My husband and I are living historians and demonstrate our “old time” crafts at historical rendezvouses. We also used to work for Three Rivers Park District (formerly Historical Murphy’s Landing), a living history museum. We have been trained to present ourselves as people living in the past and try to get there as closely as possible.
It’s challenging to keep up a “period correct” portrayal. But for us, it’s easy too! The difficult part is the research to make SURE that what we use is accurate in every detail. The easy part for us is that Lehman’s has many items that are necessary to carry off the illusion of living “back then.” We do not have to scrounge around in antique shops, hoping to find something rare and expensive to use.
Our chosen time period is the 1870s. In that time period, enamelware was common so I can use some lovely enamelware pots for cooking.
I also use water pitchers, hand basins and wash basins in enamel. I prefer the black or grey, but blue is acceptable. What I do NOT use is enamelware cups for hot liquids. You will soon find that you cannot hold a hot cup!
Husband Norm fusses that I have so much weight for us to haul around, but how can you fry an egg in a 10″ frying pan? Oh, no! I use a size 3 for that! I also have two Dutch ovens; one for my soups and stews and the other for desserts.
Many people, when visiting our site to watch Norm carve spoons or to watch me spinning or weaving, ask “Do you actually SLEEP here?” As if sleeping in a tent (or camper) is not done. Our tent is set up to look like it came from the 1870s but it also is very comfortable. After all, people wanted to be warm and comfortable then too!
Our tent is made of canvas, which actually is more waterproof and warmer than a nylon pop-up tent that most modern campers have. It is about 12 feet by 14 feet which gives us room for spreading out. We have a double bed. The frame is an antique bedstead but under the hand-tied quilt and wool blankets rests a foam mattress, not a straw tick. A straw tick is very comfortable but difficult to pack. We don’t show under the blankets and flannel sheets so we are comfortable but look correct.
I have curtains made with reproduction material and behind the curtain is a reproduction commode (old-fashioned porta-potty) that is VERY handy on rainy nights. I also have a washstand with an enamel wash basin and pitcher for washing up. Showers aren’t necessary if you know how to take a “spit bath.” Even washing hair is not hard with a basin of hot water.
We have a lovely 4-dog stove to keep us warm on cold nights. The trappers and mountain men would judge the temperature of the night by how many dogs on the bed it took to keep them warm. The stoves that are used in our tents are sized by dog-size. A 4-dog stove keeps our place nice and cozy warm; we have had water freezing outside and been toasty inside. The stove breaks down to a small rectangle with the legs and stovepipe stored inside; great for travel. It has a flat top so that I can have hot water and coffee cooking in the morning (enamel coffee pot, of course) and can even cook inside if it’s too cold to go out.
Outside, I have a brazier; this is a long rectangular box of metal that has legs and stands up tall enough for me to cook on so that I don’t have to bend over an open fire pit on the ground. This, like all of my cooking supplies, is totally correct. It tears down to carry the legs and grate inside the box. I do cook over an open fire, but it’s just not on the ground. Some folks use a tripod, and suspend their Dutch ovens from it for cooking.
I also have a kitchen box and an ice box. The ice box is insulated, inside, with a high density foam and holds ice for about 3 days, unless it’s very hot. I can keep my perishables in this, although I’m careful not to open the box when there are “outlanders” (non-rendezvousers) around, as the foam is not period correct. This lovely box was made by my talented husband. My kitchen box holds non-perishables but these are stored in the correct type of storage tins and jars so that I can keep the box open if I want.
For cooking utensils, I have wooden spoons and wooden spatulas (also made by Mr. Talent!). We have eating utensils that are either silverware (not stainless steel like our modern tableware) or pewter. My favorite spoons are pewter, as they are lighter weight than the heavy silver.
Dishes are ironstone or pottery; so are the cups. I have some flowery ones but most of them are plain, as I worry about breaking the pretty ones.
Of course we wear clothing like the ones that our ancestors wore in the 1870s. A lot of research has gone into the clothing of the different time periods. It would not do to wear a dress that was worn in 1812, for example, or a dress that was worn in the 1890s. Fashions changed then as well as they change now-a-days.
The men can get by with a lot because a working man in any time period wore nearly the same styles. Most guests to our area would not know the difference, but other living historians would, and I would get a “look,” if not an actual scolding for trying to pass myself off in the wrong clothing! I have made all of my clothing and most of Norm’s. It impresses people when they see me in all my “regalia” as I tell them, “Yes, I made this myself!”
As I said, we try very hard to keep ourselves correct for our time period. If I had a plastic spoon on my table or a “Hello Kitty” tablecloth, most people wouldn’t notice, but I would know. Besides, if everything isn’t correct, it’s almost like lying to the public, pretending that something modern was actually around in the past.
With all my “modern” conveniences of the 1870s, I am quite comfortable. I keep my husband fed and warm as well. We have lived in this set-up for over a week at a time and could go longer if we had the need.
And I have places like Lehman’s to thank for making my search for good, period-correct items much easier!
Editor’s Note: As someone involved in historical portrayals too, I can agree that it’s great to have a resource like Lehman’s to turn to when something’s hard to find. Many re-enactors and cosplay enthusiasts have found Lehman’s in Kidron and Lehmans.com a great source for all kinds of things from utensils to wheelbarrows to throwing knives to wool socks. If you’re a re-enactor, cosplayer or LARP fan, check out what we have to offer. You’ll be surprised. –Karen Johnson, Editor, Country Life