I joined this hobby in 1988 at the age of 14. I know, I know — a mere babe in the hobby. For me, the Bicentennial was witnessed from the other side of the rope lines and it was not until after it was all said and done that I was old enough and found the means to get involved.
The memory is very clear of that frosty February afternoon when I got my chance. A local militia group was encamped in my town for a Washington's Birthday celebration and like usual, I made one of my parents take me down to see it. This time, instead of merely gawking at the muskets and the swords, I did one better. I got a business card. No sooner was I home than I began to craft a letter to the unit asking for more information about joining.
A few days later, I received a phone call. It was the unit commander, and after talking to my father and I, he invited us down to their next monthly meeting to see what it was all about. Soon, both of us "took the shilling".
It was a couple of months before the first event, and though I did not own any 18th century clothing or equipment, I was encouraged to come down and participate with the group. I can remember putting together the best "uniform" I could: a white dress shirt, brown faded jeans, old black dress shoes and a gift shop tricorn hat my parents brought back from Williamsburg several years earlier. I look back now and my stomach turns!
Let me digress here and talk about the word "farb". Not much unlike another four-letter word beginning with the letter F, farb is one of the few words, which takes its form in multiple forms of speech. Farb can be a noun ("Look at that farb!"), a verb ("Don't put that hay bale in my camp, you'll farb it up."), an adjective ("I had to get rid of my canteen, it was too farby."), etc. It is also often equally pejorative. In the course of my presentation, I will be using it, but not in an accusatory manner. The use of farb in this discourse will be synonymous with "historically inaccurate". Authenticity is a continuum and we all will find ourselves at the farby end of it from time to time. The key though is progress, as long as there is progress from historically inaccurate towards greater and greater accuracy. The only time farb should really be a negative is if one is historically inaccurate, and despite the fact they know better, refuse to change. A farb in the worst sense of the word is static, historically inaccurate and proud of it. If farb is too disparaging let me suggest a fun little word I recently came across:
mumpsimus (MUMP-suh-muhs) noun
- Adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, memorization, practice, belief, etc., out of habit or obstinacy.
- A person who persists in a mistaken expression or practice. [From a story, which perhaps originated with Erasmus, of an illiterate priest who said mumpsimus rather than sumpsimus (first plural perfect indicative of Latin sumere to pick up) while reciting the liturgy, and refused to change the word when corrected]
That being said, looking back with 20/20 hindsight, I was a teenage farb, but I changed. As I spent more time in the hobby, I learned more and incorporated more into my impression. Now, I am happy to say that I am much more historically accurate and less of a farb. This does not lend itself to complacency though. Though I have learned my lessons, the research and its application should never end.
Many people think it is expensive to be authentic. While to some degree this is true, the little things go a long way as well. Below are some inexpensive things that we can all do as soldiers to make ourselves look better. Disclaimer: Many of these points are personal and sensitive. They are only presented as food for thought.
Change #1 - Shave: We all know that besides the French and the Germans, facial hair wasn't all that popular, in fact, in both armies, there were orders against it. An example from an orderly book for the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons in 1782 reads:
"The Orderly Sergeants of Troops and Companies will be very particular that their men for duty come on parade in as neat order as their circumstances will admit — they must be clean shaven"
The orderly books of the 4th New York regiment make at least two mentions of regimental barbers:
"Regimental orders, Aug. 27, 1780:
The Orderly Sergts of Each Company are to furnish the Regimental barber with A Sufficient Quantity of Soape for Shaveing, takeing it from Every mans allowance whenever the Soape is Drawn to the amount of half a pound pr Company pr Month
Brigade orders, Oct. 13, 1780:
The Commandt Judges it proper to alter the mode heretofore adopted of delivering to the barbers of the different Regiments a Large allowance of flour &c. he therefore directs that in future two lbs of flour, one lb of soape, and half a lb of Tallow, pr Company pr Month be delivered till further Orders."
The most obvious thing the general public notices about us is our face. It is human nature. For that reason, facial hair is the most glaring inaccuracy because it can be seen at a distance.
Change #2 - Lose weight: Reenactors as a group are often overweight. This is one of those touchy subjects, but it is true. 21st century living and the Information Age more often than not has us sitting as desk jockeys where as our 18th century counterparts were marching 15 miles a day. Joseph Plum Martin, and other primary sources, also deals with the topic of starvation, which also would contribute to a leaner look:
"Soon after this there came on several severe snowstorms. At one time it snowed the greater part of four days successively, and there fell nearly as many feet deep of snow, and here was the keystone of the arch of starvation. We were absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood, if that can be called victuals. I saw men roast their old shoes and eat them, and I was afterwards informed by one of the officer's waiters, that some of the officers killed and ate a favorite little dog that belonged to one of them. If this was not "suffering" I request to be informed what can pass under that name. If "suffering" like this did not "try men's souls," I confess that I don not know what could. The fourth day, just at dark, we obtained a half pound of lean fresh beef and a gill of wheat for each man; whether we had any salt to season so delicious a morsel I have forgotten, but I am sure we had no bread, except the wheat, but I will assure the reader that we had the best of sauce; that is, we had keen appetites. When the wheat was so swelled by boiling as to be beyond danger of swelling in the stomach, it was deposited there without ceremony.
After this, we sometimes got a little beef, but no bread. We, however, once in a while got a little rice, but as to flour or bread, I do not recollect that I saw a morsel of either (I mean wheaten) during the winter, all the bread kind we had was Indian meal."
Not all soldiers were beanpoles, but fat ones didn't stay that way long and your uniform will never look right if you're more than 10-15% overweight. So it can not be perceived that this is prejudiced thought, I have been grossly guilty of this myself, having topped out at 6'2" and 297lbs. It is possible to do though, as I have gotten down to about 220lbs and like all ventures in historic accuracy, I still have to go a little further. Not only is it helping my impression, its making me healthier and feeling better. In that regard, it is also a safety issue. Living history is physically exerting, combined with the weight of the gear and the constrictive clothing, obesity can lead to anything from heat exhaustion to heart attack.
Change #3 - Reduce the amount of camp equipment: 18th century soldiers almost as a rule carried their personal items, food and cooking equipment on their back or in their hands. Two examples of this come from Joseph Plum Martin and the orderly book of Weedon's Brigade in 1777:
"We halted for the night at the latter place [Burlington, NJ], where we procured some carrion beef, for it was not much better. We cooked it and ate some, and carried the remainder away with us. We had always, in the army, to carry our cooking utensils in our hands by turns, and at this time, as we were not overburthened with provisions, our mess had put ours into our kettle, it not being very heavy, as it was made of plated iron."
"The Genl has recd a confirmation of the Intelligence mention'd in the after orders of last night that the Enemy have disencumbered themselves of all their baggage even to their Tents, reserving only, their blankets & such part of their clothing as is absolutely necessary — This Indicates a speedy & rapid movement & points out the necessity of following the example & ridding ourselves of every thing we can possibly dispense with&emdash;"
For the average soldier or camp follower, no more is needed than a wedge tent, a tin kettle and your packs. "Dining flys" are not documentable to the period and can easily be substituted for with arbors, natural shade or at very least replacing poles of dimensional lumber with poles made from tree branches to give it more of a "jury-rigged" appearance. Their main problem though is that flys become a depository for a collection of camp furniture, which is something the common soldier and camp follower would not have had. Enlisted men would not have had furniture unless they were in garrison, so the ground would be preferable to a campstool. If camp furniture is necessary, a quick fix is to store it in a tent when not being used.
Change #4 - Save the gourmet cooking for home: As mentioned before, food was not a guarantee in the armies. Even when they did get ample supplies, they did not have the elaborate kitchen set ups that we often use in the hobby today. Joseph Plum Martin talks of this as well:
Accordingly two of the club went out and shortly after returned with a Hissian, a cant word with the soldiers, for a goose. The next difficulty was, how to pluck it; we were in a chamber and had nothing to contain the feathers. However, we concluded at last to pick her over the fire and let that take care of the feathers. We dressed her and then divided her among us. If I remember rightly, I got one wing. Each one broiled his share and ate it, as usual, without bread or salt. After this sumptumous repast, I lay down and slept as well as a gnawing stomach would permit.
As stated before, each mess would have a tin kettle or iron pot, but beyond that, it was "on your own". For this reason, we find broilers made of barrel straps, pothooks made of old bayonets, etc. Instead of using cooking irons, simply substitute two forked branches and lay a third branch across. Use a sharpened stick or an old ramrod for a spit to roast meat. Not only will it look more accurate, it will mean less loading and unloading at events.
Change #5 - Don't smoke cigarettes: How quickly a hand-sewn uniform costing hundreds of dollars or countless hours can be ruined by two dollars worth of cigarettes and a lighter. It is also a safety concern, when looked at objectively; there is little difference between a lit cigarette and an artillerist's linstock. In an environment where most of us carry a supply of black power on our backs, carrying around a lit ember is ill advised. Just think of the times you have seen someone be asked for a photograph, and to hide the cigarette, they put it behind their back — right next to their cartridge box!
Change #6 - Replace the modern shoes and glasses with period ones: For whatever reason, glasses and shoes are the last part of someone's kit that is addressed, if ever. Many quality merchants are carrying shoes for under $90 in both smooth and rough side out, so they are easily obtainable. For those who have medical considerations (the author himself being flatfooted) there is a fellow who is making custom shoes. Modern shoes, under spatterdashes, do not cut it. Both Townsend and Colonial Williamsburg are making good circular reproduction frames for eyeglasses. Contact lenses or going without glasses are also options. Set these items as long term goals and squirrel away money over time. Saving $5 a week will get you a new pair of shoes in less than five months.
Change #7 - Wear your gear at proper height: A re-enactor with his haversack and canteen swinging below his waist is a re-enactor who has never marched in his gear any farther than the distance from the camp to the parking lot. Veteran campaigners soon learned that your equipment ride a lot better, and don't beat up against your legs, if you shorten up the straps so that they ride fairly high. Don't make the mistake of simply tying the straps up shorter, however. This is a device invented by re-enactors and there is no documentation so far as I know. If you shorten up your straps, do so by sewing them the desired length. Nothing looks worse than seeing a soldier with a big knot of canteen strap on his shoulder, as goes for lapping it over and sewing the strap to itself.
Change #8 - Leave the Hoppes #9 and cleaning rod at home: Why do we use modern cleaning methods when period ones are just as good and demonstrate something to the public? All you need is a little water from the canteen, a twig, a worm, some tow, maybe some olive oil and some brick dust and you are set. Several good articles have been printed about period musket care.
Change #9 - Get thee to a tailor: I've been guilty of this too, we don't wear our clothes right. Breeches should be tight in the legs, loose in the seat and bands shouldn't been too high or too low. Overalls should be tight all the way up the leg. Coats should be tight but without constraint, and hooks and eyes should be in the seam, not on the lining. etc. etc. Proper 18th century tailoring is of a general tight fit, and if baggy or drooping, should be taken in.
Change #10 - Let your clothes "wear": We use period materials for our clothing not only because it creates a more authentic reproduction, but they lay on the body correctly, are more durable, and are in some cases safer. Good wool will not catch an arrant ember as other materials would for instance. For the same reasons, your clothes should be cared for in a period manner. Natural fabrics will last longer if hand washed, bleach breaks down linen over time, and hand-washing gives a more period look. 18th century soldiers had no other tools at their disposal than water and lye soap, so we should do the same, if not using lye soap, at least hand-washing garments. Let some stains collect, they would have in the 18th century.
I hope that these ten points can inspire useful dialogue for the "little things" that we can all do to improve our general impression. These are not mandates, merely suggestions, and just food for thought.