In the summer time for about 15 weeks I step back in time to the 1820’s-30’s. I talk about and imitate an average family of that time. The Biddles. Every morning before work I get changed into my “uniform;” pantalettes, petticoats, knee high stockings, chemises, sometimes corsets. An 1830’s day dress, black boring “historic” shoes. I put my hair in a bun and place a daycap on my head. I try to remove all signs of the 21st century from my person, no makeup, no modern jewelry, etc. Then I spend my days cooking over an open-hearth, or quilting, making soap, sewing, knitting, gardening. When visitors come in, I tell them how Edward and Agatha Biddle lived their day-to-day lives, I show them the way we think Agatha did things, we tell them about the good/bad things they did. The children they raised and buried, the challenges they may have faced, the wealth they might have enjoyed. All in about 3-5 minutes. I’ve done this for five summers now. All the girls who work at the Biddle house feel in some sense like we know the Biddles, that Agatha is a friend of ours. And yet, we still know so little about them, we have no diaries, no household records really, not much in the way of personal affects. We have a few letters from a relative (niece/cousin) in Detroit, some public legal records. Affidavits that may or may not be a little exaggerated. We have some records of things they bought at the local store. We have little bits and pieces of the whole picture of the lives of this couple and their children. All of us talk about the family a little differently all of us look at their lives through the lens of our own lives and experiences.
I can’t help but wonder, are we even close to giving an accurate picture of this family? I would love to go back and have a cup of tea with Agatha Biddle, to find out what it was truly like to live her life. What was her relationship with Edward like? The children? What’s her favorite color? What were her hopes and dreams? Her favorite food? I suppose I won’t find out until I’m dead, if at all.
Questions like these have always bothered me. I grew up going to Historical sites. That’s what we did on family vacations. We talked to countless (non)costumed re-enactors and interpreters. Walked through hundreds of old buildings and empty spaces where buildings used to be. All these sites tried to give us an idea of “ye-olden days;” of important events that happened there, of important people that lived/worked/played there. Colonial Williamsburg was always a treat as they have essentially brought to life the old town, there are many first-person interpreters there who talk as characters from that time period. I loved them. At all the places we went, I cared not about the important people and events of the sites, I cared about how they lived. Where they slept, how they cooked their food, where they cooked, where they ate, where they played, the things they had to do to run the house. Things that most people don’t really think twice about. I ADORE it, and in turn I think quite regularly about the way 21st century people live and how in 100-200+ years those people will look back at us and try to piece together our lives. My life. It is also through this train of thought that I try to measure and gauge the people of the 19th century. No two people are the same, nobody runs their household the same way. I read some of the old cookbooks and household manuals and magazines and I think about all of our modern “how-to” books and Martha Stewart magazines, how most modern women scoff at the idea of having the time to pull of such domestic feats. And I think about sometimes in trying to understand the past we read those old books like the holy bible of 19th century housewives and assume that they all did things this way, which can’t possibly be true. (How many women do you know who are “Martha’s”? yeah I didn’t think so.) So how do I begin to process all of this? Why does this matter?
Well, I don’t suppose to most people it matters much. I think it matters to me because in a lot of ways I seek to emulate the lives of these historic women. I think about preserving the average-ness of my own life for future generations. (and in case I ever get famous people will want to obsess over the little details! )
This is why I save receipts, I do my best at recording things in my life. Thankfully with the advent of the internet and technology this is easier than ever and with so many people sharing every little thing online, it will aid future generations in piecing together us, their ancestors.
So how about you? What do you think people will piece together about your life based on some of the things you left behind? If they took a walk through your house or took a look at your shopping receipts what would they learn about you and your family and how live your day-to-day life? Think about it.