Enfilade

Living the History of George Washington’s Tent

Posted in conferences (summary), museums, today in light of the 18th century by Editor on April 14, 2014

There were, for me, many stimulating offerings available at this year’s ASECS conference in Williamsburg, including a fine session on “Historical Reenactment,” sponsored by the Society of Early Americanists and chaired by Joy Howard. While I found all seven of the brief contributions thought-provoking (none more so than Michael Twitty’s presentation of his extraordinary work, including the Southern Discomfort Tour), Tyler Rudd Putman’s account of working as an intern on The First Oval Office Project during the summer of 2013 seemed perfectly suited to a posting here at Enfilade. I was thrilled he agreed. -CH
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Living the History of George Washington’s Tent

T Y L E R   R U D D   P U T M AN

I spent the summer of 2013 dressed for work in the 1770s. As a historic trades intern working in costume in a workshop at Colonial Williamsburg, I was part of the First Oval Office Project, an initiative to recreate the sleeping tent, or marquee, used by George Washington during the American Revolution. Amazingly, this 22-foot-long oval tent still exists in the collection of the Museum of the American Revolution. Of thousands of tents made and used during the Revolution, only two survived to 2014; both belonged to Washington, saved for posterity.

Why would people spend years of research and months of sewing to make a big piece of canvas, especially when we already have the original? You can imagine what the old marquee is like after two centuries. It’s fragile. When the new Museum in Philadelphia installs it in Philadelphia in a new building about to begin construction, it will rest on a custom support system, so it doesn’t tear itself apart. But we wanted a tent that could travel, a tent that people could touch, a tent that people could walk into, look up at the ceiling inside, and wonder what it was like to be Washington during the Revolutionary War. Moreover, for all the hours experts have spent scrutinizing Washington’s marquee, there were still all sorts of mysteries we hoped to solve by making an exact copy. There were strange stitches, hints of repairs and adjustments, and other oddities we hoped to explain in the process of sewing a new tent, stitch by stitch, by hand (there were no sewing machines in the 1770s).

We also know almost nothing about the men and women who sewed Washington’s tent in 1777. They left few documentary traces, but recreating labor can help historians recapture lives. What was it like to sit ‘tailor fashion’, cross-legged atop a worktable, for a long day? Documents indicate that some women worked sewing tents during the Revolution as well. How was sewing work different for them? What does regular hand-sewing do to your hands?

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The author at work sewing tent canvas.

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Experimental archaeology, or recreating an object or activity from the past to better understand the culture from which it emerged, is not time travel. I don’t know what it’s like to work a fourteen-hour day on a bread and small beer diet, in a body weathered from years of such labor, with an eighteenth-century mind. But I know how it hurts when you break a needle against your thumb, and I’ve felt the jubilation of finishing a hopelessly long seam. If you had been there this summer, you would have felt your back muscles tire and your posture change after only a day of sewing. You would have started to notice things. Linen lint floating in the air. The peculiar, miniscule catching when a steel needle has a small barb growing at its tip. How it’s possible to daydream and almost fall asleep amid the rhythmic motions of sewing a long seam. It’s in these microscopic moments that we connect with people long gone. No matter how much cultural baggage and time separates us, there’s something here we share with our long-ago predecessors.

We could have figured all this out in a warehouse somewhere. That certainly would have made our big experiment more efficient. But we wanted to make the tent in front of the public, so that the process of creation would both answer our questions and educate everyday people. To this end, the Museum of the American Revolution teamed with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and, in the summer and fall of 2013, operated a tentmaking shop in Williamsburg.

Washington’s tent was made in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1777, but we know that artificers and other tradesmen who worked for the army sewed plenty of tents in Williamsburg during the Revolution, so operating such a shop in the city fit well with the Foundation’s interpretive goals. A crew of costumed tradesmen, including myself, spent five days a week sewing common tents used by ordinary soldiers, uniforms, knapsacks, and George Washington’s marquee. We didn’t pretend to be historical characters but instead spoke with visitors as ourselves. The costumes were just another one of our tools, allowing us to understand and discuss things like posture, cleanliness, and fashion from a contemporary viewpoint.

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Tailor Mark Hutter and interns Aaron Walker, Nicole Rudolph, Michael Ramsey, and Gwendolyn Basala at work in the tentmaking shop.

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Over eight months, we answered a lot of our questions and came up with all sorts of new ones. We had an exceptional, interdisciplinary crew of sewers, including experts in historic trades, artists, students, and historians. Behind the scenes, we relied on curators, conservators, weavers, woodworkers, and social media workers to keep our project on track. These diverse viewpoints generated valuable insights. In the process, we had to answer persistent visitor questions. “Were these tents waterproof?” many people asked. We wondered that, too, and we were lucky enough to have a rainy summer in Williamsburg, giving everyone the opportunity to see how linen canvas resists even torrential rain, how tightly sewn seams hold up well, and how everything depends on good tent poles, tight ropes, and firmly planted stakes.

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Intern Aaron Walker tests a common tent, home to six Revolutionary soldiers, in a Williamsburg rain.

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I would also argue that we gained at least as much from the public as they did from visiting our workshop. Public interpretation, after all, is just interdisciplinarity in another form. What better way to test explanations of Revolutionary War society and politics than to present them to a banker, an IT specialist, or a med student visiting Colonial Williamsburg? Do the arguments of historians such as Gordon Wood, David Waldstreicher, or Rosemarie Zagarri fly with the average American? This isn’t about dumbing-down information, it’s about translating it. That’s why it’s called interpretation. One of the best conversations I had all summer came after I had been explaining colonial labor and social hierarchy to a middle-aged man. “So,” he asked, pausing in thought, “When did America become a good country for poor people?” As we talked about changing standards of freedom, individual rights, and American ideologies, you could see his eyes light up as he thought about his world, America today, in new ways. Who would have thought you could get all the way there, starting with a tent?

A month ago, a user of the online reddit forum “Ask Historians,” posed this question:

Are there any merits to these ‘doing history’ acts? I’m not a fan of battle reenactments… I see them as telling us more about ourselves now than they do about the past and I think it’s a mistake (detrimental?) to use them as ways in which history/the past is taught to the public and to students.

Perhaps this is a fair criticism of living history. I’ve certainly seen my share of bad costumed interpretation at museums, like the sort of tours led by guides in vaguely historic costumes demonstrating ‘traditional’ activities and repeating tired clichés. But there are also places and people that get it right. Michael Twitty, a historian and interpreter of early African-American foodways, argues that his interpretation is the result of a conversation between historical sources and current practices. Likewise, George Washington’s marquee means different things to retirees, boy scouts, or Midwestern families. But good living history interpretation makes it relevant to each of them in a personalized way. I think the reddit question offers the justification for this sort of quality living history. When it’s well done, when it engages with academic questions as well as public audiences, living history does tell us at least as much about ourselves as about the past. When that works, it’s beautiful—as beautiful as a clean white tent, the work of many hands, sitting on a grassy patch at Colonial Williamsburg.

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Tyler Rudd Putman is a PhD student in the History of American Civilization Program in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. He thanks Scott Stephenson, Mark Hutter, Neal Hurst, Gwendolyn Basala, Jay Howlett, Michael McCarty, Samantha McCarty, Brendan Menz, Joseph Privott, Michael Ramsey, Nicole Rudolph, Aaron Walker, the Museum of the American Revolution, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Nicole Belolan, Joy Howard, and the other members of the “Historical Reenactment, Living History, and Public History” panel at ASECS 2014.

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