Getting Started: Five questions to ask BEFORE getting involved.

Note: The periods that I reenact stretch from the mid-eighteenth Century (1750) up through the early parts of the nineteenth century (~1815). While portions of this article may show that “bias,” the principles discussed are applicable to any era.

 So, how did you get started in living history?” This one of the most frequent questions that I have heard over the years. Without a doubt, there are as many answers to this question as people involved in living history / reenacting. The thing is, I have learned that when people ask this question they are almost never interested in the details of how I got started. What they really want to know is, “How can I get started doing this?”

 Most of us, excited by the idea of scoring a new recruit to the hobby, immediately launch into what the MOP (Member Of the Public) needs to buy to get themselves minimally fitted out to take part in an event. The problem is, the MOP has often only seen us for a few hours and really has no idea what is actually involved in Living History / Reenacting. What we should do is to talk with him or her about reenacting and, in the process, ask these five questions and talk with them about their answers.


Question 1: Are you and your family ready to “live in the past” for the entire event?

WWII Medic Using a Cellphone

WWII medic reenactor using a cell phone

“Living in the past” means switching off your text messages, cellphones, tablets, etc. It means leaving them switched off at home, in the car, or inside your tent. If your family is going to reenact with you, this requires commitment from everyone. Over the last 10 years or so, there has been an increasing focus on authenticity in the hobby, and the fact of the matter is, people in the past did not have these items. The public comes to our events to learn about the past, as well as to get some small feeling, real or imagined, of what it might have been like for their ancestors. Nothing destroys that illusion faster than seeing a reenactor talking or texting on a cellphone. If you want to check messages, do it discreetly, inside your tent during non- public hours. I check my email / messages twice a day when I am at an event. Once in the morning, before the public arrives, and again in the evening after they have left. Other than those times my phone is in my tent and switched off.

Bottom line: If you or your loved ones cannot “unplug,” at least during public hours, then reenacting/living history is not a good choice for you.


Question 2: Are you and your family ready to dress in authentic period clothing for the entire event?

Women and children cower in fear

What was that?

Living history is not dressing up in a “colonial costume” from the costume shop; nor is it dressing in costumes made of modern fabrics using Vogue or Simplicity patterns from the local sewing shop. It is also not dressing in “old timey-looking” clothes. Reenactor clothing is made from natural fabrics, such as wool, and flax linen because that is what they had in the past, using patterns based upon surviving pieces of clothing, and period techniques and construction. If you are a good seamstress/tailor you can make most of them yourself, or you can buy them from those who specialize in supplying the reenactor market. Generally, you will be participating as a member of a reenacting unit (more on this in a coming post) or as a volunteer at a living history site. Either way, your organization will generally have authenticity “standards” and clothing guidelines that you will need to follow. They can also point you to vendors that meet their standards.

Bottom line: As with any hobby, there is a level of investment required to take part.


Question 3: If you are reenacting as a family, and have children, are your kids ready to leave their “modern” toys at home?


Young girl playing the game of graces at an event

Playing the game of graces at an event

Along the lines of “authenticity,” one cannot have a camp that reflects the past if there are toy trucks and airplanes or baby dolls made from plastic lying around. Young children do needentertainment, but this is nothing new. Typically, at events there are other children for them to meet and play with, there are also games that have entertained children for hundreds, if not thousands of years before the “modern” era. A day of hide-and-seek, catch (with an appropriate leather or fabric-covered ball), playing in a creek, or exploring the event location, will go far to tire your kids. There are also sources for period toys such as Colonial WilliamsburgJas Townsend, and Smoke & Fire, that sell toys that will pass as period correct.

Bottom line: The kids will have fun, but it will be a different sort of fun for many of them. As parents, you will need to help them adjust.


Question 4: Are you willing to take part in all aspects of “camp life”?

Living History interpreter answering questions from the public

Answering questions from the public

If you are portraying a soldier, are you ready to take part in formations, drill, and all the other jobs a soldier does on a day-to-day basis? If you are a woman portraying a “camp follower” (the wives of soldiers of the unit) are you ready to take on the duties proper for the time? (I will talk more about this in a future post.) How about taking part in small scenarios for the public, such as pay call, ration issue, courts-martial, etc.? Most importantly, are you ready to greet the public and talk with them about what going on in the camp?

Bottom line: If you aren’t willing to get involved and talk with the public then living history may not be the best choice for you.


Question 5: Are you willing to abide by all the rules, (health and safety as well as authenticity) of your unit, the event, or the site at which the event is taking place?

Interpreter cooking over an open fire

Cooking over an open fire in long skirts can be dangerous

Rules and regulations can seem like a real “pain” sometimes but there are reasons for them. Sometimes, such as when working with the National Park Service or a State-run facility, agency regulations or law requires them. Other times, the insurance company that is covering the event or your unit requires them. Also, unlike our ancestors, most of us did not grow up working around open fires in long skirts, or handling guns regularly. The rules and regulations are there to protect all of us (yes, even people like me who have been at this for 20+ years) and we need to heed them.

Bottom line: If you are not willing to follow the rules and regulations at events, I certainly don’t want you in my unit and I doubt that others will welcome you for very long either.

We, as living history interpreters / reenactors have a lot of fun at events, both during the day and after the public leaves, but we are also here to offer a service: Teaching the public about the past in a safe, enjoyable and, as much as possible, realistic way and that must always be in the forefront of our thinking during public hours. Thus, the five questions.

In our next posts we will begin looking at the nuts and bolts of getting started in living history / reenacting.

Chuck H



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