Friday, May 25, 2012

Reenactors, It's okay to be hot and dirty once in a while.

...Readers, now that I got your attention with that wrongfully suggestive headline, you may get your mind out of the gutter and learn why I would make such a statement. 

When we are at events to which we are invited, I get tired of being asked questions like "aren't you hot in all that?" As if that question even needs to be asked, while we stand there with streams of sweat running down our faces like tears from underneath our hats.

I think one of the hardest things for spectators and newbie reenactors to understand is that we are supposed to sweat.  We are supposed to look tired and dirty and smell funny. 

I know in our modern antiseptic society that floods our senses with commercials for disinfectants, hair shampoos, body wash, soaps, toothpastes and laundry detergents, and exotic fragrances for both men and women, personal hygiene is very important.  The idea of why anyone would want to go several days without a shower and that luxuriant, shining and bouncy hair to accentuate our polished squeaky clean skin seems barbaric.  And like any other fella, I know that a very long shower after coming home from a particularly hot, muddy or dusty camping event and laying in soft bedsheets and clean cotton clothes feels like nirvana, don't get me wrong.

But when we're out there sleeping in piles of straw or on the wet ground, burning in the hot sun without shade, or running around and shooting at each other; dressed very inappropriately and pretending to live over a hundred fifty years ago, it's a different world entirely.

In that world, it's okay to be dirty.

The obvious answer to the dumb question "are you hot in those clothes?" is yes.  But it goes deeper than that.  Instead of simply stating "Um, well, yeah" and moving on, we can engage the inquisitive spectator and tell them why we dress like that.

Yes, we are supposed to feel hot and sweat profusely while doing the stuff we do, walking and running around outside in clothes made of layers of muslin and wool.  There good reasons why people wore such heavy and restrictive clothing.  First, it was the most durable and still flexible material available for clothes at the time.  Second, wool was good to wear outside, because it is naturally water repellent.  Ever notice how if you spill a few drops of water on fuzzy wool, it slides right off and won't soak in, and you can just wipe it off the surface?  Soldiers liked it because it was fire retardant. Wool smolders slowly, but is much more difficult to burn. It's very warm and insulating in the winter.  (The great coats we wear are very cozy on cold windy days!)   And in the summertime it makes you sweat which--like it or not-- is the body's natural way of cooling itself.  When wool gets waterlogged, it becomes very heavy, but also stays cool and moist for a long time without evaporating.  So when we put on our gear and start to sweat, it saturates the inner lining of the coat or vest and hugs the shirt closer to our bodies, and for awhile we feel disgusting.  But as we walk around in it, and really once a light breeze kicks up, something magic happens.  We start to cool down.  Unbuttoning our coats lets this rush of air hit the wet garment, and within seconds we feel relief. Our fluid cycle becomes a natural cooling system. 

Another question spectators have is, why don't we expose more of our skin? Notice women cover everything but their heads, and even then many wear hats. Their outfits are always long-sleeved. There are several reasons why. One was modesty. The low necklines, knickers and bare forearms of the previous century were looked upon as decadent, this was a much more conservative time. Women on the whole wanted to look plain, and not draw attention to their bodies. They also had an understanding that water exchange in the body was a cycle. Perspiration was as necessary and involuntary as breathing. If you were in the sun with exposed skin for too long, you would stop sweating and faint. So thus, they believed not bundling up even in hot weather would "hinder perspiration" and make you sick. It was thought to be a cause of pneumonia; not wearing enough clothing.

Last year, I volunteered as a reenactor guarding Fort Delaware. This was about a week before the 150th Manassas and it was over 100 degrees. The first question the uniformed tour guide asked his group (with a look of astonishment) was: "Were you all robbed? What happened to all your clothes?" A hoop-skirted lady asked a teenage girl: "But look at all that exposed skin. Are you ill? Aren't you afraid you'll die?"

Sounds crazy if you're not one of us, I know.  But it makes sense. Sort of.

It has to be understood how people lived in past centuries to appreciate how attitudes may have been different towards personal hygiene. People did bathe and wash their clothes less in the 19th century (A primary source cited in World Turn'd Upside Down recommends women change their stockings twice a week as if that were a novel concept!) but there were reasons why.

People worked much harder physically and for longer hours, in most cases without the aid of labor-saving machines. They did most of their work outside in the elements, or inside spaces with inadequate air circulation.  They also spent much more time around heat sources like an open fire, for the necessity of cooking. In general, people were much more used to being hot all the time.  The amount of physical labor that even civilians would have to do each day would seem exhausting by today's standards. They were considerably more acclimated to it than we are.

Cleaning and washing clothes was very hard work, and when done for many people, it could be a full day's job.  A living historian at Fort Delaware portraying a laundress shows how much work was involved.  She has to bring water in buckets from a well underneath the fort to fill a large washbasin; if she is trying to boil shirts to remove lice it must be heated slowly over a fire.  She has to remove all buttons from the shirts, because scrubbing them on a washboard will tend to break the buttons.  Once the shirts have been stewed in hot water they are put into cold water, and scrubbed against the rough corrugated surface known as a washboard.  Then they must be wrung out and hung up to dry on a rope with wooden clothespins.  When the shirts are dry she has to sew the buttons back on. That was easily a full-time job, working dawn to dusk. Think about how many dirty, sweaty men were in the fort.

Farmers and people who weren't wealthy would probably wear the same work clothes every day until they fell apart, and even then, they would be mended, darned and patched to keep them going as long as possible. 19th century America was not a throw-away society.

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