This past weekend I made a quick visit to Colonial Williamsburg, where it was hot, hot, hot, and tropically humid, too - the steamiest of Tidewater Virginia weather. As I walked (no, I'll be honest: I was dragging myself) around the historic area, I was impressed by how the women dressed in the style of c1775 seemed to look much more comfortable with the heat than I was, dressed c2016.
The secret to keeping bearably cool in the heat like our 18thc counterparts did? Apparently it's layers of linen and cotton that breathe and absorb perspiration away from the skin, plus straw hats against the sun.
Not far from the cabinet-maker's shop, Katy, upper left, was making a length of cord (probably destined for use as a drawstring) with the help of a lyre-shaped tool called a lucet. Her linen bedgown is comfortably loose and pinned closed, and given shape with the apron tied around her waist.
Sitting before the George Wythe House, Christian, right, was writing in her journal, pen in hand and inkstand on the bench beside her. In addition to her linen jacket, shift, and petticoat, she was wisely keeping from the sun with her wide-brimmed hat plus fingerless linen mitts, all designed to preserve a proper lady-like paleness.
In the shade of the courthouse porch, Mairin, lower left, was embroidering, her scissors hanging ready on a ribbon from her waist. She wore a mix of bright colors and prints that were cheerful and summery to modern eyes: a printed cotton short gown, a printed cotton neckerchief, a checked apron, and a bright yellow linen petticoat. In the shade, she didn't wear a straw hat, but she did make sure to keep her head covered with a neat linen cap. What 18thc woman wouldn't?
But all of these women were sitting still while they worked. The young women (I'm sorry I wasn't able to ask their names), below right, were working in the treading pit in the brickyard. With their feet bare and their petticoats tucked into their aprons, they took turns mixing water with clay to create the raw material for the brickmaker to mold into bricks. Visitors were invited to join them, shedding their shoes and sandals to take a turn in the treading pit and shrieking at the unfamiliar sensation of wet clay between the toes.
Beneath a tent-like shelter overhead against the sun - I suspect more to keep the clay from drying out than to protect the workers - the clay and water must have been pleasantly cool underfoot on this hot day. But passing visitors notwithstanding, this wasn't at all the romanticized, genteel way we often imagine the past. This was hard, tedious work, unskilled labor at its most basic, and I couldn't help but think of the 18thc women, men, and children who must have toiled in similar treading pits from dawn until dusk, from early spring until the frosts of fall - and likely for the most minimum of wages, too.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.