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Everyday Life as a Learning Experience

How Historic Living Enriches the Modern World

by Sarah A. Chrisman

2016

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Sarah A. Chrisman is an American author who gives presentations on nineteenth-century clothing, dress, and culture with her husband Gabriel. The couple lives in Port Townsend, Washington, in a nineteenth-century home that has been restored to its original Victorian status.

 As you read, take notes on what lessons the author claims she has learned by living this way.
"Karen Roe" by Ickworth Park (NT) 02-03-2012 is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“From my earliest boyhood, ancient wearing apparel, old household and kitchen utensils, and antique furniture, have appealed to me with peculiar force, telling facts and relating incidents to me in such a plain, homely[1] but graphic manner of the every-day life of our ancestors, that I look upon them more as text-books than as curiosities; for it is only by the light of truth reflected from these objects that we are enabled to…pierce the…fiction with which the perspective of years surrounds the commonest objects of those remote times.” — Beard, Dan C. “Six Feet of Romance.” The Cosmopolitan. July, 1889. p. 226.

Learning doesn’t have to stop at the schoolhouse door — and, in fact, it shouldn’t. The best way to learn about something is to live it: to drink it in through daily experience until familiarity and constant repetition make it second nature. It’s one thing to read a book about a foreign country; it’s quite another to go there and befriend its people, eat its foods and learn its language. This immersion technique can be applied to a wide variety of subjects: my husband Gabriel and I use it to engage with our love of history — specifically the late Victorian era of the 1880s and ‘90s. We can’t travel to the past in exactly the same way we would go to a foreign country (by boarding a ship or an airplane), but we can bring history to us by incorporating as many of its details as possible into our daily lives.

When people visit our home they say it’s like walking into a museum — or stepping back in time. Our house was built in 1888 and ‘89: it was started late one year and finished early the next. Before we purchased our home it had been a rental property for many decades. Very little had been added over the past century — although many things had been stripped out. Settling in was a long, slow process of bringing back systems and appliances which would have been standard at the end of the nineteenth-century.

Years ago, we started collecting everyday items from the past, things people like us were interacting with on a daily basis back in the Victorian era. Most textbook history focuses on extreme cases: politics, war, and Great Names or, on the other end of the spectrum, criminals and the destitute. We’ve never been privileged to keep company with monarchs[2] and presidents in the modern world, so where history is concerned we’ve always been drawn far more strongly to people we ourselves can relate to. We love simple stories of approachable people. Using the things they used everyday and adopting their routines helps us connect with their culture and understand their lives.Q1

The artifacts[3] which make up our home are a working collection. When we get our antiques, most are at a severe level of deterioration.[4] Some people wouldn’t think twice about smashing such low-quality items to bits for decorating Steampunk[5] jewelry, or ripping them to shreds for scrap material.  We fix them up and put them back to the use for which they were originally intended.  As we use and interact with them, they become our teachers.

It took years, but through patient saving and dedication we’ve been able to restore the functional systems in our house, things which every American household had at the end of the nineteenth-century. As we’ve been able to replace modern objects in our lives with their historic equivalents,[6] each appliance, tool, and other object from history has taught us increasingly more about the rhythms of life in the past.Q2

Period-appropriate lighting was one of the easiest things to institute, and at the same time it’s been one of the things that’s changed our interactions with our world the most. When we’re the only ones at home we use oil lamps. I fill these lamps, clean their chimneys and care for their wicks several times a week in the dark months of the year; in the brighter seasons they last longer. It’s a wonderful way to connect with the changing seasons; by linking us to the light rhythms of the natural world, it makes us feel more alive ourselves. It heightens our awareness of the resources we’re using as well: when a lamp has to be filled and cared for, one is naturally more mindful of when it’s really needed, instead of simply using it by habit. The lamps connect us in a very real way to the technologies of our forebears:[7] we’ve learned how much brighter circular wick[8] lamps are than those with flat wicks, and we’ve been fascinated to see how much brighter antique lamps (which were made for use) are than modern replicas (often intended for mere ambiance).

The electric lights in our house (mostly used for company) are all replicas of early light bulb patents, made from hand-blown glass. A few are Edison designs because people inevitably expect to see the Great Names of History represented. Really though, we prefer the hidden stories of the past: most of the light bulbs in our home are Westinghouse designs, based on the brilliant work of Nikola Tesla.[9]

We long ago sold the electric refrigerator which came with our house and bought an antique ice box to keep our perishables fresh. We stock it with sixty pounds of block ice once or twice a week, and we’ve gotten so practiced at loading it together that the process almost feels like dancing. The slow drip of melting ice is one of the constant, quiet sounds of our home, and every morning I empty the meltwater from the driptray.

In the opposite corner of the kitchen from our icebox sits its complement: our wood-burning Charm Crawford stove, a beautifully restored antique from 1901. It took us years to save up for it, and the day it arrived was an occasion of enormous pride. Tending the stove — cleaning its firebox, sifting the ashes, laying new fires, and keeping the fire going — has become another element of my daily routine. Caring for the stove is incredibly grounding,[10] and a constant, tangible[11] connection to history. It constantly has new things to teach me, and I delight in every moment of it. I bake all our bread from scratch in this beautiful stove, and am constantly trying new recipes from our collection of antique nineteenth-century cookbooks: they truly provide flavors of the past to our everyday lives.

Every detail of our home is as authentically Victorian as we can possibly make it. Our bed is an antique (a lucky yard-sale find), and I sewed its feather mattress by hand. Every morning I wash using an antique ewer[12] and basin. Not only does this conserve water dramatically, but it’s also much kinder to my skin than daily showers — and it gets me just as clean. When I wash my hair I use castille soap, just as suggested in an 1889 edition of Good Housekeeping.Q3

Our whole life together is an experiential study into the period we love. Like any other historians, we read extensively in primary sources, books and other texts written during the period. Unlike most historians, we take things significantly farther and build our daily lives around the culture.

Even the clothes we wear every day are scrupulously[13] patterned after Victorian antiques and nineteenth-century fashion plates. Clothes are incredibly intimate. They influence how we move, and at the same time record tiny details about us that seem too mundane to write down — things like whether the items in our pockets are light or heavy, or what we do with our hands when we don’t have pockets at all. I sew all my own clothes by hand, and Gabriel’s are made for him by a seamstress in Seattle.

I’m an author; as with any true writer it’s not just my profession but how I experience the world. I keep a diary every day, using an antique mother-of-pearl fountain pen I bought with part of my first book advance. I draft a lot of my manuscripts the same way: I enjoy this tangible connection to my words. (There have been some really interesting studies done showing the human brain processes information more thoroughly when it’s written by hand as opposed to typed.) When I take notes from antique books and magazines I use a pencil to avoid dribbling ink on irreplaceable antique volumes.

Since no publisher on Earth will accept a handwritten manuscript anymore, I still have to type out my work before I submit it. I used to throw away my rough drafts after I had transcribed them: they had served their function and there seemed little purpose in them continuing to take up space. However, after the publication of my third book people started expressing interest in my handwritten pages so I started saving them. One of the biggest challenges in collecting bits of history is deciding what to save and what to throw away. (This is just as true for personal history as for history in general.)

I’ve written several narrative non-fiction books about the Victorian era and our relationship with it. Currently I’m working on a series of novellas set in the 1880s and ‘90s. All our first-hand experiences with the technologies and everyday items of the time provide incredibly valuable insights on which to build these works.Q4

My husband Gabriel works at a bicycle shop. The B.I. Cycle Shop is a modern store, with brands familiar to twenty-first-century cyclists. However, its products do have this in common with early cycling: the mechanical technology is very advanced, yet it’s still technology which people can see and understand. Better yet, it’s technology which originated in our favorite period!

I’ve never had a driver’s license, and my bicycle is from a company that has been making bikes with the same basic frame geometry since the 1890s. My bicycle serves the same function for me as most people’s “daily driver” car serves for them. It weighs fifty pounds, which would have been extremely heavy even by 1890s standards. Yet I’ve covered hundreds of miles on it. It helps me do my errands (whether I’m riding a mere four or five miles around town, or twenty-five miles out and back to a farmstand), but I’ve ridden much farther on it as well. Longer rides ranged anywhere from fifty miles out and back to visit another Victorian town, to one hundred miles to see the flowers in bloom in America’s top tulip-producing county, to an international ride up to Canada last year with Gabriel, who rode one of his high wheel bicycles. I have my own high wheel, an 1880s-style ladies’ tricycle which at around seventy-five pounds is even heavier than my bike. In the 1880s there were women who managed to ride high wheel tricycles over the Alps, but the farthest I’ve managed on mine was a seventy-five mile trip across the Idaho panhandle last year. (Gabriel was on one of his high wheel bicycles, of course.)

Besides adding joy to our lives, bringing us closer together, and being extremely useful to my own writing, our first-hand experiences with everyday aspects of Victorian life are valuable to others as well. We’ve done consulting work for other writers, for film-makers, and for various researchers. We’ve given presentations for schools ranging from small elementary-level homeschooling groups to large university classes. We do historical outreach all the time. As a way to engage others with the history we love, we curate a virtual museum of our collection through a website and a Facebook page.

The Victorians believed that husbands and wives should “Consult and advise together in all that comes within the experience and sphere of individuality.” Gabriel and I do exactly that. He has a degree in history and a Master’s in Library Science; my own university degrees are in the field of Cultural Studies. We’ve combined Gabriel’s love of primary-source research with immersion techniques from my Cultural Studies background, and by doing so we’ve created a life which is uniquely beautiful — and uniquely ours.

We can’t travel to the past, but we can immerse ourselves in its details. By doing so, we attain an intimate knowledge of it which books alone can never supply. Some things can only be learned by experience repeated so often it becomes second nature. Like the different sounds a fire makes when it wants more fuel or air, or when it can take care of itself without fussing. The reflexes involved with riding a fixed gear highwheel tricycle. How wearing long skirts can become an extra sense for experiencing the world, the way cats use their whiskers. People of the past knew all these things; by learning them ourselves through our own experiences, we come that much closer to experiencing history.Q5

“Everyday Life as a Learning Experience: How Historic Living Enriches the Modern World" by Sarah A. Chrisman. Copyright © 2016 by CommonLit, Inc. This text is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Notes

  1. Homely (adjective):

    simple but cozy and comfortable, as in one's own home; unpretentious; unattractive

  2. kings and queens
  3. Artifact (noun): an old object of great value
  4. Deterioration (noun): the process of becoming progressively worse
  5. As it is used here, “Steampunk” refers to a trend in fashion based on the Steampunk genre of fiction writing, which emphasizes outdated technology, usually from the Victorian era.
  6. Equivalent (noun): equal
  7. Forebears are ancestors.
  8. A wick is a strip of fabric that fuel travels up to feed the flame of a candle or lantern.
  9. Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer who is credited with the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system.
  10. Grounding (adjective): realistic and modest
  11. Tangible (adjective): able to be touched
  12. A ewer is a large jug with a wide mouth, formerly used for carrying water for someone to wash in
  13. hardworking, thorough, and extremely attentive to details
  1. Homely (adjective):

    simple but cozy and comfortable, as in one's own home; unpretentious; unattractive

    x
  2. kings and queens x
  3. Artifact (noun): an old object of great value x
  4. Deterioration (noun): the process of becoming progressively worse x
  5. As it is used here, “Steampunk” refers to a trend in fashion based on the Steampunk genre of fiction writing, which emphasizes outdated technology, usually from the Victorian era. x
  6. Equivalent (noun): equal x
  7. Forebears are ancestors. x
  8. A wick is a strip of fabric that fuel travels up to feed the flame of a candle or lantern. x
  9. Nikola Tesla was a Serbian-American inventor and electrical engineer who is credited with the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system. x
  10. Grounding (adjective): realistic and modest x
  11. Tangible (adjective): able to be touched x
  12. A ewer is a large jug with a wide mouth, formerly used for carrying water for someone to wash in x
  13. hardworking, thorough, and extremely attentive to details x

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