Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Get Thee To The Symposium!

CivSym2015WebEvery March, something cool happens. It’s January right now, but you still have a month to get in on the cool March something, so I wanted to take some time and share it with you! And we all know I break blogging rules on a very consistent basis, so this is a looooooong bit of happiness. Grab a snack. Nothing sticky or too crumbly.

One of my all-time favorite mentors in living history research is Carolann Schmitt, who took a pretty scattered, very young Liz under her kind wing, and has remained a constant encouragement for  all of my adult life… nearly two decades at this point! (Seriously, her willingness to hold up her own mid-century undergarments in public–not while wearing them–was the first moment I knew I was going to adore her. I was right.)

For a great lot of that time, she and a team of very dedicated volunteers have put on an amazing educational experience each year. You may have heard of “The Harrisburg Conference” or “that big thing back East.”

Last March, I was delighted to present two topics to the good people attending Back East, and now I’m delighted to have a chance to sit down (virtually) with one of my favorite people, and grill her (gently, in a Period Approved Manner) about the gathering upcoming this March. You’re going to want to be there. You’ll find the registration information right here on the Genteel Arts Academy website. Go ahead and download the registration form. She and I will wait right here.

A 2015 Name Change

This is the 21st year of the gathering, but moving into the third decade of existence, it’s been reclassified as a Symposium, rather than a conference. Previously, the topics have all focused on citizen life, experiences, and material culture, with each presenter sharing their own research on diverse aspects of mid-19th century life. Will anything change with the types or breadth of citizen-focus topics going forward?

We haven’t begun to cover all the possible topics on mid-19th century life.  We’ll continue to see out new topics and new information.

We’d also like to increase our hands-on learning opportunities and are working on how some of the suggested topics can be adapted to a hotel-conference center setting. Harnessing oxen in the hotel lobby is problematic.

 Learning for the Eclectic Mind

This year’s topics range from the science of pre-plastics, to jokes and humor, to the lives of army wives, to fine details in clothing, to the common working of the postal service, and medical practices of enslaved people. Other years are similarly diverse. How do you settle on such an interesting mix?

A lot of shuffling, dithering and switching is involved.

We spend a significant amount of time reviewing proposals, considering which presentations will complement the other presentations on the program, which topics will be more appealing to the participants, does a topic contain new research and information, does it relate to an upcoming event or anniversary, is it a topic that everyone needs to learn or be reminded about; will it fit best in this year’s program or should we hold it until next year?

We then make appropriate sacrifices to the gods, read the cards, say a few prayers, and hope we’ve found the right mix.

One thing I’ve noticed, looking back over topic ranges from the past decade, is a decidedly universal appeal. This is definitely not a women’s-only or clothing-only gathering. The focus is on mid-century citizen/civilian life. The earliest gatherings, before Genteel Arts took the helm, were not so broad. What led you to make the experience more inclusive to men and women both?

We noticed a change in the hobby. Many veteran military reenactors were looking for events with new opportunities for more in-depth participation. Others still wanted to participate in living history but were facing physical limitations. 

At the same time we began to see an increase in high quality, small scale events with a stronger or solely-civilian emphasis. These events offered opportunities for men, women and children, but there was a decided lack of information on what roles may be available for them or how the roles could be executed. Expanding the Conference/Symposium to include everyone was a logical change that has proven to be very popular. 

Is this a Symposium open only to those who “do” living history?

Heavens, no.  Our participants include staff and volunteers from local, state and national parks, docents and interpreters from historic sites, costume and textile enthusiasts, doll collectors, collectors and enthusiasts interested in non-clothing “stuff”, antique dealers, professionals and tradesmen who are interested in the history of their profession or craft, historians, and living history participants.

This diversity is one of the things that makes the Symposium what it is – the opportunity to exchanging ideas and information with like-minded people from all over the country and around the world.

Looking at presenter bios, I notice one common theme: regardless of professional or academic credentials, everyone seems to be very passionate in their particular topics and fields of research, and the overall level of scholarship tends toward the highest levels. Sometimes, that would lead to some really dry, esoteric lectures.

But, the speakers at the Symposium present in such accessible tones–it’s like really high-grade show-and-tell from passionate, engaged friends. Have you found that the presenters you select just naturally tend toward that blend of great research and accessible language, or do you have to coach as well as organize and do your own presentations?

We do consider speaking ability and experience when reviewing presentations. We don’t coach, but we do offer some tips and suggestions on organizing their presentation, on speaking to a large group, and stress the importance of staying on schedule. Fortunately, the majority of our speakers can transmit their research and enthusiasm in an informative, interesting and entertaining presentation.

Are there particular parts of this year’s Symposium that you’re the most excited to attend?

All of them?  Unfortunately, as sponsor and organizer I don’t get to hear all of the presentations in their entirety.

The Philanthropic Bits

The Civilian Symposium has a long tradition of donating the registration fees from select pre-event tours to historic preservation. In the last eight years, nearly $11,000 has been donated. What inspired you to use a fun pre-event excursion to help fund these historic needs? Which excursion is the preservation jaunt this year?

I know how hard historic sites work to obtain funding, and artifact preservation is often at the bottom of the budget.

The staff at the sites we visit have willingly developed special presentations and tours for our participants, frequently giving them access to areas that are normally off-limits to the general public. Donating the registration fees to these institutions was a way of showing our appreciation and supporting their efforts.

 The Shippensburg University Fashion Archives & Museum, the National Civil War Museum and the John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion, both in Harrisburg, will host workshop/tours this year and will benefit from the donation of the registration fees.

Another big tradition with the Civilian Symposium is the yearly “Angel Project,” where attendees provide volunteer labor to a specific historic preservation or education project. This year, it’s helping in whatever ways the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives & Museum needs to settle into their brand new home. That kind of historic community outreach is unique. What led you to incorporate it, and what has been the response from those who go to serve, and those being served?

We ‘borrowed’ the concept from the Costume Society of America, which has conducted Angels Projects during their annual symposium for many years.

The program is designed to assist museums with smaller projects for which they have neither staff nor funding.  It  is very much a “work day”. The projects vary widely, can require physical effort, and may or may not be related to the mid-19th century. The participants love it and work very hard, and the sites are very appreciative of the donated time and effort.

The Financial Bits

These days it seems like everything just costs more. But, registration for the Symposium, including the reception, the Fancy Dress ball, all the workshops and rotating clothing displays, breakfasts and lunches and snacks, and all the presentation handouts, is actually *lower* this year, under $200 for adults, and as low as $165 for full-time students if registrations are in by 1 February. What inspired or enabled you to make that change?

We work hard to provide a great value for each participant. We realize the Symposium is not an inexpensive weekend, and we want to include as many participants as we can. That means keeping costs as reasonable as possible and making participation in some of the associated activities optional. A good working relationship with our facility, applying standard business practices, and a sharp pencil help make it possible.

Also, I know the registration packet says you do not accept a first-born child in lieu of payment, but my first-born is of age, and highly useful in class settings and “presenter-minding”. Are you sure I can’t do a swap there?

It’s a possibility… (insert big grin here!)

The Symposium has limited attendance, and tends to sell out… the official deadline is 15 February, but will there actually be seats available by then? Is there a reason attendance is capped?

Attendance is capped due to the available meeting space. The main meeting room is 7,500 square feet, and we use every inch of it for displays and seating.  We can comfortably accommodate 225-230 people for the sessions, and 265-270 for dinner.  We have been at 90%-100% capacity many years.

Most readers will be seeing this 15 January–get those registrations in ASAP!

 The Physical Bits

The hotel and meeting space is quite convenient; I flew in, and got a free shuttle to and from the airport without a problem. Staff was lovely. I had a few odd requests, and they didn’t even blink. There’s a business center right off the lobby that I used to print out shipping labels and avoid having to put everything in my suitcase! (Seriously, plan to ship a box home. Because: juried vendors. Awesome.)

The special rate on the rooms means that if you bunk in with three other sympatico souls, you’ll spend under $30 a night each. And the hotel honors the special rate for a full ten days surrounding the Symposium, if you want to come early or stay late. The majority of your meals are included in the registration costs (the divine supper Saturday night is extra and optional and worth it); there’s a convenient restaurant right in the hotel that serves a great variety of tasty things, as well as some good local eateries a short drive away.

One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll be doing some walking from your room to the various presentations and classes. Bring comfortable shoes, and give yourself time to stroll! With all the good food and the time you’ll spend seated, some exercise is a very, very good thing. You’ll be strolling in good company.

Also, drink plenty of liquids. Yes, you’ll need to “skip to the loo, my darling,” but the loo is lovely (just outside the session rooms!), you’ll be doing a lot of eager chatting with fellow passionate people, and the better hydrated you are, the less your vocal chords will suffer. There are plentifully-tended water stations in the presentation rooms, so there’s no excuse. Drink your water! That way you can get all the visiting in.

Shopping With Confidence. Seriously.

How many times have you been frustrated with not knowing what it’s “okay” to buy from merchants? The Symposium has been solving that for a long time, with a juried vendor area coordinated by Debbie McBeth. Everyone there is vetted, and not everyone gets in every year! This ensures a wide variety of period-appropriate offerings (the general push is to never duplicate product lines from multiple vendors, so it’s a wider range of unique items than you’ll find at most events), and makes the merchant rooms some of the best concentrated historic coolness you’ve ever seen.

Vendor selection is unbiased, too; symposium sponsors aren’t involved in the jury process. Each merchant needs to apply each year, so the mix has a freshness and natural turn-over that serves the living history community very well.

The Marketplace is just down the hall from the session rooms, and there’s ample shopping time all day Friday, as well as during breaks and lunch while the sessions are running. Even if you’re not able to come to the Symposium workshops, the Marketplace is open to the public during business hours.

Here’s my tip list for visiting the Marketplace:

  1. Make a wish-list before you go in
  2. Take one tour through just to get your bearings
  3. Go through again to ask questions and make your selections.

I was able to find just the right ribbons to finish off my Saturday outfit, a gorgeous little lapis brooch, a great deal on corset coutil, a whole new set of corset bones to allow me to finally retire FrankenCorset (some of my bones could vote AND drink!), and very cool historically accurate toys for each of my kids, too. My son, then nearly 15, had jokingly said, “I want a pony, Mama!”, so I brought him home a pair of inch-high carved wooden ponies from the Mescher’s Ragged Soldier tables. The look on his face when he opened them was so funny! (They live next to his laptop, and his little sisters aren’t allowed to play with them.)

I got to see some of the most gorgeous and accurate carpetbags available today, some amazing leather bags, beautiful bonnets and fabrics… so much glorious stuff in a compact, visually astonishing space!


Each year, there’s a needlework competition, just for fun. Last year, it was dolls; previous years have included knitted items, sewing cases, and other interesting small material culture items. This year, it’s a little different, as there will be voting on the individual participants’ Fancy Dress for Saturday night’s party. Why Fancy Dress this year? Is there any overall theme for the Fancy Dress? Will participants be talking about their “character” or symbolism beforehand, or is it meant to be a surprise that night? Do you have your costume chosen already?

 We had a Fancy Dress ball a few years ago that was very popular and very successful, with many requests to repeat the experience. It will be a Fancy Dress party this year, with a costume parade, contests, games, and a few surprises. There’s no overall theme; costumes can be historical, allegorical, fantasy, fictional, famous persons, a role or job, an artifact, or funny.  The costumes will be a surprise that evening, with descriptions provided by the Mistress of Ceremonies. 

Several prizes will be awarded, including the best costume in each of the categories listed above, best couple, best group, and outstanding achievement in sewing and needlework.  

I usually consider myself fortunate if my conference dress is finished, but I just may have a costume for the evening.

Speaking of awards, in 2014, I got the Official Last Finisher of a Conference Dress Accolade, as I sat down to reset my sleeves and add closures *after* the Conference Dress presentation Saturday morning. The Conference Dress has been a pretty big deal for a long time with this event. Each presenter is given a length of identical fabric and told “Make a Mid-Century Garment.” With that as the only rule, everyone ends up doing something radically different, and I’ve never seen two dresses come out the same, nor two male presenters opt for the same style either. Will this treat of material proportions continue in the 21st year of the Symposium? Any hints on what we might see this year?

The Conference/Symposium fabric has been a tradition since the first event.  It has become increasingly challenging to find 120+ yards of an appropriate fabric, but we’ll continue the tradition as long as we can. 

And sorry, no hints. You’ll have to wait until breakfast Saturday morning.

Dang it. (Mentally insert another big smile!)

Original Eye Candy!

Each year, there are sizable original clothing and artifact displays that change daily. Can attendees take pictures and notes for personal research and use? What General Artifact Etiquette Tips do you suggest?

Attendees can view the displays at close range and take all the photographs and notes they wish.  The owners of the displays are in attendance and are more than willing to show the inside of a garment or the back of an artifact. Some of the garments will be displayed inside out on the following day. Feel free to ask questions; we like to talk about our stuff! 

Proper etiquette includes:

1: No touching without permission

2: Keep all food and beverages well away from the displays

3: No ink pens or markers in the vicinity of the displays

4: Obtain permission from the owner before posting images online, and give credit to the owner when you do.

I know that Mr Schmitt is pretty much a wizard with technology; does he have any suggestions for getting great pictures in the indoor Symposium settings?

Don suggests becoming familiar with all the features of your camera before the event. Most cameras today offer an indoor or dim-light setting; learn how to use it if yours has that feature. Keep your arms against your body and hold the camera as still as possible. Flash photography is permitted.

Bring extra batteries and lots of memory cards.

Any odd or unusual things to keep an eye out for this year?

The Welcome Reception and Fancy Dress party will have some new features.  And there’s always something odd or unusual during the weekend – officially or unofficially.

What are your top three tips for having a great Symposium experience?

Meet someone new; they’ll likely become a life-long friend.  

Take time to view the displays; opportunities to view original garments at this close range are unusual.

Savor every moment and share the information you’ve learned with friends and colleagues at home.  

Have fun!

That’s technically more than three, but it’s Very Difficult to limit oneself at the Symposium, so there will be no ceremonial beatings with the Dampened Rayon Snood of Shame, I promise.

So, there you have it… just over THREE THOUSAND words on Why You Want To Attend The Harrisburg Symposium in March 2015! Please do click through the link below, and get your registration in! It’s an amazing weekend, just perfect for pulling you out of a Late Winter Ennui, getting you excited and informed to expand and enrich your historic endeavors this year! Go! Click! Why are you still here???

Register for the Harrisburg Symposium Here


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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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