Change Over Time

Watching intently as the workshop leaders shuffled hot embers from the front to the back of the hearth at an introductory hearth cooking workshop I took at Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum yesterday, I wondered whether I would have a chance to probe and prod meat again as it simmered and stewed over the fire. The first time I wielded a spatula was earlier that morning when I was directed to flip the meatballs. After accomplishing that mission, I stepped back to help chop and mix up turnips, onions, parsley, and butter. Lots of butter.

Nicole flipping meatballs over an open hearth (a 1930s-era reconstruction) at Landis Valley, February 2015

Nicole flipping meatballs over an open hearth (a 1930s-era reconstruction) at Landis Valley, February 2015

As a historian of the material culture of everyday life of early America, I spend a lot of time in museum collections and archives. As a result, I know how all this stuff works in theory. I’ve read countless historic recipes and walked past more hearths in historic houses (usually over-accessorized) that I can count. I’ve also seen cooking over a fire demonstrated in a variety of reputable historic sites and houses.

I love my work.

But I registered for the workshop to expand how I learn about and interpret the past. In other words, to bring my interpretative powers up to the next level, I knew I needed to get some time in front of the fire and to dedicate more time overall doing living history. When I say “living history,” I mean what museum and cultural heritage professionals refer to as practicing or enacting activities of the past (such as sewing, fighting, or just passing time at home), often wearing clothing from that period also. Some better-known historic sites that incorporate living history into their visitor experience include Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, but there are plenty more fine examples out there. As living history professionals and hobbyists and experimental archaeologists (or any teacher, really) will tell you, doing is knowing. And I want to do more doing.

Why bother?

I wanted to learn if you really could cook a chicken over hot coals in time to have it for dinner (yes!) and how to manipulate the cooking equipment to make food cook faster or slower (it’s complicated).

Chicken garnished and ready to be eaten at Landis Valley Museum, February 2015

Chicken garnished and ready to be eaten at Landis Valley Museum, February 2015

But I also learned things that will add subtlety to my understanding of the past I probably could not have learned any other way. I learned, for instance, that when you bend over a pot you have to battle your own shadow to see inside whether the lamb is still red. I learned what food tastes like if you get it too close to the embers. I also learned why any sort of warming plate, tray, or cabinet you find in any number of museum collections would have been desirable given how darn cold once warm and toasty chicken gets if it’s been sitting to the side of the hearth while you’ve been baking potato rolls, sautéing mushrooms, and roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a tin reflector oven.

Roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a reflector over at Landis Valley, February 2015

Roasting pork-wrapped bacon in a reflector over at Landis Valley, February 2015

I did something! I know more now.

What I didn’t expect to learn was how much of a twenty-first century person I really am. But that’s exactly what happened. As I was minding the lamb in the small cauldron, flipping it periodically to sear it before we threw it into a pot with veggies to make a stew, I accidentally catapulted a chunk of lamb into the fiery embers.

My heart stopped.

“Oh, no!” I gasped with genuine worry as I watched the cube of lamb become a red fireball, indistinguishable from the surrounding coals.

I panicked, just like I do at home when I drop something on a stove burner. I looked around desperately for help. How would I get a burning piece of meat out of the fire? It’s going to smell terribly! Won’t it set off a fire alarm?

I was surprised that in the midst of my horror, everyone was standing calmly behind me. Most were chuckling.

Of course they were. We already have a fire. A big one. In the hearth. I wasn’t making it any worse.

“We’ll just scoop it up,” the Marsha Houston the instructor explained. “Don’t worry about it!”

Right. We’ll just scoop it up. Of course!

I apologized profusely. But I don’t think I was really apologizing for losing a nice piece of meat or even for Marsha having to move it aside. I think I was apologizing for caring so much. In this context, dropping a piece of meat onto a cooking surface wasn’t a big deal. In the space of just a few moments, I had found the gap between my pre-industrial self and my twenty-first century self. And it was a large one. Yes, doing is knowing.

Change over time was never so apparent.

Further Reading and Doing

There are lots of books that the history of domestic life and kitchens. I will list just one here that focuses on kitchen spaces. Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Talbot Nasardinov with Jennifer Pustz, America’s Kitchens (Boston: Historic New England, 2008).

Many museums and historic sites around the country host single- and multi-day hearth cooking workshops. See, for example, Old Sturbridge Village, Genesee Country Village and Museum, Historic Deerfield, and Old Salem Museum & Gardens. Investigate museums in your area and find your own adventure! If you’ve participated in a historic foldaways workshop you particularly liked, let me know.

You can also pay visits to many wonderfully intact historic kitchens at historic sites. In this area, check out The Woodlands in Philadelphia (circa 1786) or The George Read House and Gardens (1803-1805) in New Castle, Delaware. Do you have a favorite?

If you want to learn and talk about about historic foldaways with members from the Philadelphia region, follow Cliveden’s Kitchen Conversations programming.

About the author: Nicole Belolan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. She is writing a dissertation about the material culture of physical disability in early America.This blog post was originally published at her professional web site. Nicole tweets @nicolebelolan.

Sailing and Sewing aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer

After spending six weeks aboard the SSV (Sailing School Vessel) Corwith Cramer, 23 days of which comprised our Atlantic crossing between Gran Canaria and Dominica, I’ve been finding it difficult to quantify all that I experienced and learned. I was aboard the Cramer as a guest “voyager,” a position that combined the roles of deckhand and visiting scholar. The Cramer is one of two ships operated by the Sea Education Association, an organization that runs semester-long programs for undergraduate students. Their voyages emphasize marine science, maritime skills, and cultural studies that vary based on changing cruise tracks.

I expected to learn about sail handling, knots, celestial navigation, the physical world of shipboard life, and how it feels to be out of sight of land for weeks at a time. And I did. But I also learned about meteorology, pelagic birds, and the “plastisphere” that develops around discarded plastics in the ocean. I worked on diesel engines, cooked for a crew of thirty, and examined the many tiny creatures that appeared in our net samples (including such bizarre animals as mesopelagic nudibranchs, phronima amphipods, and megalope). It was easy to get excited about such things because everyone on board was passionate about their field of study, be it engineering, history, sailing, or science. Conversations around the dinner table and on deck moved easily from tall ships to Caribbean politics to the physics of rainbows to the Lego movie. I shared a bit of my own passion in such informal conversations and in a presentation about material culture during one of our daily all-hands meetings.

I’m working on several reflective essays about my experience. In the mean time, I wanted to discuss what I worked on in spare moments between standing watch on the voyage: sewing and thinking about how and what sailors sewed at different points in history. During my time aboard the Cramer, I completed a reproduction of a sailor’s jacket recovered from the wreck site of the General Carleton, a British vessel that sank in 1785. Historians Lawrence Babits and Matthew Brenckle documented the jacket in a chapter of the archaeological report available here. You’ll forgive the anachronistic beard and glasses in the images below.

I wanted to sew on board the Cramer as a way of thinking about what it must have been like for sailors aboard earlier ships to make and repair their clothing amidst their many other duties. Shipboard life and labor meant sailors often wore peculiar styles of clothes, garments that distinguished them from other workers. Clothing still matters to sailors. Today’s professional tall ship sailors joke about looking like “schooner bums” when in port, and they can still recognize other sailors by the sorts of things they wear.

Ships, historically and today, are cramped places, and people are amazingly creative when they are looking for a place to work. On the Cramer, people played music, wrote in journals, read books, and crafted in their bunks, at the dinner tables in the main salon, on deck, on the “elephant table” (a seven-foot-high platform behind the foremast), and wedged into impossibly small places in the metal and wooden confines of our environment.

Today’s sailors, much like those of the past, sew out of necessity. I was surprised how often I saw people sewing on board, given that most people I meet on land are unable to sew at all. There are several explanations for why sailors sew. First, every crewmember has only a limited wardrobe and no recourse to a clothing store, so they have to repair damaged garments if they wanted to wear them again..

Clothing gets dirty and wears out quickly on board a ship. My own canvas pants, for example, looked like this after only a week’s wear:

We had no washing machines aboard the Cramer, and so crewmembers laundered clothing in the open air of the deck. On any given morning, a handful of people enjoying their time off watch could be found sitting on the foredeck around small piles of dirty clothes or pinning clean ones up to dry on a line. It’s amazing what you can do with two buckets, some soap, and your hands.

But there are other explanations for why people sew so much onboard ship besides functional ones. One afternoon, I watched as a sailor patched a pair of Hawaiian-print shorts on the quarterdeck. The cotton was hopelessly torn in multiple places, and several generations of stitches, sewn cloth patches, and adhesive sail patches covered portions of the seat and leg. But these were a favorite garment, and she had worn them through several voyages. Sailors often live and travel with far fewer belongings that most people on land, so some things take on substantial sentimental value.

Many of the crew and students on our voyage studied how plastics entered and impacted the world’s oceans, and they were especially conscious about the wasteful nature of American consumer culture. All contemporary ships have to be careful with how much waste they generate, because they must transport inorganic trash such as plastics until they find a suitable land depository. We were very careful on the Cramer about what we used and threw away. Crewmembers carefully repaired clothing at sea when such garments might have ended up at Goodwill or the dumpster on land.

Depictions of earlier sailors at work and descriptions of their personal effects often include small boxes containing sewing tools. Almost as soon as I began sewing aboard the Cramer, I wished I had brought more small containers. Sewing doesn’t take many tools, but even a pair of scissors, some thread, and few needles seems like a lot to keep track of when you don’t have much space your whole world is rolling back and forth. I was constantly losing pins, though thankfully all were found by eagle-eyed and patient shipmates, rather than in the soles of some poor sailor’s foot late at night.

The only sewing tool lacked aboard the Cramer was an iron. Historically, irons were just that – bars of iron heated in the coals of a fire or on a stove. I suspect most early sailing ships had one, and my inability to press sewn seams made my Carleton jacket visibly different from the original and other eighteenth-century garments I’ve examined. A talented shipmate was kind enough to make me a wooden seam rubber, a tool that presses linen seams using pressure rather than heat and steam, but it was ineffective in pressing woolen seamst. The most successful effort occurred when the steward, Nina, and I conspired to heat one of her cast-iron pans in our shipboard oven long enough to get it piping hot and use it as a make-do iron.

I had a file of research on the Carleton jacket and brought along all the supplies I would need to recreate it. Other sewing projects on board had less planning behind them. A few hours out of Dominica, we realized that our shipboard stores lacked the flag of that country. Typically, foreign ships visiting a port fly a “courtesy flag” as a gesture of respect to their host. With a small flag identification sheet as our guide, several of us went to work cutting up spare bed sheets and old t-shirts, assembling them into a one-sided rendition of the Dominican flag.

Sailing, I learned, is about teamwork. Moving a ship across an ocean requires you to work with the people who happen to be your shipmates. That was true in 1492, and it’s true today. The Sea Education Association’s motto reminds crewmembers how they should arrange their priorities while on board: “Ship, Shipmate, Self.” You arrive on a ship as strangers, and suddenly you are surrounded by the same small group of people without interruption for weeks at a time. You learn about your shipmates’ idiosyncrasies, and you put up with their flaws in part because you have no other choice. But more importantly, these people, your shipmates, put up with your own failings. You pick up each others’ slack. “Every time you feel like you’re pulling more than your own weight,” our chief mate told us early in the voyage, “That’s good. Because whenever you don’t feel that way, someone else does.”

Teamwork is hard work. Working and living together aboard a ship or otherwise can leave people embittered and unfriendly. But sometimes, the unpredictable chemistry of a crew produces a splendid result. The most valuable thing I learned while sailing aboard the Corwith Cramer had less to do with history, biology, metereology, or navigation. I learned that when you surround yourself with good people, anything seems possible. I did much less sewing on personal projects than I expected. But I’m most proud of a project I hadn’t planned, that Dominica flag. Where else could you find half a dozen people, most of whom had never sewn a stitch in their lives, ready to drop what they were doing, chop up old rags, and assemble a flag at a moment’s notice, all the time smiling? The result, like a good crew, sometimes looks ragged up-close, but when you step back and let the wind do its work, it is something quite beautiful.

About the author: Tyler Rudd Putman is a Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware. In 2014, he sailed aboard the Charles W. Morgan‘s “38th Voyage” and aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer during a transatlantic crossing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. His research interests include material culture, historical archaeology, and military history. You can read more about his work on his website, here, and his blog, here.

Public History Baths

In 1862, a federal staff officer asked President Abraham Lincoln about the incessant stream of visitors to his office. Why, the officer wondered, didn’t Lincoln have clerks screen his visitors and restrict the traffic?

“I call these receptions my public-opinion baths,” answered Lincoln, “for I have but little time to read the papers and gather public opinion that way; and, though they may not be pleasant in all their particulars, the effect as a whole is renovating and invigorating to my perceptions of responsibility and duty.”

Lincoln believed such encounters kept him in touch with “the great popular assemblage out of which I sprang, and to which at the end of two years I must return.”*

As a historian, I like to think of my own forays into the world of popular audiences as my public history baths. Although mine are less frequent than Lincoln’s, they accomplish many of the same ends. They “renovate and invigorate” my understanding of the public’s interests, and they keep me in touch with “the great popular assemblage” to which I look forward to returning full-time once I finish my Ph.D.

I took an extended public history bath this summer. As a historic trades intern at Colonial Williamsburg, I participated in the “First Oval Office Project,” a cooperative initiative between Williamsburg and the Museum of the American Revolution to recreate, using historically accurate materials and hand-sewing techniques, George Washington’s Revolutionary War campaign tent. Rather than complete this work in a warehouse behind closed doors, we executed it in the Secretary’s Office, one of Williamsburg’s original buildings, dating to 1747. Our doors, like Lincoln’s, were always open.

A typical view inside the Secretary’s Office, Colonial Williamsburg, Summer 2013.

My conversations with visitors varied greatly. When not sewing, I acted as a third person interpreter, meaning that I wore historical clothing but did not assume any sort of historical character. I had many conversations about linen weaving, hand sewing, and sleeping under a canvas tent. The regularity of questions like “how was the tent waterproofed?” might have become trying, but, instead, we took it as a challenge to devise creative new answers to common inquiries.

Some of my conversations were less commonplace. Prompted by penetrating and sometimes unexpected questions, I talked with visitors about agricultural science, systems of free and slave labor, infant mortality, music, and politics in early America. One of the best discussions I had all summer followed the visitor question, “So, when did America become a good place for poor people?”

Tyler Rudd Putman and Joseph Privott at work on the First Oval Office Project.

All of these conversations reminded me why I study history in the first place. Working as an interpreter at a historic site is not so different from being any other type of interpreter, including a linguistic one. You straddle two worlds. Rather than facing linguistic barriers, the historical interpreter faces temporal ones. You need to take the events of the past and translate them into a language and narrative comprehensible to a contemporary audience. In fact, that’s what all historians do, albeit sometimes for students and scholars in traditional academic settings.

Of course, not all University learning happens in a traditional classroom, either. A few weeks ago, Lucas Clawson, a University of Delaware Ph.D. candidate and reference archivist at Hagley Museum and Library, and I arrived on the University green one afternoon dressed as Civil War soldiers. We spent the next hour introducing students in Professor J. Ritchie Garrison’s upper-level undergraduate history class, “The Emancipation Project,” to the rudiments of Civil War drill and material culture. These students could read about Civil War maneuvers for weeks, but they would still lack a certain experiential understanding of the subject. But when you stand in line at the position of the soldier and learn the face right or left, to double or undouble files, to march forward and by file right and left, to march by the flank, and to wheel right or left, something about the Civil War crystallizes in your mind. How officers took completely inexperienced recruits and quickly introduce them to linear drill begins to make sense. You realize how, after months of rote training, these same soldiers reacted instinctively to commands given even during intense fighting. You understand why Civil War soldiers stood in lines at all (it was for coordinated movements and to mass, or concentrate, their relatively inaccurate fire) and why such tactics proved so devastating as the war progressed (because rifled musket technology and accuracy advanced faster than field tactics). Perhaps, you catch a glimpse of the unity that emerged among soldiers on and off the battlefield. In the case of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a regiment of African Americans and the focus of Professor Garrison’s class, drill and battlefield performance proved the competence and strategic value of black troops, who helped swing the war in the North’s favor.

Discussing Civil War drill with University of Delaware undergraduates. Photo Credit: University of Delaware/Evan Krape, 2013.

My public history baths aren’t just about educating the public. Far from it. In fact, I usually feel that I take away as much or more than my audience. At Williamsburg, I learned how to articulate complex historical narratives of race, gender, class, labor, technology, and ideology in ways that made sense to nonacademic visitors. When that visitor asked me about when American became a good place for poor people, I responded by discussing how our definitions of equality and freedom change over time. I invoked Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), without ever naming the book, when I pointed to how the Revolution expanded the rights of free white men in particular. I gave a nod to the historiographical debates surrounding Wood’s work when I suggested that this same expansion of freedom came at the expense of others, such as women, and may not have been quite as positive as we sometimes think. Our definitions of freedom are still changing, I suggested, and our revolution continues. Public interpretation lets you condense complex historical arguments and provides a rocky and unpredictable proving ground on which to test the effectiveness of various historians’ answers to perennial questions.

In the case of the Civil War drill, the students may have learned a lot about moving like soldiers. I’ve studied Civil War drill for years and executed it as a living historian and volunteer at a variety of historical sites. But with this class, I learned what it’s like to take a group of completely novice individuals, with no more experience of linear drill than the average recruit of 1861, and put them through the paces of military maneuvers. I was genuinely surprised just how quickly they picked up the basics, even with only two instructors to a dozen students.

I firmly believe that all historians should take regular public history baths. This doesn’t have to involve months of costumed interpretation or complicated military drill. It can be as simple as giving a talk at your local historical society, elementary school, or fraternal club, maintaining an accessibly-written blog, or publishing in a public history periodical. Like it or not (I like it), we all return regularly to the great popular assemblage from which we sprang, and it’s good to test the water there once-in-a-while. It can get pretty cold in the ivory tower, but the water of public history is always warm.

*Miles O’Reilly [Charles G. Halpine], Baked Meats of the Funeral (New York, Carleton, 1866), 106.

About the author: Tyler Rudd Putman is Ph.D. student in the History of American Civilization Program. He maintains a blog at

Summer Projects in Material Culture

From sewing tents to digging up sherds, Ph.D. students in the History of American Civilization program at the University of Delaware’s Department of History know how to keep themselves busy during the summer. Here is a sampling of what we’ll be doing over the next few months:

Nicole Belolan, Elizabeth Jones, and Anne Reilly will all participate as fellows in the University of Delaware’s Public Humanities Institute (DELPHI). DELPHI exposes graduate students studying material culture to a variety of tools for communicating their research to a broad audience. After two weeks of workshops in June, participants purse their research and work on public outreach projects. Nicole, Anne and Liz will all continue to pursue research they are conducting for their dissertations. You can read short descriptions of their research below. You can also learn more at the DELPHI web site.

  • Nicole is working on the material culture of physical mobility impairment in early America. She is investigating how early Americans used objects to manage their bodies and how those experiences shaped ideas and practices related to gender roles, citizenship, and identity.
  •  Liz’s research examines the role of women’s consumption in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century mid Atlantic, utilizing methodologies from both economic history and material culture studies.
  • Anne is working on twentieth-century public commemorations. This summer, Anne will continue her research on the 1907 Jamestown Tercentenary. She will begin in Richmond, supported by a research fellowship from the Virginia Historical Society.

Alison Kreitzer will be interning at the Hagley Museum and Library this summer. She is part of a team working to finish processing the Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection. Researchers will gain access to the 700 cubic feet of transportation (mainly automobile) memorabilia in 2014. In the meantime, learn more about the Z. Taylor Vinson Transportation Collection by visiting Hagley’s blog.

Lisa Minardi is organizing the fifth annual archaeology field school at The Speaker’s House. The house was the home of Frederick Muhlenberg (1750-1801), the first Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Muhlenberg’s house is located in Montgomery County, PA. The dig runs June 4th through 22th. Visit to learn more.

Tyler Putman sewing. His tailoring skills will come in handy this summer while working at Colonial Williamsburg.

Tyler Putman sewing. His tailoring skills will come in handy this summer while working at Colonial Williamsburg.

Tyler Putman will be dusting off his needles to help reproduce the field tent or marquee George Washington used during the American Revolution. The Museum of the American Revolution owns the original “First Oval Office,” which will serve as the project’s model. Several expert “tailor-historians” will sew the reproduction while interpreting the process at Colonial Williamsburg this summer. You can read more about the project here, and  you can “follow” the tent on its Facebook page here. In addition,check out the project’s progress throughout the summer via the web cam.

Be sure to check back during the summer to read some reports from the field!