Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

citizen living history

Creating a Citizen Space: Foundations

One absolutely fantastic aspect of 19th century living history is that it tends to have a fairly consistent turnover rate, as people enter and exit the hobby over time (it seems like it’s about a five-year cycle). The turnover keeps fresh perspectives in the mix, and can push us to continually upgrade the experiences we create for ourselves and our visitors.

And one truly dreadful aspect is that same turnover rate: sometimes we’re stuck reinventing wheels, or retrenching after a group falls into negative patterns and habits.

But, let’s focus on the positive: how do we go about creating a “Citizen Space”, where those interested in history can live out what they’ve researched, and those visiting can experience portions of the past they might never have contemplated before, or may be longing to see?

One key is to lay a nice foundation for the sort of experiences you and your friends want to have, and communicate that clearly to others who may want to associate with you. Conflicting goals and expectations are primary sources of conflict in any situation, and even more so in living history endeavors. A postively-phrased group philosophy and baseline standard for material culture and impressions goes a long way toward clarifying your group or event expectations, and allows others to choose to associate with you, or not, according to their own history goals.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Keep It Brief

This is not the time for your dissertation on every aspect of the 19th century. If you cannot state the group goal in 100 words or less, it needs further clarification. Keep the standards compact, as well, with phrasing that allows flexibility for evolving impression development and additional research expansion.

The impression standards or material culture guideline doesn’t have to go into every jot and tittle of 19th century living. Again, positive phrasing (we encourage, we expect, please, do, etc) and clear expectations of using current research and documentation go a long way to creating solid, yet flexible, standards.

Clarify

Here’s one example of a clear goal statement, in a compact, positive style:

We present impressions of working-class citizens, from hands-on laboring people to professionals plying white-collar trades, with an emphasis on This Geographic Area for 18XX to 18XX. Our typical events rely heavily on public interaction in multiple “voices”, but non-speaking impressions are also available. We encourage participation from all ages, and work hard to keep a positive, family-friendly atmosphere.

(That’s 70 words, by the way.)

A basic formula of Who We Portray, Where We Are, When We Focus, and How We Interact helps you keep things very compact, but informative. Anyone reading a statement like the one above could easily determine that this group will not be a great place to portray a Russian nobleman, for instance, because that’s clearly outside the scope of the group’s stated goal.

Positively Positive

25 years ago, many group guidelines were a laundry list of Thou Shalt Not, which can be daunting and even a little insulting if you’re a newbie. Instead of the Thou Shalt Not list, simply share the Thou Shalts: the Do half of the list, phrased politely.

Compare the following:

DO NOT use nail polish or makeup, no “snoods”, no bridal hoops, no ballgowns, no “Zouave” sets, no bandanas, no flip-flops, no ponytails, no cigarettes, and absolutely NO sunglasses!

Versus:

To increase everyone’s safety, please use 100% natural fibers (cotton prints, lightweight wool, some silk) for your clothing; Miss Johnson and Mr Howell are happy to mentor with fabric selection. Our portrayal is largely working-class, which encompasses a wide range of style options. We encourage everyone to start with well-drafted, high-quality historic clothing patterns (see the resource section for our recommendations), and assemble a strong wardrobe of basics from the skin out, to allow maximum impression flexibility. High-fashion items, like ballgowns and “Zouave” combinations, will be less useful for our normal range of events, and should not be first-round wardrobe choices. Having a period hairstyle is a great finishing touch to your impression. Please refer to the resource section for some accurate hairstyle options; Mrs Baloo and Miss Cutworth are both available to help you with a style that suits you well.

(Alright, the positively-phrased version is definitely more wordy than the Thou Shalt Nots, but be honest: which makes you feel more welcomed, supported, and encouraged that you can do a good job?)

 Cover The Bases

Your group guideline is a good place to note behavioral and liability issues, as well as “impression non grata” details and safety expectations. Put these in their own section, perhaps titled Safety Expectations. It’s fine to expand the definition of “safety” to “things that will get our group sued if something goes wrong” and “things our group finds inappropriate to present”; after all, the purpose of the document is to help accumulate others who share your idea of “fun”. Being clear on the delicate aspects helps others decide if the group culture is going to be a good fit for them, and also gives clarity if the group needs to invite someone to disengage at a later point.

Create Some Space

I still find myself shocked when citizen groups report they are camping in with military encampments, or begging for a few square meters of dedicated citizen space. Citizen impressions require citizenry space. Carve out a separate impression area for citizen living history; if it must be close to the military due to space constraints at the event site, or lack of cooperation from event organizers, distinguish the area with signage, so visitors know they are entering a non-military area.

Depending on the event setting, there’s still the issue of mid-century citizens living in tents, but it’s easier to mutually agree to suspend disbelief over the tent situation, versus the highly uncommon situation of everyday citizens camping with the military.

Remember, too, that living history exists outside the military plane. Gather a core of interested people, and design some citizen-focus events that have no military component. These do not need to be complex or mega-events! Getting together for a period picnic in the park, or working together to do gardening work at a historic house in historic ways, can be highly informative and fun, without requiring a large infrastructure, budget, or committee.

Evaluate & Upgrade

Be willing and able to stop, evaluate, and upgrade as needed. We are never stuck with the status quo! When you become aware of a challenge, see if your citizen living history arrangements can accommodate it as-is. If not, what is the minimum you must put in place to solve the challenge? Is there a further step that could be a positive upgrade for everyone? As with writing group guidelines, keeping a positive mindset is extremely helpful.

Back to Clarity

Communicate expectations for your living history scenario and space clearly, positively, and as often as needed. Helping both newbies and “oldbies” decide if your idea of fun is their idea of fun helps overcome a lot of problems and tension.

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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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