by Arick Mittler
At what point does the history buff become a geek? I’d say a few days into a grueling hike through the woods, living on salt pork, hoping a dead tree limb doesn’t fall on you while you’re sleeping, and deciding you’re just going to do without the moccasins, instead of patching them 2 miles out from the falls, where they’re just going to get wet anyway. There’s more than a few of us who can’t think of anything more fun or nerdy than tracing Daniel Boone’s path through the Cain-tuck-ee backwoods, or storming the Bastille, or Normandy Beach, or Little Round Top. The world of reenacting is the ultimate outlet for the History Geek.
In some ways, reenacting—often called “historical interpretation” or “experimental archaeology”—offers much of the fun and fantasy of cosplay. Both offer outlets to be someone else and live in a fantasy that offers the excitement and fraternity not always found in real life. It also has its differences. Rather than encouraging one to make up or imagine a new identity, we are discovering an old one. Reenacting is the act of recreating a person from the past to the best of one’s ability—and pocket book.
The options are endless. You can pick any class, gender, race, decade, location, profession, and experience, and there’s likely a group of people who are also into that. They probably have a Facebook group, and they probably convene semi-regularly to play out a historically-based Live Action Role Play.
The person you portray is usually referred to as an “impression.” The goal is to give the best impression of that person, doing that thing, at that place, in that time, often for public education or tourist spectators.
About six years ago, my family and I visited a community festival in Piqua, OH that honored their “Pioneer Days.” The festival had the usual rides, games, food, and classic rock cover band, but they also had a primitive camping section, where participants wore historic clothing, and slept in canvas tents, and cooked corn bread over fires, and I was immediately taken in by the fun they were having. When I got home, I did some Googling and found out that this was a thing. They were Mountain Men and did pre-1840 camping. There were people who did this all the time, all over, and they all seemed to know each other.
I found a website that listed an upcoming events calendar, and I went to the next event. I didn’t camp then, but I hung out and I asked lots of questions. By the end of the summer,d I had bought a few used items, and made some clothes that I thought kind of looked right, and I borrowed a spare teepee from one of the organizers. I’ve since realized that my clothes probably weren’t that well-made and the equipment was all wrong for the period, but I was hooked.
I then heard about another group, where they take it very seriously, and you have to have everything just historically perfect, and they shoot flintlock muskets and tan hides, and make everything themselves. I knew I had to join them. After meeting a few, I learned to research. Archeological reports, personal journals, period newspapers, business ledgers, and period paintings became my window into the lives of those past. I wanted to know what they ate, and how they cooked it. What they wore, and how they sewed it. What they used, and how they made it.
Most reenactors get much more from the hobby than a few hours of playing dress-up on the weekends. Nearly all develop lifelong skills that they use to portray their impression, or to make their clothing and personal items, known as a “kit.” It seems everyone I know can hand forge a knife over on open fire, or finger weave wool into native sashes, or use natural plants to hand dye fabric they spun themselves. Others have built impressive cabins using primitive hand tools, learned to ice-fish, take care of farm animals, navigated a ship by sail, made candles from beeswax, learned to play an old-timey instrument, and everyone knows how to sew by hand!
Like many hobbies, there are beginners and experts, people on a budget, and people who seem to have everything, including time. The most common beginning impressions are the big wars: US Civil War, American Revolution, World War II, and so forth. You can join most areas’ units, and meet many friendly people and often too many people who are eager to give out advice. They will even let you borrow clothing and equipment from them.
Many people take the hobby very seriously. Research is highly encouraged, and any seasoned reenactor has a thorough reference library. Participants often debate small details like the number of stitches on an article of clothing, the shade of a uniform of a minor unit, the length of a proper bayonet, the best way to wear your holster, and any detail you can imagine.
There is a hardcore group of American Mountain Man enthusiasts in Scandinavia, a group of dedicated Native American Eastern Woodland reenactors in the Czech Republic, and US Civil War units in nearly every country. The opportunities are endless. Not all impressions are military-related, although they are the most popular. Civilian impressions often accompany military reenactments, but also have their own events at museums and education centers and other self-organized events. I have friends who work on their own Iowa farms in 1740s French Illinois laborer’s attire, others play baseball on the weekends with the uniforms and rules of the 1870s, still more take turns hosting decadent 1920s cocktail parties in their New York apartments.
Over the past few years, I’ve done mostly Rocky Mountain Fur trade (“Mountain Man”) and Kentucky Longhunter (“Colonial Backwoodsman”), but have recently turned my attention to a new impression. Currently I spend most of my time as an early 20th century sportsman – think young Teddy Roosevelt, camping, hunting, and fishing. I found books written about recreation between 1880-1930, old back issues of hunting magazines from the period, and combed through thousands of black and white photographs of what must have been memorable vacations and hunting trips long forgotten. Amazon sells reproduction Sears Roebuck and Hudson Bay catalogues showing all the wares commonly available to consumers in the years I was interested.
Whereas I had to make my own clothing and gear for colonial reenacting, the turn of the 20th century brought a new challenge: finding vintage clothing and primative camping gadgets that were new inventions from the fruits of the industrial revolution. EBay offered more than its share of brass gizmos and canvas drapery. LL Bean had released their 100 year anniversary of the Main Shoe, complete with the red soles. An online haberdasher for Victorian-era hobbyists supplied me with high-waisted duck trousers. I bought an old shot gun from a pawn shop. A few more things fell into place here and there, and I had most of a kit. I traded some American Revolution gear from past impressions to people on Facebook groups for some old Boy Scout match safes and a Duluth pack. I discovered red long johns with the butt flap pretty much haven’t changed that much in more than a hundred years. I was glad not to go vintage in that instance. I used my tea kettle and stove to steam and reshape a felt Montana Peak cowboy hat into a WWI-era Ranger peak hat, and I was able to make a few other miscellaneous items myself.
I hope to have my wife and three small children all suited in c. 1920 period outdoor gear for camping this summer. At some point I even plan on restoring a Model T Ford to complete my kit and take the family on a tour from the Golden Age.
I must warn you, reenacting is often addicting. You may find yourself conquering land by shield and sword for the glory of Rome one weekend, and pillaging the Spanish Armada of its gold and rum the next. If you’re a History Geek, and think it would be fun to live in the past for a weekend, I’m sure there is a time period right for you and others nearby who would be all too eager to loan equipment and bring you along to the next event.
Arick Mittler is an Ohio native and Kettering resident. He attended Wright State University as an undergraduate and graduate student, where he studied history. He is an avid collector of early American traditional music and folklore, and tortures his wife and 3 small children endlessly by dragging them to museums, old cabins, battlefields, and covered bridges on the weekends. Arick is also an active member of Freethought Dayton, a local secular community.