Wednesday, March 28, 2012

good old days, bad old days, or what?

I started thinking about all of the things that we "paleoids" have to make from scratch ourselves, so as to make sure they don't contain ingredients we are trying to avoid....  Makes me think of how our fore-mothers did essentially the same thing, for a whole different reason.

As a reenactor/living-historian, i take pride in being able to do all of the every-day chores as done by the lady whose portrait hangs in my dining room, my great-grandmother Laura O.  When participating in an event where school-children visit our camp, my friend Meg and i field questions about a wide variety of aspects of antique life.  We wear reproduction clothing appropriate to whichever time period we're interpreting, and make every effort to use household equipment of the same authenticity.  We cook period-correct, location-correct foods by historic recipes, and if those foods aren't fresh, then they were preserved by our own little hands, in the same forms as of old.

We make light of the work and discomfort, talking to the kids.  We explain how the clothes aren't nearly as hot as they think, and that working women didn't lace their corsets tightly as in ridiculous movies.  Heavy work like laundry was not generally done during the heat of the day, and there were "tricks of the trade" which made chores easier and houses cooler, which modern people have forgotten about.  We try to debunk a lot of the nonsense about the past which is promoted by popular media.  When the weekend is over, we trade our petticoats for jeans and drive home, get in the shower, and do things the easy way until it's time for the next event.

I feel like an absolute wimp, whining about having to make my own mayonnaise with the help of modern appliances, when i think of how much work it was to concoct entirely by hand.  Ever beat eggwhites to stiff peaks, without the use of a mixer?  It's very tiring to the arm muscles!  Of course, "ordinary people" such as we portray ate very simply, and therefore cooked simply, but it was still labor-intensive.  Preserving a summer's harvest was real work even from an urban-sized garden, and when a farm's autumn work included butchering, the efforts invested would be daunting to the modern householder.  EVERYTHING, from condiments to cleaning supplies to toiletries, was prepared at home.  Fortunately, even the middle classes could often afford hired help -- but that just goes to show how cheaply labor was held.  Unless you were rich, you EXPECTED to work, and work hard.

So when i comment with exasperation (like i did yesterday) that i'm going to have to prepare a staple that most people go out and buy, there's a part of me that is ashamed of being such a lazy bum.  Just because i CAN do everything my great-grandmother did, doesn't mean i actually do it regularly -- which is rather humbling.  Ladies of the past, i salute you.

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