration history as well as living history.

This spring I've had the opportunity to combine my loves of role playing and immigration with my love of teaching. I teach groups of kids about immigration while they learn to be role players. I am one of the museum teachers who lead Strawbery Banke's "Becoming Americans" program for school groups. Each member of the class receives facts about a person who immigrated to the United States and lived in the puddle dock neighborhood, they get some personal information and some historical info plus a costume piece to get them into character. Some kids play characters who were related, some African slaves, all range in time period from Revolutionary America through the early 20th Century.

When each kid has a general understanding of their character's history we leave the classroom and hit the grounds of the museum to walk in the footsteps of those who had come before.

Each student is asked leading questions and presents in the first person, then they give us a "tour" of their house. In some of the houses the participants meet one of the museum roleplayers, who will treat the kids as their relatives. It is both nerve wracking for the kids and thrilling.

At the end of the workshop I tell the kids that many years ago I portrayed Lizzy Sullivan, and that I want them to think back on the real people they portrayed as they study history.

The school I had for my first workshop back in May was fantastic. They were studying immigration at school so they understood a lot of the key concepts already. I only had one reluctant role player, and once I had explained that he did not have to participate if he did not want to he decided that it was not so bad after all.

Since then I have lead groups of 4th, 5th, even 2nd graders. I don't have to work hard to make it fun because I think it is so much fun. I even got a whole group of kids to chug-chug like a train as we made our way across the grounds. But I also make sure the kids are learning. Historical facts, all about timelines, and about the emotional struggles of immigrating.

Yesterday I got my first real comment on an evaluation form other than "The kids loved it!" The teacher had seen one leader in the morning then me in the afternoon. She liked the fact that the other leader talked about occupations with the kids and made sure they all knew what their historical person did as a job. I admit, I take a much looser approach to occupations, and talk about them on the museum grounds if I talk about them at all. This brings up a fundamental difference between my golals for my classes and those that concentrate on facts. The teacher wanted her students to have a longer list of facts about the people they were portraying, I was looking more for a personal connection to history in general, and an understanding that things change over time.

I guess that is one of the reasons I'll take my job in an informal learning environment over classroom teaching every time. I admire teachers, I adore museum work. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


When all dressed up and portraying a historical character confronted with members of the public, it is a good idea to have a little bit of monologue explaining who, what and when you are. It helps your audience have time to look around, also to let them know some important facts (never assume your audience knows anything.) A short monologue can ground them, but I also find it helpful to get me in the mood for sharing information. I am actually a very shy person, and sometimes I need a reason to open my mouth and be outgoing just as much as the audience needs to figure out what is going on.

Now by monologue, I don’t mean something long and boring. The old Strawbery Banke rule for tour guides was that your introduction to the history could not be more than two minutes long. I think that is too long for a beginning introduction before you toss focus back to your visitors and find out what they are interested in. I generally like my introductory monologues to be roughly three sentences in length and either end with a question or some other type of conversation starter that the people you are conversing with can latch on to.

A few months ago at the FPIPN retreat, Ron Carnegie, who is George Washington at Colonial Williamsburg started his talk with a pet peeve that he called the “Wikipedia method” of first-person interpretation: Where the presenter sounds less like a real person talking to other real people and sounds more like the entry in a dry encyclopedia. “Hi, my name is ____ I was born on March 18th in a small town outside ____. When I was 18 we moved to ___ where I was to meet my future ____.” Just a list of dry facts. I actually recently heard this done. Not quite as badly as all that but the person really did say: “my name is ­­____ this is my house and the year is ______.”

It sounds so fake! Most people don’t really talk like that. I’ve thought back over some of the times I’ve had to introduce myself to people, to groups, and there are definitely ways to introduce yourself and the historical setting that are much less awkward. One of my fellow Mrs. Shaprios at Strawbery Banke has a basic introduction that sounds like this: “Hello, my name is Mrs. Shaprio, welcome to my home. My husband and I purchased this house 10 years ago in 1909.” I think this is a fairly brilliant way to get the date across. Easy math, that also tells you something about the character and her social status. Sometimes she even adds: "That was just a few months after our daughter Molly was born." More info, not a lot of fuss. As Mrs. Shapiro I often endow people as potential renters since the Shapiros rented the third floor, it gives me an excuse to talk about the house, and a reason to invite them to look around the rest of the house.

This spring Stephen and I spent 4 weekends at the Robin Hood Springtime Festival mostly with Stephen working Saturdays and me working Sundays. I usually arrived tired, and proceeded to spend the day getting progressively more exhausted. Couple that with the small attendance, and I don't feel like I ever really got into the swing of an opening monologue about my 12th Century character: Rose I got good at explaining about the encampment, the tent, food and herbal medicine, but I don't feel like I really found Rose and her relationship to all these strange people she meets when the lord is on the march. I guess that is a good excuse to find other places to set up our 12th Century encampment.

Read this entry on entry page

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

hiding my gadgets

Though I play in history, I am also a bit of a techno-geek. I like my modern toys. At historical events I used to try to hide a camera and a novel in among my historical stuff, now I just need to hide my smart phone. At the muse, we are given tons of papers, I try to keep as many of them electronically as possible, but that also leads to needing the phone or my iPad.

Luckily there are other folks out there looking to hide their new-fangled toys, Twelve South makes book-like covers for both the iPhone and iPad. The covers do not completely obscure the technology, the iPhone cover has holes along the top and bottom edges for plugs etc. and the iPad cover has a zipper, still, I have fooled more than one person who ask what is the nice looking book I have tucked under my arm, or that I am holding up to my face. I feel fairly secure with my devices in their nice leather covers in historical settings, and enjoy being able to unobtrusively tote around my techno-toys.

Read this entry on entry page

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Something Old, Something New

I first came across the expression: "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" in the books of Laura Ingals Wilder. I remember Laura getting married so vividly, all about the blue dress she wore and how nervous she was! For my own wedding, which was fairly unconventional, I did not feel the need to adhere to the saying, though my shoes were blue.

As I've started a few new roles this spring I've found new meaning for the old phrase. When getting married means starting a new life it is comforting to find significance in the items that will accompany you. Starting in a new role can have a similar feeling.

Sitting in the kitchen of the little house on Jackson street where the Shapiro family lived out their lives nearly a century ago I was fairly anxious. I wanted to do justice to Mrs. Shapiro and the heritage that she represents. I was amazed by the level of comfort I took in the items that I had gathered to start me on this path: my trusty lace-up boots that carried me as Lizzy Sullivan when I was here 12 years ago, a new apron I stitched up this week, a bowl of horseradish made by my mother for Passover from roots my dad dug out of their garden, and a glass of tea wrapped in a blue tea towel in the old Russian way.

From now on I think all my new portrayals will start with something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Back at Strawbery Banke

Well my employment situation has been ironed out for a little while. The people who love me gave me permission to spend some time doing what I love. I am back at Strawbery Banke Museum.

I had a great interview, with someone who vaguely remembered me from my time there 12 years ago, and was willing to hire me back as a historic house interpreter, but also give me the opportunity to play in all the different playgrounds available at SBM. I had my first week last week, which I spent shadowing long-time employees to find out how things are done, and what has changed in the decade since I was last there. I got to shadow some museum teachers who were leading classrooms of 4th graders in an exploration of archaeology. I got to spend two days being an apprentice hearth cook and actually cook over a fire that is not located in the middle of the outdoors. I also got to spend some time in the 1919 house, which is staffed by a “Costumed Roleplayer” i.e. someone in costume in character doing a first-person impression of: Mrs. Shapiro, the Russian-Jewish immigrant. I have two more days of shadowing in Shapiro house before I put on the clothes myself!

I had mixed feelings about going back to a job that I held more than 12 years ago; haven’t I been climbing the non-profit ladder since then? I am taking a major pay cut earning half of the pay at my last job. I am trying to figure out how this is going to lead to more and better things. But after a week spent doing the things that I love to do I’m trying to stop questioning and just have a fabulous time.

I can’t wait to tell you all about cooking at SBM, and about making yet another character, but I’m going to save those for further blog posts. So stay tuned!

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, May 7, 2012

Titanic Weekend

I love dancing. I don’t know why I don’t do it more except I guess I love history more. I also love art, and at the moment my favorite art museum is the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. So when I found out that the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers were holding a Titanic themed weekend with dancing and a trip to the Peabody Essex I HAD to attend. Stephen’s spring schedule was already booked up, but my friend Jess agreed to invest in an outfit from the 19teens and come out for the weekend.

I could not afford to do the whole weekend so Jess and I picked the Saturday evening dinner and dance plus the Sunday museum stroll at the Peabody Essex. We skipped the Friday dance, Saturday tea and Sunday concert, but all of that probably would have been too much anyways.

I had big plans to prepare 2 dresses, along with multiple accessories, hats, and “votes for women” sashes. I was going to attend every upcoming dance class, and practice hairdos in advance, but all that flew out the window when I had trouble with the first skirt pattern and my employment situation did not improve. So the week before the event I was looking at a half-done skirt and not much else. Time to finish the skirt then go to the closet! Years ago Mom bought me a pretty dress-up top. It is a thin striped cotton that is open in the front with short kimono sleeves. I dug it out of the drawer that contained my random 19th Century clothing bits, wore it with a lacy camisole underneath, and it was just about perfect. The top was whiter than my skirt material, but a sash would fix that, and a trip to Target supplied me with both a khaki olive colored lace scarf for a sash, and a couple of hats to decorate for Sunday. Voila, instant nineteen-teens outfit.
Since Jess was incredibly nervous about the dancing we agreed to meet up early on Saturday to attend the morning dance practice. Luckily Salem, MA is only about an hour from my house so the drive in was not too bad. I was so thankful for the ballroom dance classes Stephen and I had taken the winter before, and the quick ragtime lesson at Reenactorfest, I was not the most raw of beginners. We left Jess’ car in Salem after the lesson and went back to my house for a 12th Century meeting and then for primping.

Jess wore a Victorian corset under a Revival Clothing dress with a scarf in her hair. I managed to put my hair in a roll around my head. Much more 1890s than 1910s, but something I knew I could pull off. Neither of us had appropriate purses but I grabbed a little suitcase that I’d gotten to hold my dance shoes. We took some photos in front of the house where the shrubs were blooming then back in the car!

The main event of the evening took place at Rockafellas. There were tables ready for dinner, cheese and crackers set up and a balcony with “retiring rooms”, the bar and a painted Titanic backdrop for photos. We even ran into some familiar faces, our friends Clint and Dede and their family were all gussied up and looking fabulous. We all grabbed seats together, got drinks from the bar, then ogled all the amazing clothing. There were a ton of gauzy evening dresses, a few very rag-timey get ups, a lovely Turkish inspired outfit, and so many tuxedos! There were a few cringe worthy dresses, but no absolute monstrosities. Everyone was chatty and friendly and the time before dinner just flew by.

As part of registration we were given packets that included reproduction titanic tickets with our deck and berth numbers, Starline luggage stickers, fancy menus and on the tables: Starline tins of mints. The whole thing was charming. Dinner was very good, we sat at a table with some other folks who also turned out to be from New Hampshire. We had some fun conversations that revolved around the talk about “this amazing unsinkable ship” and how “the captain was powering up the last engines this evening” and everyone expecting that “we will arrive in New York 2 days early!” It was a little bit of first person play made hilarious by our knowledge of the Titanic’s watery fate.

At the end of dinner we all went upstairs for a photo and some tea while the main floor was prepared. The turnover from dinner tables to dance floor was incredibly fast. For the first couple of dances Jess and I stayed on the balcony and watched all the amazing couples swirl below us. Then we got into the dancing!

Jess did not dance very much, she mostly sat with the other folks we knew, but she did get out for a few dances. I found plenty of partners and was incredibly glad for the ballroom dancing lessons. I even managed to get out for some waltzes and not kill myself and my partners, though the major twirls were tough in my hobble skirt. By the end of the evening I even got asked if I was married! We did not stay too late because we had the hour drive back and we had more fun planned for the next day.

Sunday we got out late because Stephen made us breakfast, but it was totally worth it, and we were not the last people to arrive. Since we did all arrive at different times, and were all wandering around the museum in our own small groups, one might enter a photography exhibit and see two lovely ladies in incredibly huge hats on their way out, or wander into the Indian art exhibit and catch a woman in a striking walking suit gazing at a statue of Vishnu. Quite a few of us wandered in and out of the atrium, sharing tables with other people in funny clothes, and getting our pictures taken by the tourist.
At the Peabody Essex Museum, photo by Jess Boynton

There were a lot fewer people at the museum than at the dinner. Saturday’s events had been the real draw of the weekend, but all the folks who came out on Sunday were serious about their history, and they all had different outfits than the ones they had worn the night before. All of the new outfits (since these were the die-hard folks) were amazingly gorgeous and the hats were fantastic! I was so glad that I had at least managed to make small hats for Jess and I so we at least had our heads covered. All of us in attendance promised to come back to the PEM for the hat exhibit in the fall. I really enjoyed my Titanic weekend.

Read this entry on entry page

Monday, April 30, 2012

FPIPN 2012

I have a ton to write about!
I’ve got to catch up this journal, because I have a feeling this summer is going to be full of Living History-type happenings. In fact, every weekend for the past month has been full of LH and that is not going to slow down any time soon. So here goes.

Almost a month ago now Stephen and I presented at a conference for Living History peeps called by everyone the “FPIPN (pronounced pippin.) Retreat”

The Basics:
- FPIPN stands for First Person Interpreters Professional Network.
- FPIPN is a sub-group of ALHFAM (Association of Living History, Farm and Agriculture Museums) specifically for museum folks who do this crazy thing we do.
- The conference was in Dover, Delaware, hosted by their lovely state history people with sessions held in amazing local historical buildings and museums.
- Attendees came from all over the US, but mostly from the east coast, most were professionals working at museums, everyone was incredibly friendly.
- The sessions were partly educational (teaching people how we do what we do) and partly study based (folks who are in post grad programs presenting papers.)
- This was the second retreat that Stephen and I had attended, the first being two years ago in Mystic, CT (listen to our podcast about that retreat.)

Stephen and I were presenting on two topics: “presenting religion from the first person perspective” and “Endowments, or bringing your audience into the story”. Since Stephen was starting a new job and I was starting a temp job we did not have a lot of time to prepare. But we’ve been presenting stuff like this at Reenactorfest and through the podcast for years, so we know how to put together an outline, how to share focus, and how to talk on just about any topic to fill a half-hour time slot. We even put together some simple power-point slides of our outline to keep us on topic and on schedule. People asked good questions and we got great feedback, so I think our presentations were a success.

We also did a really quick five-minute presentation of Gustav and Hanne Reischach. It was really bizarre, because we were not really in character, it was more like putting on the clothing and pretending to be in character. Stephen did Gustav’s talk to new recruits, and I (as Hanne) interrupted him to tell the women in the audience what their roles will be. It was bizarre because in a normal situation, Gustav and Hanne hardly ever interact during the day, they have different spheres of influence. Hanne would also never interrupt Gustav. But the audience laughed, and I hope they learned something. We got a lovely card from the organizer thanking us for all our participation.

Some of the most memorable parts of the weekend were the amazing buildings that we got to hang out in all weekend. Delaware really has a great state history organization and Dover is an incredibly beautiful town. Stephen and I both now want to go back. Getting to hang out with people who do what we do, love what we love, and share so many experiences is so rare for me and is always a wonderful experience. We had dinner in a hangar on Dover Airforce Base that has is now a museum. It was strange being dressed in 16th Century and looking at all those planes, but it was also really fun to play in the air control tower, and to take photos of George Washington on Airforce One.

I believe in Fate, and I was receiving some pretty strong signals while at the FPIPN retreat. Two of the people we hung out with had just completed Master’s degrees, one had done an online program. Two attendees came from the New York Tenement museum. I chatted with them a little at the end and told them that I was jealous that they got to portray Jewish history, which is something I’d always wanted to do. They said that I should come to work at the Tenement Museum, to which I replied that I lived in New Hampshire. Both then spoke up and said two things: Strawbery Banke Museum and Mrs. Shapiro. I used to work at SBM, and in fact have written about Mrs. Shapiro on this very blog.

On the way down to the retreat Stephen and I were both wondering if all the preparations, stress and travel would be worth it for this one weekend. On the way home I definitely felt it was well worth it.

Read this entry on entry page

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Duct Tape and Toilet Paper

Over the past few years the items I bring with me to historical events have gotten more and more period appropriate. I'm leaving more and more of my modern things behind. Still, there are a few items I have not weaned myself from, a few I would not want to, and a few suggestions by my friends that I think are quite good.

Here is the list of things I have not figured out how to do without:
Prescription Meds - definitely not going to stop taking those. In my case this includes contact lenses.
1st aid kit - we keep a trauma kit around so we will hopefully never have to use it. We also have a medieval surgery kit and plenty of herbal remedies, but I'm going to stick to modern stuff for now.
Tissues - Yes I use cloth napkins and handkerchiefs in camp, but at night Stephen and I combined use about a third of a box of tissues, I'd rather not wake up surrounded by used handkerchiefs.
Wallet - we are in a modern age, so I do keep an ID and some cash with my cell phone in a nifty little case that resembles an old book.
Business cards, Brochures - Since most of what we do is educate the public, and because we are always looking for new recruits, we always have our contact info close to hand.
Trash bags - we have not yet been able to convince an event site to let us dig a trash pit.
Fire extinguisher - we'd rather keep a bucket of water and one of sand close at hand and leave the extinguisher at home, but then it would be hard to get insurance coverage.
Toilet paper - Since moss and straw are hard on modern plumbing, but outdoor events are never guaranteed to have enough tp, I always have a back-up supply.
Squire kit - when I was caring for armored knights who spent their time beating each other I had a quick kit to solve almost any problem. It consisted of duct tape, zip ties and a Leatherman or Gerber brand multi-tool. That kit still comes with me today.

When I asked other folks for their list of modern items they can not do without, here is what I got:
Donna always brings gum with her and Cole is never without a few granola bars.
Elizabeth can't go without her chopstick.
Nora always has her leatherman and bug spray. I'd add sunscreen to that list.
Chole's daughter needs her iPod to sleep in camp and Stephanie needs a book and flashlight for her bed-time.
Denise usually has a watch hidden on her because so many events are time sensitive, even if historically they would not have been quite so strict.
Dan reminds us not to forget our car keys, and that a camera can not be beat.

What is on your list? Read this entry on entry page