Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Anniversary

Celebrating three years with my wonderful husband today and taking a bit of a mini-trip this weekend. Will be back on Monday--depending on where our travels take us, perhaps I'll have some cool historical architecture to share! Sorry for the mini-blog-hiatus, but do take a peek at yesterday's post and let me know which stitchery bits I should pick up, won't you?

Some pictures from our eighteenth-century wedding, held the October after we married.

We said our vows on the front porch of a 1790s plantation house.

Recessing under the bayonet arch.

A dear friend made this cake for us--it was amazing! Dark cake with fruit and nuts, but still light and tasty and, clearly, beautiful.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I need a New Project...

...like I need another hole in my head. But lack of sewing has started to make me go a bit stir crazy, and there's nothing like a a good stack of DVDs and some handsewing to get one through the dog days of summer.

I have four ideas of what might come next, but, dear readers, I need your help deciding. I've posted a poll at right--which of these should I tackle next?

Behind Door One: I need new shifts. Real bad. Mine are a) way too flipping big, which causes them to actually crease into my skin under my stays (super uncomfortable) b) getting old and a little discolored and c)I dislike the sleeve and neck hems on them.

Behind Door Two: I could use a new pair of stays. I've had my current pair--a super basic strapless job--for over ten years, and they're beginning to wear. I've lost boning, frayed the eyelets and the binding, and generally torn them up. They're still serviceable, but stays are a pretty big project so I'd want to start before I get desperate. I'm quite excited about this project, because I'll be engineering something kinda special with them. As my last pair lasted over ten years, I expect these to do the same--which means I want to try to make them gestational stays (that is, adjustable to wear while pregnant). No, I'm not planning on motherhood yet! But, for practicality's sake, I should made the allowances in this garment.

Behind Door Three: I want to make something pretty. Even if I don't need it. I've mentioned before my love of this subdued sacque-back. I'd also really like to make something in my favorite color, peacock blue. This project might mean that much of the time is taken up with finding *the perfect* fabric, but I'm kinda ok with that. Who cares that I'd have pretty much nowhere to wear it? I'll invent an occasion. And I'm pretty sure this will require a fantastic fabric-covered hat. With peacock feathers.

Behind Door Four: My husband's officer's kit is falling into disrepair. It's gotten to the point that I told him he needs to buy new breeches because he needs them yesterday and I don't have time to whip something up in reverse timeframes. But he also needs shirts, a decent cravat, and we're planning to start a new regimental coat pretty soon. So, in short, boy clothes. I'd also love for him to have civilian clothes, even if just a frock coat, so he doesn't have to be in uniform at non-military events we attend.

So...what to pick up next? Vote, and leave me your ideas in the comments! And I promise to post early and often about the project we pick.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mood Killers and Mariachi

Ask a reenactor about her favorite sites for events, and she's liable to mention ones that are removed from modern distractions. Of course, this isn't possible for many of our sites, but it's a great bonus when there are no streets, no modern houses, no streetlamps nearby. We go to a lot of effort to set up period-correct camps, research the heck out of our clothing, try to present as authentic an image as possible--so it's nice for the public, and nice for us, too, when things work out so that there aren't any modern interuptions.

Which brings me to my point for the day. Our weekend was spent at a very small event. The site wasn't perfect--it was actually an RV park, and there's nothing like a streetlamp, an electrical hookup, and a bright yellow picnic table in camp to really bring out that Revolutionary War campaign feel. But you know, we could get over that, especially because the hosts were so accomodating, and there were flush toilets (bonus! after getting used to port-o-lets).

We couldn't get over the fact that the site had been double-booked with a Mexican wedding. A very large wedding that employed the talents of a mariachi band from 2 p.m. until midnight. I overstate--they did switch to dance music and techno (and, strangely enough, something that sounded like a Spanish-language cover of Flogging Molly for awhile, which we kind of enjoyed). But it was very loud. And very modern. And a total mood killer.

We made the best of it--our artillery crew demonstrated range charts by aiming for the bride's big white dress (using blank charges, obviously...though by about 10 p.m. we were contemplating the effects of a live round on the speaker system). After hours, we got the Electric Slide going in camp when they played it down the way. Eventually, we decided that the only way we were going to enjoy ourselves was if we could get louder than they were. So we started in on the Irish drinking songs and sea shanties, creating an eighteenth-century buffer between the rest of camp and the resounding joviality of the mariachi band.

And after they left? Recon mission for leftover cake. There wasn't any leftover cake...but we did bring bouquets of discarded roses and calla lilies back to camp.

**I do want to clarify--not trying to make any comment about the culture of the happy couple and their guests. This would have been just as annoying with any other kind of music from any other American subculture, from country-western to polka. But mariachi was just so incongruous with what we were doing that I couldn't help but laugh. **

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wayward Sloops

These may be the wittiest, most charming cartoons I've ever seen on the subject of sailors and prostitutes...

No, really. Somehow the artists of the eighteenth century had a way of adding a dose of l'esprit to any topic, most particularly those topics surrounding sex. Rather than the crude humor we fall back on today, they tend toward the tongue-in-cheek, the ironic, the pun. As with these, all from 1781:


An English Sloop Engaging a Dutch Man of War

A Man of War towing a Frigate into Harbor


An English Man of War taking a French Privateer

In each of these, the sailor is referred to as a Man of War and his lady friend is a classification of ship--English Sloop, French Privateer, and a Frigate (not sure which port she sails out of). This is amusing enough as ships were often referred to then (as today) with feminine pronouns--that is, a ship is a "she." Adding to the joke is the verbiage used to describe what the two "ships" are doing--"engaging" is to open hostilities with or begin battle, "towing" is for one ship to haul another (often after one has been damaged and taken as a prize) "taking" is to be victorious over, (sometimes literally taking the ship as a prize), in martial nautical parlance. So these are all double-entendres that tell us quite clearly what each couple is doing.

All from WalpoleWeb.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dime a Dance

Research turns up such fun tidbits, doesn't it?

I've been listening to a lot of 30s and 40s music to get into the spirit of my latest little project. One song, "Ten Cents a Dance," turned up one of the forgotten vestiges of the culture of the era--the taxi dancer. Hired by dance halls to dance with male patrons, taxi dancers earned a commission on each ticket they collected from their partners. Often these tickets were sold for a dime, leading to the term "dime a dance." Some taxi dancers worked in open dance halls, but many also worked in "closed" halls, where no women were allowed who did not work there. Dance schools also adopted the "ticket per dance" method for payment of their instructors, so not all taxi dancers worked in dime a dance halls. But as the song below suggests, the line often became blurred--the voice is that of a dime a dance girl, but she refers to herself as "a lady teacher."

I had heard of "dime a dance" halls, but hadn't really thought about the girls who worked there until I heard this song:




What must it have been like? The popular culture treatment of taxi dancers is pretty seedy--this song implies that the dancer feels trapped in a downtrodden, tired life of soulless repetition. "Ten cents a dance--that's what they pay me--oh, how it weighs me down" suggests she feels that the emotional weight of the job is taking more of a toll than she earns. In It's a Wonderful Life, one female character(Violet Bick, depicted as kind of a slut in the movie) is arrested while working at a dime a dance hall (you can see the brighty lit sign "Dime a Dance" in the background). In many ways, the aura surrounding "dime a dance" is one of subdued prostitution--after all, they were selling their attention and physical presence to a member of the opposite sex. They were often suspected of true prostitution, with police sniffing around to see if their work was a cover for something more. And it's likely that it often was.

At the same time, a successful taxi dancer could earn three times as much as an office or factory employee, working only a few evenings a week. There may have also been an element of autonomy to the job, too--since the girls worked on commission, they could be their own bosses. From the picture above left, it looks like most of them didn't take guff from anybody!

Would be fun inspiration for a character or short story...and in fact, there have been a couple films made about taxi dancers. 1927's The Taxi Dancer starred Joan Crawford and 1931's Ten Cents a Dance starred Barbara Stanwyck. With my newfound obsession, both are clearly going on my Netflix queue!

Monday, June 21, 2010

M is for...

Martha Peake by Patrick McGrath (response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

When you browse the castoffs of the bargain table, you pick up many clods and a few gems. Martha Peake was one of the darlings plucked from the obscurity of the sale section.

The story follows young Ambrose as he is summoned to his uncle's estate in the English countryside, expecting inheritance. Instead, he is treated to the story the old man has kept quiet for years--the story of the woman Martha Peake and her troubled father, Harry. Harry is terribly disfigured in a fire that also kills his wife, and only Martha stays with him, even as he earns his keep by displaying his horrid disfigurement for money, which he promptly spends on drink. Eventually, "demon gin" turns Harry into a true monster, and in an act of betrayal even Martha cannot stomach, drives her away to the colonies.

McGrath is, apparently, known more for his gothic, shrouded storytelling than he is for historical fiction. I know this because I read it on Amazon, not because I am a McGrath expert. In fact, I've read other books by the author and did not particularly care for them. In Martha Peake, however, McGrath conjures a world of eighteenth-century shadows in which his characters take form and come alive. One can see Martha, with her fiery red hair and imposing figure. One feels pity for and, one can't help it, fear of her father, Harry. And the story itself becomes as much a character as the people themselves.

This intricately written book is almost as much about the creation of story and history as it is about the story itself. McGrath puts us in the room with the nephew as the uncle tells the story of Martha Peake, a device that, though some have disparaged it as an old trick or misuse of first person, is done marvelously well. The narrator is just reliable enough to follow the story, just sketchy enough to allow for flaring revelations. McGrath allows the creation of the story to take its place as a subplot, and a fascinating one at that. In the end, the story and the telling of it merge into one. The true climax of the ending is not the wrapping up of the literal plotline, but the climax of of story creation. If this sort of layering appeals to you, then this is sublime.

Certainly, for the historical fiction snob, there are gaffes. Some of the clothing is off, some of the particulars are vague (likely pointing to a lack of definite research into details). This is trivial next to the atmosphere that McGrath creates in his writing, which is transporting. Perhaps calling it "A Novel of the Revolution" is misleading--it is not even set in the colonies until the second half of the book, and even then it is a story during the war, not necessarily about the war. So be forewarned, but do not discount the book on the account of a poorly placed tag line.

And my favorite little piece of the book is the legend McGrath creates about Martha--a bit of invented folklore that mimics so well the real thing. In an act of defiant bravery, Martha is immortalized among the Patriot rebels fighting the British, and her story lives on much larger than she does. The image of printed cards with the story of Martha and her picture, tucked away in packs, was a brilliant reflection of the theme of created story and how we build our legends.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day


About this picutre: Reenacting is a family hobby...and it's been my way of staying connected with my dad for years. Too bad I don't have the pic of us in matching regimental coats, but this will have to do, in tribute to the best father in the eighteenth century. He taught me to:
Find a deer trail
Enjoy Scotch
Build a fire
Cook an egg over-easy, on aforementioned fire if preferred
Sew
Snowshoe
Cross-country ski (less effectively than the snowshoeing)
Say a few choice phrases in German
Never, ever give up
Simply be, quietly
Ride a bike (see effectiveness of cross-country skiing)
Amputate an arm, eighteenth-century style (in theory)
Find wild plants to alleviate poison ivy, bug bites, nettles (in practice)
Fish, and how to clean and cook the fish you catch
How to live with the eyes of a poet and the grit of a homesteader
Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there...what you teach means more than you know.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Writing and Terrible SciFi : Part I, Characters and Cavemen

I have a penchant for horrible early science fiction movies. Not decent stuff like The Day the Earth Stood Still. No, terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad monstrosities like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Terror from the Year 5000. Phantom Planet. Robot Monster.

As I was enjoying Eegah last week, I couldn't help but notice what lessons a writer could learn from the mistakes made by bad filmmaking. Eegah is the story of a young woman and her father who are, for reasons not entirely explained, kidnapped by Eegah, a prehistoric caveman (who may or may not be a giant, depending on the particular camera angle at any given frame) and their rescue by the young woman's unintentionally icky boyfriend (who looks like a ferret).

So, a few lessons on making your characters likeable and believable from a movie that did the exact opposite.

1) Stop saying "Wheee." No one says "Wheee." In one otherwise useless scene, the leading lady, Roxy, and her ferret-faced boyfriend, Tom, are riding around in the sand of the California desert on his self-made dune buggy. Punctuating this scene (which got dull after the first dune, by the way) is Roxy's high-pitched squealing "Whee!" as she whoops in excitement.

The problem? No one in the real world actually says "Whee." Or does cheesy double takes or any of the various other symbolic writing/acting we see them doing in books and movies. So while you want to convey to your reader that your character is having a great time, you have to show it in ways that seem realistic. It's almost like cheating to just type out "Wheee!" she cried and move on with it. And the reader feels cheated, too. Give us real reactions...not caricatures.

2) Just because he's the protagonist doesn't mean he's automatically likeable. One of the greatest character mistakes in Eegah was the male lead--Tom the ferret-faced boyfriend. You're supposed to like him. He's supposed to come off as an overeager, good guy who's just trying to make his girlfriend's dad like him. He comes off as icky, annoying, and more than a little creepy. The fact that he insists on pulling out his guitar and singing at odd moments doesn't help. By the time he gets socked in the face by Eegah, the prehistoric cave giant, you're probably rooting for Eegah. I know I was.

The lesson? Just because he's the lead character doesn't mean the audience will automatically engage with him in a positive way. You have to work at it. You have to give us reasons to like the guy, and minimize his annoying ferret-y habits. This doesn't mean he can't be flawed--in fact, Tom doesn't have any deliberate flaws (he's just obnoxious). Some ways Tom could have been fixed: His introduction. He's shown first as a slacking gas station attendant who I, at least, thought was just ogling Roxy, not actually in a relationship with her. Give us a first glance in a more relaxed, approachable environment, and we might see him in a better light. Next? Minimize his annoying habits. Yes, everyone has them and to be realistic (see point 1) they should be there. But they shouldn't steal every scene. Or play guitar in every scene. Finally? Show some legitimate weaknesses that let us identify with the character.

On second thought, this particular character was just too annoying to fix. Scrap him and get someone else who doesn't have a ferret face. (Illustrating the inevitable moments of rewrite trumping revision.)
3) The "info plant" guy. In Eegah, the father, who is abducted first by Eegah, is some sort of scientist/anthropologist/paleontologist/writer. Yeah, that's as clear as it got. But he was super helpful for explainting Eegah's eccentricities and motivations, from discovering that the caveman's name was Eegah to deciphering the reasons he lived so long--all from spending twenty minutes in a cave with him.

The character is useful for only two things--providing a reason for the two sap-happy teens to go out in the desert (find missing Dad) and providing explanation whenever things seem wonky in the cave. Use 1 is legitimate--motivation. Use 2--not legitimate. He's a human infodump. While it can be great to have characters with insight, it has to be done carefully. No one is an expert in everything, and trying to make someone a catch-all is sure to come off as artificial. And even experts rarely get everything right the first time. Allow them some room for error. In situations that no person has ever found him or herself in before (ie, trapped in a cave with a prehistoric cave giant), they should probably suggest explanations rather than write a thesis on the subject within an hour of the first encounter.

So what about the caveman, Eegah? Probably one of the better-drawn characters in the film, despite that ridiculous fake beard. Clearly, that isn't saying much. But in a role that's half King Kong, half the "Hey You Guys" thing from the Goonies, we do get a character with a good side and a bad side (done deliberately, even)--he's lonely (we identify with him), keeps his dead family propped up against the walls of his cave (woah, creepy...and intriguing), wants to take care of his captives (aww...), but is violent when it comes to letting them go (crisis of character). Though not the best illustration, still a good example of why balance is vital to any character--too much mushy niceness and you've got a boring Hostess Snoball, too much annoying or icky and you've got a ferret-faced Twinkie. Aim for the lovely balance of a Hostess Cupcake--chocolate cake hiding the delicious filling. Or was that way too much metaphor after a really, really bad movie?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Letter from the Camp--an Admonition

I had intended to recap the results of our Ladies on the Battlefield poll, but Blogger's polls seem to have been eaten by google (here and elsewhere). So, instead, a short letter from camp--this weekend's activities and diversions whilst the regiment remained encamped in the wilds of Illinois.

My Dear Miss S--,

You are quite fortunate to have avoided the wretchedness of the weather these past few days, as it has been as hot and damp as the inside of a tea kettle. We were only briefly reprieved by the arrival of torrential thunderstorms which, with their impressive winds, nearly bowled over the dining fly of Mr. D--. It was saved at the last moment by several men from the regiment, who caught and restaked the canvas before it was blown away entirely, taking the tea set on the table with it.

I have discovered in my time here that the men are afflicted with an astonishingly virulent form of the vulgar habit of swearing. The Corporal is a particular embarassment, allowing streams of profanities to escape for even the most minor of inconveniences, taking even the Lord's name in vainglorious swearing on many occasions. Having procured from the chaplain a pamphlet entitled "An Admonition against Profane and Common Swearing," I felt that it would be most advantageous for this particular young man to read its contents. Unfortunately, the poor lad's education is as poorly developped as his restraint, and he is quite incapable of reading the more strenuous passages in the book. So, despite the instructions on the pamphlet cover that the material be placed privately in the hands of those so addicted to swearing, my husband the Lieutenant gave me permission to read the most rivetting portions of the pamphlet aloud to his company after Church Parade on Sunday, and I was helped in this endeavor by the Sergeant, who had also been quite ashamed of the men's verbal conduct over the preceding months. They were all quite ashamed by the time I had finished, and were, for the remainder of the day, at least, were quite improved in the restraint of their tongues.



In an effort to curtail the lassitude brought on by the onslaught of heat, the Sergeant also suggested a most amusing lark--to train all the ladies in camp on the artillery drill. Two of the privates' wives have arrived in camp for the duration of our stay outside their city C--, one of whom brought her two sisters, which has caused quite a stir in the camp. I am not quite sure it is wise to permit unmarried ladies in camp, but my husband the Lieutenant assures me his men are known for naught but the most decent behaviour around Ladies. We shall see. Regardless, the Sergeant placed us all on the cannon, and ran us through our posts so thoroughly that I would wager we could fare well enough in an artillery duel, though we have yet, of course, to experience the thunder of the cannon in action. He insisted that I, as Lieutenant's wife, give the commands after being trained to do so, and I must confess that I did not muddle them in the slightest--perhaps I am a military lady after all? Our little farce earned us many laughs from the other companies and some scorn from a few of the more serious of the officers, but my husband thought it a merry joke.

Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant,

Mrs. Hyaline

Friday, June 11, 2010

Ladies on the Battlefield...Final Day


...What the heck am I doing on the battlefield?

Ken says "Hey, what's this chick doing here?" (Not really. Ken's cool like that.)


As a Revolutionary War reenactress, I often am asked what I'm doing out on the battlefield. Is it accurate? Were women really present on the battlefield?

I think we've shown that, yes, they were present on the field in some circumstances, and possibly more often than they're given credit for. Women were present in military camps, and during battles ran supplies or water to the field. Some women, like "Molly Pitcher," ended up on cannon crews; others deliberately dressed as men and took the field.

However, at one of our events, our numbers and proximity to the troops is a mite greater than was likely the case historically. Our reason for being there? Safety first, kids.

To get a sense for what we do, first imagine that you're a soldier on the line. The temperature hovers somewhere around 90 degrees. You're wearing a wool coat and a black wool felt hat and carrying a musket. You're about to run onto the field. And you just do this on the weekends--weekdays you work in an air-conditioned office.

Possibility you might pass out? Yeah, it's there.

Hey, you guys go ahead and get the flag off the field. I'll deal with this load here. Seriously, I should just leave him here for the Shawnee to deal with...(The officer wasn't really passing out. Yet.)
So we ladies deploy ourselves behind the men and check each guy who falls to see if he's actually a fake casualty. Usually they are, but an ounce of prevention--moving them to the shade, getting them a drink of water--can mean a world of difference. We try to get water in everyone before they march out on the field, and again when they wrap up the battle demonstration. We have wet rags in case anyone needs a bit of extra help--nothing as glorious as a cool (not cold) wet rag to the back of the neck, or a spash of water inside a hat.

And when someone isn't doing well, the immediate assistance we can provide often means that they cool down quickly enough that transporting them to a hospital isn't required.

Basic supply? Bucket. The only way I can provide enough water is to carry a bucket--filled two-thirds of the way (to avoid sloshing, can't have my feet getting wet, you see), it's often drained by the time we're done. Secret ingredient--a handful of ice. Keeps the water just cool enough, but not so ice-cold that it turns the stomach. I also carry small pewter cups--strange how, in the eighteenth century, we don't seem to mind germs...I guess we haven't discovered them yet.

Me and my bucket--this is at Morning Troop, where we call the roll and inspect the men's kit and weapons. It's hot there, too.

I also carry a first aid kit with basic band-aids, antiseptic ointment, aspirin, gauze. My most common battlefield injury? The men cut themselves on the flints of their flintlock muskets. Not life-threatening, but it's nice to get it wrapped up before they bleed all over their uniforms.

No every reenacting organization does this--or even allows women on the field. I respect their concern with historical accuracy, and admit that the number of women on our fields can sometimes get a bit out of control. However--I also admit that I once watched from the sidelines as one man lay in the sun for nearly an hour at another organization's event, speculated that he couldn't be feeling well, and then watched as an ambulance had to be sent for to deal with his massive heat stroke.

Sometimes I help on the cannon. Sometimes I just take naps on the cannon. Being a Lady on the Battlefield is tiring!

I hope you've enjoyed this week! Anything else you'd like to know about martial ladies of the eighteenth century? There's so much more to talk about!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Girl I Left Behind Me

Ladies on the Battlefield--Day Four

I'm lonesome since I crossed the hill,
And o'er the moorland sedgy
Such heavy thoughts my heart do fill,
Since parting with my Betsey
I seek for one as fair and gay,
But find none to remind me
How sweet the hours I passed away,
With the girl I left behind me.

O ne'er shall I foget the night,
the stars were bright above me
And gently lent their silv'ry light
when first she vowed to love me
But now I'm bound to Brighton camp
kind heaven then pray guide me
And send me safely back again,
to the girl I left behind me

The bee shall honey taste no more,
the dove become a ranger
The falling waters cease to roar,
ere I shall seek to change her
The vows we made to heav'n above
shall ever cheer and bind me
In constancy to her I love,
the girl I left behind me.


It's hard for modern American civilians to imagine a war taking place in our backyard. But for women left behind by men leaving for war, they were just as likely as their husbands and fathers to find the war in their backyards. Just picture that for a second--enemy troops marching through your vegetable garden, knocking over your garden gnomes, ducking under your volleyball net. Camping in your driveway. Kinda intense, but this was reality for plenty of women (well, minus the volleyball net) for women in Revolutionary America.

So what would you do if your house was suddenly part of the battlefield?

Nancy Hart, who lived in a cabin in rural Georgia, was one such woman. Her home was invaded by Loyalist troops while her husband was away. So, she did what any self-respecting Patriot wife would do--she held them hostage until help arrived. Known to be an excellent hunter and a crack shot, she killed two of the men before the others cowed to her. Her daughter helped out and retrieved and passed her loaded muskets. When her husband, a member of the militia, returned home later that day, she insisted that they be hung.

What's interesting about Nancy is that she knew what she was doing with a gun--likely, most frontier women could handle a weapon in case of attack (by enemy troops, angry Native Americans, or wild animals).

During the vicious campaigns in the American South around 1780, plenty of women found their homes raided, or had to think fast to avoid rape or injury at the hands of violent soldiers. Accounts of men stealing silver, silks, even women's clothing and shoes, permeate diary entries and letters. Some, like Nancy, fought back--but many took a quiter, and probably safer track, and allowed soldiers to take what they wanted from their homes.

Even women who never experienced enemy attack had experiences outside the norm--they had to plant and harvest without men, and handle a household without the normal partnership that eighteenth century marriages provided. Many women managed not only households but businesses, often for the first time. The influx of women into the workforce that we often associate with WWII happened here, too, but quieter, less obvious--there were no factories to hire Rosie the Riveter, but shops and farms were suddenly staffed with women where men once balanced the budgets and scythed the wheat.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cross-Dressing for a Cause

Ladies on the Battlefield--Day Three

It's hard to believe that a woman could pull off dressing as a man, then live and fight alongside men without getting found out. In the case of Deborah Sampson and others, it happened.

During the American Revolution, Deborah, in the guise of a man, enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment. She was unmarried, so she was not likely following a man (and in fact married a farmer after the war). Only after being hospitalized for a fever (possibly due to a wound that did not heal properly, as she attempted to doctor herself to avoid discovery) was her secret disclosed and she was honorably discharged.

Deborah has often been described as tall for a woman of her time and even burly (the rather awful miniature below might have something to do with it...I have a feeling she wasn't actually cross-eyed either). Contemporary Paul Revere, however, shares that "when I saw and discoursed with her I was agreeably surprised to find a small, effeminate, and conversable woman." So how did Ms. Sampson pull it off?

Remember that the legal age to enlist in the military in the eigtheenth century was sixteen, and plenty of boys disregarded the rule and claimed to be sixteen when they were younger. So there were plenty of adolescent boys in the ranks who still did not grow beards, had higher-pitched voices, and had not gained the hard lines of a man's face. Deborah probably claimed to be one of these young men.

Even so, her compatriots recognized that she wasn't quite...manly. She earned the nickname "Molly" from some of her fellow soldiers, which is more significant than a simple girl's name. In eighteenth-century slang, a "molly" is an effeminate or homosexual man. So, Deborah pulled off her ruse so successfully that her fellow soldiers never assumed that her feminine mannerisms and appearance were because she was, in fact, a woman.

The only reason Deborah was discovered is because she was wounded--which begs the question of how many women slipped into ranks, served their enlistments (which in the Congressional forces were relatively short, one calender year at the commencement of the war, in the militia even shorter) and disappeared into obscurity. The chances of being wounded weren't terribly high, so it could happen...and did happen, again and again, during the Civil War and other conflicts, until women were formally allowed in the Armed Forces.

Another point that must be made, and is often ignored, about Deborah are her activities after the war. For one, she petitioned--and was granted--a pension and back pay as a war veteran. She even got friend and fellow patriot Paul Revere to write to Congress on her behalf. She, along with Margaret Corbin (who served on an artilley crew) are the only women to be granted pensions from the American Revolution. However, her pension was granted at $4 a month rather than the $5 men received--for no reason I can find other than that she was a woman.

She also spoke publically, dressing in her uniform, running through the Manual of Arms, and addressing the crowds. The subject of her talk was, interestingly enough, an explanation and apology for "swerving from the path of feminine delicacy." Ironically, a woman speaking to mixed audiences was only slightly less shocking than donning a regimental and picking up a musket. In the days before female abolitionists, who are often credited with being the first American women to speak to secular, public audiences, Deborah may actually have earned this honor. Her public speaking tour may make her more "exceptional" than her time as a soldier--who knows how many other women silently served alongside her?

What do you think--was Deborah Sampson singular in her exploit, or did other women--unnamed--also enlist and serve? Throw out the names of some of the heriones of other wars, too--didn't have time to name them all here, so share your favorites!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Molly Pitcher--Behind the Name

Ladies on the Battlefield--Day Two

A woman whose husband belonged to the artillery and who was then attached to a piece in the engagement, attended with her husband at the piece for the whole time. While in the act of reaching a cartridge and having one of her feet as far before the other as she could step, a cannon shot from the enemy passed directly between her legs without doing any other damage than carrying away all the lower part of her petticoat. Looking at it with apparent unconcern, she observed that it was lucky It did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else, and continued her occupation.

Joseph Plumb Martin

In short--a woman, whose husband was a member of the artillery crew, took a position on the crew during the Battle of Monmouth. The reason for this is most likely that she was in the vicinity--running water, bringing supplies--when a crew member fell to enemy fire or became ill with heatstroke (as a sidenote, at least 50 British regulars died of heatstroke at the Battle of Monmouth--it was hot). It is also possible that she was standing between the person loading the gun and the person running cannon rounds, making the trip more efficient.

The biggest topic of conversation surrounding the story of Molly Pitcher is, it seems, her identity. This has been examined over and again, with two contenders--Mary Hayes and Margaret Corbin--standing as top choice for the "original" Molly Pitcher. This article does a nice job explaining how each may be Molly and gives a brief biography.


Another take on Molly, however, is that of Ray Raphael's People's History of the American Revolution. He, along with earlier historians, suggests that Molly Pitcher may have been a generic term, like G.I. Joe, for a whole set of women who ran water and supplies to the battlefied. This does make some sense--though the name Molly is a diminutive for Margaret and Mary (the ladies presented above), it is also in many ways the eighteenth-century equivalent of "Jane"--the any-woman's name. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue cites the word "moll" as a whore; other sources as just "a girl."

In either case, the nameless woman in Martin's famous account shows us a few important facts about women on the battlefield at the time.

I propose, they were not terribly unusual. Look at the way in which Martin describes the incident--the exciting fact is not that a woman was present, but that something extraordinary happened to her. Her petticoat was half torn away by an enemy shot (likely not a cannon ball, by the way, which would have been too large to do such minor damage--probably "antipersonnel" cannister or grapeshot, which consisted of small balls bound up together and intended to spray the enemy with dozens of small projectiles at once). This is why he shares the story--not simply because she was there. How many women on the field were not recorded by their peers because nothing "out of the ordinary" happened to them?

Second, when it became necessary, Molly stepped outside her "feminine" role and took up a position on the artillery piece. Why didn't the crew just pull a man to do the job? They probably preferred working with a woman who knew what she was doing--as a camp-follower member of the artillery, she would have been familiar with the drill in a way that an inexperienced infantryman would not have been. Pulling a green man would have slowed things down or, worse, caused an accident--cannons are dangerous pieces of equipment to work with. Perhaps, as a lark, the men even trained some of the women--after all, teaching is the best way to sharpen up your own skills:

A 1780 cartoon depicting such a lark--and I know the boys of our reenacting unit love to try to teach us the Manual of Arms. Emphasis on "try."


Before we sign off on Molly, let's take a look at the varied (hilarious) artwork depicting Ms. Pitcher in action:

I'm not sure what she's supposed to be wearing (ye olde milkmaid costume?) but when the cannon she's lighting off recoils, she's going to be Flat Molly. No account of Molly Pitcher indicates that she fired the piece, by the way. But perhaps an unrecorded "Molly" did...

"Action Molly." I do like her discarded bucket in the corner--nice symbolism, Currier and Ives. But what is the fellow firing the cannon with--a sparkler?



Molly with Shirtless Guy. And a very cluttered field--you kids need to clean up this mess or no hardtack, do you hear me?




Puritan-Costume Molly with Gun Pointed at Ground. Or downhill--better move that wounded guy or he's going to be in bigger trouble if that thing rolls downhill.

Tomorrow...Cross-Dressing for a Cause...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ladies on the Battlefield...First Things First

Launching Ladies on the Battlefield Week! I've decided to focus mainly on the eighteenth century because...well, I know it the best. And there's too much to cover even with one century! But first...anyone who knows anything knows that women couldn't enlist in the military until well into the twentieth century. World War II, with its Women's Army Corps (WAC), Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and others paved the way for women's entry into the armed forces.

So what were women doing with the military in the eighteenth century?

In today's military, support roles like cooking, cleaning, repair, maintenance, are all handled by are covered by military personnel or by private contractors. One estimate from World War II indicated that, for every man in combat, there were five or six men behind the lines serving in support roles. In the eighteenth century, many of these roles were filled by women. Soldier's wives often followed the army, serving as official (on the roster) and often unofficial support staff. Women served as nurses in camp hospitals, mended clothing, gathered firewood, cooked (though men were also expected to be able to cook their own rations if needed), and did laundry.

Laundry was actually a booming business in camp--the men were responsible for having their own laundry done, so entreprenurial women would set up shop near camp and render these services--for a fee. Sometimes these women followed the army, or were spouses of men serving in the regiment, but often were not--they had found a good way to support themselves during the turmoil of wartime.

So how did these women get there, and why were they allowed? "Camp followers" have earned the misnomer of being synonymous with prostitutes, and this simply wasn't the case. In fact, women found to be dabbling in prostitution were "drummed out" of camp, as shown below--they were formally marched from camp, humiliated by a chorus of drummers. I enjoy the camp woman, accompanied by two small children, waving a stick at the prostitute in this scene:
Rather, women served a vital role in supporting the troops, and the professional British and German armies of the American Revolution recognized this--they allowed every 1 in 8 men to bring his wife (and, often, children--if she didn't have them before, she was bound to eventually) along with. Some sources even indicate that the German (often dubbed Hessian) armies had a lottery system by which it was determined which wives would be permitted to go. ("Nice going, Hans! Better luck next time, Johann.") And of course, where there are men in unform...The book Redcoats and Rebels included an estimate that the number of dependents (wives and children) returning to England after the American Revolution may have equalled the number of soldiers.

As for the Continental and State troops during the American Revolution, their system for allowing women seems to have been looser. For one, they weren't transporting men across the ocean, so women were more able to come and go, never officially making it "on the ration"--or anyone's roster. Washington seems to have had his issues with women in camp--he complained that they didn't stay with "the baggage" where they were supposed to and (heavens have mercy) the pregnant ones kept trying to ride on the wagons. (Washington may also have been a touch OCD, but that's another discussion.) Their tenures with the army may have been shorter and less regular--women briefly visited and pitched in while their husbands' regiments were camped nearby, then stayed at home rather than following the troops.

Though some edicts of the period indicate that women were supposed to camp separately from the men (with the "baggage") it seems that this was not always adhered to. For one, many prints (like the one below) show women working alongside men in camp. For another, archaelogical finds show the presence of items such as rough children's toys in areas known to be military camps.

Though most women following the army were of the lower class, officer's wives occasionally joined their husbands, as well. Many only stayed with their husbands for the winter "off season" (eighteenth century campaigns took place, generally, during the spring, summer, and fall months only, breaking for the winter), but some stuck it out, seeing their role as boosting morale as well as providing domestic support (darning socks, much?).

And this gets us to how women could end up on the battlefield. Women weren't expected to follow the troops all the way into battle, but sources show that they often operated at the periphery of the field, running supplies such as ammunition and bringing water. During one summertime battle, for instance, women gathered canteens from the men on the lines, ran to a nearby spring to refill them, and returned them to the men. In a circumstance where heatstroke was a real threat, this may have saved lives.

Tomorrow, a bit more about Molly Pitcher--the legend of one woman (or, perhaps, not just one woman) who found herself doing more than just supporting an artillery crew--she found herself a part of it.

Good reading on the subject: Belonging to the Army by Holly Mayer

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Poll Results--and New Poll for Ladies on the Battlefield Week

The last poll question posted--"If I could go on a vacation into the past, without worry of disease, war, or unalterably changing the course of history, I would pick"--was originally a "long car trip" question posed between a friend and I. Between our answers and my imagination, your choices with results:

An ancient Roman villa, where I would lounge in my tunic beside a cool fountain and dine on olives and grapes. : 11%

A Renaissance court, where I would be entertained by musicians, dancing, hunting, and lively intrigue. 33%

An eighteenth-century cosmopolitan city in the height of the social season. Weekend retreats to country estate optional. 33%

New York or Chicago in the Jazz Age--hot music, gorgeous ballrooms, passwords to all the best speakeasies. 22%

Though our Roman villa came out in the lead early in the poll, it fell behind--perhaps the languid heat of Rome seems less appealing as summer begins its steady siege on much of the readership.

Our tie for the winner--Renaissance court and The Season in an eighteenth-century city--both have the sense of "having it all"--great food, fabulous entertainment, deluxe accomodations, outdoor activities if you choose. So I can see why those came in ahead!

And our twentieth century choice, a bustling city teeming with jazz and culture, gave a respectable second place.

Two of these were my answers to the original "we're bored in the midst of cornfields" question--the latter two. I would love to experience eighteenth century social life--and let's be honest, the clothes are fanatastic. Researching my first (unpublished) novel, I got a taste of Charleston at the height of the social season--concerts, balls, plays. These people enjoyed culture and good living! And clothes. Did I mention clothes?

And in researching my second (unfinished as of yet) novel, I dove into 30s and 40s Chicago--and fell in love. The architecture, music, and dance scene were just amazing. People went out--far more than they do today--and enjoyed what the city had to offer. The character of city at that time seems vibrant and abundant.

So the new poll--in honor of our themed week next week--if you found yourself a woman in the eighteenth century (just to narrow the timeframe a bit), what lady on the battlefield would you be?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Announcing: Ladies on the Battlefield Week!


Sometimes various facets of life all start to reflect the same image--and when that happens I want to blog about it! Facet One: While enjoying the cool evening last weekend at a reenactment, we were playing music and singing, and two friends of mine introduced me to a fabulous new song. In it, the coy heroine dresses as a boy and enlists on a ship to find her lover. Then I get back, and find Facet Two: this post over at Two Nerdy History Girls (interjection: Read this blog! No, really, go do it!) about a woman enlisting on shipboard.

And I love a story about a scrappy woman tossing in on a good row. So I though--why not take a week to go in depth on a few more of those stories? And separate a bit of myth from fact if we can?

Looking forward to posting every day next week--Ladies on the Battlefield (or ship...and maybe a frontier cabin or two...and they might not necessarily be "ladies" per se...).

Until then, the lyrics from the song that tipped this whole thing off:

Billy Taylor

Billy Taylor was a sailor,
Full of joy and beauty gay.
'Stead of Billy getting married,
He was pressed and forced away.

But the bride soon followed after
Under the name of Richard Carr;
Snow white fingers, long and slender,
All covered o'er wi' pitch and tar.

One day in the heat of battle
Shot and shell was flying there,
A silver button flew off her waistcoat
Left her snowy white breast bare.

Then up spoke the gallant captain,
"What ill fortune brought you here?"
"I come in search of Billy Taylor
Whom you pressed the other year."

"If you'll rise early in the morning,
Early by the break of day,
There you'll see your Billy Taylor
Walking out with a lady gay."

She rose early the next morning,
Early by the break of day.
There she saw her Billy Taylor
Walking out with a lady gay.

Gun and pistol she's commanded,
Gun and pistol by her side.
She has shot young Billy Taylor
Walking out with his new-made bride.

When the captain did behold her
And the deed that she had done,
He has made her chief commander
O'er a ship and a hundred men.

The best part about this song that you can't see here is the shock, surprise, and enjoyment produced by that second to last verse. Open laughter and clapping at that point.


Did this story as told in the song really happen? Probably not. But it does show that the fascination with women posing as men or participating in warfare isn't relegated to modern times--this was a popular song, recorded on broadsides and widely varied from the early eighteenth century onward. My favorite part about this version is the respect the woman is given at the end for her pluck--not scolded or shamed, but rewarded.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Answering the Unanswerables and Another Use for Vodka

In one of my undergraduate history courses, I had a rather exhuberant professor who announced an intense interest in those things history courses couldn't answer. There are things, she proclaimed, that no book could ever answer, that we could never know. What, she proposed as an example, did 1776 smell like?

It smells like my upstairs closet where I keep my reenacting clothes.

It smells like a lingering melange of woodsmoke and earthy dirt, of bright grass stains and sulpherous black powder smoke, of my own unwashed self, quite strongly, wrapped up in rumpled linen.

Gosh, I wonder how my clothes get so disgusting. To note: It was 95 degrees and I'd been running in addition to crawling around on the ground. Sheesh.



Yes, I do wash my clothes. I throw the shifts and petticoats and (dear God of course) the stockings in the laundry after every weekend of wear. It's the gowns and the stays that cause a mite of trouble. I send the gowns to the dry cleaner every few wears, but don't want to overstress them (and, once, the dry cleaners sent my gown to a local theater thinking it was theirs and I only got it back because they didn't recognize it). Stays can't really be laundered at all.

Then a friend clued me in to the best trick ever: Vodka.

Spritzing plain, cheapo vodka on fabric pulls the smell out. It takes a few go's, especially after so much, ah, neglect, but it really does work. I doused my stays a few times and a gown and a jacket twice each, and they freshened up considerably. It's like Febreeze without the weird after-smell.

So, now my closet doesn't have to smell like 1776. On the downside, one less question about the past easily answered.