1: Take the Leap
There are endless reasons why people get into living history. For many, their passion for history is what drives them, and historical reenacting and interpretation provide a way to immerse themselves in history like nothing else can. For others, it’s the comradery they experience with like-minded friends. For others still, it’s the thrill of the battle, getting closer to nature, or simply seizing the chance to take a deep breath of mind-clearing fresh air.
Whatever it is that interests you about historical reenacting or interpretation, our first word of advice for you is to decide you can do it. That may seem overly simplistic, but it’s actually a really big step. Too many people have missed out because they didn’t know how to get started, or they felt that doing so was too hard, too expensive, or too complicated. Often the line that one must cross is simply believing that getting involved doesn’t have to be any of those things.
Let’s be honest. Living history can be expensive, especially if you go out and buy things you really don’t need. Once you’ve made the decision to get involved, resist the urge to immediately purchase lots of clothing and supplies.
Connecting with other reenactors or interpreters is one of the easiest ways to learn the ropes. Of all the strangers in the world, living historians are probably the easiest people with whom to strike up conversations and forge lasting friendships. You can find them at historic sites and historical events.
There are also hundreds of living history groups across the country. Very likely, there’s one near you. Many of these groups delight in helping people get started. Most have clothing suggestions and guidelines so that you won’t have to guess what’s needed. Some groups even have “loaner chests” from which you can clothe and equip yourself until you can buy your own wardrobe and supplies. Don’t be afraid to approach them and to ask questions. While it’s not absolutely necessary to join a group, doing so is probably the fastest way to make progress. If you can’t connect to a group, try to find a mentor — an experienced reenactor who is willing to help guide you and get you connected as you begin your journey. If you can’t find a mentor, consider a virtual mentor such as an on-line blogger or an individual on YouTube. [Be sure to watch the playlist of videos on our YouTube channel of interviews with historical reenactors, who kindly share their firsthand advice for the beginning reenactor.]
Knowing where to look for groups or reenactors can be a challenge in and of itself. That’s why we’ve launched www.LivingHistoryTimes.com, where we are building an on-going directory of groups, events, historic sites, and living history opportunities across the country, as well as a calendar of events.
3: Choose Your Character
A “persona” is a character that you portray, either an actual individual (e.g., George Washington) or a type or class of person who may have lived during a specific time period (e.g., a farmer living on the 1780 frontier, or a Rev-War campfollower who may have served as camp cook and battlefield nurse).
If you’ve joined a group, there are typically people there who can help you choose a role or persona that fits within the group. Otherwise, our suggestion is to start with something simple and generic. We’ve included over a dozen different persona ideas on this site for both men and women.
Don’t be frightened by the word! Research and discovery are two of the things that make living history so rewarding and fun! For the avid reenactor or interpreter, young or just young at heart, research is a never-ending process. It’s what makes reenacting such an exciting journey.
One reason research is so important, especially for the beginner, is that it allows one to proceed with confidence. The more research that’s gathered to support one’s persona or historical interpretation, the more confidence one portrays.
People often find research intimidating because they don’t know where or
how to begin. We suggest you start by keeping a journal. Another option is to start a blog. Write down your questions. Identify topics in which you are most interested. Take good notes as you talk with other reenactors and start making your own discoveries.
There are different types of research resources. A good place to start is with Secondary Resources — research that has been compiled and analyzed for us by someone else. Remember that this kind of resource needs to be backed with Primary Resources. Primary resources are records, articles, evidence, or artifacts from the time period you are studying. If the secondary research we use is not supported with references, footnotes, and bibliographies, then it is really only helpful in asking more questions, the answers to which must be found elsewhere. In contrast, the bibliographies found in some books are in and of themselves worth more than the rest of the books’ contents altogether.
There are thousands of interesting topics to delve into even within the fairly narrow confines of the time period we choose to explore. There are scores of resources available for each of those topics. The adventure is simply finding them.
Yet, sadly, and for entirely too long, so much of the research materials have been kept secret or stored in vaults in private collections, away from the public’s eye. No single person or organization can honestly claim to have a corner on all there is to know.
As a community of historical reenactors and intrepreters, we have the opportunity to remedy this situation by sharing our findings and collective wisdom with each other. Our belief in and passion for this endeavor has become the driving force for us at Jas. Townsend & Son. It’s why we have have dedicated years of effort and resources in our YouTube channel. We hope to do even more in the very near future to make more of our research and our favorite resources available on line.
5: Build Your Outer Person
Once you’ve narrowed down the possibilities and you’ve begun to solidify your persona, turn your attention toward costuming and equipping. Our advice to you again is to resist the urge to purchase everything you think you need. Ask your group or mentor if they may have any spare clothing or equipment you can use as you launch your historical interpretation. Once you explore the possibilities further, you may discover that there’s a different persona, activity, or even group that interests you more or is more compatible with your lifestyle.
6: Do It.
Get out there. Don’t be intimidated by the experience or knowledge of others. View them instead as resources. Don’t be afraid that a member of the public will ask you a question that you can’t answer. Be honest about where you are in your reenacting journey. Everyone, regardless of how long they have been at it, is on the same journey.
There are a few terms used in living history circles that may be helpful to understand. A reenactor is one who participates in the duplication of an historic event. Their interaction with the public is often limited or incidental. An interpreter is one who concerns him or herself with the pursuit of historical accuracy and actually sharing that with the public. They are generally more interactive with the public. There are varying degrees of interpretation, but broadly speaking, interpreters can be described as either first-person or third-person.
Third-person interpreters may be dressed in period clothing, but they
fully acknowledge the present and don’t pretend to be living in the past. Third-person interpreters refer to the people they portray using third-person pronouns, i.e., them, they, their, etc. They might describe how things were done or how people acted “back then,” compared to how things are done today.
First-person interpreters attempt to portray themselves as though they are from the past without context to the present. They speak using first-person pronouns, such as I, me, and we. First-person interpretation can be very challenging, and usually requires a great deal of general historical knowledge as well as an ability to think quickly in response to questions from the public.
There’s no right or wrong. Pick the level of involvement with which you feel most comfortable. You can develop your persona as you grow in your knowledge and comfort level.
7: Build Your Inner Person
It’s one thing to wear a pair of period-correct shoes, but it’s another thing to walk in them. Building your persona goes beyond outward appearances. As you advance in your character development and dive deeper into your research, pay attention to how the person you portray lived and what he or she did. Start asking regarding why they did what they did. Learning the mindset of an historical person is the most challenging aspect of research.
We naturally have a modern “perception screen” through which we interpret our experiences. It’s easy to judge the way things used to be done as being strange, silly, or even dumb. We must remember that society back then was not less intelligent than ours, they simply didn’t have the vast amounts of information we do today.
Through your research, you can piece together the social, religious, economic, philosophical, political, and scientific influences that would have shaped the thinking of your character.
8: Polish & Perfect
There are endless opportunities to look at our personas and refine what we do. Questioning our preconceived notions and modern presumptions regarding our personas and the world in which they lived can be a very rewarding pastime. This is where some of the most profound learning comes from.
If you’re passionate about living history, you are in good company. People from every generation and all walks of life have blazed the trail that brought us here to this very point in time. You may not have thought of yourself as a gatekeeper of our shared history, but that is exactly what we become when we embrace living history. If we agree to share freely what we learn along the way, there is no telling where the trail will lead. We don’t pretend to have all the answers or know everything there is to know about the 18th and 19th centuries. What we do know is that, no matter how long we’ve been doing this, in some sense, we are standing at the trailhead together and the journey has just begun for us all. We’re glad you decided to join us!
13 thoughts on “”
I am interested in a persona of a female in 1780s, working class, living in the NJ area. I would like to know if stays are required for under the short gown or could I do without, at least to start. I also would love to see a video on trimming a hat for women. All your hats need to be trimmed and it is not something I have done before. It could also show different ways to wear a women’s hat.
I am also interested in a forum to share ideas and questions. I presently live in Idaho and cannot find any groups in this area. I am sure it is due in part to the settlement time. I plan on developing my persona to visit schools to help them learn about the revolutionary war period.
PS LOVE your videos and catalog.
Thank you for your kind words! I apologize for the delay in this response. Comfort and mobility were key for the working class. Stays are not necessary under a shortgown.
Thanks, i think stays would have been a problem for me. Now to get a short gown!!
Disappointed that your suggested personas do not include Native American
Thanks for the suggestion! We have been working so hard to get this initiative up and running. There are so many more personas that we hope to include in the future, but we had to start somewhere. Stay tuned! Thanks again!
Thank you for the effort of taking the mystery out of getting started.
Jon and Kevin, as you have asked here are some thoughts and ideas for those who are trying to decide on a persona… First remember age is only a number and depending on genetics, life style and the like, age should not prevent someone from participating… I know persons in their 50’s and 60’s who easily pass for someone much younger, so try something and find what works for you. That said, here is an age appropriate idea, a First Nation persona as a bow and arrow maker where age and skill were critical to our native Americans of the 18th and 19th century as such wisdom and knowledge did not come over night. Also how about a Native tracker who regardless of their age were used by many military and civilian groups from the 18th and 19th century and into the 21st century where tactical tracking is taught to our military and law enforcement agencies today. And one that encompassed many ages, frontier path finders, trail blazers and guides like Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark and the like, who helped to explore and open the way for our pioneer ancestors as they pushed west.
I ran across Jas. Townsend youtube 18th Century Cooking. I was pleasantly Surprised when there was a quote from Joseph Plum Martin. He happens to be one of my husband’s relatives. My Husband belongs to the Sons of The American Revolution Organization here in Sussex County N.J.
Thanks for the Videos. Always interested in History, Especially 1700’s and onward.
Mrs. Victoria Martin
I apologize it has taken so long to respond to your comment. I ran across your note while doing a little maintenance on the blog (deleting hundreds of spam posts that were awaiting approval). Any way, that is really exciting that your husband can trace his lineage directly to Mr. Martin, and what a privilege we all have to be able to read his memoir! I truly consider it a national treasure! Thanks for your kind words.
Like so many of the commentators, I love the videos and all that is offered for the 18th Century living historians. A decade ago, I reenacted a Civil War battle ( as a Illinois mother searching for her under-aged son who had joined up). I enjoyed almost every moment of my time doing so. It would have been an enormous help to have then what is available now. Yet, I found no mention of undergarments for women in the catalogue. Is there a lack of historical documentation available for “unmentionables” or just modest sensibilities?
I apologize it has taken so long to respond to your comment. I ran across your note while doing a little maintenance on the blog (deleting hundreds of spam posts that were awaiting approval). During the 1700’s, women’s underclothing consisted primarily of the chemise, stays (corset), panniers (or hoops) — depending on the social class, pockets, and stockings with garters.
Hi John and Kevin. I’m an old sailor. I’ve worked on large, traditional sailing vessels with tarred rigging. One even had the old-fashioned tarred hemp standing rigging such as was used in he 18th century. I’d like to make a comment about slops – the loose fitting pants worn by sailors of that time. I’ve seen several statements on line saying that these were worn as protection over the regular cloths to keep them from getting stained or torn. Having worked in similar conditions, I can tell you that slops would have been useless for that purpose and for the most part unnecessary. They only cover the area between the waist and knees and, in active conditions, the wind would blow right up them, carrying them up the leg and protecting even less. When working seated a simple scrap of canvas does the trick. What sailors wore under slops is a matter of speculation but it was probably much the same as what Scots wore under their kilts. Contemporary illustrations rarely show anything other than a stockinged leg. The slops themselves came in many forms and evolved over time. In some illustrations they are quite elegantly cut and draped, evidently shirt weight material. The shirt that went with it could be very blousey with a wide collar. Even officers wore this outfit at times. It was a fashion statement saying “I’m a professional seaman and proud of it.” Jack had a tendency toward being vain. Thanks for the work you do. I know you spend a lot of time and effort with your various on-line enterprises and it is appreciated. I’ve made several dishes from your cooking series and they’re great!
I came across your youtube piece on chemical leavening, and there are a few problems with it. There wasn’t an email address for you, some I’m using this.
To begin with, the gingerbrede made with honey and breadcrumbs is medieval, going back to at least the 14th c. It isn’t baked, so adding potash to it wouldn’t result in leavening. And it isn’t hard — as we make it the texture is like fudge. I don’t know what was happening in Deventer, but the evidence given in the youtube presentation does not support the claim made there.
On the other hand, what is pretty clearly chemical leavening does appear in al-Warraq, which is a 10th century cookbook. It’s called “baker’s borax,” clearly is not what we call borax, and might well be potash.