Monday, December 16, 2013

Candlelight Stroll 2013

Family Parlor in Goodwin Mansion
This past weekend was the second weekend of Strawbery Banke Museum’s Candlelight Stroll. This is the Big Event for me in my position of Manager of Special Events. The month leading up to this past weekend, and the last couple weeks in particular have been hellishly stressful, but the weekends went off beautifully. Yes, the first hour of the first Saturday was spent running around fixing all the things, and there was a bunch of stuff that I wanted to do that did not get done in time. But visitors seemed to have a good time, I got some compliments, and only the nit-pickers found anything to complain about.

So Candlelight Stroll is big.

Eight of the museum’s houses are set up how they would have looked in December, in eight different time periods. That means 8 different research bases, 8 different stories to tell, 8 different sets of costumes, music, food, everything. Oh, and eight different sets of decorations made from local botanicals in historically appropriate designs. Every house is full of light, and role players, and activity.

Then there are the demonstration and exhibit houses. During regular museum open hours there are demos of: Hearth cooking, weaving, pottery, coppering, and blacksmithing. This past weekend those were joined by: windsor chair making, tin smithing, and basket making. Then there was all the food: the museum has a new cafe, plus this year we served booze in the 1777 tavern, free hot cider and cookies, and museum members got their own food-filled reception.

Then there was all the live music. Local choruses singing carols, piano music in the Visitor Center, bands in the Cider Shed, Roving guitarists. And puppet shows, and wandering role-players, and a kid’s treasure hunt, and Saint Nick handing out candy, and horse-drawn carriage rides, and hands on crafts...

Yes, I am in charge of all of that.

I get a ton of help from the Horticulture Department, Curatorial, Education, Development, heck, every department. This is by no means a one-woman-show. But ultimately if it falls apart or succeeds I am the one responsible.

Making magic like this event, I absolutely love that. I love that visitors have a magical-non-commercial experience. I love creating safe, celebratory experiences that have a ton of really rich history thrown in.

But I really missed role playing. I was not in historical costume, I was not personally bringing the past to life. I got to hire a bunch of really talented people to do it, and that was definitely satisfying, but not the same.
Peek in the door to Rider-Wood
I’m looking forward to next weekend, when we get to do it all over again for the final time this year, and I’m looking forward to the next time I get to dress up, even if it won’t be for a while. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Renaissance Toiletries

This fall I did not blog about the Connecticut Renaissance Faire because I was starting the new job, dealing with some health issues, and well, life. Now, most of the posts I was going to write have drifted from my brain but one that I still want to write about, even several months later, is my Renaissance toiletries kit. I love being well organized when I pack, and having to haul and hide a whole lot of modern stuff is a pain. So over the years I've been trying to add more of the daily items that I think it likely a noble traveler would need to carry, to replace my own toiletry items that I schlepp from event to event.

Wooden box containing my historical hair supplies

The first group of items that I did this with were my hair items. Instead of using modern hair goop, bobby pins, and elastics, I put together a kit that contains:
horn combs
thin twill tape and needles
herbal hair salve
a few brass pins
some bone bodkins
a lovely reproduction copper mirror
Open box of hair supplies.

The bone bodkin idea I got from Janet Stephens (Her youtube chanel is fantastic!) She uses them the same way we use modern hair clips, to hold sections of hair out of the way while working on other hair bits. Janet also talks about sewing hair into place instead of pinning it, and she is not the only one that I've seen doing this. I attended a wonderful workshop at Pennsic 39 all about hair wrapping that was so well researched and right on. Unfortunately all I have of that presentation is a paper handout, which is safely tucked on my shelf of paper copies and hand-outs. The mirror was a birthday gift from some fellow guild members, I think they ordered it from England, I'm not sure.

The last bit is the hair salve. My hair is totally shiny and frizzy and if I did not put something in it I would constantly look like I was touching one of those electric balls that makes your hair stand on end. In my every-day life I use a lot of coconut oil, or "hair moisturizer" products, and I could have put one of those in a little ceramic bottle, but I wanted something more historical. Most of the Renaissance hair recipes I found were for lightening the hair, or make it grow thicker, so in the end I made up my own recipe involving lanolin, almond oil, and some herbs that I knew were available in Renaissance Europe, meanwhile I'll keep looking.
Most of this fits into a nice little carved wooden box that I found at a Renaissance faire. Since two of us in the guild bought the same box I painted mine so we could tell them apart, and because we know that so many of the wooden pieces would have been painted, but have not survived in their painted state. I love my box of historical hair supplies! The only problem I've had with keeping it stocked is with the really thin twill tape. I tend to wear the hairdos home, then forget to put the tape back in my box and it gets lost somewhere along the way. Luckily twill tape is cheap and not too difficult to replace.
My small wooden chest, covered by a pillow sham case.

My "Bling" box.

The hair stuff box looks nice in my small wooden chest along with some reproduction letters, pouches of coins, playing cards, spare hosen, and what Stephen and I call our bling boxes: round wooden boxes that I painted blue on the outside and lined with black velvet where we keep our jewelry, big gold chains, massive rings, fancy paternosters, pomanders and other little tid-bits.

More on toiletries: A few years ago I picked up a pitcher and bowl, and made some quick little towels to go with them. We had a hand washing set-up just like all the paintings of the annunciation. Not long after I bought them we broke the big white bowl I got for hand-washing, but that was okay because I replaced both bowl and pitcher with a better looking set of ceramics with a lovely ochre glaze that I got at HomeGoods. This past year I found two little ceramic oil and vinegar pourers at Pier One, they are yellow glazed, so they clash pretty horribly with the hand washing set but I don't care. One pourer we've filled with dish detergent for the”kitchen”, the other I used for rose water (also found cheap at homegoods) for our hand washing.
Our hand washing station.

Stephen's straight razor, brush, and other odds & ends.

I'm slowly trying to increase my historical toiletries kit. I'm researching liquorice root as a form of toothbrush, I've made a sunburn salve for the end of each event day, I found a lovely kit on another reenactor's blog. She uses several Lush products, specifically their bar deodorant and dry toothpaste, I think both of those would be easy enough to "pass", even if they are not historical. If I forgot to put away my toiletries before we open up to the public (that has never happened before) I would feel totally fine if next to the water pitcher there was a creamy white soap-looking bar wrapped in oilcloth, when the reality is I forgot to put my deodorant away. For our usual shower soap we use Dr. Bronner's Liquid soap, and that is easy enough to put in a little ceramic jar. Some of my jars I got from potters who supply for local reenactors, others I got from the Plimoth Plantation potters. They were labeled ink wells, but I think they are perfect for more apothecary type uses.

Stephen already shaves with a straight razor, and is collecting his historical shaving gear to go in his little wooden chest with his bling box, extra shoes, gloves, all those little things. This year I want to make some better towels for hand washing, hopefully out of linen, and hand hemmed instead of the machine hemmed cotton ones we have now. This may be a never ending project, but I’m enjoying it. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Halloween and What I'm up to

This always seems to happen, I hit the end of October and just feel like sleeping for the next few months. Last year I did manage to blog a tiny bit in November, the year before I did not manage a single post in November. Yup, it is a trend.

This year I’ve spent the last month and a half jumping in the deep end of event management here at the museum. My first day was October 1st and my first event was October 25th. Luckily the person I am replacing was both very well organized and willing to come in and spend a number of days helping me get going. I have relied very heavily on her past planning and notes as I get going organizing and carrying-out special events here at the museum. Now, I am not in charge of all events; weddings and private events are handled by someone else, educational events and fundraisers are different too. I am in charge of Halloween, Christmas, Independence Day, and a wine and food festival in the fall. That means my schedule is very heavily weighted towards this time of year, just when I am getting started!

Halloween was interesting. As an event it strays pretty far from some of the museum’s mission: specifically the part about encounters with history and preservation, but it does have a lot to do with community which is also part of the mission. The Friday and Saturday before Halloween the museum opens for safe and spooky (but not scary) trick-or-treating for kids of all ages. There are a few activities, some Halloween themed entertainment, but mostly it is a chance to walk around the neighborhood that is Strawbery Banke Museum and fill a bag with all sorts of candy. With the help of the properties department I got to purchase over 35,000 individual-sized pieces of candy. Just the smell of all that candy was enough to give anyone a sugar high. Over the two evenings more than 3,000 visitors came through. By the end we had just a few pounds of candy left, and from what I heard folks seemed pretty satisfied with their experience.

So what did all that have to do with history? Very little, unfortunately. The event really is geared towards all the local families that want a safe place to trick-or-treat, and the evenings are so crowded that a lot of the historic houses are just too small and too fragile to be used in this manner. Could more history be injected into the event? Heck yes! I did not have a lot of time this year to come up with anything new, these past few weeks have really been about learning the ropes, but anything I am involved in inevitably gets history injected into it, and all these events take place at a museum! Next year I’ll have those trick-or-treaters learning some history, I guarantee.

Next up, the biggest event at the museum: Candlelight Stroll. Three weekends in December, every building on the museum grounds, 300 years of history, over ten thousand visitors expected. This one is a whopper, so if you don’t hear from me for a while please understand I’m bringing history to life in some of the most exciting, magical ways that I know how.

Then come visit me at the museum!

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Different Kind of Costume

As of the end of September I am no longer a Costumed Roleplayer at Strawbery Banke Museum. I have given up what may have been the best job ever, but since this is the second time I have given it up, I get the feeling that it won’t be the last. I guess I know what I’ll be doing when I retire!

I gave up the job because the wages are so low that I was not able to contribute to my family in a monetary way. We’ve got a mortgage, two cars, pets, medical bills. Yes, I probably could have changed my lifestyle to reflect the abysmal pay, but I can’t ask my family to do that too. And the commute was killing me. An hour and twenty minutes each way is a hard slog.

Well the commute is not going to change, but I’ve been given a stellar opportunity. The person in charge of special events (or at least some of them) at the museum where I’ve spent the last two years is moving on, and after I gave my notice as a role-player and expressed my interest in the events position the museum hustled to make me an offer. I am now Strawbery Banke’s Manager of Special Events! I’ll be able to use the skills I honed stage managing renaissance faires, then tempered in fire up at the college. I’ve only been in the job a week and a half, but I’m enjoying it so far, I’m not feeling overwhelmed yet.

There are four main events that I will oversee, the 4th of July, a wine festival, Halloween Trick-or-Treat, and the December Candlelight Stroll. I’ve jumped in feet first planning the Halloween event, luckily it is a fairly low-key event whose sole purpose is to give the community kids a fun, spooky (but not scary) experience. Christmas is the biggest event and will follow shortly after. It is the one I am most worried about and the one I am most looking forward to. If anyone who reads my blog wants to come help out, I promise I run a really fun event!

But on the title of this post. I only took one weekend and one day off in between my last day of role-playing and my first day in the new position. Most folks had been informed (especially the ones who read email) that I was switching from seasonal to regular staff, but some still mentioned that it was a shock seeing my come in wearing “normal” business clothes. I did not look like I stepped out of some other era, nor was I wearing the interpreter uniform of a burgundy polo and khaki pants. But one of my role-player buddies who is very perceptive observed of my office attire: “it is just a different kind of costume.”

So I’ll be living less history during the work week, but I’ll be able to do more of my own reenacting on the weekends, and hopefully I’ll get to create magical events where scores of people will get to experience Living History.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Presenting the Presentation

The day of my presentation I was so incredibly nervous! I had hard copies of my various notes, plus originals for the handout. I had electronic versions in my email and on my iPad, I even packed a shirt to change into so I would not have to wear my red uniform shirt during the talk. Of course when I got to work the person playing Mrs. Shapiro called out sick, so I had to scramble into my back-up clothes and spend the day being Mrs. Shapiro. Actually that was probably better, it meant I could stay in Mrs. Shapiro mode and only think about feeding the family, and Avrham at work, Mollie at school. Mrs. Shapiro did not give presentations to colleagues. But when the crowds died down in the afternoon I was again stuck in my own thoughts, getting more and more nervous. At the end of the day I practically ran out of Shapiro house to go get ready for my talk.

Since it was not scheduled too far in advance, and because my talk was advertised as mostly for role-players, I did not have too big a crowd. Still, enough people did show up, and everyone who did was very attentive. The folks in the education department had asked for an advance copy of the bibliography so they could order some of my recommendations for the little library, they ended up ordering a ton of books! It was awesome to see all my old friends (in book form) waiting for me to tell more folks about them.

I started by talking about how important it is that we never stop honing our skills as interpreters (costumed or uniformed.) That we need to keep learning and developing new skills no matter how long we have been at it. Then I segued into an activity to determine what some of those interpretation skills are. I got some resistance at the beginning of the activity, but most people seemed to get in to it, and everyone seemed to figure out what I was aiming for. It started with everyone writing down various types of skills from a couple of different types of occupations: historian, teacher, and actor. I asked them to write down skills that they might use as interpreters, to think of those things that the best of us do well, and attitudes we all strive for.

The next part I was up in front of the whiteboard, while the group shouted out various skills they had either written down or just though of. I filled up the entire board with my horrible handwriting, my audience only corrected my spelling twice. The point was not really to have everyone read and memorize the skills we put on the board, the point was to help my fellow interpreters recognize the diversity of skills one can draw on in our profession and help them recognize ways to keep learning. When someone seemed to have a little trouble articulating an idea they had I was often able to fill in with a vocabulary-type word to describe the things we all do, but never talk about. As I wrote down skills I pointed to the various publications where my audience could find out more information. Before we finished each section i made sure to go back to the list I had compiled ahead of time, there were only a few things in each section that no one had yet mentioned that I thought were important enough to add. For the most part, my fellow interpreters got the important skills all on their own.

Once the board was full, folks asked questions, of me and of each other. We had a heated discussion on "telling the truth" and what that meant as a role-player. I tried to not let one or two people dominate the discussion, but at the same time I certainly did not keep an iron grip on the lines of discussion.

The whole presentation plus discussion ran for just over an hour, and I got quite a few compliments when it was done. I did not get a lot of constructive criticism, my guess is that the workshop was so far outside everyone's experience of other workshops that they did not have a lot to compare it to. I did have one participant come up to me the day after and share one of her favorite Emily Dickinson poems, and that was incredibly special.

Now I want to give my presentation to more groups, see if I can inspire more people who do historical interpretation (in costume or otherwise, at a museum or on their own) to hone their skills and never stop learning.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Preparing to lead a workshop

Recap of This Post: I was unhappy with SBM’s level of Role-Player training, and I was unhappy with our spring workshop. When given 5 paid hours of research time I decided to research first-person historic interpretation.

When given the opportunity to research what we do, my first thought was to go through my bibliography of Living History and pick out some bits from each book to share with my co-workers in the form of a paper. It gave me a good excuse to go back and actually read some of the books on my list that I had only skimmed, and pick out the more relevant parts. I started in on two of the skimmed books, then buckled down on three of the never-read ones. So far I have completed (and reviewed) only one, but I’m really close to being done with one of the other two. I’ve promised myself I’ll get at least two more of them finished and reviewed before the end of October.

This spring we role-players were scheduled for two workshops, one at the end of March (the crappy one) and another in mid-April. It was scheduled for a Monday morning, and I was spending the weekend in Fort Wayne, Indiana (I blogged about that event here.) I drove through most of the night trying to make it back to the east coast for that workshop, and at about 2 am somewhere in the depths of New York state on a very empty highway I decided what the workshop would look like if I ran it. In order to stay awake I wrote it all down, and that basic outline is what I eventually used for the workshop I ran this past week. I did not make it to the second role-playing workshop, we stopped at about 4 am and I overslept, ah well.

The basics of that I wrote down that night are this: the skills needed for historical role-playing (sometimes called costumed interpretation, sometimes called first-person interpretation) can be broken down into three categories: history, education, and theatre. Without skills in any one of the three categories you will have a much harder time role-playing, good RPs have skills that fall into all three. That night I started my list of skills, and listed them in the category I thought was most appropriate. Over the next few months I kept thinking about my list and adding to it.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Leading Up To Leading a Workshop

Advance warning: this is part one of a three part series on a workshop I recently conducted at Strawbery Banke Museum

A few weeks ago I lead a workshop and discussion for my fellow interpreters and role-players at Strawbery Banke Museum. I designed the workshop in response to a training that the museum offered us role-players last spring. I did not blog about it because April was very busy, also because it was so bad, I really had nothing good to say about it other than that it got all us role-players together, and it convinced me that I could lead a better workshop.

One of the things that I had noticed about becoming a museum role-player this time around (as opposed to when I started back in 1999) is that the museum provided tools in only two varieties: historical research, and the other role-players. Every role that the museum fills comes with a big 3-ring binder full of history articles. The binders include information about the house where you will be role-playing, the family you will represent, a timeline of known facts about the person you will be portraying, articles about the general history of the era, and more specifically about Portsmouth and about New Hampshire’s role in that era. In addition to the binder there are file cabinets full of photocopies of primary sources, articles written by past employees, and yet more history articles. Plus there is a small library of history books that we’re encouraged to borrow. That is all history-research related, which is useful but only one part of becoming a role-player. When one of the folks in horticulture asked what is wrong with just giving only the history stuff I kind of blew up at him (sorry Eric) and said it would be like giving someone a book of plants and telling them to go garden. Not a book on how-to garden, just a book with facts on the plants in the garden, he would never expect someone to know how to transplant seedlings without step-by-step instructions, or at least watching someone else do it.

Now for new role-players they are given a small amount of time shadowing a well established role-player, where they get to watch someone who knows how to do it. But from what I have gathered, the amount of time a new RP gets depends less on their need and more on the museum’s scheduling difficulties. How much the experienced role-player gets to share, and if it is compatible with the way the new RP learns is left entirely up to chance. In the little library there were no books on role-playing. Heck, there were not even any books on museum interpretation!

But back to the spring workshop. I was very excited going in to the workshop because we were actually having training! I was hopeful that the workshop leader would establish some professional vocabulary, that she would talk about the books about roleplaying, and that we would get a chance to bond as a group outside of the mess of interpreters. Well we got to bond about what a crappy workshop it was. The worst part was that at the very end of the workshop the leader passed around some hand-outs that did include a vocabulary list and a tiny bit of a bibliography! She did not talk at all about her hand-outs which would have made a great workshop, she just passed them around with apologies and basically told us to ignore them!!

By the time the workshop was over I knew that I could better meet the needs of my fellow role-players, and at the same time I was offered an opportunity to do so. We were all told that the museum was offering us RPs 5 hours of paid research time. It was expected we would research some aspect of history from the era that we represent, then write it up in a paper, so the other folks who do the same time period could benefit. I knew that my co-workers would be better served if I was able to share my research on role-playing instead of any research on history that I may do. Thankfully my bosses at the museum agreed to let me try.

Thus ends part 1 of my journey to workshop, I’ll post about the actual workshop soon.

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Monday, September 23, 2013

Feeling Pretty

Last month I spent a lot of time thinking about getting into character, and why I had been having so much trouble with the new role in the Victorian Garden. I've been struggling to learn all the gardening, to finish my clothing, to find ways to get into character and relate to my visitors. Often it takes some time for me to feel comfortable in a new role, but this one has seemed almost torturous (though that could have been the corset.)

The day in the garden that I felt the most confident, the most "in character" had a lot of things going for it, I had time to prepare the day before, I was given garden tasks I knew I could do, and I went into the day feeling very pretty.

The evening before I managed to sew a few more hook and eye closures on my costume, so my pink petticoat was no longer held on with pins, and the back of my skirt at least had the hook, even if the eye was still a safety pin. I know that those two little things made absolutely no difference to the visitors, but to know that I had made even some tiny progress on my clothing made me feel better in the clothes. During the day itself I was assigned a garden task that I felt confident about (watering and fertilizing) and in the afternoon I was joined by the summer camp kids in their cute pinafores, which I always think is great fun.

I had been visiting with a college friend the few days before, and I remembered from so long ago his skills at French braids. I asked, and he accepted so when I arrived in the morning my hair looked fabulous. Those braids, even more than the clothing fixes, and the camp kids made me feel 100%. All day long I greeted every visitor with a flirtatious smile and a story about growing up in Portsmouth. I got the gardening chores done so fast, and I did not second guess myself too often. I know most people could not see my lovely coif under the bonnet, but I made sure to take off my bonnet as much as possible.

Am I being shallow? Is this a weakness on my part? I think it is entirely a reflection of the history I am portraying.

In Shapiro house I wear a big frumpy apron when I am inside, and a massive dark raincoat to go out. I wear an unflattering orange shirt that I made out of flannel, I mix brown, black and navy blue. Mrs. Shapiro was a thrifty woman. She cared about feeding her family well but did not worry about feeding herself. Her husband unplugged the alarm clocks during the day so they would not waste electricity. I do not have photographic evidence of Mrs. Shapiro's fashion sense until later in her life, but I feel fairly confident surmising that her own clothing did not matter much to Mrs. Shapiro.

Victorian ladies are something different altogether. We have stories of them changing outfits three times a day. Even their underthings required help for proper fitting. Susan Dewey specifically was known as a beauty and a charmer. In 1870 she has been married for 3 years and has come back to her home town for the summer. Though I only have a few facts about Susie, I surmise from the mores of the time if nothing else that she would look pretty well put together, which is something I struggle with.

So I often find it tough to have the confidence to play Susan Dewey. To play her well I think I need a servant to see that I'm properly attired before I'm ready to face the world, or the museum going public. Or maybe I just need to find ways to feel pretty.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Every 8 Minutes

In the parlor of Shapiro house there is a large mirror above the fireplace (actually the former fireplace). The mirror is magic, it conceals a television that plays an eight minute video about the Shapiro family and their journey from Ukraine to Portsmouth, NH. The video is on repeat. The interpreter playing Mrs. Shapiro turns it on in the morning when we open the house, and turn it off in the evening when we lock up. On a quiet day in Shapiro house us Mrs. Shapiros listen to the video while we sit in the kitchen and it plays over and over in the parlor. Every eight minutes. In a day we listen to the video play over 53 times, depending on how early we turn it on, and how sick of it we are at the end of the day. I'm sure all three of us could recite the whole thing, narrator's pauses and inflections in place. Luckily, the script is very well written. It is not an easy task to condense the lives of an entire family into eight minutes, and to do so without causing bleeding ears among those of us who have listened to it all season for years is a blessing.

The narrator starts out describing the family back in Russia, talks about names, about Samuel Shapiro’s journey to Portsmouth, about Abraham and Sarah, about life in Portsmouth, about Mollie, then about the family as it is now. Since I have mostly just listened to it for the past two seasons sometimes I’m surprised when I catch the images on the TV that go along with the script that I know so well. It is an odd perspective.

For me one of the parts that stick out the most are the tragedies. There are three events that the narrator describes as tragic: the holocaust, the death of Samuel Shapiro's two oldest daughters, and Mollie Shapiro's death shortly after her marriage. The order I have described above is the order they appear in the film even though chronologically the holocaust happens last. Yes, when sitting there on a really slow day, often a cold and wet day, I think about things like that while I keep myself busy cooking, sewing and reading; waiting for visitors to talk to.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Computer Game for History Geeks

I don’t play a lot of computer games, but I do play a few. Plants versus Zombies is my favorite game ever, and PvZ2 is slightly history-based, but not really. It is just a fun game I play over, and over, and over.

For the past few months I have been playing Civilization 5. And that game has a ton of history to it. For those of you not familiar with the Civilization games, you pick a civilization: Persian, Mayan, German, or many others and as the leader you lead your civilization from the discovery of pottery, through the nuclear age, declaring war on your neighbors, exploring oceans and continents, founding new cities, adopting social policies and tons more. There are many reasons why I am enjoying playing Civ5, not the least of which is that there is so much human history to it! It is not terribly complex history, which means inaccuracies are to be expected, but I still enjoy exploring the oceans with caravels, and founding universities long before public schools become available. I’ve learned things from the game too, I do not know a lot of Asian history, and I’ve been reading up on the real life civilizations that I see in the game.

It is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but I pretend that I’m being historical, so it counts, right?

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Junior Role-Players

As the school year starts back up, we’ve said goodbye to the Junior Role-players at Strawbery Banke. I will definitely miss them. During the summer SBM runs all kinds of summer camps: half day camp for the littles, craft-centered camps for the 8 to 12, and role-player camps for the older kids. They get to try out all the history, all the clothes, and what it is like to be in character out on the grounds of the museum. I have tons of good stories to tell you about this year’s juniors, but first, a memory.

When I worked at SBM while I was in college I befriended a junior role player. He had been involved in the museum a lot longer that I had and knew more about the history and about roleplaying. At the end of my first season I was given the christmas program assignment of the most boring house on the grounds. The Puritan/Protestant winter house has no decorations because they did not celebrate Christmas. We could not have a real fire, the kitchen where I sat had a string of red christmas lights buried in the ash in the fireplace. I was assigned to tell stories to my two “step-children”, two poor juniors who had to sit with me in that dreary house. Cory, the boy assigned to play Jack Wheelwright, step-son to Martha Wheelwright (my character) was such a good sport. We made our own fun, told stories all evening long.

The next summer Cory volunteered a couple times a week, usually in the library, and if i was working he would stop by to visit.We talked about everything. We both loved history, hated high school, and had a theatrical disposition that got us in trouble one day. I forget whether it was early spring or late fall, either way the sun was setting before closing, so the flood-lights came on in front of the house where I was stationed. There had been very few visitors before Cory had shown up, so it did not take long while we were chatting for us to discover a musical we both loved. I don’t remember if it was Les Miserables, or Little Mermaid (probably Little Mermaid.) Soon we were both singing and showing off in the flood-lights. We were not all that different in age, he was almost through high school, I had completed two years of college. I remember getting in trouble for that one!

Sometimes we joked, Cory and I, that one day he would go in for a job interview at the Smithsonian and I would be the one conducting the interview. I hope, wherever Cory ended up he is doing well. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: The Dress

I'm going to tell you, dear readers, about my Victorian dress, even though I generally like to wait until the outfits are complete, I'm afraid this one will take a very long time, and might be retired before it is ever finished.

Have you ever seen some fabric in a store and known exactly what you'd make it into? Even if you do not currently "do" that period? How long would you hold on to said fabric just waiting for the right opportunity?

About 10 years ago I came across some tan linen fabric embroidered with  white and gold flowers that I just had to make into a mid-nineteenth century gown. At the time there was very little possibility of me branching from the Renaissance into 19th C. but I could not pass up the fabric. I liked it so much and worried about the amount a hoop skirted form would take up I actually bought more of it when I saw the same pattern again the next year. The fabric then sat in a bin for a very long time. Five years after going into the bin I pulled out my lovely linen when it looked like there was a possibility that we would put on a Wild West show. That opportunity fell through so the fabric went back into storage. I thought I'd get to make it up when a friend got married and had a tea party theme, I ran out of time.

Well obviously the fabric was destined to be an 1870s garden outfit for me to wear in my role at Strawber Banke. The funniest part is when I first started contemplating making my own 1870 dress, I had completely forgotten about the embroidered linen! I was thinking about my current fabric stash and the possiblity of purchasing something new, and got to wondering if there were any more bins of fabric that were still out in the shed... Voila, the perfect Victorian garden dress material. Purchased so long ago as to now feel like it was free.

When deciding on a dress shape and pattern I spent a bit of time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s photo collections site and almost immediately found two lovely linen dresses that I thought would be suitable for the garden. The best part of both, is that they were not covered in ruffles that would weigh down a dress or pick up more garden debris. The dresses I liked had lovely looking scalloped hems, which is completely different from anything the Mrs. Goodwins wear. I even managed to find some extant dresses with scalloped hems that were embroidered with little flowers. Yay for documentation! Yay for having an eye for fabric even before I knew what I was doing!

I started in on the skirt first. I’ve done quite a bit of sewing now, and my last few historical skirts have turned out awesome. So I took a big risk and decided to make my skirt with only my own patterning. Ugh. I used much too much fabric, both width and length. I was attempting a little bit of poof with petticoats, so I made it a few inches longer than usual. I wanted to be able to work in it, and to have the width for some poof so I put plenty of width in there. It turned into a heavy, flappy mess.

I was heartbroken and in a total panic because it took me a lot longer than I thought it would. I was due to start in the garden and I only had some underpinnings and the horrible skirt. The person in charge of role playing at the museum saved me. She pulled out the maid’s outfit that I’d worn 14 years before, the first time I worked at Strawbery Banke. The thing fits me better now than it did then, and although it is worn, and not very regal, it was time period appropriate. And complete. After that first day I took my skirt home and chopped off almost 5 inches in length, and 35 inches in width. I wore it the next time I was in the garden and I’ve gotten tons of compliments on it ever since. The skirt still does not have a closure in the back, and the ribbon binding on the bottom edge is only sewn to the front of the scallops, it is not turned under. But no one seems to notice, and it is holding up fairly well.

I wore the nearly completed skirt and the old green bodice for a month and a half while I fussed over my own bodice. My friend Kristina helped me make the pattern and fit it, but as soon as we were done I lost the pattern piece for the back. then when I re-made the pattern I spent a few weeks getting the fit right by sewing and re-sewing the lining pieces. When I finally got the lining right, fixed my pattern and cut the fashion fabric (my lovely embroidered linen)  it was mid-June. I was determined to have something wearable other than the old green thing for the Fourth of July festivities at the museum since I would be in the garden that day.

A big part of stitching the bodice was putting on the trim. A bland tan linen needs a contrasting trim to make it special, so I matched the golden skirt trim with some golden piping, and put a chocolate brown ribbon underneath to make it pop. Before I stitched the lining to the bodice I put chocolate brown piping around the whole thing. This is a Victorian garden dress after all. By the time I got that done I barely had time to finish the front hook closure before the 4th. I did not manage to make sleeves or a belt or any of that. Luckily the museum had purchased with blouses for all of us gardeners to wear on the very hot days, so I pinned the button front of the shirt into the bodice so my arms are covered by the shirt sleeves. I ran out of time to sew hooks on to the skirt top, so I put safety pins on the inside an for the past month and a half have been attaching the hooks on the bodice to the little bit of the pins that show on the outside of the skirt.
4th of July, in the Goodwin Garden. I promise better photos some day!

I keep promising myself that I'll put on the sleeves, finish the skirt, and make the apron and bustle bit that goes over the whole thing, but at this point I happy wearing it the way it is. Maybe I'll have to come up with some mid-nineteenth century event this fall to get me motivated to finish it. Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Telling Lies

A while ago a visitor asked me if the sink in the Shapiro's bathroom is enamel or porcelain, I got to tell her truthfully that I'm not sure I'd know the difference. I told her it was purchased second-hand from one of the scrap metal yards, which is conjecture, but is very likely. I'm not sure why, while kneeling on the floor staring up at the base of the sink with a visitor this should pop into my head, but pop it did: " I bet if Mrs. Shapiro was confronted with a nosy visitor like this she would be tempted to lie."

That is a thunderously dangerous, but highly liberating thought. It is dangerous, because it is my job to inform the public about history as it occurred. But at the same time everything I say has some falsehood to it because I am not really mrs. Shapiro. My husband and I did not purchase the house in 1909, but Mrs. Shapiro and her husband did. So my job is to personalize facts, but I strive to make sure they are really facts, just delivered in a more theatrical manner.

I’m reading Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage. I’ll put up a book review when I’m done, but in the meanwhile I was struck by one of his points he makes about interpreters. He says interpreters should never lie. In fact, Joyce Thierer in Telling History makes a big deal about checking every fact and having at least three sources for every fact. But what about storytelling? What if we don’t have all the facts but have certain themes we want to get across?

In Shapiro we make a pretty big deal about Mollie’s birthday. It happens right in the middle of the summer, and is something most American kids can relate to. Getting a gift for Mollie’s birthday is how we connect kids to the past, and connect the Shapiros to the American culture they are learning. We don’t know what Mollie was given for her 10th birthday, we don’t actually know for sure that she was given a gift, but the museum has purchased a reproduction of a 1919 pogo stick that the kids who visit can take into the yard and try out. We call it Mollie’s birthday present even though her grandson is pretty sure she did not have a pogo stick while growing up. But at least some 1919 kids did have them, and trying out the pogo stick can help kids who have been stuck listening to museum folks and need to be active. Since those of us who are interacting with the visitors are doing so as Mrs. Shapiro, do we have a little more leeway to make up the story about the pogo stick being a gift for Mollie’s 10th birthday? Or is that lying?

I hope that most of the audience will forgive us these stories and see them as story telling. I am obviously not Mrs. Shapiro living in the year 1919. So is it more like seeing a play, or is it more like a scene in a documentary which is expected to reflect the actual events?

Many years ago when I was working as a museum garden intern, I lobbied hard to get a well put into the back yard garden where I was working. I was willing to concede that it could not be an actual well, but a wooden platform representing the well top and a well sweep could be very educational to the visitor. The argument I heard against it was that although there was evidence there was a well in the yard, we did not know where in the yard it would have been, so it would be inauthentic to just place it randomly. My arguement was that is was even less authentic to knowingly exclude a well, when we know that there was one. So is it more of a dis-service to the visitor to put the well in the wrong place, or to not indicate that folks back then had to work hard to get their water?

So back to lying. I justify letting visitors walk around the house with a mix of biblical hospitality and with the  fact that the Shapiro's rented the third floor to boarders. I treat most visitors like potential renters so they have an excuse to explore the house and I have an excuse to tell them about my family. As part of that I talk up the newness of the indoor plumbing, and the cleanliness of the kitchen. I am giving historical information about the technology and urbanization of sanitation, and I am giving cultural information about kosher meals in a gentile city. I hope that my visitors know that as Mrs. Shapiro I might be exaggerating the cleanliness of the kitchen, but I also hope that does not diminish the factual knowledge I am sharing. According to Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro, their daughter Mollie was so smart and good, she always finished her homework and did her chores. Was Mollie the perfect child? I doubt it, but she died young and as a good girl was the way her parents wanted to remember her.

But what about whoppers? Actual falsehoods? We make up so much of our characters out of the scraps left to us through the ages, that we all try very hard to give as accurate a presentation as possible. If visitors can not tell very deliberately that I may be stretching the truth (like saying that my daughter is always such a good girl) I try to avoid lies at all cost. But I bet Mrs. Shapiro lied, on occasion.

So now I’ll have to think about some lies I could tell as Mrs. Shapiro. Not to the visitors, that would be awful. But in the spirit of A-E Shapera’s Easy Street a lie through which I can include visitors, as a story I am telling that they are now in on. I already do something similar when folks ask how the peaches in the jar on the counter are preserved. When they ask I look around, lower my voice, and ask if they are police. When they assure me they are not I tell them that the peaches are in vodka, even though prohibition is gearing up all over the country. So I am informing them about food customs, but also the politics of the day, and including them in something that was illegal at the time, but now is considered quaint. Now I’m challenging myself to come up with a few more, see what I can do with some whoppers.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: Where's the Corset?

I've been working in the Victorian garden this weekend and, prepare yourselves readers, I did not wear the proper undergarments.

I love my properly made corset, but I spend my days gardening. That does not mean strolling around cutting flowers; Sunday morning I was twisted around a mountain laurel bush trying to pull out a maple tree that was growing up through it while trying not to: get my skirt and petticoats snagged on the brambles, have my bonnet ripped off by the laurel, and get goosed by the yucca plant growing below. While I could have done it in a corset, my oxygen intake would have been severely limited, and I'd have been no good for the afternoon of weeding that was on my agenda.

When I talked to my boss a few weeks ago about the fact that I was having trouble balancing the two parts of my job, interacting with museum visitors and completing all the things on the garden checklist, he told me I was there to garden, and include people in the garden experience. Making my clothing decision from there was heartbreaking, but necessary.

For a while I wore a modern elastic-sided corset instead, but that was too small in the arm scythe and was not giving me the correct shape. What I really should do is make a corded corset or riding corset that will allow me to bend at the waist, but I only have so much time for sewing, and that is not on my list of projects I MUST complete this year.

Luckily the bodice I made is fairly rigid, and most of our guests are regular Americans on their vacations. Anyone have any suggestions? I'm gonna put a few boning channels in the lining of my dress bodice if I can't come up with anything else soon. Read this entry on entry page

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Portland, OR

Just got back from a short vacation trip to Portland, OR. Usually I like to stuff my trips with historical sites, but this was supposed to be a relaxing type vacation, and I did not spend a ton of time planning. Since I had never been to the west coast I was more interested in getting a feel for the place than absorbing all of its history. Stephen and I rented a motorcycle and for the first few days we rode around the lovely forests and amazing mountains just outside of Portland. I was proud of myself for dusting off my rusty herbal knowledge and recognizing yarrow, St. John's wort, and a bunch of other roadside wildflowers, and I was interested to see all of the differences in flora and environment. Our east coast mountains are so old and worn compared to the youngin's out west.

We rode around Mt. St. Helens, which was beautiful, and also is a part of our history, Stephen is old enough to remember the eruption itself. I was too young in 1980 to remember the event, but the story and the aftermath is part of my childhood memories. The Lewis and Clark expedition was referenced all over the place: on route signs, in the hotel bar, and when riding down the Columbia River Gorge. We both remarked on how attractive the Columbia River must have looked to those intrepid travelers. In Portland itself a lot of the buildings and institutions are celebrating their 100th years. I love both Art Deco and Art Nouveau, so there was plenty in the architecture to delight me.

On my one day in Portland I visited a couple of lovely gardens: a rose garden created to save those old varieties that were in danger during the world wars, and a Japanese garden created to honor the immigrants from Japan who made Portland their home. Stephen introduced me to Powell's City of books, and during my two short trips to the store I picked up 7 books! 6 on historical themes, three of which were on my wishlist, the others look incredibly informative. I even managed to purchase a dress for a 1930s themed wedding that I'm going to in December at an amazing vintage shop downtown.

So, not a historical trip, but I still managed to learn a lot of history, and enjoy a lot of historical contexts in all that I saw.

Stephen and I on the motorcycle, with Mount Hood in the background.

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Hyndl the Happy Chicken

I've acquired another chicken.

My parents have had chickens for a number of years, and this past spring got a bunch more chicks to increase their flock. They live in a much more rural area than I do and have not had a dog for a number of years, so the predators came calling. In early July a weasel or something got in among the young birds. When my folks got up in the morning there was only one youngin left, all the rest had been slaughtered. They tried putting her in among the adult chickens, but there really is a pecking order, and the older birds immediately started beating up on the poor traumatized thing. Not knowing what else to do my folks cleaned up the coop where the carnage had happened and let the little chick hide under a bush nearby, while leaving the door open if she wanted to go back to her old home.

When Alysa and I went to visit that evening, my dad was in just as much shock as the little chicken, so I took pity on both of them and volunteered to take it home, set it up outside in our dog crate, and try to integrate it into my much younger flock. Mom even had an antique chicken crate she gave to me for transportation. So we made a bed of straw, put in water and food, and then caught the poor thing. Actually she was quite willing to be caught and carried around, she actually calmed down and stopped stopped panting while we carried her around the yard and placed her in the old crate. Alysa and I put the chicken in her antique home in our bathroom overnight, and the next day I set about making her a new home.

The next morning when I opened the chicken crate she popped her head up, and let me pet her. She hopped up out of the crate, and cooed for a while, then let me pick her up and walk around with her. She seemed so content that I actually took her into the living room, sat her on my knee, and proceeded to check facebook from my laptop on the other knee. She spent most of the next 45 minutes preening. She had a ton of dandruff, probably from all the stress, and sat there cleaning herself and shaking chicken dander all over, but perfectly happy to sit on my knee. This chicken actually likes people.

She is a Cochin, she is golden with feathers all over her feet. So she isn't a heritage breed, but what she lacks in history she more than makes up for in gentleness. In fact, the first week she was living with us I actually took her to work one day.

It was a day I was Mrs. Shapiro, and there is some oral history evidence that the Shapiros did keep chickens. Also, the back yard is fairly enclosed, and there is a covered area under the wheelchair ramp that is the perfect size for chickens that need to escape rain or sun. It was tough for me to both watch over the house and help folks interact with the chicken, but it sure was fun having her there. She ate bugs in the compost pile, flirted with the catbird that lives in the mock orange, made herself a dirt nest under the horseradish, and let me pick her up so that visitors that wanted to touch the chicken could do so. I justified having such a funny looking bird (her feet really are hilarious) by saying that I needed a brooding hen: a hen that would lay on the eggs and be a good mother to my next year's chicks. Cochins are in North America by 1919, and I read on the internet that they are broody, so it worked as justification for the one-day appearance.

I did not have a single person respond badly that day. I did encounter folks that were uninterested, and that is totally cool. I had many more people who wanted to know more, about chickens, about the history of livestock in early 20th Century urban settings, and most who just wanted to actually interact with this live animal.

She did not have a name before I brought her to work. Stephen does not approve of naming things that eventually will get eaten. But I was taking care of her separately from my other chickens, and I knew that museum visitors would ask me if she had a name. I looked up the word "Chicken" in Yiddish, Mrs. Shapiro's first language, and decided that "Hyndl" would be a fine name for a chicken. Since we are calling her chicken, just in a different language, Stephen has approved this name. He has also approved of one of my other chicken names, for the smallest of our other flock I've been calling her Marie Antoinette. He is okay with this name as long as we are all aware that eventually Marie Antoinette will loose her head. I might have to name Marie's siblings Mary Queen of Scotts and Anne Boleyn.

But back to Hyndl. I have not brought her back to the museum, though I would like to. I just have to convince the powers that be to let me interpret chicken that day and not be stuck with a house to watch too. In the meantime, I have sucessfully integrated her into my little flock. She is not exactly welcomed by my three other birds, but they let her at the feeders, and tolerate her presence without too much harassment, which is good enough for a chicken.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Book Review: Easy Street

I've just finished Ann-Elizabeth Shapera's book Easy Street: A Guide For Players In Improvised Interactive Environmental Performance, Walkaround Entertainment, And First-Person Historical Interpretation. What a fascinating read. It was written as a guide for Renaissance Faire performers, and for the most part that is exactly what it is, but it reads like a self-help book. I recommend this book to folks starting out at RenFaires, but also for long time living history presenters who have lost their spark and are wondering, why the heck am I doing this?

Shapera performs at many Renaissance Faires as the lovable Jane The Phoole. I've seen her perform, she is very good. I've also run into her at several Reenactorfests. Jane the Phoole is a walk-around character. She spends most of her time on the streets of the faire, interacting with groups of visitors or "patrons". While she does sometimes appear on stage this book deals with the "street" interactions: how you make a street character, how to interact with all kinds of people, how to make interactions positive, uplifting and meaningful to every participant.

It is the uplifting part that Shapera excels at. If your venue is a museum or reenactment, and you want the ability to make magical connections the way performers at Renaissance Raires do, then I highly recommend Easy Street. But if that is the case you might want to skip from chapter 13 right to 18. While the pleasant insights continue in those chapters, a person can get bogged down in the bits that do not apply outside the RenFaire. If you are a participant in the world of Renaissance Faires Shapera does not have much new to say about improvisation, physicality, or Elizabethan England, but she has nicely condensed those staples of RenFaire training.

Throughout the book Shapera stresses the importance of remaining positive, especially when interacting with those that have paid money to come see us. A point with which I highly agree. She includes chapters entitled, "It Only Takes a Moment", "Say Something Nice!", and "Why You Must Never Exclude Patrons, Ever, Not In A Million Years." Her big points of emphasis include  "Include and Elevate" the people you  encounter while plying this craft and "Making it Worth It" for both the audience and the performer reading the book.

Easy Street is self published through Lulu Press and it shows. Many of the chapters could have been merged into longer, more comprehensive sections. Also, Shapera's capitalization of Every Important Bit got very tiresome. It is an Elizabethan mode of writing, but in my opinion, was over-used, especially when paired with the heavy handed formatting.

Of all the training I have undergone to make me the history presenter that I am today, my most meaningful training has been in how to do historical research and how to be a Rennaissance Faire performer. A-E Shaera's Easy Street touches on all the best parts of RenFaire performance, and includes many points from which all presenters of history can benefit. I am glad to have this book on my shelf, it is a worthy addition to LH library. Read this entry on entry page

Saturday, July 27, 2013

School for 1st Person Interpretation

The other day in Shapiro house I had a group of New York Jews visit. I could tell they were NYC Jews a little by  how they looked, more by how they sounded, and I knew for sure when one of them said: "My mother had a stove just like that in the Catskills." and another chimed in: "We had one like that in the Bronx!"

We had a very nice interaction, we talked about leaving Russia, about the community in Portsmouth. NH, about buying kosher meat. The part I want to share here was towards the end when one member of the group asked: "what acting school did you go to?"

If I had had the chance to answer I would have talked in character about the fact that back in Russia only the boys went to school. Instead one of her fellow visitors jumped in and said "she is in character, she can't tell you that!"

It is true I could not answer her question. If I could have had that conversation, if I was not in character when it was asked, the answer would have been: none. There is no school that teaches what I do. There are one or two books, but really, we all learn by watching others, and by doing.

I've talked to many others in the field, and had many conversations about the possibility of classes, info guides, magazines, anything to share our skills and expertise. But I'm not sure we've reached a critical mass yet.

Maybe some day.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Importance of Visual Aides

Researching history, learning more about the timeperiods I am interested in, or just more about the way people work, is always exciting to me. You can keep psychology, anthropology, I like learning about people and the world in which we live in a historical context.

At the moment my historical obsession is visual. Blogs like Shorpy put up more historic photos every day. a bunch of awesome museums have photos of items in their collections online and A Stitch in Time does a good job of letting us know when new museums come online. and then there is Pinterest. I admit, I'm really enjoying having a place to store all the images of historic things. I have spent many a lunch break going through museums and blogs and pinning away, making the historical world I portray richer by adding to my own knowledge. Feel free to take a look at what I have been pinning, and let me know about your own boards. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

History IS fun!

When Alysa came to us almost three years ago now, she really didn’t like history. She had failed it at least once in school, and really could not see the appeal of dead men and stuff that happened long long ago. Since then she has worked a Renaissance Faire, visited ancient cities in Israel, watched countless costume dramas, and absorbed quite a lot by living with Stephen and me. Last year at Christmas when she came to visit the museum she caught one of the junior volunteers who gave the incorrect date: Alysa actually corrected her with the right date! And for her birthday this year she asked to dress up and join me in the garden at Strawbery Banke for the day!

I borrowed a dress from the museum costume supplies, she had a corset she had purchased through Amazon, she had boots she wore horseback riding, and I provided the petticoats. The night before, she read up on the person she was to play and even read an article I gave her on the dreaded disease of consumption. She woke up in plenty of time the next morning, we both got into our fancy victorian duds, and hit the road.

She was quiet in the morning, helping me water the garden beds and potted plants. She listened to me interact with all the school groups, and admitted to an unknown talent for croquet.
In the afternoon when she had relaxed we had a marvelous time. We pulled vines and saplings out of some bushes that had been neglected, we collected straw flowers to dry for the winter, and we had a tea party with some pastries I had managed to smuggle in to celebrate her birthday. She even grew bold enough to answer visitors’ questions. We both had fun, but more important, she did exactly what she wanted for her birthday.

I am proud that in the past two years she is calmer, happier, more polite, more self confident, but there is a little part of me that warms when she admits that history is now something she enjoys.

Alysa in Goodwin Garden.

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Monday, July 8, 2013

Solo Living History

My Facebook feed has been full of photos from other people’s weekend reenactments and I must admit I am pretty jealous. I know that tons of folks in those photos would give a lot to have my job and be spending their time being historical in houses surrounded by all the right furniture, tools, the whole environment. I am mostly jealous because in my job I get lonely.

There are usually 3 or four other roleplayers at the museum, but we all play very different roles from very different time periods. There is usually someone in 1870, someone in 1919 and someone in 1943. Sometimes there is someone in 1777, or  1907. We can not really interact with each other. Not only are we supposed to stay close to our hoses, but we’re in completely different times! The closest two, 1907 Mrs. Aldrich and 1919 Mrs. Shapiro actually are located right across the street from each other, we could almost get away with it except the original Mrs. Aldrich put up a massive fence to separate herself from the undesirable neighbors across the street. Even if the modern folks that play Mrs. Aldrich are way friendlier, we really probably should not socialize.

Yes, I have people wandering through all day long, but most of them only stop by briefly. Often they come through just to look at the house, or they are unsure how to interact with a roleplayer. Even those that stick around  are separated in time. They are in 2013 and I am in 1919 (or 1870.) We can make connections, but there is always a block, that big gap of almost 100 years. I love when I can connect with visitors, and often I do, but it is totally not the same as spending a day surrounded by people who are all participating in the same event.

I miss my reenactor peeps, all of us working together. Even when we are set to our separate tasks we are united in time and focus. At the beginning and end of each day at an event we all work together. If one of us is struggling, there is someone on hand to sympathize, lend a hand. And we all laugh together, all day long.  I miss that.

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Further Chicken Adventures

Last year I reported on the beginning of my chicken adventure: I took a workshop (on behalf of the museum), I enrolled in a class (for myself but it turned out to benefit the museum), I started in on the research. Over the course of the summer and fall I surveyed some museum visitors about chickens, I read some books, and I got a lot of questions from my fellow interpreters at the museum. By the fall I was pretty sure that the museum was not ready for chickens, there was a definite lack of commitment from the full-time staff. But I’d done all this research and had fallen in love with them myself.

Also last year, Stephen got another dog. A puppy, but a massive one from the breed: Leonberger. I am not a dog person, but Stephen and Alysa are, and they both promised I would not have to look after it, train it, or care for it. But having two dogs in the house has affected me. It makes it tougher to go away on the weekends, tougher to stay out all day, tougher to go out with the dogs. So now that we have even more pet limitations at home, why not compound it?

Last fall I asked my dad to help me make a chicken tractor, which is basically a movable chicken coop. Not a historical one, but our house is not historical. Dad and I got started on the chicken tractor, along the way it became his winter weekend project, and I only managed to get up to help a couple of times.

I had looked into heritage chicken breeds for the museum and found a breeder that lives only two towns from me who supplies chickens to museums all over New England. His family was really nice, and very helpful when writing the museum report, so I made sure to mention them when I wrote it up. Since Stephen read my chicken report to help me proofread it, he knew exactly which breeder I favored, and for Christmas gave me a certificate for 6 chickens from Valentine Seed Company.

Fast forward to the beginning of May. The chicken tractor is done (and approved by my Dad’s chickens) some American Dominiques have been ordered from Valentine & Son, and the folks at the museum have decided to get some architectural plans drawn up as a next step for their chicken plans. A couple of weeks ago Alysa and I picked up 4 cute juvenile chickens, though one did not make it through the first night. Now we have three pretty birds that are growing big and fat and enjoying the chicken tractor in our back yard. We won’t get eggs until the fall, but we’ll enjoy their chicken antics in the meanwhile.
Photo By Stephen Shellenbean.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Modern life gets into everything

Found in the 1870 garden bed while preparing it for planting:

One tine from a plastic fork
Small blue strands that once belonged to a tarp
Wisps of grocery bags
A section of drinking straw
a section of a stirer
The sticker off an orange
A bit of seashell (natural!)
Half a walnut shell (natural!)
Silvery bits of duct tape
A very bent nail (galvanized)
The remains of a receipt
The end off a plant tag
Unidentified red plastic something

modern trash gets into everything. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Intensive Immersive Weekend

Back in April I participated in a fantastic event, I’m only just writing it up now because it takes time for me to mull things over, and because the museum opened this month so I’ve been getting my bearings at work. But about the event: My friend Kristina and I drove out to Indiana from New Hampshire (14 driving hours, one way) to join up with a bunch of other folks who reenact 16th Century and spend the weekend in an old fort, in character, all weekend. Woah.

So this event, called: “A Soldier’s Resolution, an Early Modern Muster of Arms” was sponsored by a 16th C reenacting group out of the Midwest, who patterned their event off of the “School for the Renaissance Soldier” a long-time event out in California. Stephen actually went out to SRS many years ago and had a great time. This time only Kristina and I out of all the members of Das Geld Fahnlein were able to attend, and it was certainly a time to remember, in a good way.

Why was this event so cool? It was an immersive event: in period in character all the time. And for the whole of Saturday it succeeded, at least for all the folks that interacted with us. We were in old Fort Wayne, a working reproduction so everything inside the fort walls looked pretty good, and was usable! We slept in soldier's bunks in an upstairs room warmed by a fireplace. When packing I stuffed one of our soldier’s pallets with wool roving and quilt batting, then packed three wool blankets (two of them handspun, including this one)  and a big wool cloak which ended up staying on my bed. I packed some stuff to make our bunk room period, a chamber pot, painting of Mary, pitcher and bowl for washing. It turned out no one else in the other bunk rooms bothered to hide their modern stuff, but our room looked great. I loved stepping out on our balcony and seeing the Polish guys going at each other with swords, and the women standing huddled in their cloaks in the kitchen door.

There were probably 40 people total, which is way more folks from the sixteenth century than I've ever seen in one place. I've been to bigger events, but they covered much larger periods of time, or they were portraying American History. Folks were portraying nationalities and ethnicities from all over Europe, but that was totally period, the armies arrayed against the Ottoman Turks in the 16th Century were made up of units from Spain, Poland, France, and all over the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, some of the folks there portraying Polish soldiers actually were from Western Europe.

Kris and I were at our Bavarian best, in our characters with our accents and willing to approach every person there. I made an effort to curtsy to everyone I knew was higher than me in station, and flirt with every soldier I might make money off of. We played our roles as Bavarian cooks, and had a lot of in with it.

We did not sped the whole time playing, we spent most of it in the kitchen making food because I was nervous going in and thought we’d be better off with something to occupy our time, so I volunteered to make lunch for everyone on Saturday and Sunday. Feeding a group of 40 with historical food was new, but my experience feeding Das Geld, and cooking at the museum paid off, we made a couple great meals and helped with the fancy Saturday dinner. It meant we had something to do where we had a small group of folks to work with, and we weren't just hanging out getting bored or tempted to slip out of character. I kind of missed that we could not watch the weapons stuff more, but having our tasks in the kitchen for the first year made the event safe and fun.

We even got to take part in a little scenario bit. A few of us women went outside of the fort to take a walk, we were "attacked" and robbed, so we had to scream and yell, run back into the fort and gather the soldiers to defend us. We screamed our heads off, ran around, and got the guys all riled up and ready to defend us. They had a mock battle, a little trial, all was forgiven, then we went back to the kitchen.

Line of women at muster. Photo by Abby Gale
The other scenarios included mustering in and presentation of arms, presentation of pay, meals, and games in the tavern in the evening. The "tavern" set-up was a bit odd, there were two females in a room across from the kitchen, which had tables, benches, and snack-type food. Although we kitchen folk sometimes interacted with the tavern folk, they were mostly separate, we worked during the day and they were busiest in the evenings.

I wish we had had more time. We got in late on Friday night and had to leave early on Sunday. It would have been even easier to have that historical feeling if I'd had a few moments to actually sit back and take look around instead of spending most of my time head down in my tasks.
Serving Lunch. Photo by Abby Gale

The weekend, for me ended up being a total ego boost. I was surrounded by people I had met once or twice, or had not met before, and they could not have known what to expect, I was told going in that the event was an immersive, in-timeperiod event, and so every single interaction I had was as close to period as I know how to get. Kris and I kept up our accents, talked about how things were in Bavaria, laughed and joked in timeless ways(women can joke about the length of men's spears in any time.) So many participants told us how impressed they were with our ability to interact "in character" all day long. I won't say it is easy, but at this point in my life I'm not sure I could be any other way. 

The weekend was totally worth the drive. It was amazing to spend time with folks who do the same century as we do. Since we don't do American history as our main, the moments when we can get together with 40 other people are so very rare. Even at the museum, I go home at the end of the day, so this was a chance to be in the awesome environment over night. I got to spend time with Kris who is an awesome individual, and I got to play in history!

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: Corset Confection

What is the main structural element in any woman’s 1870s outfit? Yep, the corset. As a gardener I did not need a fully boned one. In fact, a corded corset probably would have been better. Heck, the museum told me to just put a few bones in the dress bodice and not wear a corset at all. But as a historical costume geek I’ve always wanted one. I could not pass up the opportunity to acquire a real one.

I was too intimidated to make one myself. I knew enough about corsetry to know that I did not know enough to attempt it. At first I looked into purchasing one, but to get a real one would break my paycheck. Luckily I have an amazing friend who is a professor of theater and historical costuming, who does not mind working on her weekends off.  She even already had all the supplies. So one weekend in April I grabbed some pink fabric for the top layer of my corset and made my way across Massachusetts to spend the weekend with Brittney.

She bought a lovely bungalow a few years ago and it is absolutely darling. She and her boyfriend had waffles waiting for me when I arrived. After breakfast we went to her costume shop at the college where she teaches. She had a few previously made corsets for me to try on so we could see if we could use an existing pattern, or if we would have to start from scratch. The second one I tried on fit almost perfectly. I was amazed to learn it was based on a Simplicity pattern, but Brittney vouched for it and that was good enough for me. My goal was to make a corset that would give me the correct shape, but not necessarily a smaller waist. Not long before attempting my own I read this lovely blog post by Lauren from Wearing History and I fell in love with the idea of adding padding at the bust and hips while leaving me able to breathe in the thing.  Brittney was able to adjust the gusset pattern pieces in the bust and waist accordingly, and we were ready to cut.

Corsets are lined with special corset fabric called coutil. It is bizarre stiff, very flexible, but stiff at the same time. It is soft, but hell to push pins and needles through. We basted the whole thing in pieces before doing any sewing in order to make sure it laid in curves around me with no wrinkles and no pulling. We basted the gusset pieces together, we basted one layer of coutil to the outer pieces, inserted the gussets, then basted the 2nd piece of coutil on the inside of all that. It took all Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning with us both basting like crazy to get all the layers basted, then all the pieces basted, then the edges and on and on. I admit I was not the biggest help, but I basted like anything and I hope I sped up the project at least a little.

By the time we got to Sunday afternoon I was pretty much useless but I tried to keep on gamely as Brittney started in sewing the boning chanels, the busks, and all the fiddly bits. I cut boning, but then was not able to get the metal caps on the ends, I was able to make grommet holes and pound grommets! Brittney just took off and even squeezed in enough time to add the white binding ribbon to the top and bottom before I had to hit the road and head back home. It is an amazing pink confection.

iPhone photo, but I got both the back and the front!
I’ve had a few weeks at the museum now, and I’ve worn the corset while gardening 7 days now. It is remarkably comfortable, even when gardening. I still need to add the flossing to the boning channels, but it is good enough to wear under my outfit.

Now if only I could actually finish said outfit…

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Friday, May 17, 2013

I'm a Time Traveler!

Yesterday I had an awkward encounter when I was playing Susan Dewey in the Goodwin Garden (year 1870.) This is my newest role so there are bound to be some bumpy bits while I get everything figured out, but I feel like I should have seen this one coming.

I was chatting to some visitors about the lilacs, one gentleman mentioned he was travelling and was worried he would miss his at home. I asked him where he lived, he replied that he lived in Ontario; so I said that his were probably a bit behind ours, and he should be able to make it home in time to see them as long as he returned soon. His companion mentioned the fountain so I told them that all the factories that produced munitions during the war were now making cast iron fountains, garden benches, and other pieces of furniture. They both nodded and the first one said, “I guess I hadn’t thought about it that there would be new uses for factories after the war, just like sheet metal after World War II.”

If it had ended there I would not have made a big deal about it, I am pretty good at playing temporarily deaf when visitors remark about things beyond my time. But the guy then had to get embarrassed and turn to me and say: “But you wouldn’t know about that yet.” I was still trying to get the conversation back on track but it was the end of the day and I was tired. I took a second too long to answer so the second guy took up the topic and said, “ya, we’re time travelers.”

I just looked at him. I could not think of any way to follow up on that. I tried to look all sarcastic and disbelieving but the only thing I could think of to say was, “oh really.” Not my wittiest moment. Which gave the first one the chance to jump back in.

“If you’d like any stock tips?” finally an opening! I launched in to my bit about my father’s investments and how his railroad and shipping investments had done quite well, and that mother’s garden plot had been purchased from a neighbor based on the profits from one of my father's ventures, but that my husband was a naval captain…

Ugh. There are so many ways that could have gone better, and I really should not have been floored by the “We’re time travelers” line, I get it all the time whether I’m Hanne von Reischach at the Renaissance Faire, or Mrs. Shapiro in her kitchen.

So now I’ve determined to come up with a way for each of my characters to show disbelief but still have an enlightening conversation. What would Mrs. Dewey say if talking to someone about the future? I think Mrs. Shapiro would laugh and ask if they flew to her house (there are airplanes in 1919 but they are not available for every day travel) or she might ask them when the messiah will come, if the conversation had touched on Judaism. Hanne could ask if there would ever be an end to wars or how big is the Holy Roman Empire where they come from (then be entirely disbelieving that there is not a Roman empire of any type.)

In a time of great changes like 1870 where there is now indoor plumbing, train travel, factories, telegraph, and photography I don’t know what would seem miraculous but almost just around the corner, or what Susan Dewey would see as completely outlandish and beyond possibility. I guess I don’t know her and her time period well enough yet. I better get back to my research.

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: Part 1

One of the things I love about working at Strawbery Banke museum, is the wide variety of history that I get to take advantage of. Last year I was an interpreter, a role-player, a museum teacher, and a demonstrator. All those are just titles, they do not cover the variety of time periods, stories, and themes I got to cover in just one year. I know I will have a ton of new adventures this year, a couple of which I’ve already started, even though the museum does not open until next week. The one I want to talk about today is the Victorian garden.

For the most part, the costumed role-players at SBM work inside one of the historical houses, but that is not the case with the Goodwin Roleplayer. The Goodwin mansion was moved to the grounds of the museum (unlike most of the houses which we built where they stand today) and when the house was brought in, the garden plans and diaries of Mrs. Goodwin were brought in too so the garden could be recreated. Today it is a full froofy Victorian confection, and as such it requires a lot of work. More work than two horticulturists with an entire museum to look after can accomplish. So the garden is also looked after by a roleplayer, usually playing Mrs. Goodwin in the later half of her life. I am not of an age to play Mrs. Goodwin, but she had grown daughters most of whom lived at home during various parts of their adult lives, and it is not inconceivable that they might have helped out in the garden.

I’m looking forward to spending some time outside both working in the garden, and roleplaying in the year 1870. Last year I roleplayed 1919 and 1777, this year I’m still doing both, but adding 1870 will be a particular challenge because I get to do more research and learn a lot more myself! So now I’m reading the book based on Mrs. Goodwin’s writings, and I’m looking at home manuals of the time, and I’m preparing my gardening clothes.

I admit, the clothes have been occupying much of my prep time. I have an Irish maid outfit that I made at various times, mostly many many years ago, but very little of it will transfer to the front of the house. I also cheat quite a bit on the underthings for the Irish maid, using a modern elastic-sided corset, and just about any skirt that will fit underneath as a petticoat. When I started the project I had two months to complete an outfit so I was determined to do it right, though most of that time was eaten up by my winter job and a fairly thorough overhaul of the sewing room.

Why am I making my own outfit and not having the museum provide me with one? First, because if the museum provided one it would not be ready until mid-June and I have to be in the garden on May 2nd. Second, while the museum would have paid me to make a dress, they were only willing to pay for the dress, and then they would have kept it. If I’m going to make the whole thing I’d like to own the dress that goes on top, and since I am not actually a professional level seamstress I am not confident enough in my own skills to have the museum own one of my pieces.

So there you have it, The first in an installment about my Victorian Ensemble. Stay tuned for further installments!

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Review: Man of War By Charlie Schroeder

A few years ago at Reenactorfest after we gave one of our presentations a guy in normal clothes came up to Stephen and asked if his name was Steve. The guy was the younger brother of one of Stephen’s childhood friends, they had grown up in the same neighborhood. Charlie got his photos taken with all of us, and told us that he was writing a book on reenacting in America. My heart sank, I’ve read the travelogue/human guinea pig type book on reenacting in Europe: I Believe in Yesterday and it was less a book about reenacting than it was about a modern man’s failure to cope with the past as it is lived today. The first few chapters of Schroeder’s book were as bad as I feared, I had to drop the book twice before I got far enough in to if that the author started to find his reenactor footing, actually make connections with the folks he was spending time with and get over his culture shock. And his horrible over-use of personal description dependant on the reader knowing what pop culture celebs look like. Sorry Charlie, those of us who spend our time reenacting have limited patience for celebrity scandal of the week.

Because of his culture shock and lack of in-depth research before he started, Schroeder missed out on actually experiencing WWII and Civil War reenacting as most people experience it, but those are just the big ones that everyone does, right? He did seem to find his footing with Romans, and 18th Century reenacting, met some cool people, got hooked on history. But it was not until the final quarter of the book that I felt like Schroeder might actually be saying something about reenacting. He had finally gotten beyond saggy loaner breeches and firing weapons that could just as easily kill the person shooting as those on the other end.

The book’s premise is an incredibly artificial one, reenactors do not hop from one end of the country to the other trying a little of this and a little of that. They spend lifetimes researching, preparing, crafting, traveling and finally experiencing history. Yes, we all have loaner garb and love to have folks dress in our stuff, but usually it is with the hope that they will get hooked and want to get up their own kit and join in.  Schroeder actually does get his own kit, persona, and timeperiod in the final chapter, but he does not join a group, he makes his own reenactment by walking through LA in the footsteps of an early missionary. He goes out of the hobby like he went in, as an outsider looking for something sensational he can write about.

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