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Beyond The Wardrobe => 19th Century Life => Topic started by: Elizabeth on March 04, 2017, 12:22:42 PM

Title: History Upgrades: Reality Versus Olden Tymey
Post by: Elizabeth on March 04, 2017, 12:22:42 PM
Friends, on a recent Facebook list discussion, an interesting tangent came up.

The situation is that a history site focused on mid-to-late 19th century is doing candle-dipping as a demonstration of "period life". Sound familiar?  ;D No, no one has been spying on *your* site. It's just that common a problem: use of an anachronistic Olden Tymey Crafte as a fun and accessibly springboard for visitors, but without the context of just how production-and-industry-minded people of the actual era were, and how far the reach of production and industry spread by the mid-19th century.

Mr Mescher brought up an excellent point about the relative disuse of home-made candles, and the challenges to producing them (huge quantities of beeswax and the accompanying costs and labor of large-scale beekeeping, tallow candle production, and ready availability of better, cheaper fuel sources. He linked over to Virginia Mescher's excellent article on lighting at mid-century: ( (If you're wanting the entire Virginia's Veranda archive, go here: (

So thinking on this topic leads me to a larger Philosophy Meets Practice discussion: how do we go about encouraging change and actually making change at historic sites we may help with, to get away from Olden Tymey, and moving toward Actual History?

I'll be back later to share some thoughts. In the meantime, please share your productive, positive ideas for moving history education forward by tossing Mythtory in favor of History.

Time for an Experience Dog-Pile!

Title: Re: History Upgrades: Reality Versus Olden Tymey
Post by: Elizabeth on March 04, 2017, 03:47:33 PM
My girls and I lucked out. We volunteer at a tiny site, and if there are inaccuracies in the presentations (which there are), it's not a result of determined ignorance. So being able to go in and introduce more accurate elements, and upgrade what's happening, has been very warmly received and adopted.

I know.

We have a Unicorn Site.  The directors are so awesome, they might actually poo rainbow sprinkles and glitter. Not even joking.

I think some of the ways we're doing it are key, though.

* We work really hard to make sure we're in tune with the site's interpretive goals. For our site, it's a timeline site with representative stations, not a replica or restored site. The site's motto is "Historic Roots. Modern Fruits." and a goal is to help visitors connect with historical life, and bring ideas, crafts, lifeways, and experiences forward into modern life. Different stations have different target eras, and the overall site has elements of wide-spread regional focus, as well as specific Idaho focus.

We didn't bull in and demand to do Civil War Stuff. That's actually really inappropriate for our region. Instead, we talked about the SITE goals and aims, and determined that we could be very useful in the 1850s/Wagon Emigration stations, with specific attention to the experience of children on our part of the western trails.

* We work hard to pick our pickies... what's most important? Laundry as an activity is a big fun thing for the kids who come on school tours. Laundry was a common experience for kids on the Trails, both for boys and girls. And facets of it (scrubbing with soap, rinsing, hanging on a line run between the wagon wheels) are accessible for participation. Some of the elements were already in place: tin wash pans, and the general concepts. We immediate chose to replace modern spring pins with pegs (and made a small investment in those for ourselves), and hotel mini-bar soaps with plain old lye soap (ditto). The more modern washboards are slated for upgrade as they fall apart (likely by the end of this coming season). And we'll work on making simple finished clothing items (like neckerchiefs or half-scale petticoats or aprons) so the reality of washing real clothing is brought in.

We can do it over time, just through our willingness to make small changes, instead of fussing loudly about it right off the bat.

One feature of our "intro" station for school tours is a welcoming song. We can inject greater historical accuracy by choosing to welcome visitors with songs that are very historically accurate, and very specific to our tour theme for the day, and even for our specific region. It's a small change... just taking what's already done up a notch. Even if the site were not eager to change the intro right away, we could incorporate period songs into our station, and get a similar positive effect.

Our desire to see accurate historic clothing starts with US... and we're so happy and comfortable, and others who volunteer are seeing and hearing positive responses from visitors, that we'll be working with a few others to add historic clothing to their station, too. In the meantime, they have site logo modern things to wear, and that's keen, too. It doesn't have to be all or nothing at a site like ours.

* We're so happy to be there and be doing cool stuff that the enthusiasm for upgrades gets contagious. Like I said, we've got a Unicorn Site, because the board and other staff people all love what they're doing, love that we want to do it, too, and are excited to see new things develop over time. Keeping a positive mind over the challenges and changes seems to be working really well.

More later...

Title: Re: History Upgrades: Reality Versus Olden Tymey
Post by: Anna Worden Bauersmith on March 04, 2017, 06:04:55 PM
I read this on the way to dinner tonight after a day of judging for National History Day. So, I pondered the factors that go into developing task or product focused demonstrations in between tasty bites. It didn't maintain an organized train of thought thought. Here is some of what I was thinking:

Factors for developing task or product focused demonstrations
1) Focus of the historic site or event including time period(s), socio-economic dynamics, educational goals.
2) Purpose of the demonstration - Make and take, ongoing insitu, isolated stand-alone, interactive.
       A) Considerations for make and take or interactive
                 1) Cost of materials - waste verses reusable
                2) Safety
                      3)  Time and attention spans
                             4) modifications for each of the above
            B) Considerations for ongoing
                  1) Ability to demonstrate the full spectrum of beginning to end as appropriate
                    2) cost of materials, availability of accurate materials

Title: Re: History Upgrades: Reality Versus Olden Tymey
Post by: Paula on March 05, 2017, 05:44:02 PM
Ok so I've been thinking of this for the last day or two.  Here's my two cents:

I have been in situations with both "history days" at schools and also at a site with a less history conscious director.   Getting over the candles, butter making and corn husk dolls has been a huge challenge.  Mostly because old tyme is close enough for most of the directors/heads and they like the tradition. Here's how we've tried to make a change:

1) First we looked at the activities offered and the most offensive but easiest to change.  This could look different based on what you have to start.  For example the first thing I worked to change with the school groups was the elimination of corn husk dolls.  We replaced them with rolled fabric dolls (for the courageous ones) and piecing quilt squares for the less brave (The quilt squares were made of fabric cut in squares and triangle shapes and glued to a quilt square on a piece of paper.  We offered example for the students to pattern theirs after.  We didn't use period fabrics because the school budget was non existent but that would be an easy upgrade for year two)

2) In order to not overwhelm the staff with too many changes we let the butter and candles slide but we added period correct information.  For example when dipping candles we explained that families in the mid 1800's would purchase their candles from the store.  We show them an example of what a manufactured candle of the period would look like.  But just like dipping candles is fun old tyme activity for us to do it was fun for boys and girls in the 1800's.  Same was true with butter.  We showed them butter churns and talked about buying butter or making it at home and then brought out the little jars because this is a fun way to kind of get the feeling of how much work it takes.

3) We gave it time.  We let the changes go through the whole school year.  At the end we evaluated how things went.  In general the changes have always been met with excitement, rather then the initial hesitation that first happened.

Over the years we have replaced many of the less accurate activities and added things like sewing a button to a piece of fabric, playing game of graces (instead of wheel barrow races) and making paper darts (throwing them in the classroom is always a huge success)

Title: Re: History Upgrades: Reality Versus Olden Tymey
Post by: Maggie Koenig on March 05, 2017, 06:40:46 PM
Paula hints at a great point.  Taking things slowly.  Small changes here and there can equal big results without putting noses out of joint or scaring site managers with the idea of all the money its going to cost.   Once the dust settles from one change make another. 

One problem I've noticed with a lot of historic sites is that without any real budget they are left with part time staff or volunteers who are either retired, working part time while the kids are in school or they are bored housewives with no kids at home.  It can be hard to change the minds and hearts of people who like the idea of working at a museum but aren't actually that into history.  I'm not kidding either, I used to work with several women (all in their late 60's into their 70's) who had no real interest in history, they just liked working with the kids.  They were also some of the hardest people to introduce actual facts to.  I've spent several years there with other historical minded types and the director trying desperately to stomp out all the bad docent lore.  Its really hard to do when trying to explain to a coworker that its not call a toaster because you stir the contraption in front of the fire with your toe (toe stir=toaster apparently) and that a girl didn't have to make exactly 13 quilts before she could get married.

Title: Re: History Upgrades: Reality Versus Olden Tymey
Post by: EKorsmo on March 06, 2017, 05:56:16 PM
Based on one site I was previously affiliated with, it seemed like a lot of the 'old tyme' activities there were the result of off-the-cuff brainstorming rather than research: an event was coming up, and X number of games/crafts were needed, so the organizer would try to think of X number of things to do that seemed 'old fashioned' or had been done last year. I moved soon after, but in retrospect, it might have helped to have a short list of games or crafts that could be done with little or no outlay, so that an accurate activity could be suggested before the make-do became established.  Challenging the already-established routine is daunting, and I'm in awe of those of you who have done so successfully.
If anyone's looking for ideas:
The Girl's Own Book ( (1856)
The American Girl's Book and Hints for Happy Hours ( (1857)
The Boy's Own Book ( (1838) (1881 edition (
The Boy's Own Toy-Maker ( (1859)
The Girl's Own Toy-Maker ( (1861)
What to Do and how to Do it: The American Boy's Handy Book ( (1882)
The American Girl's Home Book of Work and Play ( (1883)
How to Amuse Yourself and Others: The American Girl's Handy Book ( (1887)

Title: Re: History Upgrades: Reality Versus Olden Tymey
Post by: Elizabeth on March 06, 2017, 07:14:21 PM
Elizabeth K, this list makes a great springboard to develop some free resource sheets, too.

I think you're right--a lot of times, things fall into use because they were expedient, and there was a time crunch.

On the plus side, that does give a lot of interesting scope for incremental upgrades!