Colonial Williamsburg: It’s Not Just for History Geeks

Then: your parents paid for you to go into a labor-intensive apprenticeship for seven years with the hopes of your skill supporting the family. You were 12.

Now: your parents pay for you to go to college, a social-intensive environment where you also learn whatever you want for four years and then decide what work you want to do in order to support only yourself when you’re ready and able. You’re 18, and 22, and… Plus we have air conditioning.

Learning about Life at Colonial Williamsburg

Revolutionary War re-enactments? Demonstrations of how they used to make shoes? I don’t know about this…

Sure, I like to learn, but how many times does a girl need to see plant matter dyed into wool? Evidently one more time.

Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is the mother ship of all re-enactment efforts. I’ve been to several in my travels, and while it’s always fun to see yarn spun, it’s spectacular at CW. Why? Because they have professional historians who play the parts. A question about yarn can lead to women’s rights and then slavery and then the guidelines of apprenticeship and suddenly you’ve been in a single shop for 30 minutes absorbing the environment, mesmerized by the rhythm of the spinning, and captivated by the depth and breadth of conversation.

It’s Not Just for Geeks Like Me

Programs dedicated to children give them maps to find treasure, and people to meet on street corners at designated times so they can uncover who the spy and traitor might be (hint: Benedict Arnold). The kids have fake coins that they use to bribe for information. They are so engaged, and the actors so intense. It’s beautiful, charming, and made me want to do the children’s program!

Dyeing and Fabric are Actually Men’s Work!

The spinning happened in factories, not an individual woman’s home – so this was her job (in addition to mild household chores like killing, skinning, boiling…).

Why a factory? 1. space for the wheel, 2. materials, 3. productivity en masse. The men made fabric and the women spun the yarn. The men went through a seven-year apprenticeship to be a dyer, and another seven years to be able to make the color green!

The dyes came from plant matter: local plant life as well as from Mexico, yellow from Tumeric (India), and red from bugs!

Take a look at the slideshow for images of spinning, dyed yarn, and the garden where they get the dyeing colors. Click the pic to advance to the next image.

Don’t Call Him a Cobbler

A shoemaker makes shoes. A cobbler (merely) fixes them. Get the difference? Good. Don’t ever make that mistake again. A shoemaker goes through (you guessed it) a seven-year apprenticeship; a cobbler: nope.

Shoemaker at Collonial Williamsburg

Wigs are BIG Business

Purely a fashion accessory, they were also decadently expensive. A man’s wig cost the same as half an acre of land or a team of oxen (a team = 2). Shazzam. People of means had 3-4 wigs, able to change styles on a whim.

They shaved their heads to get a close fit. Yuck. And it was supposed to fit so tightly that you had a headache. Come on people. You’re already wearing obscene amounts of clothing in brutal heat, do you have to have a headache, too?

Making your wig started with a custom mold of your head, complete with bumps and divots, transferred to a carving that was saved for future wig making. Depending on the complexity and availability of the hair (human and animal) it could take 3-14 days.

Wigmaker at Collonnial Williamsburg

Everyone is Welcome at the Milliner

Tradesfolk and gentry were welcome – everyone needs a dress. And amazingly, every single dress was measured on the woman, not on a form or a pattern. This was custom, not pret-a-porter–even for tradesfolk.

Ads for the Milliner’s shop would include information about which ship the fabric arrived on, and which captain. This let customers know how long the wares were at sea and the likelihood of mold or bugs.

The fabric came from England, Egypt (cotton), and Asia (silk). But the details were still done by hand. Look at the picture – think of the patience.

Once the sewing machine was invented a milliner transitioned to hats only, no more clothes.

Details on dresses at the Collonial Williamsburg Milliner

The Elite Talking to Themselves: AKA the Newspaper

Who could read? the elite.
Who had time to read? the elite.
Who could afford a newspaper? the elite.
Who had the ability and interest to write articles for the paper? the elite.
Welcome to unbiased reporting for the masses.

Aside from that reality, the newspaper–printed weekly–was an undertaking. Two pages took 14 hours. Think of inserting every single letter. I would lose my mind.

And the ink: bugs. Finally a good use for them. They can find more inside my trailer.

Printing Press at Colonial Williamsburg

Anthropology vs History

Sure, the two are inextricably mixed, but I prefer the anthropology. How did people live in a certain era? I’m not as interested in this factor led to this battle. That may condemn me to repeat history, but I’ll do my best to avoid battles at all costs.

What do you like to learn?

One Response


Visiting CW decades ago was a treat; I enjoyed it more than my children did! I think the activities to engage children have improved, so I’ll have to find a child to take so I can return. Fascinating “how-to” information. I, too, can pass on the battle blight but enjoy learning how things came to be. Thanks for the insight and incentive.

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