My brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor on a "Colonial farm."

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Dec. 11 2008 7:06 AM

A Colonial Dame

My brief, inspiring career as a historical re-enactor.

Emily Yoffe. Click image to expand.
Colonial Emily "Chastity Crump" Yoffe

Verily, your humble fervent did in the guise of the Humanae Cavia Porcellus fojourn to the paft, to the year of our Lord 1771. Prithee, allow me to declaim of my adventure in the colony of Virginia, and my difcoveries.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

The reigning fantasy in many girlhoods is that of becoming a princess, presiding over a palace, dressing in satin, wielding a scepter. I always imagined myself as a settler, sitting by a cozy fireside, dressing in homespun, wielding knitting needles. So the tiny one-room, wood-beamed farmhouse at the Claude Moore Colonial Farm, a living history site set in 1771, with its dirt floor, hearth, table, spinning wheel, and sleeping loft, sent me back both to this country's beginnings and my own—it was the perfect manifestation of my childhood dreams.

For the Human Guinea Pig column I have been no stranger to costumes, from the nightmarish bathing suit competition at the Mrs. Washington, D.C., pageant, to my horrific "living doll" look for a stint as a street performer. As a historical interpreter at the farm, the foundation of my transformation into an 18th-century woman was the foundation garment called "stays—the fabric and bone device that tied around the upper body. This was not the wasp-waisted, heaving-bosom look of a Scarlett O'Hara corset. Instead the torso in stays becomes almost cylindrical, one's front flattened, one's back held straight. Good posture was a matter of propriety, and both Colonial boys and girls were put in stays. Males were released around age 7, but females spent their lives in them. I expected stays to be a sartorial prison. Instead, I enjoyed them. They made my movements deliberate, my posture impeccable. I felt as if the past was swaddling me.

Slate V: Emily Yoffe's experience as a historical re-enactor

The Claude Moore Colonial Farm is staffed by a handful of employees who do both the 21st-century work of the front office—arranging events, working on the computer—and also the 18th-century work of running a farm while portraying members of a tenant farm family. They are supplemented by an ardent group of volunteers. The most fanatic one I met was a young mother taking a hiatus from her Ph.D. in Colonial history who made authentic hemp diapers for her nursing infant. Incidentally, those of us playing roles on the farm were called "interpreters," not "re-enactors." Re-enactors is generally used to refer to more casual amateurs who like to dress up as a hobby.

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Most farm staffers were women who had spent their childhoods playing olden days and had found a way as they grew up to keep going back in time. Elizabeth Rolando, 26, the program manager who portrays farm wife Lydia Bradley, volunteered as a girl at Plimoth Plantation and while a history major in college worked at Sturbridge Village. Katie Cannon, 26, the site supervisor and also a portrayer of Lydia, says, "I love spinning, sewing, gardening, cooking over an open fire, and I get paid to do it." Claude Moore is chronically short of men; men interested in living history often gravitate toward sites where they can pretend to do battle. Their absence at Claude Moore is explained to visitors by saying they are dead, or walking to Ohio to look for land.

I portrayed Chastity Crump, a middle-aged spinster from a neighboring farm who liked to visit Lydia and help with chores. For one of the farm's special events, a Colonial wedding, I acted as a kind of hostess, engaging our 21st-century guests in small talk, encouraging them to dance, and handing out cake. With my conelike bodice, billowing hips, ruffled cap, and no makeup (cosmetics are banned on the farm), I felt it would have been easy to live up to my virtuous name.

At home, I am a despiser of the domestic arts. But I loved the meal preparation at the farm. One morning, Cannon got the fire blazing in the hearth, and I assisted with making slapjacks (pancakes made from dried, hand-pounded corn) using fresh turkey eggs, pease porridge (a split pea soup, and, yes, "pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold" ran incessantly through my head as I stirred), and a salad from the dark greens in the garden. There was not a single modern convenience, yet it all didn't take much longer than a meal Rachael Ray would put together. All the women on the farm came down for the midday meal and we sat outside at a long wooden table, shooing the chickens away. I'm not sure why every simple meal I had there tasted so good. Maybe because it was all raised a few feet from where we ate. Maybe it was the witchy satisfaction of women together stirring their cauldrons.

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