Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Making It Work

Too often, we run into living history challenges and think we have to make-do or justify our solutions. Let me take a moment of your day and share a quick process to simplify decision-making, and get a great historically-accurate result every time.

(And if you want another run at this same topic, please visit the Compendium or click here for our free article about the The Progressive Questions!)

Here’s the pattern:

  1. What did the Original Cast, the people who lived our favorite time period, actually do and use?
  2. Can I replicate or do that exactly?
  3. If not, what other things did the Original Cast actually do and use?
  4. Which of these historic options fits best with my modern impression, budget, time, and preferences?

Let’s put them into use for a few questions (and I’m going to pick different questions than in the Compendium article.)

 I will be sleeping at a history event. Can I use my air mattress?

1: What did the Original Cast do? Well, mostly they slept in beds, with a variety of mattress options.

2: Can I do that? Yes, it’s possible to build or buy a repro bed frame, add slats or rope tension, make a period mattress, and period bedding. I’ll be quite comfortable and cozy, too.

But what if that set-up is beyond my budget, or doesn’t work for my time-frame before the event, or I lack a way to haul all that gear to and from, or the physical wherewithal to do the set-up and take-down on my own? What if I’m going to be in a tent?

That’s when we head for Question 3: What other options did the Original Cast use?

Well, in westward migration settings, most people either slept on pallets and mattresses inside the wagon, or in bedrolls on the ground under the wagon or in a tent put up for the night. There are also plans for portable cots in period publications like The Prairie Traveler (discussion of furniture starts on page 114. You’re welcome.), so I could make a more budget-scaled and transport-friendly bed that is still well within period norms.

I could skip a bed frame, and lay a pallet on a floorcloth inside or outside a tent, or in a historic building, and sleep there. I could use a simple bed-roll of period-styled quilts (with wool under me to cushion and insulate.) I could also do what many displaced and away from home people did, and rent a room for the night at a nearby boarding house or hotel, and skip hauling bedding entirely.

And if I want to use an air mattress? Well, they had ’em. And I can, too, if I’m willing to construct one of real rubber in a period style and inflate it by means of a small bellows or my own lungs. Of all the options open to replicate the era, using an accurate air mattress is more challenging than all the others.

With any of these options, I still need to stick to period materials, techniques, and styles for bedding, wood, fasteners, etc; but I could also safely leave every speck of my sleeping arrangements open to public view, and be confident the spectators are seeing something historic, not make-do.

All that remains is to carefully examine the period-appropriate options I have (with this one question, I’m counting a minimum of nine valid period options I could choose to replicate).

Let’s do another. I think I need a purse for my bits of junk. What should I use?

1: What did They use? A quick survey of extant dresses shows something handy: pockets. Pockets quite deep and capacious, stitched right into the seam of the skirt (usually on the dominant hand side), with a “pocket stay” to support the outer reaches of the pocket bag. Properly made (with rounded corners to prevent things going lost in the points), a pocket in a dress can hold everything the modern woman thinks she needs (and more than most modern purses of moderate scale.)

2: Can I do that? Oh, yes! It’s a free or nearly-free retro-fit to existing dresses, and costs only pennies to add to new dresses, too. It’s such a great solution, in fact, that I’m going to recommend stopping there for any normal day-to-day detritus like keys, medications, handkerchiefs, lozenges, small candies to soothe or bribe little children, a tiny notebook and pencil for random jottings… not to mention modern but sometimes-felt-vital things like phones. A pocket sewn into a dress is more convenient than hauling a purse, and it’s a perfectly period solution. We can actually stop right here, and meet a need for 99% of our sistren.

I certainly could continue on through the four-step process. There are some great articles to do with cases and arrangements for travel, for instance, from Anna Worden Bauersmith. I could look at classes from Genteel Arts Academy in making my own travel bag. I could read up on other options from Virginia Mescher, regarding baskets or a host of other topics that inform what I might keep in pockets, bags, or boxes. All of that learning, and more, will only add context to my choices and expand my options.

Or, since I’ve found a great period solution that works easily and widely, I can stop right here, feeling secure that by starting with What They Did, my final choice of What I’ll Do fits well within the period norms for my own modern living history situation. It’s a great place to rest for a moment.

So I shall.

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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