I am one of several thousand people who are involved today in the hobby of reenacting the Revolutionary War. We do so for varying reasons, including a passion for the time period and the enjoyment we get from being with others who share our interests and a commitment to bringing a favorite period of history to life. For some of us this might rightly be described as an all-consuming obsession.
Ongoing research, by individuals and institutions alike, is changing our understanding of the material culture of the people and military organizations we depict. This has lead to changing standards of reenactor authenticity. Places like Fort Ticonderoga are now asking reenactors to meet a much higher standard if they want to participate in events at the site. Ticonderoga, Friends of Minuteman Park, and other groups now offer a number of workshops and trainings to encourage more of us in the reenacting community to better represent the period in how we dress, and increasingly how we behave, at living history events.
One Massachusetts based group - The Hive - just sponsored a reenacting challenge leading to a juried event last weekend at Minuteman National Park.
"The Authenticity Guidelines for The Challenge are specifically designed to take the existing Battle Road and Park volunteer standards to a higher level with the addition of an inspection and documentation element for all participants.
Very few of the people who will sign up currently meet all the standards for this event—if they did, it wouldn't be a challenge. The standards are specifically stricter to increase the overall authenticity of the event, and to push participants to make improvements. However, the standards are still attainable yet are among the highest in the hobby.
We are striving for 100% hand stitched clothing, but will allow machine seams if they are not visible. The clothing itself must be documentable to 1773. We would like to avoid styles of clothing that are too far behind the times and more importantly eliminate fashion that is too far forward. In addition, we are asking participants to create an impression of a New Englander, so even though certain garments can be documented to the period, they also need to be appropriate for this location. Items that may be fitting for the French Court in 1773 are not necessarily appropriate for Concord in 1773.
This appeals to me on many levels, but it represents a new and very challenging direction for the 18th century reenacting community and is not always presented with sensitivity nor received as encouragement. It can be frustrating - not to say off-putting - to some in our hobby who have been doing 18th century living history for many years to be told that what was perfectly acceptible in our hobby when they were gearing up is now inauthentic. It can be equally frustrating to those who have made available their research, as well as for those events and historic sites that are now striving for a higher standard, to find many reenactors not making the effort to improve their impressions even when there are options available to them to do so. How we get to a higher standard in our hobby, and encourage others to do so, takes interpersonal and communication skills and patient leadership along with specialized knowledge, and these are not everyone's strengths.
Authenticity standards are more of a priority for some of us than others in this hobby. My feeling is that taking what steps you can, within your resources, to enhance your impression is in everyone's best interest. I am a long way from achieving the standard I am aiming for, but I am making steady progress, and am happy to share what I have discovered and continue to learn along the way.
This is not an inexpensive hobby, even for those with the skills to make much of their own clothing and equipment. There are very few of us with the discretionary income to commit to a custom made musket and a handmade uniform with period authentic specialist fabrics all in one go. It is also the case that some things that were once thought to be authentic are later discredited based on subsequent scholarship. It is understandable that some might hesitate to make a big investment in revamping their impression until there is consensus that the current standards are based on assumptions backed by solid scholarship. When the evidence and the opportunity are there, aiming for a higher standard is fair and appropriate.
Luckily, there are a number of fairly inexpensive things that anyone reenacting this period can do, right now, to upgrade their own standard of authenticity. These are small investments you can make that will enhance your existing clothing and accouterments.Shirt Buttons: Replace the bone, wood or horn shirt button at the neck of your linen shirt with one made of thread. Most of the shirts of this time period were closed at the neck with thread buttons, for the simple reason that other materials did not hold up well when underclothes were boiled, beaten and wrung out against posts. 5/8" linen thread buttons with or without a metal ring used as an inner form were commonly used as neck closures. Dorset wheel patterned shirt buttons and other styles can be had from Blue Cat Buttonworks or William Booth, Draper for $1.50 each.
Finally, we can take the interpretive aspects of our hobby just as seriously as the recreational time that happens after the public goes home. For those doing a military impression, putting the time and effort into mastering the elements of drill and the duties of an 18th century encampment can do even more to convincingly portray the life of a soldier from this period than having a perfectly researched and constructed uniform.
Very few of our living history events are done in the first person, but staying in character for periods of time can really add to the experiece. The silence of a long column advancing into a dark ravine anticipating an ambush that ultimately took place was a highlight for many of us who participated in the recent 235th Anniversary of the Battle of Oriskany. Those moments when it truly feels like being there are part of what draws many of us to reenacting and they can happen when each of us is "in the moment."
When the public ventures into our encampments, we often seem unapproachable, and if our interaction is exclusively with each other we will miss many learning opportunities and teaching moments. Doing things in camp other than sitting and eating helps draw people to us, aids in recruitment, instills a passion for history and historic sites.
Make a brush arbor. Dig a field kitchen. Stand guard duty. Go to the surgeon. Learn a few of the authentic songs of the period. Try cooking food that would have been available to soldiers of the period using the implements to which they would have had access.There are all sorts of activities that can be done in camp that will add depth and character to your experience as well as to the quality of your interpretation. It is more interesting to the public to see us doing these things in camp as well.
I am looking forward to an upcoming reenactment at Brandywine Creek State Park next month where I plan to arrive early to make a brush arbor to shade our dining area rather than using the large canvas fly that is more appropriate for 19th century encampments. I will help dig and stoke a camp kitchen. I will be on the lookout for members of the public who are curious about what we are doing, and if they hang around long enough I'll sing them a few verses of Thomas Paine's "Liberty Tree". Hope to see you there!