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.

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.

One day while I was in the farmhouse assisting Rolando, a class of third-graders, notebooks open, came and peppered her with questions.

Q: Do you got a job?
A: I've got lots of jobs. I do the cooking for my family. We grow tobacco.
Q: How do you go to the bathroom?
A: Oh, we don't bathe very often. It's not good to wash the oils off your skin.
Q: I mean the toilet.
A: There's lots of woods around here. We have a chamber pot in the loft, but we don't use it very often.

The schoolchildren were followed by a couple from Ohio. Rolando asked them if they knew of any hardworking single farmers, as her husband had recently died, leaving her with four stepchildren.

"What did he die of?" the wife asked.

"He got injured in the arm with an ax," she said matter-of-factly. "That wasn't so bad, but he died from the putrefaction of the limb."

There have been living history museums for so long that there could be a living history museum with people re-enacting the founding of the living history museum. According to the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, the first successful open-air folk museum was established in 1891 in Sweden. In the United States, Colonial Williamsburg opened in 1932 and Old Sturbridge Village in 1946. They pioneered the idea of filling restored buildings with accurately costumed people who could show how those buildings and the tools in them were used. In the 1970s many more living history museums were created, probably inspired by bicentennial historical fever. Today the ALHFAM Web site has links to more than 100 such places around the country.

Claude Moore (named after a benefactor, not a historical figure) was founded in 1972 in McLean, Va., with the idea of showing that most Colonial Virginians didn't live at a Monticello but were poor farmers. It has a budget of about $430,000 and more than 60,000 visitors a year. One of the oddest things about the farm is its location: Across its property line is the headquarters of the CIA. I kept thinking about the essential similarity between the two places: They are both full of people who immerse themselves in false identities. The CIA's training site for people who go on to become spies is even called "The Farm," although that's actually near Colonial Williamsburg. Every time I would drive to Claude Moore, past the CIA guard house, I thought that our next breach of national security wouldn't come from an Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen, but from some Claude Moore volunteer wearing a listening device in his breeches. The proximity of these two federal entities (Claude Moore is the only privately operated national park) results in some strange encounters. Katherine Hughes, who recently left her job as a farmer to go back to graduate school, once got a distress call from the guard house saying they were surrounded by turkeys. Often CIA security will call asking to have the bull removed from their property.

After lunch one day Hughes put me to work making tobacco sticks. These are the humblest of objects—long sticks stripped of their bark and planed straight. They are placed across the rafters of the tobacco house where "hands" of tobacco—10 leaves tied together in bundles—are draped over them to dry. I sat on a "shaving horse," a wooden workbench in which I secured the stick so that it pointed toward me. I then took the drawknife—a blade with handles at each end—and drew it across the stick. As I began my jagged scraping, the 21st-century voice inside my head—a combination of my grandmother and a liability lawyer—started screaming admonitions: "Where are your goggles, a wood splinter could pierce your eye!" "You're aiming a knife toward your pulmonary artery!"

Yet I kept pulling the knife along the stick and it began to smooth and straighten. I fell into a rhythm and my movements started to become fluid. Making tobacco sticks required an action very similar to that used for the latissimus machine at the gym, a piece of equipment I hated. But as I sat on the shaving horse and pulled, my mind began to quiet. I finished my first stick, and as I stroked its silky finish I felt an inordinate sense of accomplishment. I put in another, and I found the scrape-scrape-scrape of the knife lobotomized the usual chattering in my head. A pair of middle-aged women approaching took me out of my reverie; I surreptitiously looked at the watch I had tucked into my pocket. Forty-five minutes had gone by; it had felt like 10.

During my time at Claude Moore I heard many interpreters say they were drawn to the 18th century because life was simpler then. I never bought that. It didn't seem so simple to watch your arm putrefy or lose your teeth in your 20s, or bury most of your children. But as I got up to get home in time for carpool, I did feel a deep longing to stay on my wooden horse and just scrape sticks. Once humans spent most of their days doing useful things with their hands, and I realized that we were designed to get a deep satisfaction from this. As Hughes put it, "You have the feeling people were supposed to do this kind of work, rather than data entry, which is amazingly horrible."

Almost as soon as the Industrial Revolution arrived, people began mourning its efficiency. As Thomas Carlyle wrote in Signs of the Times in 1829, "[T]he living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster … nothing is left to be accomplished by old natural methods." The children who came to visit Claude Moore understood this loss. Several interpreters warned me that when I set children to various tasks they could do on the farm, from hoeing, to carding wool, to dipping candles, I would have a hard time getting them to stop. At a farm-skills training day, we all took turns learning how to crack dried corn on the hominy block, smashing a 3-foot-long wooden pestle against a hollowed-out log. One mother could not pull her 10-year-old son away and finally pleaded, "You have done a great job. So please stop pounding!" I had a vision of a new approach to our modern psychological problems. Psychiatrists would throw away children's Ritalin and their parents' Lexapro and prescribe a few hours a day of tobacco stick making or hominy cracking.

It was also a great pleasure to watch the animals. I was particularly entertained by the turkeys. These were not the tasteless, denatured modern grotesques bred to be so short-legged and heavy-breasted that they can no longer mate, but a heritage breed, Black Spanish. The turkeys are working birds; their job is to walk the rows of tobacco plants eating the horn worms. They were glorious to look at. The male, Brutus, was covered with glistening, iridescent feathers of emerald and russet which he often shimmied like a peacock. Brutus paraded with a harem of three hens—the group liked to come by the farmhouse at lunchtime looking for scraps. One day while I was sitting on a bench outside mending rags, I watched him get in a quarrel with a hen. They began pecking and squabbling until he lifted a foot, caught her wing, and pinned her to the ground. She eventually quieted, but when he removed his foot she got up, turned her back to him, straightened her feathers, and, head high, walked away without a glance.

The lives of the poultry are so intimate with that of the farm family that Rolando said she often finds chicken eggs in her sewing basket. Working at Claude Moore also means having to have a kind of Sarah Palin nonchalance about the need to turn farm animals into meat. But a trip to the past made it clear that however life has improved for humans since 1771, for our livestock, progress has meant misery.

If there ever is a rip in the time-space continuum, my Claude Moore colleagues probably could convincingly slip into Colonial America. But as much as I loved my sojourn to the past, I never was fluent enough in the language and the behavior of the 18th century to feel I was anything more than an imposter. When visitors came by I tried to remember to say 'tis, 'twill, and 'twas, but I often just motioned that I was unable to speak and deferred to my more expert companions. I was about as Colonial as Harrison Ford in Witness was Amish.

Still, I finished my time at Claude Moore feeling I had a glimpse of the satisfactions of life in 1771: the breadth of one's skills, the self-reliance, the flowing tasks, the working together for a common goal. I am happy my life in 2008 has medicine and modems—and that I don't have to sleep in a loft with my extended family. I do have occasional longings to set up a tobacco stick assembly at my house, but I realize it wouldn't be soothing, because there would be nothing useful about a tobacco stick in the anti-smoking county where I live. I need to find a substitute. As Elizabeth Rolando says, "There is a satisfaction in the accomplishment of the mundane."

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