If you do Living History presentations for the public, you have almost certainly encountered this stereotype – the modern apologist. These are the people who genuinely ask you why we use the Durham Boats rather than the bridge at Washington’s Crossing or why we start fires with a flint and steel rather than a butane lighter. After all, these modern inventions ARE easier and more convenient. Sometime they are even safer.
It’s easy to dismiss these naysayers as ignorant troublemakers but I think its important that we have an answer beyond the obvious. EVERYONE, even the naysayer, knows the bridge was not built until the 20th Century and there was no airport behind Fort Mifflin until 1925 but the question is not trivial. What do we accomplish by hand sewing our clothes rather than using a machine? Is it not easier to just buy Yards “Beers of the Revolution” rather than fuzzing with all that fire and scalding water? We don’t do it because its hard, we do it to learn about the past.
The biggest difference between Living History and academic history is experience. You don’t FEEL what is like in the ranks when you read about the battles of the Revolution but when you are standing 50 yards from the enemy line, even though they are firing blanks, you appreciate how difficult it was to stand in that line and return fire. When you spend half a day brewing the beer that you could have purchased cold in a bottle or brewed at home in about an hour over an open fire you appreciate the real labor involved. You can’t truly appreciate the contribution of the Marbleheaders until you have rowed that boat across the strong current of the Delaware.
All this is important to truly understand the history we celebrate but there is another aspect to doing things in the same manner as our forefathers that I feel is undervalued. We are creatures of the 21st Century and everything we do is shaped by that reality. Even our bodies are adapted to the that reality. Some things, namely physical labor, are much easier today. We have machines that do the hard tasks. Others aspects of life in our century are actually harder than they were in the past. Just to survive we need much more education, we are subject to more nuisance stresses than our forefathers (noise, pollutants, lights, etc.), and we actually work more hours albeit with more mental and less physical intensity. Its hard to really appreciate mindset of an 18th Century person when we are so entrenched in the 21st Century.
Furthermore, in many cases we have become dependent upon the modern world we have created. We write with keyboards, we use power tools and computers, we don’t have to remember anything because we can look it up on the internet. We live in a technological bubble which insulates us from the physics of life. Few of us can ride a horse or navigate a long distance without relying on a GPS or at least road signs and clearly laid out thoroughfares. We bore easily when repetitively stitching a seam or pounding out a bag of nails from raw iron. Sure, we can do it for a while, but can you do it for a whole day? Can you even appreciate what it was like for this to be your job?
I do Living History because it gives me insights into my MODERN world. The past is over. Its in learning lessons from the past and applying that understanding to today’s world that makes it all worthwhile. Otherwise, all this is no better than golf, just an expensive hobby.