Monday, May 14, 2012

Living History Museum

Today we're fortunate to have fellow Carina author Juliana Ross on the blog, telling us about her work as a guide in a living history museum. Over to you, Juliana.

For nearly four years of my life, from age 15 to 19, I spent most weekends between May and October dressed in petticoats, a homespun gown and a bonnet. No, my parents weren’t dedicated historical re-enactors. And, no, I hadn’t developed an obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I just happened to have one of the best part-time jobs ever. I was a guide at the living history museum in my small town.

Before you get carried away, I urge you to banish all thoughts of Colonial Williamsburg. The museum where I worked was constructed on a far more modest scale. It was a village, pure and simple, made up of a score of buildings that had been painstakingly relocated in the 1960s and 1970s when they’d been threatened with demolition by widening roads or changing tastes in architecture.

The buildings themselves spanned nearly the whole of the 19th century, from a simple one-room log cabin built by some of the first Europeans to settle in central Ontario, where the museum was located, to a spacious late Victorian farmhouse with all the mod cons of the era. There was also a smithy, a print shop, a general store and a tiny church.

I loved that job, although I can still remember how cold it got in the early spring and late fall, when the heat from the fire or woodstove never managed to chase the chill from my bones. And I will never forget how difficult it was to work in the gowns we had to wear, which for the sake of simplicity were cut in a plain, mid-century style, with tight-fitting bodices, close-fitting sleeves and skirts that were full (but not comically so).

Those skirts were forever getting in my way, or catching a spark from the fire, and the sleeves were so tight that I couldn’t raise my arm any higher than my shoulder. No Anne Shirley puffed sleeves for me!

At the end of the day, I’d change out of my 19th-century garb into my shorts and tee-shirt, drive home in my little Toyota, and happily return to my late-20th-century life. So I can’t honestly say I truly know what life as a 19th-century woman would have been like.

But I did learn a few things along the way. I know how to bake bread in a wood-fired oven. I know how to darn socks. I’ve made beeswax candles over an open fire (with a bucket of water nearby in case my clothes caught on fire). And I spent countless hours smoothing the wrinkles from linens with flatirons that cooled before I could count to ten.

None of this, of course, is of much use today, unless my husband and I decide to turn our backs on city life and go back to the land, or take part in one of those reality series where modern families are expected to fend for themselves as pioneers.

But those years at the museum gave me a taste—just a taste—of what life as a 19th-century pioneer might have been like. The feel of heavy skirts as they swirled around my ankles. The perpetual scent of wood smoke in my hair. The sting of chapped, cracking fingers that had been washed too many times in caustic homemade soap. The ache of my shoulders after chopping a mountain of logs for the fire.

I like to think my work in the village has made me a better historian, one who is perhaps more sensitive to the difficulties of life in an age with none of the modern conveniences for which we barely spare a thought. And I really hope that it might, some day, help me become a better writer.

In the meantime, you can count on me the next time you need the creases ironed out of your chemise, a bonnet frill mended or a sock darned. Just don’t ask me to make any more hand-dipped beeswax candles. That hot wax really stings!


1 comment:

Alyssa Everett said...

Welcome, Juliana! (Anyone who hasn't read Juliana's erotic Victorian novella Improper Relations should definitely give it a look!) Though I've never darned socks or baked bread in a wood-fired oven, I've spent time in early nineteenth-century costume. Regency gowns weren't nearly as bulky or restrictive as mid-century clothes, but the bonnets...! They completely took away my peripheral vision, and didn't do much to improve my hearing, either. The millinery alone made me realize why ladies found it helpful and even necessary to walk arm-in-arm with a male escort.