I'm a reenactor/living-historian. When i first entered "the hobby" i found it full of people of remarkable variety, unlike some of the other communities to which i'd belonged before (fencing and theatre). On one end of the spectrum, predictably, there are large numbers of history teachers (teachers of other subjects are well-represented, too); on the other end of the spectrum are the Scarlett O'Hara wannabes. The quality of "interpretation" (how the character you portray when doing "first person" really exemplifies the type of person from DOCUMENTABLE HISTORY) runs from cartoonish to absolutely authentic.
For me, the hobby was a good fit -- i already had a great deal of interest in history, i'm an advanced seamstress and handicrafter, and i enjoy reading and doing research. I was lucky enough to join a VERY knowledgeable and skilled group, so positive examples were all around me. I set out to master my new art....
There's a lot of material available to help new reenactors get up to speed now, but when i started they were much more sparse. I looked around me at other women portraying particular TYPES from the past, and i looked at the references available, and i saw this huge disconnect between what i KNEW about history (from literature), and what a lot of reenactors were trying to act out.
You see, founts of information on history are very far from being equal. Two different historians may be using the same source material, and due to any number of differences of PERSONAL experience, may interpret them poles apart. So how does the hobbyist know which one to believe? The average living-history-aspirant goes with his OWN gut and preferences, and the superior one bypasses the professional historians (secondary sources) entirely, and goes to the primary source himself.
THIS is the secret to having a grasp on history. Almost everything you've ever seen on television or movies is WRONG. The screenwriter may be devoted to telling the truth, but the "truth" is filtered through a modern brain, with all the conditioning that modern society has put there. A lot of what you were taught in school is also HIGHLY QUESTIONABLE, because the writers of textbooks and the teachers also have Modern Brain-Filter Syndrome. Things that you're told at historic sites, whether by volunteers or professionals, can be laughably incorrect. EVERYTHING you read has been filtered through somebody else's brain, with all the culture bias and personal-experience-coloring that entails.
What's the most reliable source? Depends on what kind of information you're looking for. The secret is to get the words of a detached person who is witnessing the detail of life on the spot. Reminiscences can SUCK -- you know how your grandfather claimed he walked seven miles to and from school ... in the snow ... barefoot ... uphill both ways...? If a person is remembering an era from more than ten years on, there's a good chance it's sentimentalized, romanticized or sensationalized in some way.
Places where some very good material can be found are police and court reports. Here, a lot of information is recorded quickly and in a matter-of-fact way. Period newspapers take the basic information and try to make it more interesting ... but if you reduce the descriptive jargon, the bedrock "facts" are frequently instructive. Journals and letters are illustrative of the individual's experience -- in the former example, the writer probably never expected any eyes but her/his own to see it, and is frequently an honest observation of life. Just make sure, if you ARE reading collections of letters and journals, that they're in their entirety: EDITED journals and letters are also victims of MBFS.
Even fiction can be used to give solid information on life in a different age, but there's a trick to it. It has to be fiction ABOUT the time IN WHICH IT'S WRITTEN. Cooper's "Leatherstocking" stories are about an age in which Cooper did not live, so it's OUT. Jane Austin is IN. Samuel Clemens is ... MOSTLY in. Ditto for Charlotte Bronte, but not Emily. Maybe Anne. In these writings, what you look for are the throwaway details that people take for granted.
"One morning, Mrs. Bretton, coming promptly into my room, desired me to open my drawers and show her my dresses; which I did, without a word." Interpretation: ladies were known to store their dresses in chests of drawers. If you believe that NO closets existed in houses of the mid-nineteenth century (wrong), and that everyone had wardrobes in which they hung their clothes (wrong), or even that poor people without wardrobes ONLY hung their dresses on pegs or hooks or nails ... you don't know as much about history as you think you do. When a modern novel ABOUT the past shows a lady doing fine embroidery in silks, a novel FROM the same era is more likely showing the lady hemming a handkerchief. Same lady, doing needlework, different vision entirely.
The "throwaway facts" that one gleans from old newspapers can be the notice of a runaway bondservant in colonial America, who HAD to have been wearing a tabby petticoat and checked blue bedjacket, because THAT'S ALL SHE HAD ... unless she stole clothes when she left, because they often did. Or that [yawn] ANOTHER whore has gone and committed suicide, and it was narcotic poisoning, AGAIN. One sometimes gets a very clear picture of the past, when dead-and-gone voices don't even know they've spoken to you.
Vintage-but-not-antique sources frequently muddy the historical waters. My mother (who will be 90 next year) may hear me say something about old-timers doing XYZ, and she'll counter, "Oh NO they didn't!" -- all up in arms, till i point out that i was referring to people a hundred years before she was born, not old-timers of HER vintage. If i were the dutiful, obedient child (LOL) at the foot of my elder, i might have scrapped what i had learned from a primary source and taken for fact a thoroughly mistaken, baseless OPINION....
So when people have an absolutely unrealistic vision of what life was like two hundred, one thousand, twenty thousand years ago, you can applaud modern culture's success in having completely brainwashed them. Life "back then" was no more romantic than it is today -- it just contains unknowns for you, and mystery is romantic. People had DIFFERENT problems, but problems they had indeed. There never has been, and will never be a Golden Age.
Read what the laws were. Read what happened to the people who got caught, breaking the law. Read about the victims of the lawbreakers. Think of how most people had to behave, so as not to break laws. Realize that if you had money or power, these things did not apply to you. That's what the past was like.