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From runny noses and dry skin to icy car windows and high heating bills, winter provides plenty to complain about. Add to these annoyances the drastic decline in opportunities to do so many things we love on the Bay, and the chilly months seem downright unbearable.
But visit with the 30 or so volunteer reenactors who recently spent an entire weekend living like it was 1771 at Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater and you’ll quickly put this thought to rest.
“We really want visitors to experience the past for themselves, whenever possible, and Immersion Day is one of the best special programs where they can do that,” said Kristen Butler, Director of Public Programs at the 23-acre living history site.
The event invites the public to walk the grounds of the colonial town and not only observe but also ask questions about how some of Anne Arundel County’s earliest settlers actually spent—and survived—a typical mid-winter weekend on the South River.
I decided to visit London Town on its third annual Immersion Day (which appropriately took place on one of the coldest days so far this year); they certainly lived far differently than us.
Both Rod Cofield, Historic London Town’s Executive Director and Claire Goode, Public History Specialist, agree that the starkest contrast between living in January 1771 and living in January 2020 is, as you might expect, staying warm (or at least not freezing).
Consider the colonists’ lack of central heating, poor (or zero) building insulation, colder temperatures (the South River used to freeze over) and more time spent outdoors (especially for children, who spent much of the day fetching water from the town’s well).
As I learned from Jacob and Sean, two reenactors in their mid-30s who’ve each “been in the 18th century” for about five years, London Towners did have their own colonial hacks.
The most obvious was wearing far more clothing than any of us wear today. While London Town’s inhabitants couldn’t just buy Under Armour heat gear from their local sporting goods store or order a down jacket from L.L. Bean, Jacob and Sean explained that they did have ample access to material (unlike many of their inland peers) and, in many cases, sufficient skill to make their own clothing.
Sean, in fact, had made 100 percent of his clothing: hat, heavy jacket, multiple undershirts, pants, four pairs of thick wool socks —including a pair that went almost to the knee— and leather shoes. He’d also made some of Jacob’s, who is just learning how to sew.
Aside from their perpetually cold feet, both men said they actually had a pretty comfortable Friday night thanks to sleeping under many layers and employing other historically-accurate strategies such as sleeping with many people in one room. They noted that colonial
inns often slept two or three men to a bed, using thick blankets and pre-warming their beds with bed warmers, essentially an ember-filled perforated frying pan with a handle. Though neither Jacob nor Sean were lucky enough to have them, they noted that many of those
in the middle-classand all of those in the upper-class would have also had primitive foot warmers—embers in a box.
London Towners’ warmth was also supported by the fact that most of them stayed quite physically active and very close to the hearth, all day, noted Cofield and Goode.
Reenactors who portrayed itinerant or indentured servants of Jon Brown bustled constantly around the hearth at the tavern and inn. The hearth produced all of the food and drink (aside from well water) consumed by Brown’s guests and servants.
Without the modern conveniences of electricity or gas, this meant lighting the fire at 5:30am and keeping it going all day. Servants were constantly shifting a wide variety of pots, skillets and kettles in order to regulate cooking temperatures.
The lack of running water also complicated mealtime (not to mention those times when nature calls, requiring a chamber pot or privy), as cooking with, cleaning with, or drinking water meant another trip (or trips) to the well and back with two buckets attached to a wooden shoulder yoke.
Obviously no one delivered groceries in 1771, but colonists did have access to a wide variety of ingredients in London Town thanks to the river and a relatively developed market of trade between the town and farmers – and could therefore prepare an impressive variety of foods.
Though the tavern’s guests couldn’t customize their orders and often had no option of seconds, Immersion Day’s offerings – all made with historically-accurate ingredients and recipes – included hasty pudding at breakfast; pork pasties – made in an outdoor earthen oven — fish stew, cheese, homemade beer, cider and wine at lunch; rabbit, venison and quail game pie, along with more bread and beer, cider, and wine at dinner.
The reenactors even brewed coffee after painstakingly roasting beans from green to light brown by rolling a container every fifteen seconds for over an hour. In a very modern move, the volunteers managed to “upcycle” the spent grain from their beer-making to make beer bread.
Of course, the reenactors didn’t choose to spend a weekend doing what most of us couldn’t be paid to do just to test their mettle against the elements. Nor did they do it to simply support London Town’s mission and offer the public a real look at pre-Revolution life in the Chesapeake region.
As they told me, while busily preparing food and cleaning dishes and reading copies of Maryland’s first newspaper, the Maryland Gazette, their primary motivations were threefold.
First, they love discovering stories about the most fascinating people of the past using archival records. One example is Mary Jones, a character who was indentured for trying to steal 19 yards of cloth under her dress, and then had 1.5 years added to her service due to having two illegitimate children.
Second, they love celebrating the resourcefulness of our predecessors, from clothes-making to cooking.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they love being part of a special group of people who not only share a passion for history but also clearly enjoy socializing with each other, both in character and out.
Though the public was only able to stay until 4pm on Immersion Day, Goode confirmed that the nights take on more of a party atmosphere thanks to music, dancing, food, and plenty more drink— all without the modern-day conveniences, or perhaps distractions, of cell phones and televisions.
Certainly there is plenty for us to learn by living like it’s 1771.