Preservation V.S. Petrification

As some of you may recall, I recently went to a talk by Dr. Bethany Morrison, of Western Connecticut University, on archaeology of a winter encampment in 1777-78 in Redding. Afterwards, she asked why I was so interested in the talk (Probably because I was the only student in the room.) Grudgingly, I mentioned I’m a reenactor. I tend to keep this hidden from my school mates. Tell too many people and then your professor wants you to come in, in uniform to give a talk (It really happened. Never again.)

We got into talking about incorrect reenactorisms like cast iron cooking wear, uniform mistakes, etc. Both of us aren’t mega fans of those things. On the other hand though, I mentioned how some of my friends like to wear original buckles on their shoes or breeches. Or even how one of my friends has a suit with all original buttons. All the professors cringed at the idea of this. I also mentioned how some of my friends like to go to sites and metal detect (It seems all the archaeology professors are NOT fans of these people) and then sell their items to collectors. I think I gave them all a heart attack at the mention of these things. (You’re welcome adjutant archaeology and history professors. I just got you tenure. I expect my gift in the mail.)

I myself am a firm believer of the Indiana Jones mentality of “It belongs in a museum!” but not everyone shares my views. I like the idea of sharing knowledge with the general public and those that want. Others like to hoard items so only their select companions can gaze at them longingly in a dark room.

At what point is being authentic going too far? Are you willing to put original items at risk for the sake of being authentic at a reenactment? I’ll confess, I use an original fork and knife in my mess kit. They were a gift for my memorization of over 90 freakin’ fife songs. Some people think I’m nuts and say I’ll lose them at an event. With my track record, I probably will. But they’re a great piece to show the public so they can see what people ate with. Buttons and buckles serve that same person.

Of course, I couldn’t help but mention one of my favourite stories. A certain unit in the hobby (That shall remain nameless to protect their reputation) found out the buttons on their coats were actually reproduced Centennial buttons from the 1870’s. They then went through the process of changing all their buttons on the uniforms. That can be upwards of 30 buttons for a regimental. (I just counted 46 on my 1778 style coat) What did they do with all those incorrect repro buttons? Threw them in the ground at events and historic sites for some poor metal detector or archaeologist to find. Dr. Morrison quickly covered her ears and said, “I will hear no more!”

Reenactors can do wonders for material culture. Some are interested in it and want to preserve it. Others hope by showing the public, they may inspire others to take an interest and start preserving the items. Others just downright suck. It all leads to the big question: Do we preserve history to be in a continual use in its intended purpose for all to see or do we petrify a piece never to be used again to sit in a glass case?

“After Valley Forge, What?”

Yesterday, I attended a lecture at my university titled, “After Valley Forge, What?” by Dr. Bethany A. Morrison of Western Connecticut University. I first noticed the poster Tuesday. My eyes perked up at the sight of Valley Forge. It’s not often my college, which likes to focus on dates after 1854 (It’s founding), has talks on periods before it, let alone the Revolution. Fortunately for me, I had no plans or classes from 12-2 and decided this would be a great chance to do some “professional development”, if you will.

I arrived in the room about 5 minutes early. There were about 9 people in total, all were professors. A bit intimidating to be the only student but I sat myself down and waited anxiously.

The talk was on archaeological exploration of a winter encampment of the Continental Army in Redding, Connecticut from November of 1778 to the Spring of 1779. The main camp is now Putnam State Park. The other in Redding proper was developed on before any digs could be. This camp, known as Middle Encampment, had never been touched since the army left. After they dismantled the cabins, the land had been turned into pasture so nobody had done any heavy farming or developing. The neighbours kept a close eye on who was going in and out of it and guarded it as their little secret. This was the perfect place to find artifacts.

As a history major, my view of archaeology is pretty narrow. Just the mention of it and Indiana Jones comes to mind. No Ark of the Covenants or Holy Grails were found here, but a different treasure was to be had.

Numerous firebacks (the stone portion of the wooden chimneys of the huts) were found. Some in a row pattern like General Von Steuben ordered after the training at Valley Forge, some…not so much. The army had a particular problem with this location. It was on an incredibly steep hill. They still tried to follow Steuben’s orders though. They faced the encampment to the South and put it behind a stream with running water. Interestingly, they carved out sections of the hill to make it level enough to build their huts which goes against the theory that the Continental Army did not do any planning or floor prep before building. They may have been ordered not to do it but this encampment, like the rest of the army, was a bunch of rebels.

The layout for an encampment as dictated by Baron Von Steuben in his orders from 1778.

The layout for an encampment as dictated by Baron Von Steuben in his orders from 1778.

The thick redline is the land the researchers had access to. The red dots are clusters of artifacts. The blue line running near the "Enlisted Man" circle is the stream. There is also a road north of the "Kitchens and Suttlers" section. Note the two neat rows in the "Enlisted Men" section. Questions to ponder were: Where's the Parade Ground? Where are the camp followers? What's up with the outliers to the left?

The thick redline is the land the researchers had access to. The red dots are clusters of artifacts. The blue line running near the “Enlisted Man” circle is the stream. There is also a road north of the “Kitchens and Suttlers” section. Note the two neat rows in the “Enlisted Men” section. Questions to ponder were: Where’s the Parade Ground? Where are the camp followers? What’s up with the outliers to the left?

An FTIR (An infrared scanning of absorption and emission into an object) of some fireback rocks from the huts were even able to tell them what the army was eating in late winter/early spring. What’s on the menu you ask? Malnourished goats, acorns, wild asparagus, and cattails. All available in the wetlands and the nearby farms of the encampment.

What stuck out the most to me was the layout of the camp. Here was a group of four regiments (3rd, 4th, 6th, and 8th CT Regiments) that tried their very best to follow Steuben’s orders but ended up having to modify them to suit their needs. They even built their cabins to the exact dimensions set forth in the General Orders.

Artifacts were found all over the place. Metal detecting showed that these men were 1. Losing shoe buckles left and right. and 2. Used a lot of nails. The nails struck everyone in the room by surprise. The myth has it that enlisted men would not have used nails in construction of their huts but the quantity, location, and the size of the nails surprised everyone in the room. These were long nails and were plentiful. This lead to speculation of would these huts have had a wooden flooring?

In the top right corner is one of the many shoe buckles found in the Middle Encampment. On the bottom is one of the hundreds of nails. Dr. Morrison said that every time a student found one, they would say, "Great. Another nail." in a rather sarcastic tone.

In the top right corner is one of the many shoe buckles found in the Middle Encampment. On the bottom is one of the hundreds of nails. Dr. Morrison said that every time a student found one, they would say, “Great. Another nail.” in a rather sarcastic tone.

The layout also left some questions. Where in the world was the parade ground? There’s orders for the camp that the regiments paraded but there didn’t seem to be any suitable land to parade 1500 men. Would it be across the stream? Where were the camp followers? Were they in a separate camp? Were they sharing the huts?

Unfortunately, money for the project has run out and they barely scratched the surface. But thanks to their research, the land is now protected so nobody can go in with their own metal detectors and scavenge for artifacts. Fortunately for me, I was able to harass Dr. Morrison with a ton of questions afterwards and she was even so kind to give me the print out of her slideshow with her notes (both typed and handwritten.) It just goes to show that the woods behind your house with some weird piles of rocks may not be just woods.

The "and..." leads off into a slide saying it got protected by the state, in case you were wondering.

The “and…” leads off into a slide saying it got protected by the state, in case you were wondering.

Design on a Dime: 18th Century Clothing Edition

For those that know me, I like fancy clothing. Especially 18th century clothing. Who doesn’t? The movies love to portray the romantic images of balls and court society with men in wigs and silk outfits covered in embroidery and lace. That stuff’s damn nice. For a living historian, most of us can’t afford that kind of clothing to be made. Some are talented enough to do it themselves, but at the expense of having a life.

As a fledgling college student, I find myself wanting to do things right, wanting to portray something bourgeoisie (Classy yet subtle. Not street vermin), but wanting to do this all on the budget of a street vermin and finding time in between writing papers and sleeping. So I endeavoured to create a civilian suit for this upcoming 2015 reenacting season. An all blue wool ditto. With 5 yards of French Royal Blue wool, 3 spools of linen and silk lace, and 3 wax cakes, I figured I was all set to make a suit. All to the tune of $172. What else could I possibly need? Turns out, everything.

Coat (reverse), ca. 1765, British (probably), silk (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art Front View

Coat (reverse), ca. 1765, British (probably), silk (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art Front View

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (oil on canvas), Anton von Maron (1733-1808) What appeats to be a velvet blue blue ditto.

William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire (oil on canvas), Anton von Maron (1733-1808)
What appeats to be a velvet blue blue ditto.

I forgot buttons. So I repurposed some old buttons on a double-breasted waistcoat that was a gift. It fit poorly and was a bad pattern and 20 buttons just can’t go to waste. I covered those ugly buttons in scrap wool and made myself some very pretty (if I may say so) cloth-covered buttons for nothing.* 20 isn’t enough for the whole suit so more buttons have to be purchased. (25 more to be exact but at $0.75 a pop, they are at the least of my worries.)

Then today, it turns out I need a pair of knee buckles for the breeches. I was hoping to get away with just buttons but a certain tailor said they just won’t do. There’s a $28 purchase. Sure, they’ll probably last me a lifetime and I can use them on other sets but still, another expense I forgot to calculate.

For those keeping track at home, the total cost so far on this suit is $218.75. Most folks that reenact see that as a pretty reasonable price for a 3 piece suit. I’d agree. Those not in the hobby think that’s an absurd amount of money for out of date clothing. I’d probably agree with them there, too.

How do you do this cheap? Do it yourself. What if I can’t sew? Gee, you better learn how.

I’m EXTREMELY fortunate to be in a unit where everyone (especially the sergeant) has just about mastered the art of sewing. I don’t think I could even come as far without the sage guidance (and millions of “Questionable Moments”) of these people. The amount of panicked emails complete with pictures they get is ungodly and I’m sure they cringe when they see my name pop up. When I’m no longer in debt to them, I’ll have to buy them something pretty. Still, I received a workshop to learn how to make a frock coat as a Christmas gift this past year. Cost for that was $115 which is an excellent price for a sewing workshop compared to what other places go for.

The centre seams are complete along the fall bearers and flap linings. Half a waistband on!

The centre seams are complete along the fall bearers and flap linings. Half a waistband on!

Now we’re up to $333.75. That’s about two semesters of college books for me.

But how could I forget the cost to have the material cut? I’m not skilled enough to follow a pattern nor have the patience to do so. The coat ended up being $90 ($50 for it cut, another $30 for lining material, and $10 for some thread.) and the breeches are probably gonna be about $65 ($40 for cut, I figure $25 for lining material.) The yet to be cut waistcoat is gonna end up costing about $60 I assume for the cut and lining. We’re only $548.75 in the hole so far? What’s the big deal?

Missing a body linings, buttons, and button holes, an upper collar, and pleats the worst is yet to come.

Missing a body linings, buttons, and button holes, an upper collar, and pleats the worst is yet to come.

And alas, I had to get a new pair of shoes and new stockings. The shoes were a steal at $60 (buckles included) from a former reenactor and the stockings were $52 but they’re hand sewn and so nice! Fortunately for me, the shoes were for Christmas and the stockings for Valentine’s Day. I’m also gonna need some new cloth garters to hold those stockings up which should cost me about $4 to make.

I’ll also need a new unlaced hat with the proper brim height to the tune of $120.

If you haven’t passed out yet by the figures I’ve thrown out, the grand total of this total wardrobe is….

$784.75

I can feel my heart pounding as I type that. This damn hobby isn’t cheap. Granted only $549.75 came out of my pocket, that’s still a nice chunk of change. Most reenactors will tell me that’s an excellent price to pay for a suit made for me. The whole wardrobe is a little more than half the price of a new musket or a whole used one. I’ve spent less than that on college books in my 4 semesters.

As I sit in the lounge with the rest of the history majors and try to convince them that “This hobby can be done on a budget! You should totally join!” and watch them give me the look of disbelief, I understand why. This can be such a daunting thing to grasp to a new person in the hobby, hell; it scares the daylights out of me and I’ve been doing this for 7 years.

But as I sew the garments, there’s a sense of accomplishment I get from putting them together and seeing less and less pieces of random fabric and seeing something that kind of resembles an article of clothing. All these years, I’ve been wearing hand-me-down clothing not made for me or stuff made for me that belongs to the regiment. It will be nice to actually have something that’s mine and made by me.♦

*Just don’t turn them over or take them off the coat. It looks like a mangled spider’s web on the back.

♦You’ll know if it’s made by me by the bloodstains I leave somewhere hidden on the garment. I always say, “No project is complete until you’ve made a blood sacrifice to the sewing gods!”