Mr. Hiwell’s Do’s and Don’ts of Character Development

On Wednesday, Low Spark, Miss Miggins, and I are joining some of our Boston friends for the annual Tea Party reenactment. Looking at the script, (which I’m told by a very reliable source hasn’t been changed in 10 years) I’m a little hesitant. The initial set up seems kind of hokey, like something I expect out of the opening of a Disney film.

But I’m going in with an open mind. It’s 1st person so it has that going for it. The three of us got to the game kind of late so we don’t have major roles like we did at Stamp Act. We’re just going as generic citizens. Since the event is first person I began to think at 10:00 on Monday tonight, “Gee, I should I really have some sort of an alias.”

So, let’s take a trip into my process for developing characters.

1. DON’T develop characters a day before the event like I’m doing.

Yeah…just like my papers for college, I like to procrastinate. Granted, we didn’t know for sure if we were going until last week. Still, character development takes time to research and rehearse. This isn’t my first rodeo and a theatre course plus years in drama have made it so I can memorise lines relatively quickly and can improv.

2. DO think about what you feel comfortable with portraying.

Step 1 is deciding what you want to be. For once, I’m not playing the loyalist this weekend. My dear friend is portraying John Copley and mentioned he lacked a proper peruke to use. Fortunately for him, I have a second I can do up for him. This sparked my desire to portray a wigmaker on Wednesday.

But not everyone can portray everyone. Obvious reasons aside, it depends on your level of comfort with that character. Maybe indentured servant or prostitute is too much for someone. Sometimes the villain can be difficult with the constant barrage of fists and slurs coming at you. Pick someone you can handle being in their skin for a few hours and everyone else feels comfortable being around.

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See? Even babies love the Customs Collector!

After you decide who/what you want to portray, get your butt to this. Our dear Aunt Kitty made this presentation at the BAR School of the Soldier a few years and it’s stuck with me ever since. It was probably the first thing that made me think that 1st person interpretation was feasible. I have all the documents saved on my computer just so I can access them whenever, that’s how helpful this resource is.

3. DO the research.

After finishing my last final exam on Monday, I dove right back into the databases looking for information on wigmakers in Boston around 1770. Initially I found a few immigrant wigmakers from London and Ireland that came around 1729-1730 in one source. Taking their age as a factor, they’d either be rather old or dead. I’m 20 so they’re out. I was looking for a wigmaker no older than 35.

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I then found a guy named John Piemont who was making wigs in Boston in the 1770’s. His apprentice is the guy who starts the Boston Massacre. Piemont ran a pretty good business, making wigs for Governor Hutchinson and the British officers garrisoned in town. He must’ve been doing well because he even hired one of the soldiers to work for him.

I was all ready to play Piemont (Even though he was past my age) but by June of 1773, he’s getting called a loyalist and hauls arse out of town to Danvers to run a tavern. Which means he wouldn’t be in Boston in December.

Now what? We hit a dead end. But not quite. There’s still his apprentice, Garrick. There’s a fair amount of research done on him already by those of the Boston Mob which makes my job so much easier. Even better, in 1770, it’s suspected Garrick is in his mid to late teens so by 1773 he’s my age.

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My only issue here is that he’s kind of a big name. It’s not like I’m addressing the assembly but still, I’m not looking to draw undue attention. So, here I am, late Tuesday afternoon, still potentially looking for wigmakers in Boston.

4. DON’T incorrectly portray your character.

1st person based on an actual person, to me, is treading into s”sacred ground.” We’re choosing historical people, that actually lived and have names and taking them on for a few hours. For me, I feel a little more pressure to get things right. That means not vilifying the person but not making them into something they’re not.

When looking at John Robinson during Stamp Act, we knew that after Newport he goes on to Boston. While there, he gets into a fight with a man over some comments about his character. That fight ends in John Robinson putting a hole in the man’s head with his cane. You read that right. His cane. So we can assume Robinson is a strong man with maybe a little temper. This allowed me to yell a bit and get angry back   at the rioters.

Garrick is an interesting kid. Looking at John Adams’ minutes from the Boston Massacre trial, Garrick gets mentioned indirectly at one point.

“and 5 lives sacrificed to a Squabble between the Sentry and Piemont’s Barbers Boy.6 A sawcy Speech in the Boy.”

The tiff begins when Garrick was (falsely) calling out Capt. Goldfinch of the 14th Regiment of Foot in the streets for not paying his bill to Piemont. Right there shows some sort of, for lack of a better term, balls in the boy. Then, when Private White, the sentry on duty, calls him over for slandering an officer, he retorts with “I’m not afraid to show my face.”

I don’t know about  you, but a soldier with a musket isn’t the guy I want to sass. So White takes the butt of the musket and whacks him in the head. One could argue if he deserved that or not but that’s not the point.

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So, we know Garrick is a young man doing young man things with his fellow apprentices. He likes the ladies. He also likes to backtalk authority.  I’m in agreeance with the esteemed blogger that it’s not the soldiers he dislikes, since he went to the barracks the night before to converse and officers felt comfortable around him, but it’s really money he’s after.

After all this, where are we? We have a young man likely in his 20’s by the time of Tea Party. We can’t confirm nor deny he’s still in Boston since he (smartly) keeps a low profile after it all. He’s got a slight attitude. He likes ladies. He likes money, perchance to impress the ladies. My oh my, how stuff has changed in today’s youth. 

Garrick is the backup for the moment. I may do a composite character. An apprentice to a Boston wigmaker I know was in the are but with a little less fame. I may use parts of Garrick’s attitude but with a made up name. Until then, the search continues!

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Basile, c. 1750

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“The music of the army being in general very bad…”

Perhaps a quote every Continental fifer or drummer is familiar with can introduce the impending grievances. It was issued by our pal George Washington on June 4th, 1777 in Middlebrook, New Jersey.

The music of the army being in general very bad; it is expected, that the drum and fife majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them.

It always seems that Fort Lee is the event that gets me all in a tizzy afterwards. Over the year, I had been stepping away from the military scene with events like Eastfield and Stamp Act. As Kitty said it best, gun shows aren’t fun anymore. Well, at least shoot-em ups aren’t fun anymore. I like the small events with people of like mind gathered to do living history, not burn powder. Eastfield was definitely one of those where the marriage of guns and purpose merged nicely.

Changes to improve gun shows aren’t that hard, from my perspective. Being a musician, my focus always tends to be on, surprise-surprise, music.

The great thing about being a musician is:

  1. No dirty gun to clean.
  2. So much easier to bring to an event and carry around.
  3. Any changes for authenticity in regards to music tend to be free or cheap in comparison to soldiers.

And that list is barely even all the benefits. For the purpose of this post, let’s take a look at #3. Cheap usually isn’t a word heard when describing this hobby but changing how you play costs only the time of practice.

For example: We know the British marched at two tempos when on parade. A common step of 60 beats per minute (BPM) (one step per second) and a quickstep of 120 beats per minute (two steps per second).* Improving the authenticity of a song means playing at a faster or slower tempo. Even better, you can march the common step while the music plays at a 120 tempo! Just watch the guards do it at Buckingham Palace as they play Duke of York’s March, a tune played by fifers and drummers in the 18th century.

(Yes, in this video their quick march is really at about 105 BPM. To see a true 120, take a gander at this. Though the bagpipes then drag the tempo down to 110)

Often times, people complain how fast 120 BPM is. The newly formed 17th Regiment of Foot does a steady 120, sans drum! Marching to it can be difficult for an extended period but take a look at the length of their steps at 120. They’re not taking gigantic leaps. They’re taking relatively small, measured steps.

So if we have documentation saying the British played at this tempo and that’s what they marched to, then why aren’t we doing it? Because people complain. When I suggested we do it this past weekend, I got told, “Well 120 is authentic, but it’s a bit much.”

The other problem is that there are musicians not practicing the songs at that speed. Men with muskets drill. A lot. It’s kind of expected of the soldiers to be able to perform their respective army’s dill at events and dare I say, perform it well. So why is it that there are musicians out there that think it’s okay not to practice their “drill”?

On to the next problem: accurate instruments. For the most part, I don’t see a whole lot of plastic drum heads that say “REMO” on them anymore and it’s nice to see that most drummers are using calfskin heads. For new fifers, I totally understand cheap fifes. I started off on a cruddy plastic fife from Cooperman. Everybody has to start somewhere. I can understand not wanting to invest in a decent instrument until you know if you’re going to be any good or not. I tell all the new musicians, don’t buy anything more than $100 until you’re absolutely sure you want to be a musician.

But if you’ve been in the hobby now for a substantial amount of time, have established yourself as a musician, you should really get an accurate instrument. Bringing a Civil War fife to a Revolutionary War event is just as bad as bringing your Springfield Model 1861 to Yorktown. Yes, both the Model 1861 and a Brown Bess go “BOOM” when you shoot it, but it isn’t the same. Both fifes serve the same job as fifes but they sound and behave differently.

Steve Dillon makes excellent copies of the Cahusac fife in his collection. You too, can have an exact copy, made of boxwood, in the key of C, in the correct pitch, for a nominal fee. (BAR members even get a discount! I got mine for $65 I believe.) The fife not only plays great, but it looks great! So why play those expensive, incorrect ones when the good stuff is available? Because fifers complain that instead of open fingerings for a C#, it requires two fingers down on the 3rd and 4th holes.

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Touting my pride and joy at the School of the Soldier this past April.

Did it take some retraining on this fife to get the new fingering and the slightly tighter armature? Yeah, it did. But trust me, it’s beyond worth it to be able to say to your audience that you’re playing an exact copy and this is how the music would have sounded to the original listeners. Besides the teaching tool, the Dillon fife sounds amazing and is without a doubt the best fife I’ve ever owned.

My final piece of dirty laundry is documentation for music. Similar to how the uniforms we wear have to be documented with period sources, so should the music we play. It’s impossible to know what songs were played at each battle or each day but there are plenty of sources out there.  For those willing to look on sites like IMSLP, you can find both Thompson and Aird’s tutors for fifes. The BAR has published a lovely book with period fife and drum music taken from primary sources. The drum notation was even “translated” into modern notation for those that read sheet music.

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You can even make a trip to your local university’s special collection! I went to Brown University’s special collection and got to look at RI fifer’s William William’s manuscript. All I had to do was ask.

But even within the BAR book, stuff has to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, would the British play songs written by Americans? Probably not as they don’t show up in British tutors until after the war. Did the Americans play British songs? All the time as evidenced by repeats of songs in American sources that were in British sources.

One of my favourite songs to play is Stony Point. It’s found only in American fife books so it’s pretty safe to say this piece was written after the Continental Army’s victory there on July 16th, 1779. So here’s an example of a period song from the Revolution that shouldn’t be played at events that take place before this battle. The context just wouldn’t make sense. It would require me telling visitors, “Well mam, that last piece was called ‘Stony Point.’ It’s a song about a battle the Americans won in 1779 but we’re currently at Trenton in 1776 so we don’t know about that battle yet.”

So why this rant? Because I’m growing tired of the nonsense.

I’m tired of hearing made-up parleys on the battlefield when we have one from an original source that’s in the BAR Music Book used by all 3 of the umbrella organisations in the hobby.

I’m tired of seeing videos of battle reenactments where musicians are playing concerts of marches on the battlefield when we know musicians were essentially stretcher bearers doing the occasional signal.

I’m tired of officers in battle telling me to stand behind the line and just twiddle my thumbs when I want to stand behind the sergeant to hear the orders so we can play the signal if necessary or take away the wounded because there’s documentation for that.

I’m tired of marching at 100 beats per minute as a quickstep.

I’m tired of hearing 19th century tunes (I’m looking at you, Men of Harlech) at 18th century events.

I’m tired of going to events, knowing all the camp duties fifers and drummers played from sunrise to sunset and never playing a single one of them besides Drummer’s Call and Assembly.

I’m tired of playing cease fire a crap ton of times because officers don’t know what it means and they then continue to have their units burn powder as if the battle was their last reenactment ever.

But most of all, I’m tired of my suggestions/complaints falling on deaf ears. It’s disheartening to share this information with people to have them not put it to use. It sucks trying to teach a regiment the signals (making recordings so they can listen to them at home, giving them music lessons, etc.) and them never implementing them into the camp. It sucks telling the people in charge of you this, armed with all this documentation and they still won’t budge.

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You don’t even have to carry a heavy guy! We chose a very tiny 13 year old. Photo credit to Suzanne Shaw Photography.

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You don’t even need more than one musician!

These fixes aren’t hard. I’m not asking folks to go out and sew all new outfits out of $75 per yard wool. I’m not asking anybody to sleep on wet hay on the ground. I instead challenge others to put some effort into their impression. Practice your fife or drum a few times during the week. Think before you play a piece, “Is there documentation for it?” You’ll be amazed at just how far the authenticity for the unit and the event will improve when you use music correctly.But most importantly, question what you’ve been taught. I started learning the ways of the Spirit of ’76 and when I began to question what I was doing, everything fell into place. I no longer play undocumented songs on a replica civil war fife during battles.

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So, where does all this leave me? Part of me sees the mess that the state of music is currently in and desires to stop playing at events. Things were so much easier three years ago when I just showed up at events and fired a musket and was ignorant to everything. However, it seems that a few of us are splintering off and forming our own “band”, both of fifes and drums and of music. A group of like minded, dare I say, progressive, individuals getting together to do martial music the right way.

Even the Continental Army music improved after some hardcore practicing. Washington put it best when he said in that same order:

Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.

*See Camus, Raoul F. Military Music of the American Revolution. 1st ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976. 7-9.

Stamp Acting Up: 250th Anniversary of the Newport Stamp Act Riots

Last Saturday was the event of the Summer for me and the RI contingent. Last year’s event was the event that inspired me to make my blue suit and up my civilian game. This year was definitely a leap in authenticity for me. I went up from military breeches, an old waistcoat, and machine sewed coat to handsewn clothing. Did I wear the same outfit for L’Hermione? Maybe…..

Stamp Act Outfit 2014 The hat was a loaner from Uncle Hank. The beaver proved very fun to pet through out the day.

Stamp Act Outfit 2014
The hat was a loaner from Uncle Hank. The beaver proved very fun to pet through out the day.

Stamp Act Outfit 2015 Blue ditto suit with a rabbit pelt hat complete with an original gold button.

Stamp Act Outfit 2015
Blue ditto suit with a rabbit pelt hat complete with an original gold button.

I was beyond excited to be reprising the role John Robinson, the Customs Collector assigned to Newport in 1765. Ever a man of principle, Robinson showed up to town looking to do his job. When the leading merchants offered him a salary of 70,000 pounds a year to turn a blind eye to the smuggling, he turned them down. This same smuggling gets Robinson in some trouble though with merchants. In an attempt to call the Polly out on declaring only part of her cargo of molasses, Robinson went up to Dighton to take custody of the vessel. Lacking crew, he headed back to Newport, got one together, and went back up. To his dismay, everything from the ropes to the cargo was gone and the ship had her bottom drilled. The owner then filed suit for damages while in the custody of Robinson and our pal was sent to jail for two nights! And I thought my summer job was rough!

Capture

Newport, RI. You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. Not the usual crowd for a Customs Collector but the suit looks great in this image, if I may say so.

Besides the fashion faux pas of repeating an outfit, the event was magical in every way and event should have been. Me and Low Spark got up early (after an evening of me styling wigs) to attempt to go fishing with an 18th century hook and line. Despite getting a strange look from the man on the pier, we set about in the hopes of catching something. Anything. We got bites and lost many worms but no fish was dumb enough to bite down completely. Instead, we had to resort to our friend to buy some scups from Whole Foods. At least we had organic stinky fish!

Ahhh, the smell of hairspray at 9:00 in the evening!

Ahhh, the smell of hairspray at 9:00 in the evening!

First time setting the line. Hopes were running high still.

First time setting the line. Hopes were running high still.

Look Ma! Our biggest catch of the day!

Look Ma! Our biggest catch of the day!

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John Robinson keeping an ever watchful eye out on the harbour. No sign of the HMS Squirrel.

We then made our way to the Old Colony House to mentally prepare ourselves for the day ahead. We arrived and were even asked to open up the windows to the balcony. Naturally, Mr. Spark and I could not resist majestic pictures looking out over Newport.

Over there! Someone that needs to pay the custom!

Over there! Someone that needs to pay the custom!

Always watching my kingdom.

Always watching over my kingdom.

Lunch was served and all of us, sailors and customs collectors alike, mingled one last time before breaking into character. It was weird having most of my friends on the anti-establishment side and not being able to talk to them during the day (without having fish hocked at me) but playing a gentleman is always up my alley.

We started the day off with a debate, which Mr. Howard laid the law down on Mr. Vernon and Ellery. I was enjoying myself just sitting back and nodding in agreement. I did take more of a proactive roll in the 2nd debate though. I then enjoyed tea with the ladies on countless occasions and discussed refined things such as the latest news from London, music, and of course, oodling over a baby.

The first debate in which Martin Howard schools those that don't want to obey the law. Though the crowd was against us, we had a very nice 12 year old girl in support of GR.

The first debate in which Martin Howard schools those that don’t want to obey the law. Though the crowd was against us, we had a very nice 12 year old girl in support of GR.

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Tea time! The plum cake was amazing as was the service! Note Mr. Howard’s 2nd wig change of the day.

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Loyalists love babies!

Loyalists love babies!

Things took a little more violent turn in the afternoon though as those pesky sailors sang silly songs and made effigies of my good friend Mr. Howard. I may add that the effigy looked NOTHING like him. Howard is a much better dresser and far less flammable.

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I had one of the most surreal moments I’ve had in reenacting though during the riot. When the fight broke lose, me and a certain sailor locked eyes and sticks and I was surrounded on all sides by angry men. Time stopped and the 5 seconds we growled at each other and had men pull us back stretched for about 10 minutes, in my head at least. My mind completely left the 21st century and I honestly thought 18th century me was about to be pummeled into the cement in front of the Old Colony House. It’s these moments that make me reenact.

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No, madam. I do not want your fish or the odor that comes with them.

Dressing up in funny clothes is fine for some people. I get it. But getting as close to the event as possible and having transcendent moments is what makes it all worth while. When you feel like you’re in the 18th century, so will the onlookers.

Sneaking the furniture of Augustus Johnston away from the angry mob.

Sneaking the furniture of Augustus Johnston away from the angry mob.

At the end of the riot, we all retired to the White Horse Tavern for drinks (Diet Coke for moi) and remarked over how well things went. Overall, this was a FANTASTIC event. We recreated a time specific event, in the location where it was held, we had authenticity standards, we did 1st person, and we researched our roles. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to spend my last and best event of the summer with.

The cast and crew of this great big production. Some of the hobby's finest right here, if I may say so.

The cast and crew of this great big production. Some of the hobby’s finest right here, if I may say so.

Some Revision Required

It’s that end of the semester rush. I’ve been locked in my room these past two weeks writing papers ranging from imperialistic perspectives in British media covering Rhodesia’s UDI to modern contestations to the Falklands’ sovereignty. My fingers are itching to get back to sewing next week. That frock coat WILL be finished by the end of May. The breeches by mid-June (Knowing me, probably not.) and some sort of a waistcoat by July for L’Hermoinee.

As I write these papers, I notice the amounts of revision I have to do. My first attempt is close-ish. My second attempt is closer. My third attempt is pretty good. Hopefully my fourth attempt will be an A. But I notice this same pattern in my reenacting hobby.

My very first uniform was 18th century-ish. You could tell I was aiming for 18th century with my local militia company but stuff wasn’t quite there. The coat is totally wrong. The breeches, gaiters, and waistcoat are all way too big. But this was my very first uniform and I had no clue about anything 18th century. I was an 8th grader at the time after all.

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The beginning of my “never look into the camera” phase. This would be a Continental Soldier circa 1976.

My second attempt was getting better. I was getting closer, that’s for sure but it still wasn’t great. I’d give this a C. I’ve ditched the coat but instead I’m wearing the season’s hottest night gown (hunting frock), ill fitting breeches, modern shoes, and bad stockings. But the ideas are getting better!

josh

My third attempt was probably a C+, maybe a B-. The colour of the small clothes was off (Red when they should’ve been white.) But this is where I made the most improvement. I ditched the Velcro neckstock and changed to black silk. I stopped wearing the ill-patterned bearskin cap and switched to a cocked hat towards the end of my stay with that regiment. The fit of the clothes though were really good.

54th Regiment of Foot

54th Regiment of Foot: Take One

Attempt 3.5. My last event with the 54th. Probably the closest that kit was to being better.

Attempt 3.5. My last event with the 54th. Probably the closest that kit was to being better. Note: The feathers pointing straight up was me goofing around.

Now at my fourth attempt, I still wouldn’t give myself an A. I’d say a solid B is in order. The rope on my fife case cord is gonna be switched to hemp. I need to make a hunting frock like the one I’m wearing, a better waistcoat, and some osnaburg overalls. And the hat has to be made but lets not push it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with my wool overalls. They fit really well, that’s for sure and they’re nice and toasty. But osnaburg is more appropriate for this impression.

10th MA Light Infantry Fifer circa 1781

10th MA Light Infantry Fifer circa 1781

My point here is that reenacting is a learning experience. Almost nobody starts off at the A level. Like writing a paper, you need a rough draft. That draft is gonna be really crappy. Then your paper improves and becomes more nuanced. You should never judge a final draft based on what the first draft looked like. Stuff evloves and ultimately becomes a completely different thing. For some people, their impressions change in the course of a year. For me, it’s been almost 8 years of moving forward.

Just doing what you do right can inspire people to make changes. I remember the first time I saw my current regiment in the field. It was 2012 at a BAR show at Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, CT. Watching men in cut-down coats and leather caps come storming out of the corn field looked like a blast and I wanted to be a part of that. I had no clue that they had research behind their clothing. That was my first battle even firing a musket so fit of clothing was the last thing on my mind. But in the back of my head, I knew this group had something going on. About 2 and a half years later, I drank the Kool-Aid and joined them.

Besides this post being a timeline of my evolution through puberty, it’s shows me maturing through the hobby. I like research now. I love learning about uniforms and music. Eighth grade me would think I’m nuts, spending all my hours in databases looking for articles and images. Hell, college sophomore me thinks I’m nuts. That’s not the point though. I would argue I’m a different person than I was then and most people would agree and can relate to that. So, if you meet a former or current “farb” who wants to improve or has done so, treat them as you would anybody else. If it wasn’t for all the people (and there’s so many) guiding me along the way, I would never have gotten to where I am. You might not see the effects of your help right away. They may take eight years to show but eventually changes will start to show.

What I learned in Soldier School is…

As a child of the Spongebob Era, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this clip from the show as I attempted to come up with a title for this post.

I arrived at New Windsor after 5 hours on the road around 9:30 Friday night. But reader, no tent had to be set up, no fire pit had to be dug. I was quartered in the lap of luxury. Though a slight downgrade from the Hilton Garden Inn last year, I got to sleep in one of the smaller rooms of the temple, complete with a fireplace AND bedding! It was darn chilly that first night but the fire kept the room quite comfortable and provided a good night’s sleep. (Besides the pesky raccoon scratching loudly at the wall at 12:40 in the morning)

5:30 AM was wake up time for me for some odd reason on Saturday and so it was for my roommates. My apologies for that but it did give us time to get the fires going again and cook. First lesson of the weekend: Oatmeal needs some sort of sugar, cinnamon, or fruits. Just oats aren’t my favourite.

I spent most of the day with the musicians and not attending the lectures. There was a bevy of new drummers and fifers all in need of lessons. All younger boys but they show promise. The fifer I was teaching was having difficult hitting the low notes but was able to hit the high notes with no problem. Most beginners are the opposite so kudos to him.

Don Hagist's presentation on his latest book is about to begin!

Don Hagist’s presentation on his latest book is about to begin!

 

Music wise though, a lot was definitely accomplished. We discussed interpretation of ceremonies, practiced marching, and there was some more talk about the pipe dream to form our own Band of Music.

I may have "captured" a British drummer to play for the Continental side.

I may have “captured” a British drummer to play for the Continental side but he can play really well and it wasn’t fair the Brits had 7 musicians and I had none.

On Saturday night, I was honoured to receive the Fifer’s Achievement Award from the BAR Board and a standing ovation. Really though, none of it could have been done without everyone else. I’ve learned more in this past year of reenacting than in my 8 years of doing it. Without people sharing their knowledge, I would not have been able to or be inspired to progress as far as I have.

A rare sight indeed, me quiet.

A rare sight indeed, me quiet.

Day two was held at Knox’s Headquarters which was a site I had never been to. I got to see Christmas AND a funeral all in one house on the same floor in one day! I also got to see friends I hadn’t seen since July which was really great and got to march over a 1740’s stone bridge that was part of the King’s Highway that our regiment marched over. Despite not doing our own funeral demonstration, the day was pretty good. Even better, the car ride home.

Ignorance Truly is Bliss

I’m off to some “Reenactor Professional Development” this weekend at New Windsor Cantonment. The site is small and quaint but it still ranks as one of my favourite places. The home to the semi-permanent encampment for Washington’s army at the end of the war. It was here where Washington’s men heard that the war was over and were sent home. Complete with a recreated Temple of Virtue, a small room with a fireplace, and an original officer’s hut, the site just about equals with Saratoga and Yorktown in my books.

Outside the Temple of Virtue waiting to assemble the troops for the Trooping of the Colours

Outside the Temple of Virtue waiting to assemble the troops for the Trooping of the Colours

Besides looking at nice buildings, the goal of the weekend is to learn; to improve your impression. The BAR’s School of Instruction often presents new information. Last year, the main talks focused on haversacks and hunting frocks. This year it’s a back-to-basics kind of weekend as I’ve dubbed it. On the schedule is how to start a fire, write with a quill, play 18th century games, and food for camp. These are things (besides the quill thing, though I did write a letter once in camp last season) that reenactors do at almost every event but still get wrong.

Learning about military musicians at the school in 2014. It got pretty rowdy when 2 fifes and a drum blasted away in a hollow, wooden room.

Learning about military musicians at the school in 2014. It got pretty rowdy when 2 fifes and a drum blasted away in a hollow, wooden room.

Folks in the front row had to cover their ears. Was our playing really THAT bad?

Folks in the front row had to cover their ears. Was our playing really THAT bad?

I honestly don’t like knowing something I’m doing is wrong. I recently left a regiment for that reason. When I first joined, I knew practically nothing about British musicians besides it was a damn nice uniform. As I talked to more people about what they knew, I found out what I was wearing was wrong. Then I found out our camping situation with a dining fly and tons of furniture was wrong. If I had not known what was incorrect, I probably could have gone on living in that unit. When I confronted the unit about wanting to improve, they said they were comfortable with where they were at. And that’s perfectly fine. Every unit has its own standards and acceptable levels of comfort. With that unit, the fit of the clothes and quality was generally pretty good. Research into the clothing and camp situation wasn’t their strong suit. That’s simply what they wanted and that’s great for them.

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But wanting to improve can often be a difficult and drawn out process, besides costly. Now that I’m in a new unit, I’m attempting to put together a new kit. I’m in need of a new pair of overalls and a hunting frock but my blue suit is taking up all my time and money. There’s nothing egregiously wrong with my old stuff. My wool overalls fit well and judging by the temperature this weekend, they should work well but my frock is a bit too white and the research has shown the shape should be a little different.

I’m already having pre-event guilt thinking about wearing it. I feel like I’m not doing my best to represent the people who fought the Revolution. Not only that, I feel like I’m letting my new unit down. They’re known for their attention to detail, their coat of the month, and dirt stew so falling in with them adds some further pressure and awareness to clothing. Coming out in something not quite up to snuff goes against the School of Instruction’s idea yet it goes along with it. Just acknowledging that it’s wrong and wanting to improve is a step in the right direction.

 

 

 

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!”