by Jim Daniel
“Spend your weekends somewhere REALLY different. . .the 18th Century!” So begins a recruiting poster for a historical reenactment group. This suggestion of active participation in the past is a powerful line. It’s often the element that attracts and binds reenactors to the hobby.
Reenactors are often asked why we chose this hobby. The answers are many and diverse, but the common thread is a deep love of history. Reenacting is our answer to the question, “wouldn’t you love to have lived back then?” Other common responses reflect personal experiences and the satisfaction of knowing that we’re helping to educate the public in our history.
Reenacting got its start in the early 1960s during the Civil War centennial. Reenactors, immersed in swirls of black powder smoke on battlefields up and down the East Coast, their senses inundated with the sounds and images of huge scale battles, found momentary “highs” from the experience. For incredible moments, it was the 1860s, and each of us knew what is was like to be a Civil War soldier in a way that no history book could ever relate. Such personal experiences are a reenactor’s treasure. They provide an intimate understanding of history from the viewpoint of the individual participant.
In those early days, reenacting soon ceased to be limited to the battlefield and quickly expanded into camp life. In a form of one-upmanship, each group tried to be more “authentic” than its peers. That meant more research and more and better reproduction gear and accoutrements. Failures were as numerous as successes. We learned from both.
Eventually “Sears’ work shirt” uniforms and the like disappeared altogether, replaced by improved reproductions furnished by an ever growing group of suppliers to the hobby. As authenticity became the rule, we coined the adjective “farby,” meaning less than acceptably authentic. It remains the ultimate insult in reenacting.
Once improved, our camps became as attractive to the visiting public as the reenacted battles. Driven by the public’s questions and our fondness for sharing our love of history, we began to interpret–awkwardly at first, then more expertly. The hobby was maturing and many of us found substantial rewards in working with the public.
The end of the Civil War centennial was expected to close the curtain on reenacting, but an army of devotees wouldn’t give it up. Reenacting struggled, survived, and then gained impetus, new directions, and fresh followers from the bicentennial of the American Revolution. Today there are perhaps 25,000 reenactors in the United States. These modern reenactment groups cover a wide range of time periods with the American Civil War period being by far the most popular. The Revolutionary War era is a solid second. There are 17th Century reenactors, and World War I and II units grow in popularity each year. The War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, and other conflicts all have their adherents.
Equally as wide as the range of historic periods reenacted is the variety of approaches reenactment groups take to the hobby. The level of interpretive effort, the desire for authenticity, and the range of activities portrayed vary considerably among groups. Each group seeks its own level of satisfaction driven by their own interests and the demands imposed upon them by their leadership, the public, and those historic sites and museums with which they work.
There are several groups whose programming and standards are on a par with many historic sites. They are characterized by a quest for excellence in all they do—life-style interpretation, interaction with the public, costuming, drill, and period food preparation, for example—and solid, experienced leadership. They use various methods of interpretation and demonstration rather than relying solely on visual impact. Typically, they have an involved membership and can provide substantial references attesting to their accomplishments.
At the other end of the scale are those reenactment groups that lack direction, a fault that manifests itself in a lack of consistency of performance and appearance. Many of these latter groups will be short-lived, lacking a commonality of interest to hold them together. Some may find direction through a change of leadership or through an outside source such as a host historic site.
The trend causing the greatest impact on reenacting today is the movement away from purely military interpretation into the civilian realm. Some groups have abandoned their military portrayal altogether while, for others, its now just one facet of their repertoire.
The causes for this exodus are many. Not least is that civilian roles are the only ones available to a sizable segment of reenactors; female family members and children often are excluded from a strict military portrayal. Rather than be left out, they soon appeared along the sidelines in period civilian garb. Driven by the same standards as their military counterparts, they improved their portrayals and interpretive skills. Fathers and brothers and sons came out of camp to join them and found that civilian portrayals were an enjoyable adjunct to the hobby.
Another force in the demilitarization of reenacting is the expansion of reenactor-historic site relations. A growing number of non-military sites are eager to utilize this large body of fully costumed volunteer interpreters, but in keeping with their site’s identity, they are asking for more civilian activities and fewer military portrayals. (An excellent article on site-reenactor relationships is “Reenactors and History” by Carol Deakin, History News, May-June 1986.)
Those groups that can provide a full repertoire, meeting the requirements of a range of sites and museums, are much in demand and can be selective in their appearances. This provides them with exposure and opportunities to grow and mature. Those that can’t meet the requirements are pressured to adapt or to restrict their activities to military sites and battle reenactments. An active reenactment group much in demand can easily fill twenty or more weekends a year, plus as many lectures and school visitations as their membership can stand.
Despite these increasing demands and greater interest in non-military interpretation, it is unlikely that the hobby will soon move far from its roots, for, despite the less militaristic age that we live in, the color, pageantry, and spectacle of a military reenactment are still major crowd pleasers and will always be prime attractants to new reenactors.
I am often asked two questions about becoming a reenactor. The first is “How do I get started?” My recommendation to prospects is to attend several events where there are reenactors. These may be battle reenactments or “living history” encampments. Look at all of them and talk with individuals from each group. Look beyond the period clothing at the group itself. Are they emphasizing things that interest you? Is their approach to history one that appeals to you? Are you comfortable with the size of the unit? (Memberships can range from a few members to over a hundred, though the average size tends to be between twenty-five to forty participants.) Are they well organized? Does their schedule offer sufficient opportunities for you to participate? What do they require from members?
Once you have reviewed the opportunities, try to attend some activity with the group that you have chosen. Only by actual participation can you get the feel of reenacting. If your outing is a positive one, and most are, you’re on your way.
The second question I am asked is, “What does it cost?” As a rule of thumb the basic gear and equipment, including weaponry, for a reenactor portraying a Revolutionary era soldier costs about $1000. A female reenactor of the eighteenth century can expect to spend about half of what her male counterpart does. Most of us acquire far more than basic items over the years. It’s not uncommon for a single reenactor to have in excess of $5,000 invested in his clothing and equipment. If his portrayal requires additional supporting paraphernalia (such as a surgeon would have) the total may be twice that.
These estimates are based on buying everything from a supplier to the hobby. We strongly discourage our members from doing that. There are two reasons. Foremost is that most units have standard patterns, materials and colors for their clothing. Second, there are substantial savings if you or someone you know can sew period clothing for you. Someone in the group can usually provide a source for patterns or can help with construction. Beyond the savings, there is a certain satisfaction to be had from making your own equipment.
Once you have become involved in reenacting, the rewards are considerable–the satisfaction of serving as a trustee of our heritage, the deeper personal understanding of our forebears that comes from trying on their shoes, and the sharing of experiences with like-minded folks. Reenactors of history are amateurs in the truest meaning of the word–they do it for the love of it.