Friday, July 30, 2010

A CW Fourth of July (or, Frolicks in Williamsburg, volume the fourth)

"I believe that [the 4th of July] will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival...It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other."
John Adams

Despite the apparent anachronism, the Fourth of July celebrations at Colonial Williamsburg are particularly well-suited to the time, the place, and the spirit of the holiday. We’ve spent some Fourth of Julys in unique places (the most memorable being at the Boston Pops Esplanade and in Canada (yes, Canada) on Prince Edward Island). But the entire family agreed that this was by far and away the best and most unforgettable July fourth experience we’ve ever had.

The Williamsburg Fourth begins with the morning Salute to the States. A line of canons are positioned in a row behind the courthouse, each with its own firing team. Promptly at ten, the Fifes and Drums come marching in, their unique and spirited sound saturating the air and infecting the crowd with the tension of anticipation and a celebratory mood.

Following them are thirteen men carrying flags representing each of the colonies who fought for independence. As each flag is presented, the Fifes and Drums play a tune significant to each colony, and members of the crowd cheer when their state is announced and a canon is fired.

We were the only family who raised a huzzah for Connecticut, but Virginia predictably initiated a deafening round of cheers as “The World Turned Upside Down” serenaded the crowd and a volley of canon fire clouded the air with smoke so picturesque that it was easy to feel transported 234 years back in time.

An hour later, Duke of Gloucester Street became a literal sea of people. In all our visits to CW at various times of the year, we’ve never seen anything like it as bobbing heads stretched from sidewalk to sidewalk, gathered from the Capitol gates to what easily amounted to a quarter of a mile down DOG Street. The semi-circle in front of the Capitol was left open, its perimeter held by half a dozen CW interpreters representing all different walks of American life. Two men emerged onto the balcony and began reading the Declaration of Independence.

The interpreters took it in turn on the ground to chime in with each of the listed grievances, and periodic applause and cheers arose from the assembled listeners who could not fail to be inspired by and proud of the sentiments being proclaimed.

A Fifes and Drums concert behind the courthouse entertained the field-full of picnickers as darkness fell. The Junior Corps performed first, under the leadership of Amy Miller; they were followed by the Senior Corps, directed by Lance Pedigo. The skill and precision of these young musicians is really something and it always sets the goosebumps rising. As the senior group neared the end of their final tune, the fireworks began. Ten minutes of smaller fireworks served as an introduction of sorts to two spectacular finale displays that cheerfully yet eerily illuminated the historic buildings beneath. John Adams, needless to say, would have been proud.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Under the Redcoat 2010 (or, Frolicks in Williamsburg, volume the third)

One of the primary factors in deciding when to visit Williamsburg this year was Under the Redcoat. For those of you unfamiliar with this special event, hosted by CW each year, here is a brief overview: In 1781, Lord Cornwallis and his troops marched through Williamsburg on their way to Yorktown, occupying the city for ten days. For one weekend each summer, CW invites several independent British re-enactment troops to “occupy” the city. The troops and their followers (families and other civilians) re-enact their march into the city. They set up camp, establish barricades, search “suspicious” townspeople (arresting those who they deem a threat to the crown), and end the weekend with a drill and firing competition before marching out. All weekend the troops provide the ambiance of a city under enemy occupation. Camp followers meanwhile offer CW visitors a personal perspective on camp life, open fire cooking, 18th century military medicine, and so much more.

It has been quite a while since we’ve been able to plan a trip in the middle of the summer, so we were very excited to be attending UTR this year. The weekend began on Friday afternoon as we watched the troops march down Duke of Gloucester Street to Market Square, where they began setting up camp next to the Courthouse. There were a few “boos” and shouts of “Go home!” (to which one officer responded, “I wish I could”) As we were watching the troops settle into camp, a young boy turned to his father and said, “Dad, what kind of play is this?”

Saturday we walked into town by way of Nicholson Street and were immediately approached by a group of redcoats asking for our papers as they began rummaging through our baskets. After much debate (and some batting of eyelashes), we were urged to visit the Guardhouse to obtain our papers.

Being searched... the first time.

We began walking over straight away, but before we had even reached the Courthouse, we were stopped again. Once again, we were asked for our papers and searched. We were then personally escorted to the Guardhouse, where we waited patiently with our guard to stand before the clerk. In front of us, one woman was being asked to stay for an examination by the doctor for possible insanity (I will vouch here for his excellent judgment). We were asked to be searched one more time before being asked to pledge our oath to the crown. Rebecca was given a signed Loyalty Oath that proved her allegiance. I, on the other hand, was given a Parole. For the remainder of the weekend, our papers prevented us from being arrested again, but didn't stop the occasional search and constant accusations of being in alliance with the French.

Below are some pictures from the camp and the military hospital, which was set-up in the East Advance building at the Governor’s Palace.

Before they marched out of the city on Sunday, they held a drill and firing competition:

We were told by several people that the weekend was a smaller affair this year with fewer regiments participating than in years past. Even if the camp was smaller this year, the entire weekend remains an invaluable first-hand experience for re-enactors and visitors to experience 18th century military and civilian life.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

18th Century Frocks and Fashions (or, Frolicks in Williamsburg, volume the second)

The Lady Dunmore Ball Gown, on display in the milliner's shop

I may be forging a career in literary studies, but my second calling has always been historic fashion and period costume reproduction. As a special treat to coordinate with the additional re-enactors in town for Under the Redcoat, the CW Costume Design Center put together several one-off programs. The first was a one-on-one costume clinic at the CDC, to which I ambitiously carried a basket-full of in-progress garments. Of course, we only found the time to chat about one (a blue flowered quarter-back gown copied from Janet Arnold), but the time spent was tremendously helpful, and I’m so grateful CW thought to offer such a unique opportunity.

The second CDC program we attended was an afternoon lecture by Brenda Rosseau (CDC director) and Tom Hammond (supervisor of research and design), which addressed the CDC’s approach to reproducing extant garments and how these reproductions are used to complement historic area programming and other CW initiatives. Highlights discussed in detail included a gorgeous embroidered yellow “court suit” (the production process was unbelievably complicated, as you can imagine!)

and the reproduction of a Chinese painted silk from a gown in the CW collection. The latter was made for artist-in-residence Mamie Gummer’s visit in May, and Brenda described the years of laborious attempts to replicate successfully the original stunning painted design. Their solution – a most unconventionally modern one in the costuming world! – worked incredibly well, and from even a foot away, you could not tell the difference between that and a truly painted textile!

We were also shown a reproduction of one of Tasha Tudor’s donated items, a curious piece in that it doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether it wants to be a short gown or a long jacket, but it’s quite lovely and definitely a style I’d like to attempt at some point in the future.

Of course, the milliner’s/tailor’s shop is always a must-see (multiple times!) on every trip to CW, and this visit was no exception. Sarah, the milliner’s apprentice, happened to be attired in her own reproduction of a CW printed cotton gown, and I enjoyed the opportunity to pepper her with questions that I’ve been saving up for just such an occasion. I also learned how to do a mantua maker’s stitch, and am now wondering how I got on so long without it! My sincere appreciation to the ladies of the shop for so graciously indulging my numerous questions.

On display on “tailor’s day” was an in-progress white cotton (or was it a cotton blend, argh, I can’t remember now!) riding habit which immediately caught my eye and has finally succeeded (as nothing else has thus far) in inspiring me to attempt something in that “genre.” Mr. Hutter was, as always, generous and eager in his responses to my inquiries about the printing and importation of textiles in the Rev War period, and he recommended several fantastic new sources to consult on the subject.

Another extra special treat this trip was the chance to explore the study drawers in the textiles room at the DeWitt Wallace. Somehow, in all our many previous visits, we’ve never been able to time it to catch this opportunity, so I took full advantage to stare and drool and exclaim and sigh and snap away. A couple of favorites are below, including a 1756 silk satin wedding gown (who says wedding gowns weren’t white or cream until Victoria’s time?!),

these incredible quilted petticoats (can you tell which one is loom-quilted and which one is hand-stitched?),

and the original of “the” Costume Close-up jacket, which Ashley coincidentally happened to be wearing that day (which the museum textiles volunteer found most amusing!).

And finally, in celebration of their 75th year, the CDC is offering a tour of their facility every Thursday, for which we were lucky enough to secure tickets. From the sewing room, with its rafters packed end-to-end with jackets and gowns, to the fabric room stock-piled high with bolt after bolt of stunning and oh-so-hard-to-find yard goods, to the accessories room brimming (literally) with confections from head to toe, this was truly an unforgettable experience. Talk about a dream job!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Frolicks in Williamsburg

Over the years we have formed many acquaintances and friendships in town and it is always such a pleasure to reconnect (thanks for lunch Mr. M.!) and to meet new friends each time we visit. In particular on this visit, we began a great friendship with a family from Virginia. We had been reading their blog for some time, eagerly following their descriptions of their visits to CW and their accounts of their studies in history. It was so nice getting to meet them at last! We ended up spending quite a bit of time together over the course of our stay, and we had so much fun bonding over our common interests, experiences, and costuming adventures.

Ashley (left) and new friend Miss C. sharing stories

On Tuesday evening, we also joined John Millar and his group for an evening of English country dance at Newport House. Thank you to all of you for your warm and enthusiastic welcome!

Ron Carnegie as Washington

We also had the opportunity to spend some time in the St. George Tucker House, meeting fellow donors and volunteers from all over the world, and taking a much needed reprieve from the heat! One of my personal favorite programs at the Tucker House is the informal presentations given by some of the “Nation Builder” interpreters. This setting not only allows the interpreters to share stories and answer questions that a larger audience might not permit, but it also provides the opportunity to communicate with the interpreters out of character. This can be a rewarding experience for both visitors who might be new to the concept of first-person interpretation and for those (like me) who are studying the practice. During our stay, we had the opportunity to visit with two of my favorite founding fathers (and interpreters!) Thomas Jefferson/Bill Barker and George Washington/Ron Carnegie.

Bill Barker as Jefferson at the Tucker House

One "serious" change (at least to us!) was the introduction of plastic wrapped goods in the Raleigh Tavern Bakery. As we understand it, the division of CW that runs the restaurants and taverns recently assumed control over the RT Bakery, which necessitated an imposition of their set of regulations on this premesis as well. I understand the concepts of sanitation and all that, but it was the experience that really made a difference. Even with the paper cups and the cash register, walking into the RT Bakery was always such a special experience; those signature smells of freshly baked ginger cakes and Sally Lunn bread have now been replaced with baskets full of plastic wrapped items that really diminish the sense of uniqueness. We were also disappointed to see that they no longer offer Chowning Rolls. Thank goodness for those CW cookbooks, but those rolls will be sadly missed.

Mmmm, Raleigh Tavern Bakery!

This was our first visit to the recently reconstructed Charlton’s Coffeehouse. During our earliest visits to CW, the Armistead house still stood on this site. Over the years, we have followed the progress of the excavation and reconstruction, so it was particularly exciting to visit the project at its successful end. It is a shining example of the efforts of CW and its extraordinarily talented staff (which includes the interpreters who now bring it to life).

We also attended some of the newer theater programs, which we haven’t had the opportunity to see in the past. These included Polly Honeycombe, a classic 18th century comedy of misguided love, filial disobedience, and mistaken identities, with a twist of CW comedy and a rousing 18th-century-trained audience to boot!

Further adventures from our latest trip to CW to follow!