Sunday, December 29, 2013

Home-Grown Immersion: Part 3

And so, we come to the final chapter in my report on our immersion luncheon. I have, unsurprisingly, struggled to put into words my thoughts and feelings on it. I am the type of person who, in looking back on things, usually notes first and foremost the things I wish would have gone differently. That's not so bad in my line of work (teaching and training) but it doesn't make for a fun after-action report! In any case, I'll do what my friend Emily (quoting from Alice in Wonderland) usually says: begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop.

We decided on a start time of 11 am, which meant that by arriving at 10, I (along with my staff of three, plus Sarah who had changed at my house) had an hour to put things in order and give final directions to the staff. We got things all situated, polished the silver that needed polishing, inspected the china and crystal to decide what we wanted (two whole cupboards at my disposal!), gave final directions, and then it was just about time to start.

I tend to anticipate that the moment of switching from modern!Betsy into first person will be jarring or difficult. In reality, it was seamless. I walked out of the dining room and encountered the butler in the hallway. I informed him of who would be coming to dine, instructed him to show them in directly, and where to put their wraps and bonnets. Then we both went on our way.

My friend Miss Chapin (Sarah) was already there and we spent some time in the parlor before the guests arrived. Mrs. Harl, who was new to the area and whom I had met at church, arrived shortly and we spent some time admiring the books in the library. This is one of the things that I think went really well - having someone who is "new" allowed for easy conversation. There are always questions to be asked and things to discuss when there is someone new in the group.

The rest of the guests trickled in - a mix of ladies from all walks of life. Shortly thereafter the butler asked me to inspect the table (the maid being new, I wanted to make sure that everything was in order) and lunch was served.

I'm really happy to say that we never wanted for topics of conversation. There were always things to talk about - we shared news of people we knew, talked about the weather (Minnesota had a really interesting year, weather-wise, in 1863), the national Thanksgiving day that had been declared, and news of the war. The food was absolutely marvelous - everyone really outdid themselves.

It was interesting to portray the lady of the house, even a deputy one. I had done some research beforehand, and decided to portray a lady who was living with her parents and whose mother was out of town at the time. I thought this would make it easier for everyone to relate to me (since they already know me as an unmarried lady). I'm not sure it worked out that way, but it gave people plenty to speculate on regarding my marriage prospects!

After lunch it was still raining quite heavily so I invited the ladies to wait out the storm in the parlor. One of the young ladies recited some poetry for our entertainment. Very shortly thereafter it was time for the day to end.

In all, I think it was a success. Everyone reported having enjoyed themselves, which was important. My main goal was, as I stated before, to give my friends an opportunity to try out first person immersion for themselves in a "safe" environment that allowed them the opportunity to test out the waters, as it were. I think I was successful in that regard - the general consensus was that everyone would like to do it again!

I do hope to plan another event like this one. In the future, I would perhaps keep a tighter rein on impressions; I let everyone pretty much have free will this time, and while it allowed them to research their interests and create interesting personae (which was awesome), it came at the cost of some confusing conversations about how all these people ended up in one room together. I don't regret the choice, but I would try it differently next time to see what difference it might make.

There were, of course, mistakes made. People said the wrong thing, a cell phone went off, etiquette was forgotten. But I think those incidents created the ultimate learning moments - you can ignore those things and get past them, and the event can go on without a hitch. We're all human, and the important thing is to put yourself out there and just try it out.

I hope these reflections help others realize that you can do first person immersion anywhere, if you are creative and have the desire!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

"The Road Winter", Currier and Ives
'Tis the season to be jolly! I want to take a moment and say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you! I love this time of year and Christmas is so quintessentially Victorian that it always puts me in a historic mood. I want to be out enjoying a sleigh ride with a cup of hot mulled wine and a roaring fire afterwards!

Christmas 1863, Harpers Weekly
 I hope this holiday season and Christmastide finds you surrounded with love and comfort. I personally have been very busy - by day, I work on the leadership team of a customer service call center. We have been very busy making sure our customers have a very happy holiday! I am also part of a choral group and we had two concerts this season - the highlight of which was learning "Stille Nacht" and "O Tannenbaum" in German. I felt like I was connecting with my German ancestors, who immigrated to the United States in the 1840s.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Family with Christmas Tree
 It has also been very, very cold here - one of the coldest Decembers in two centuries in Minnesota. If it's cold where you are (or colder than you are used to) or if the season has maybe left you a little cold in other ways, I hope you can find some comfort and good cheer and warmth.

"Comfort" from the collections of the NYPL
I just wanted to take a moment, as the year closes, to thank you for following along with my historic exploits, for sharing in my love of history, and to wish you all a very happy new year.

"Christmas Eve", WC Bauer

PS: Now that the holiday season is drawing to a close, expect more posts. I haven't forgotten about the post I'd promised on our immersion luncheon, and will be posting that soon! Thanks to everyone for your patience!

PPS: What do you think of the new background? Shoutout to Background Fairy for the pretties!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Home-Grown Immersion Part 2

In my last post, I gave some insight into the inspiration for hosting a small, day-long private immersion event. My planning process (besides just jumping around for joy at a clever idea) was as follows.

Focus Groups: I started out by identifying a small group of friends and asking them what they thought about the idea. Would they be interested? How much lead time would they feel was needed to prepare? What would they need from me, the organizer? What kind of event would they be most interested in? Everyone I spoke with was at least supportive; most were excited about the idea. A few thought it was a good idea but did not want to participate personally, for their own reasons. There was enough positive feedback to convince me I wasn't completely off-base in thinking this would be a useful and fun exercise.

Setting the Scene: Next, I did some up-front prep work to figure out what kind of event to put on. Early on, I decided to put on a luncheon; no reason except that lunch is in the middle of the day and this meant folks could stick around for a few hours and get the most out of it. I contact a local historic house, the LeDuc House (which you may remember from previous adventures), chosen because they have the facilities we would need, are one of the few houses in the area dating to the 1860s, and they are gracious enough to let us take over their house. The site manager was excited as well and we booked a date. This allowed us to set the stage with a scenario - a luncheon to which all of the ladies had been invited, at my home. With use of the house came use of china and glassware, and a modern catering kitchen.

I will say that I'm really luck to have a go-to historical house for most things. But that's a rarity - most historic house museums have very specific rules about how they can be used. Some do not have modern facilities like a catering kitchen (which the LeDuc House does). But if you are creative, there are ways around it - you can do a period nature walk, a picnic, or an afternoon of outdoor games; if you have a REALLY good imagination, you don't even necessarily need period surroundings. The only limit is your imagination and creativity, and if you think outside the box, I bet you'll come up with a good location.

Planning the Food: I did some logistical planning, which mostly involved talking out my ideas with a few friends to make sure they worked. One of those things was food - should we have someone cook a lunch for us, and pay them? Or were there other options? I could cook the meal, but then I would be in the kitchen and wouldn't be able to play hostess, which was doable, but it's not very polite to invite people to lunch and then disappear! My usual go-to cook was not available, either. In the end, we decided to make it something of a potluck - all the attendees would bring a dish to share; we would, while eating, suspend our disbelief and pretend that my cook had prepared all the food. Doing this meant that no one had to do too much work, but we all got to eat a fabulous meal. This also allowed the participants to either show off their favorite period dishes (we had some attendees who brought their tried-and-true recipes, including family heirloom recipes) or try something completely new and different to challenge themselves.

We discussed how best to organize the food items that guests brought; in the end, I drew names from a hat and assigned guests to either bring a main dish, a side dish, or a dessert, with one person who asked to bring soup and another who brought biscuits. It would work equally well for guests to sign up for which items to bring - or for a real challenge, guests could be assigned a specific dish to make.

Laying Out Rules: Finally - and this, I think, was crucial - I came up with some documentation for all the attendees. It was a basic Word document that listed a few important pieces of information:
  • I laid out some information about first person immersion, so that we all were on the same page regarding what first person is and what we would be doing.
  • We set up deadlines. The first deadline was for sharing our characters or personae. I required all attendees to share the biographies of the people they would be portraying with everyone in the group. This way, they could come prepared with information about one another and establish ahead of time whether or not they know one another, and how, and how they relate to one another. This also kept all of us honest - we all had to put in the effort up-front. The second deadline was for assigning potluck items, as described above.
  • I set out the logistics for attendees - what time guests would arrive, where they could change on-site if needed, where to drop off their food, and so forth. I think in a previous life I was a wedding planner - these kind of logistical things come naturally to me. The best tip I can give is to imagine that you are an attendee - what sort of questions do you have, what sort of needs do you bring, and where are you going to go? Anticipating the needs of attendees, even the most miniscule, mean less questions to answer later, and fewer surprises, which means that your attendees will feel more confident and can come to the event without worrying about trifling little things.
  •  We set ground rules for how to interact with one another. The first order of business was to set a "pass phrase" - a cue that someone needed to abandon first-person interpretation to handle modern issues. If, for example, I needed to tell an attendee that their car headlights were left on, I would use the pass phrase, and we would both leave the setting to handle it. This means that there's no confusion about when one is in first-person mode. Another key to this is having a "modern zone" where attendees can address their modern needs - ours was the back hallway by the catering kitchen. This way, those who need a break from the experience, or need to handle modern conversations or concerns (because as much as we'd like to enjoy the experience of being completely immersed in the period, we're modern people first and foremost and sometimes modern things need to be dealt with). They have a place to do that where they won't be intruding upon another attendee's "time travel moment". We also set some accuracy standards regarding clothing, appearance and food - after all, we're trying for immersion.

Because many of the attendees were brand-spanking-new at immersion, I made the following concessions:
  •  It was fairly loose with the scenario. I said it was simply a luncheon, autumn of 1863, and left it at that. I could have been more specific about who would be there, what kind of people we would portray, and so on, but I wanted to give participants as much free reign to build a persona with which they were comfortable. Thus we had some folks who were portraying wives of carpenters or doctors, and some who were portraying upper middle class or upper class ladies, and people from all walks of life, political persuasions, belief systems, and family backgrounds. It required us to suspend our disbelief, but I think it worked out alright in the end.
  • I allowed attendees to choose how they built their personae. I provided worksheets for writing biographies, but did not require attendees to use any particular format. I also let attendees create a composite persona, or to portray an actual person from 1863, and we had several of each type.
  • I asked attendees to concern themselves more with researching and creating their persona than on making sure their material impression (clothing, hair, etc) was perfect. Again, I wanted to keep things in perspective for everyone and focus on who they were, rather than what they were wearing. So often we get so concerned about the outer accoutrements of our interpretation, and we neglect to perfect the inner workings of our persona - we turned that on its head. (I should also note that I know all of the ladies to have perfectly good period ensembles, so it really wasn't a matter of showing up in jeans and a teeshirt.)
I made these decisions based on the goals I had - creating a space with rules and goals so that everyone could practice first person no matter what their experience with it. It worked in this case. Other events might not be able to follow the same equation and have success. It really depends on what you, specifically, want out of the event. That's the great part about home-grown immersion - it can be whatever you want it to be.

The main thing is this: make your attendees aware of all your goals, rules, and guidelines before they even start. Come up with your plan, and stick with it. It's likely you'll need to make some adjustments as time goes on, and that's natural and normal; no one can ever plan for every eventuality. But, as the parable says, you want to build your foundation on good, sturdy rock, rather than on sand - an unsteady foundation distracts attendees from what they are there to do, which is to create an atmosphere of time travel.

Up next - the after-action report of how everything came off!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Home-Grown Immersion

All the busy-ness of the fall reenacting season has finally slowed down, and it seems like it will stay that way for the next couple months. That's fine with me. There are plenty of fun things I wish I was doing with friends, but if there's anything I've learned this past year, it's that a little bit goes a long way. So I'm enjoying some weekends actually spent at home, and working on some very awesome commissions for which I've been hired.

But there's really no rest for the wicked, is there? Because two weeks ago, an event I have been planning for the last six months came to fruition. I hosted a day-long first person immersion event for some friends.

For those of you who aren't in the know, "first person" is a style of historical interpretation. First person interpretation is similar to the first person voice in writing - in the case of living history, first person interpreters behave and speak as if they are alive at the time they are portraying. They take on a role - sometimes composite (meaning created from a variety of sources) or sometimes an actual historical person - and interact with patrons and other participants as that person. And a first person immersion event is an event wherein all the attendees do first person interpretation for a set period of time, thus immersing themselves in the period. Through this, spectators and participants can get a feeling of "time travel", and participants often achieve a greater understanding of the time period through a process of experiential archaeology.

Over the past few years, I've been lucky enough to have several opportunities to do first person interpretation, and to try it with some really amazing living historians in amazing surroundings. Last winter, I was talking with some friends about the fact that we don't have a lot of opportunities for those kinds of events and interactions nearby. I argued that you don't need much to do first person interpretation, just a likely setting and a group of people who are committed to following the same set of rules and achieving the same experience by researching and preparing.

Well, that sounds like a dare, doesn't it?

So, I started planning a private first-person immersion event for my friends who either hadn't experienced first person immersion before and wanted to get their toes wet, or who wanted to experience more of it. This is the event we had two weeks ago. I'm pleased to say that by-and-large, it was a massive success, on so many levels.

Here are some pictures, for your enjoyment:

The dining room, with the table set.

Myself and a visiting friend

Discussing the dishes with the cook

The maid setting the table

Enjoying lunch with, apparently, animated conversation

Genteel company!

 That's just a sneak peek. I have more to say about this event, and the process of planning it, for those who are curious and might want to get a glimpse at the planning process. I'm organizing my thoughts, but hope to post it in the next couple days!

Monday, November 18, 2013

And the Winner Is...

Thanks to everyone who entered the drawing! I loved reading your replies - turns out there are a lot of people out there who love Robert Land shoes as much as I do. I'm still ruminating on the name for the car, but greatly enjoyed your suggestions and some of them are real contenders!

I did the drawing last night, but after hosting my own first-person immersion day this weekend I was just too tired to work up a post. Without further ado, the winner of the drawing is...


Congratulations! You can email me via the form on the left-hand side of the blog. Let me know how I can get these to you.

Thanks again to everyone who entered! It was fun, and I'll definitely be doing another one in the future, so keep your eyes peeled!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Inside My Stash

Recently, there's been a lot of talk on my Facebook feed from my reenacting friends regarding organization - and it's timely, because I just recently did a bit of an overhaul on my fabric stash. One of my constant struggles as a sewer is how to keep my sewing area tidy. I live in a fairly small one bedroom apartment - there’s plenty of space for me, but as any sewer knows, fabric stashes and supplies seem to just multiply and take over. I only have two closets, one being the small coat closet (and the vacuum cleaner, ironing board, and brooms live there...oh yeah, along with the coats). There is a decent-sized walk-in closet in the bedroom, the back part of which has become Fabric Narnia. The biggest challenge for any fabric stasher, however, is less about how much space you have, and more about how you effectively utilize it to keep things neat and organized and make the most of what space you have.

This is a pictorial about what I’ve done with my space.

It is bigger than it looks. Trust me.
The upper shelf, with labels.

The bottom, with labels, and some proof that I do wear modern clothes sometimes

I’m not here to tell you how to organize your sewing space, because I’m not an expert. My dining room is a mess most of the time and I’m still figuring out for myself how to keep things organized. Each person is unique and has unique situations, so it would be rather presumptuous of me to prescribe a fix for everyone. However, there is one tip I want to share with you that, in recent conversations, has seemed to be an “ah ha!” moment for several sewing friends. So I share it here, in good health:

Save the bolt.

When you buy fabric, if you’re buying the whole bolt (as many costumers do), ask the cutter if you can keep the bolt. Most of them are happy to give it away, because they usually just throw them away once the fabric is gone. Some of the smaller chains or independent stores will actually let you take home extra bolts, so you can have some for any online fabric purchases. Just be careful that you’re getting the right size bolt - 23” for 44”-wide fabric (shirtings, calicos, some cottons), and 30” bolts or cardboard tubes for apparel yardgoods (silks, wools, some cottons) that are usually 55” or 60” wide.

I tend to mark the end of the bolt with information about the fabric - where I bought it, when I bought it, how much I purchased it for, and how many yards. If you have the original bolt, you can then also see the fiber content and care instructions, otherwise you may want to mark this on the replacement bolt. Then, it can be stored in the method most convenient for you - on a shelf, in a bin, stacked in the closet, etc. I keep these lined up vertically on the wire shelf in my closet.

I do the same thing with the cardboard tubes used for silks - and you can still get these at fabric stores as well. That way, the silk can be stored upright, unfolded, crease free. They sit in the corner of my closet, waiting to be turned into something beautiful, but I could see them situated on a shelf somewhere if floor space were at a premium…

Anyway, I hope that's been helpful, or at least interesting! Don't forget that I'm doing a giveaway here - you should all go enter it! Even if you haven't commented before! Even if we don't know each other! I love making new friends!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Few of My Favorite Things (and a giveaway!)

I hope you're all enjoying the slow settling of fall into winter! Here in Minnesota, it has gotten pretty chilly, and I'm cuddled up with sweatpants, slippers and a mug of tea right now. This is probably my favorite time of year, for a lot of reasons, the cuddling-up-slippers-and-tea part being part of it. I like feeling as if the whole world is being covered up with a blanket, and up here in the frozen north, that blanket is white, and it comes pretty quickly. We've already had our first snow accumulation for the season!

With all of that, I get in the holiday mood pretty early up here. I love everything about Christmas, so that's not a hardship for me. I also work in retail, and we've been talking about the holiday season since the last one ended, so there's no escaping. I was thinking just yesterday that I ought to haul out my tree so that I have plenty of time to set up and decorate. And I may or may not have enjoyed some Christmas songs already. Don't judge.

Another reason why I like this time of year is because it's when I was born! I celebrated another anniversary of my birth last Monday. In honor of that, my trusty Subaru Outback, which hauled me and my gear to so many adventures and reenactments, decided to end its long and storied life in a blaze of glory. So, for my birthday, I got a "new" car (a 2010 Subaru Forester, with the same amount of cargo space as the Late Great Outback - more adventures!) and a heap of debt.

Yeah, but isn't she purdy?

I also got a family heirloom from my grandmother (a cigarette box she was given for a wedding present, with the admonition not to take up smoking), a gift certificate to my favorite antique shop (transferware ahoy!) and lots of other nice things.

I'm actually not very attached to things - or at least I try not to be. For the past year's holidays (Christmas and birthday, to be precise), I have asked my relatives not to purchase me gifts, and to instead donate their money that they would have spent on me to a charity of their choice, or to spend it on their own children or grandchildren. I don't need things - I have plenty of them, and they're not so important in the long-run.

HOWEVER - I am a reenactor, so I like shiny pretty things, and I definitely have my own list of my "favorite things". In honor of my birthday and the glimmer of the holidays on the horizon, here's a few things you may be tempted to put on your wish list*.

A Valise from Merrick's Custom Leather.
 I have been drooling over these puppies for some time. If one of you wanted to send me one, I wouldn't complain.

Image from Merrick's Custom Leather

Fabric from Renaissance Fabrics.
So many drool-worthy fabrics on this site! The changeable taffetas are to die for, and would make some very cool quilted bonnets or a stunning ballgown.

Shoes from Robert Land.
Do I even have to explain? A pair of walking shoes. The end.

Image from Robert Land Historical Shoes

This Dress, and This Crown. It's on my list of to-sews for some day, and maybe one day I'll be wealthy enough to have a replica of that crown (a girl can dream, right?). Many of you probably know why, but I plan to explain fully in a future post...

Empress Eugenie of France by Franz Xavier Winterhalter honor of my birthday and the start of the holiday season, I'm doing a giveaway! It's my first ever giveaway! I've got two things to send to a lucky reader...

 A decorated hairnet of brown and white plaid ribbon on a black net, plus a paper punch book marker, both made by yours truly! The book marker was made for a fancy fair (and sorry southern friends, I don't have a Dixie book marker stashed away - this girl bleeds Union). The hairnet is meant to be worn indoors, at home or at a social occasion indoors, and with a nice dress - it's no substitute for a bonnet, and isn't suited to manual labor but it looks swell on an at-home middle class impression!

To enter the drawing, simply respond below and answer one or more of the following questions. Make sure you leave your name so I can contact you!

  • Do you have any reenacting "shinies" on your wish list? What are they?
  • What are you particularly thankful for as this year draws to a close?
  • What events are you planning to attend this winter?
  • What should I name the new car? Bonus points for historical reference, and keep in mind that she's a girl.

I'll draw for the winner on November 17th! Good luck!

*None of these businesses offered me any compensation for these mentions. If they find out about it and want to send me something as a belated birthday gift, I wouldn't turn it down. Wink wink.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Black Wool Gauze Dress

It's been a while since I posted! I've had a very busy month, compounded by my annual fall sinus infection (hi ho antibiotics away!). I've got some posts in the works, but to tide you over, here's some good pictures of my black wool gauze dress. If you recall, it was originally intended as a mourning dress. However, I wore it to a recent event with colorful accessories (burgundy ribbon belt, powder blue gloves, straw bonnet with pink and green trim) to show how versatile a black dress can be. Plus, I just wanted another opportunity to wear it!

...and of course, it wouldn't be a real picture post if there wasn't a frolicking picture:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Are You Hot In That?

It's been a series of adventures since I last posted. Two weeks ago I went to Civil War Weekend at the Historic LeDuc Estate in Hastings. If you've been around a little bit, you'll recall that this is the same house where I had my photo shoot in July. It's a really stunning historic estate in a charming Mississippi River town. General William LeDuc was a quartermaster in the Civil War, and his home is architecturally significant as it is the most complete intact example of the work of Andrew Jackson Downing. It's just a gorgeous place and the staff are gracious enough to let us use it as their playground.

I generally stay away from hot events, because I just don't handle the heat well, and with a history of kidney stones I try to avoid situations which might lead to intense dehydration. However, I also have a history of being unstoppable, and so in spite of the near-100 degree weather with no breeze and full sun, I really enjoyed my time picnicking and playing games and playing faux-bridesmaid in a faux-wedding.

And this happened:

That's me and my dear fried Ashley, who came all the way up from Chicago for the weekend! Proof that ladies in hoops can pretty much do anything, including hoop-trundling. That happened at the end of the day on Saturday. I have never been quite so happy to go home to running water and take a shower after such a warm day!

Sunday was much cooler and the theme of the day was mourning and death rituals. I was able to put on my new mourning clothes and we decked out the house for mourning, with black crape (or a decent approximation of it) on the mirrors and the shutters drawn. I also gave a really well-received lecture on mourning - I had to give it twice over because they couldn't fit everyone into the parlor to hear it!

We also had the opportunity to have our "image struck" by Dave Rambow. Dave Rambow is a wet-plate photographer, meaning he uses the mid-19th century methods of creating images on glass or metal plates. Dave is, I am convinced, the best at what he does, and it was a real treat to have our picture taken with him. Ashley had sent this picture to me beforehand, with the idea that we should imitate it:

It's such a sweet image, and makes one wonder about the relationship between these two girls. Plus, they look a little bit like Ashley and I. We showed the image to Dave, and he immediately set about staging it. It took three tries to get it just right, because it's not a perfect science and we were the first shot of the day, but we didn't mind because it was so much fun, and the finished product was so awesome:

What do you think? Did we hit the nail on the head? We had to add some seating because I'm a bit taller than Ashley (I'm 5'9 so I'm a bit taller than a lot of people). I think it turned out stunning, even if I did end up with a fat face.

We also did this one. The pose was my idea. I've had plenty of potential captions, such as "Ashley teaches Betsy how to read," or "See? It's right there. I told you!" If you have an interesting caption, go ahead and leave it in the comments!

I like these kinds of poses, the staged-impromptu poses that look like a moment out of time but really take quite a bit of time to set up. It was also a lot of fun to talk with site visitors about the photography process, and I know that plenty of them went home with stories to tell about watching us have our likeness taken.

Oh! I almost forgot to mention: the jumbles were a huge hit! They came out of the oven VERY crunchy, but over time they softened up and never went stale. New recipe in my Civil War wheelhouse!

It's been a busy month since then, with other trips around the state and busy times at work. Next up: a trip east to Civil War Weekend at Wade House in Greenbush, Wisconsin. I've never been to this event, but I've been asked to go for several years, and I'm finally able to make it happen. I get to see some people that I don't often get to see, and hopefully make some new friends. Fingers crossed for good weather!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Jumbles, or Adventures in Baking

I do not consider myself any sort of culinary artist. As a child I somehow skipped the mind-meld that allowed me to learn the collective cooking knowledge possessed by my mother, and her mother, and her mother's mother. I also never took a class about cooking in school - we had our choice of classes in Family and Consumer Sciences, and unsurprisingly, I chose Clothing Technology.

So, I'm a bit of a remedial at cooking. Living history has taught me how to experiment in cooking - you have to take recipes that are often cryptic, which use different ingredients than we do, with different techniques. Cooking and food science changed in the 1880s with Fanny Farmer and the advent of home economics, so to cook like a woman from the 1860s, you have to rethink everything you know about cooking. Since I don't know much except what I've learned from experience, this is actually an advantage for me!

I have a few standard recipes that I can do - orange cake, shortbread, some quick breads, and a really simple potato salad recipe from Mrs. Beeton. I try to conquer a new recipe every now and then, and for an event next weekend, I decided I wanted to make jumbles.

Jumbles are a period cookie. There are some, according to my brief Google search, who believe that jumbles may be the first cookie to make it to America, perhaps even to Jamestown. According to our friend Wikipedia they originated in the Middle East or the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages as a treat that kept well and could be taken on the road by travelers. They are easy to make, don't require too many ingredients, and thus are relatively inexpensive.

So, I set out to try them. I searched Google Books for recipes. I found recipes in The Virginia Housewife (1831), Miss Leslie's Directions for Cookery (1860), and more. Pretty much every big-name recipe book of the 19th century has some variation on them. I decided to go with the recipes in Elizabeth Lea's Domestic Cookery (1859), because she gives very clear directions and has several different recipes. I went with the "Common Jumbles", for which she has this to say:
"Take a pound of flour, half a pound of butter, and three-quarters of sugar, three eggs, a little nutmeg, and rose brandy. Mix the butter and sugar together, and add the flour and eggs; mold them in rings, and bake them slowly."
 So that's it. Pretty straightforward, for a period recipe - so many early recipes rely on comparisons, such as "a piece of butter the size of an egg", relying on the cook's knowledge and experience. I pulled out my scale and measured out the ingredients. I threw in some seasonings based on what I knew would probably make a good taste - in this case, cinnamon and nutmeg. I added the cinnamon because I did not have any rose brandy (another adventure for another day) and other jumble recipes in the book called for cinnamon and nutmeg. So like a good housewife, I made do with what I had.

Dry ingredients on the left, wet ingredients on the right

I chose to use three eggs - there are some who say that period chicken eggs were smaller than the eggs we have today, but instead of cutting out some of the egg I decided to chance it and add more flour if need be. Surprisingly, the dough turned out pretty well - maybe a little sticky, but no real need for more flour. I took a tablespoon of the dough, rolled it into a ball, and then rolled that ball into a long strand of dough on the counter. After that, I looped them around and pinched the ends to make a ring.

Rolling it out...

...forming a ring. Other fancier twists could be used.

The "cook slowly" direction needed translating. In period cooking, you are directed (if the author is feeling generous about giving directions) to cook in a "quick oven", a "slow oven", or a "moderate oven". These refer to the temperature of the oven - a quick oven is hot and cooks more quickly, a slow oven is not as hot and cooks slowly. I decided to try the first sheet of cookies at 350. I would think of 350 as more of a moderate oven, but surprisingly, in 15 minutes the cookies were quite done. They smelled delicious, and a taste test proved it. These may be some of my favorite cookies. They come out of the oven soft and fluffy, with a little crunch to them; as they cool, they get very crunchy and hard - definitely a cookie that would stay good for a long time. Cooking them a little less would make a softer cookie, naturally.

Before baking
After baking! They don't get very dark on top - you basically have to trust your nose.

So here is my translated recipe, for you! (Also for me so that I don't forget it next time.) I use a scale for measuring out ingredients, so if you're used to the cup measurements, you'll have to do your own translating (a pound of flour usually equals about 3 1/2 or 4 cups).

Betsy's Jumbles

1 lb flour (I used unbleached)
2 sticks butter, softened
3/4 lb sugar (I used plain white sugar)
3 eggs
1 tsp cinnamon
Heaping 1/2 tsp nutmeg, or to taste (I really like nutmeg, but others may like less of it)

Cream butter and sugar together, add eggs. Mix in flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pinch off dough by the tablespoon, form into balls, then roll into long strands and form into rings by pinching the ends. Put the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 350 for 14 to 16 minutes; watch closely in the last few minutes to prevent burning.

(A brief note: After I posted a picture of the jumbles on Facebook, there was a hue and cry for information, so I was spurred on to write this up real quick-like and post it. Just goes to show you - I love knowing that people out there are reading this and want more. It's very touching! Hope you all stick around and comment!)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Top Three Internet Resources

Another long wait for a post! There are big things brewing, and my focus has been elsewhere - on things just off in the horizon which will hopefully pay off. More on that soon.

I planned this post to be a companion to my last post about online fabrics shops. In my day-to-day, modern life, I am an instructional designer and e-learning professional. My passion and vocation is leveraging technology and tools to improve the online learning experience. So the Internet is a friend of mine, and I love researching new things that make my life - and others' lives - easier. One of the amazing trends in living history is how reenactors have taken to the Internet to make their research and networking easier. It's kind of ironic, since we portray the past, but that's a discussion for another day.

So I'd like to share with you three resources that have changed my reenacting, have made life easier for me, and from which I think you might benefit, if you are not already benefiting from them. I also think they're a good cross-section of what is available out there.

As always, these links come with a caveat: Do Your Own Research. There are a lot of sources out there. Some are better than others. It's always best to go straight to the horse's mouth for your information by doing your own research into primary documents and artifacts. That way, you know the conclusions you come to are your own. I always say that you can make anyone believe anything if you say it convincingly, and I've seen some really convincing people lead some really unsuspecting folks astray. So do your own research and depend on yourself alone.

That's enough soapboxing - on with the links!

1. The Sewing Academy -

Ah, the Sewing Academy. I recently told an acquaintance that any civilian reenactor who is not on the Sewing Academy is not trying hard enough, and I mean it. The site is run by Elizabeth Stewart Clark, who is a noted expert on the mid 19th century, particularly women's and children's clothing. She's also someone I consider a friend and she's very sweet and funny and has a killer sense of humor (and she didn't pay me to say any of this). Mrs. Clark runs both aspects of the Sewing Academy - the first is a website filled with free patterns, patterns for purchase (which are well worth the money), articles with helpful tips for reenactors at every stage of the game, and so much more.

The other aspect is a forum, geared towards reenactors, with subforums for discussing anything from corsets to religion to food to upcoming events. The forum is frequented by some of the reenacting Big Wigs, the kind of people whose books you may have sitting on your shelf or whose pictures you have drooled over on Facebook. It's hard to decide what the best part of the forum is - the quality of the research (and a search function gives you access to all of the past discussions, which makes this forum something like an encyclopedia of reenacting), or the fact that everyone is Just Plain Nice. Living history is overrun with big egos, thin skins, and some cliquishness, but for the members of the Sewing Academy, "Civility" is the battle cry, and everyone really sticks to it. No question is derided, no request for documentation is met with jeers. Everyone is welcome. And that's what it really should be about, folks.

If you're not a member, you have to request membership, and since Mrs. Clark runs the forum all by her onesies (while homeschooling her kids and cooking amazing things and coming up with new puns and just being a superhero as far as I can tell) it can take some time. Stick around. It is worth it, I promise you.

2. Historical Sewing -

Historical Sewing is a blog run by Jennifer Rosbrugh. I only found this blog within the last year, and once I finished putting my eyeballs back into my head, I wasted a whole day cruising through all the great information she has there. It is truly a treasure trove of advice for anyone sewing historical garments.

One of the great things about this blog are Jennifer's philosophical posts. She often posts her musings on different aspects of recreating historical garments, which in turn make me think and give me a new perspective on something I may not have even questioned before or thought about in the same way. She also has a lot of inspiration up there, and her Facebook page often contains little bits of cheerleading that can pump you up when you maybe don't feel like sewing five yards of wool tape to bind the hem of your new dress (not that I've been there lately or anything...). She'll get your head in the right direction and have you up and sewing in no time.

And of course, there are tons and tons of sewing tips, from how to make sure your corset lines don't show through your dress to how to get those really really sharp pleats. There is a minor caveat - the authoress is a costumer, and so she makes beautiful things that sometimes use modern techniques or materials. For those of us focused strictly on reproducing garments that could be taken back in a time machine, these need to be avoided. Thankfully, the author almost always makes mention of this in her posts, so you never have to feel led astray - I love transparency!

And do we even need to talk about the resources she has linked up?? If you think there's a lack of fabric-induced drool in your life, start clicking on some of those links.

3. Google Books Advanced Search -

Maybe libraries creep you out. Maybe the closet library to you is one room in the town community center run by Mildred Johnson (been there, friend). Maybe you have agoraphobia, or maybe you have a severe mold allergy that prevents you from ever touching old books (which, if it's true, is a very sad existence and you have my deepest sympathy). These are all reasons why God created digitized books.

There are a lot of digitized archives out there - Project Gutenberg, Digital Public Library, The American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress. You should check them all out. But today, I'm going to tell you why Google Books is my favorite.

To start, either click the link above, or Google "Google Books advanced search". Yes, it is silly to Google that, but the way Google is set up can be baffling. If you need a moment to sigh over technology, take it now. Also, teenagers in my life have informed me that you can blow up the world by Googling "Google", but I am here to tell you that that is, unsurprisingly, just not true.

It will take you to the page shown below. Type in whatever you want in the search bar - and you can search for exact phrases or exclude words as well. Get creative. In the shot below, I'm searching for Miss Leslie (aka Eliza Leslie, the Martha Stewart of the 1850s and 60s). I have also limited the years to only include items published between 1850 and 1860.

Please take a moment to notice my awesome screenshot-ing skills. My tuition dollars hard at work, ladies and gentlemen.

Once I hit the search button, I get a list of results, like the ones shown below. Each entry tells me when it was published, the name of the author, whether or not it's available to read (some books must be purchased, and some are not digitized, but most books in the public domain are viewable).

When you select one of the books, it opens it in a reader. The bar at the top of the reader allows you to zoom in and out, to change the view, and to save it to your library (which is helpful if you use Google Play Books on your tablet or phone). One the left-hand side, you can search within the book. And if you really love the book, you can save it as an ebook, either to your computer or to your mobile devices.

Pretty cool, huh? The possibilities are nearly endless - read obscure Victorian novels for free, check out illustrations in Godey's, catch up on any magazine of the time period, research any topic. You. Are. Welcome.

This got to be a long post, but I'm really excited about these resources and being able to share them with you!

Do you have any favorite resources that you think cut the mustard? Share them in the comments!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Top Four Fabric Shops

This quote came up in a conversation on Facebook about (what else?) the trials of shopping for historical sewing supplies at Joanns. Let me start off by saying that Joanns is fine for what it is - a craft store that happens to have fabrics. You better believe that when those 40% off coupons come around, I'm heading there for Gutermann's thread and giant stashes of pins and needles. Still and all, if one wants really beautiful fabrics, Joann Fabrics is probably not your first stop.

(It should also be noted I have a feud with my local Joanns store for their poor customer service and general crappiness, so the name just gives me an eye twitch.)

I am really lucky. There is a fabric outlet down the street from my work. Within two minutes I can frolic among bins of silks and tables loaded with shirtings. It's not a great big store, but the prices are phenomenal and that makes up for the selection. The fabric for the Empress Gown came from there - it's a great place to build up a stash, but you may not find the exact thing you're looking for.

A little further down the road is the fabric mecca warehouse. It's the kind of place you only go to when you have two hours to kill and some money in your pocket to burn. Imagine rolls of silk taffeta piled up above your head, a whole aisle of wool suitings and coatings, another aisle of cotton shirtings...30,000 square feet of fabric in all. Verily, we are spoiled.

But there are a lot of people out there who don't have those kind of resources. And then you have to turn to the interwebz. And where do you find those beautiful fabrics online at outlet store prices? Here's my top list of places to shop for fabrics online.

 Fashion Fabrics Club:
This is hands-down my favorite fabric store online. They have great prices with weekly deals, so you never have to wait too long to score a good price. I've bought silk taffetas, wool suitings, wool gauzes, wool flannels, and cotton lawns from them, and have yet to be disappointed - the fabric for the Governess Dress, the Lizzie Bennet Dress (yet to be pictured here) and my upcoming wool gauze mourning dress all came from here. Their pictures are clear and they give good descriptions. When I need a specific wool, this is where I go. I'm a big fan! Right now they have free shipping and some beautiful taffetas.
I'll be honest - I don't like cotton calicos. I think there are other fabrics that provide a lady with her "best bet" wardrobe. But others have reasons for sewing more hard-wearing dresses, and when you need a quilting cotton calico, this is a good stop. The fabrics are well-organized and you can search by manufacturer to find those Marcus Brothers and Windham repros. The prices are a little high, but not as high as your local quilting shop, and they also have great sales and clearances.

Thousands of Bolts:
 If you don't find what you're looking for at, head over here. It's all quilting cottons, and they're not kidding when they say thousands - they mean it. The fabrics are arranged by color, which can then be drilled down to historic prints. As always, be prepared to research a particular print before you buy it, but for choice and price, this is the place for quilting cottons.

Fabric Depot:
I go here for two things: silk taffetas and cotton lawns. There are often really great coupons, which you have to watch for. The fabric for the Picnic Dress came from here, and I just happened to stumble across it when it was 50% off with free shipping. You can't beat that!

It's amazing how the internet has changed reenacting, isn't it? Even ten years ago, when I first started, these kinds of resources were difficult to find. Now they're ubiquitous! No matter where you are, you can find fabric at outlet prices.

But what about the touchy-feelies? All of these stores offer swatching services - for a very little amount you can get a small piece of fabric to see what it feels like before committing to buying yardage. Always check out the return policy as well - most will let you return uncut, unwashed fabric for a total refund.

Did I miss any great online fabric shops with outlet prices? Comment and let us know about it!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

I feel...silly.

As promised, here are some of the..outtakes from the photoshoot at the LeDuc House. Those of you who know me as a physical human being (rather than just words and pictures on the interwebz) know that my usual state is either laughter or sassiness. It could be argued that these photos show a truer side of me than pensive looks and gazes into the middle distance - but whether or not they make me any more attractive is debatable!

It is really, really hard to be serious around my friends.

I was asked to be sassy, so I gave them sassy.

Showing off the nameplate in the book - it belonged to a Lizzie Lockett. How awesomely Victorian is that name?!

At the very end of the shoot, I was quite hot and sweaty. This is what it looks like when I enjoy a breeze.

McKayla Maroney.

This is what happens when you jump up and down in a cage crinoline - I call it The Jellyfish.

I will leave you with one final picture. A friend passed along the image on the right, an original from the mid 19th century, some months ago. As we were taking pictures, I had the sudden inspiration to recreate this image. I wish I could say I was ashamed, but I've gotten a bit of a reputation for my unmentionables being on display, but that's a story for another day...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

I Feel Pretty!

As I mentioned in my last entry, I just spent a week at The Lake. It was gloriously relaxing, being out in the wilderness with no access to the outside world. I love technology and am an admitted Facebook junkie, but balance is always good and I can’t remember the last time I was quite as relaxed as I was while kayaking through a secluded channel at sunset.


And as I also mentioned in my last entry, I recently did a photo shoot with my friend Anne. Anne finished editing the pictures while I was on vacation, and coming home to a virtual album full of beautifully edited shots was such a treat! As I’ve said before, Anne does amazing work, and I am so glad we had the opportunity to work together.

So this is going to be one of those annoying blog posts full of self-congratulatory pictures. Consider yourself warned, and proceed at your own risk, but AREN’T THEY SO PRETTY?! And introducing my new outfit - the Swiss waist ensemble! (As a side note, all photos in this entry are courtesy of Anne Victoria Photography and may not be used without permission.)

I've had this hat for six years...I think it was waiting for the right outfit.

A fabulous prize for anyone who can figure out what book I'm reading...

Recognize the lace veil?

I'm channeling Eugenie here

I'm not always serious...

I don’t generally consider myself a photogenic person, but Anne has a great way of capturing fleeting emotion and using light/color to convey so much. I’m having a hard time picking a favorite – do you have one?

Next post, I will include some of the sillier shots...I think I ran out of dignity at some point during the afternoon...