Historic Interpretation

There’s not a life, a death, or birth

That has a feather’s weight of worth

Without a woman in it.

Kate Field in John Nelson’s Worcester County, Vol. II. New York: The American Historical Society, 1934.

The art of bringing historic characters to life means finding their documented causes and positions and then speak or write in their “voice”.  The danger is that it is still the interpretation of the speaker or writer.   Objects from the past also provide insight into what life was life at a particular time and place.   Here are examples from the Worcester Women’s History Project Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 12, Summer 2001.

Celebrating Equality

Sarah Hussey Earle (1799–1858)

Dear Reformers,

Thank you for continuing the effort we began at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention held here in Worcester on October 23–24,1850. I was so proud to open that historic event which organized the woman’s rights movement.

It is indeed fitting you also celebrate the August 26, 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. Our convention called for just such an act seventy years earlier.

Change is certainly a slow process, but the two wars after my death did much to hinder and help the struggle. Reformers also gradually realized they must agree to disagree in order to move the greater cause forward.

On that historic day the power of “the hand that rocks the cradle” became evident when 24-year-old Tennessee State Representative Harry Burns received a telegram from his mother urging him to “Be a good boy and vote for suffrage…” His single ballot ruled the day.

It pleases me to know this took place on the anniversary of my birth. Please use your elective franchise to raise high the banner for “Equality before the law, without distinction of color or sex” in the 21st century.

Your loving friend,
Sarah H. Earle

 

Exhibiting History

This March and April, WWHP had nine display cases at the Worcester Public Library on Fremont Street. The theme was “Celebrate Women” and highlighted last October’s WOMEN 2000 conference.

Design and setup were by Nancy Avila, Carolyn Howe, Laura Howie, Barbara Ingrassia, Linda Rosenlund, and Karen Moran assisted by Sharon Smith Viles and Nancy Austin.

Karen and Sharon, with Nancy Austin as a consultant, produced a provocative exhibit about how to dress 150 years ago. Included were a costume from Angels and Infidels, a cast photo and primary source documents. A mobile was hung in the display case to show all the layers of undergarments. Here are some of the questions and concepts for thought and discussion presented by the exhibition:

  • How did 19th-century fashion help keep woman in her place?
  • Imagine walking through the snow 150 years ago wearing 7 layers of petticoats under a long skirt.
  • Imagine trying to move quickly wearing 15 pounds of petticoats and skirt in all kinds of weather.
  • Try encircling your waist with your hands. Do your little fingers and thumbs touch? If not, tight lace your corset to be in fashion 150 years ago.
  • Why should a gentleman push a lady’s chair up to the dinner table? Answer: She cannot bend in at the waist while wearing a corset.
  • Imagine standing to argue your point while wearing the new bloomer. Would anyone listen to your words? Would they be laughing at your attire?
  • What is the price women paid for comfort?
  • Hold your hands out to your sides. Visualize taking up this much space while wearing a hoop. How easily could you move through a door? Enter a carriage? Move on a dance floor? Would working women be able to wear hoops at work?
  • Why are gentlemen expected to hold a door open for a lady? Answer: She cannot gracefully reach the door while wearing a hoop or seven layers of petticoats.

The annual exhibit for National Women’s History Month has been a key in reaching an estimated 40,000 people per month who come through the doors of the Worcester Public Library.

 

To place oneself into a particular time period, one must understand the society and issues of the day.  A Costumed Audience Antebellum Conversation Guide was created in 2000 to help the reenactors who would portray attendees at the first National Woman’s Rights Convention held in Worcester, MA in 1850 in the production of Angels & Infidels by Louisa Burns-Bisogno.  This guide would be helpful to anyone reenacting an antebellum person.