What was it really like to live “back then”? I think that is one of the central questions that motivates the enjoyment of historical fiction, whether one is reading, writing it, or watching in a film. For a long time, a good historical novel was the only way a “modern” reader (of whatever era) could experience the past in great detail. Great books of this sort bring an era alive with an immediacy that lets us forget our modern sensibilities and exist for a time in the skin of someone from the past. It is the closest most of us ever get to visiting and living in the past.
Living in the Past
For many people, though, experiencing the past through the imagination alone is not enough. This has given rise to reenactment societies, working opportunities in living history (like the docents at Colonial Williamsburg), Renaissance Faires, the SCA and more. All of these offer folks a chance to sample a bygone way of life, but it is always in small doses, within close time constraints and within the framework of modern life. Just beyond the borders of Faire lie the interstate; the Civil War battle must be refought in time for everyone to return to work on Monday. These experiences cannot create a truly immersive sense of living in the past within these constraints.
But there is another way to go live in the past, one that is much more comprehensive than these leisure-time amusements. It is not available to everyone, but for those chosen to participate, it is arguably more immersive and for that reason potentially more enjoyable (and stressful) than the alternatives. This is the series of “historical living” experiments that PBS has aired over the last decade and a half: a series of historical “reality” documentaries where the focus is the experience of living in another time.
The premise is simple: a carefully selected cross-section of people leave their modern lives, don the garments of the era, and move into a painstakingly recreated, historically correct setting. Intentionally isolated from all interaction with the modern world (as much as possible, considering that their experiences are being filmed), persons are assigned roles, their duties and obligations lined out for them, and they live as that person for the next several weeks or months. In conjunction with experts from historical preservation societies, academia, and other specialities, Wall to Wall/Channel 4 in the UK launched their foray into this arena with The 1900 House project in 1999. As of this writing those producers and WNET in the US have covered groups of people living in 1940s Britain and Wales, Edwardian and Regency England, Colonial America, the post-Civil War Texas frontier, and the Montana frontier in the late 1880s.
Transitioning Back in Time
The results of these long-term living history experiments are fascinating. There is some indoctrination before the living experience begins, and some persons walk right into the era as if born to it. Others have a very difficult time adapting to the change and the loss of modern conveniences and social customs they are used to. Everyone has their social niche and expected role lined out for them in detail. Some overarching goals are often assigned, and the person or group’s success will be rated accordingly. For instance, eligible young men and women in Regency House Party know they are angling for a marriage proposal by end of their summer with houseguests of varying status and incomes. The rancher in Texas Ranch House knows he has to round up and sell enough cattle by the end of the summer to make his next mortgage payment, or he will lose his ranch. Even those without lofty goals can still have quite demanding challenges ahead of them: the maid of all work who cooks and cleans for a household in 100-degree heat with nothing but wood stoves and elbow grease really has her work cut out for her.
In many of these shows, individuals are evaluated at the end of the residency, when their success personally and as a household are rated. If they had truly lived in that era, how would they have fared by the standards of the day? Did they establish a prosperous ranch, or go broke trying? Have sufficient food stores to survive a harsh winter? Found a husband or lost their honor in the community? Evaluations are are conducted by area experts applying the standards of the period as much as recreation skills allow. They are based on objective criteria, but to some extent are also necessarily subjective. What a modern person deems was a “success” may be a resounding failure in the past era, for reasons the evaluators explain in detail.
Almost without exception, no matter how much indoctrination they receive beforehand, modern people face peculiar challenges in stepping back into the past like this. For women a consistent stumbling block seems to be the sexism and social strictures they encounter. It is built into the mores of earlier eras and is harshly apparent to contemporary sensibilities when a modern woman has to live with it every day. Also, for women used to comfortable clothes and freedom of movement, the often severe constraints of period fashions and the behaviors expected (be fully dressed even in a heat wave, etc) grow into a not-insignificant stress point. Many women said the heck with authenticity and took expedients like omitting their corsets, or spending the day in the equivalent of period underwear even when outside the house.
It’s a Man’s World
One thing that is striking when watching several of these shows is that men seem to have an easier time because the demands of the transition don’t hit them as hard. Male privilege becomes if anything more explicit, and more pronounced than in our modern era. While there may be forms of etiquette they are expected to adhere to, there is no major social penalty for them if they do not (though evaluators will note if their behavior is not in keeping with the mores of the era). For men, one is left with the impression that stepping back in time through a House project is a satisfying exercise in dressing up and playing an extended if grown-up form of let’s-pretend. Men are not asked to abandon who they are; instead they get to concentrate on one aspect of themselves and let that side “come out to play” and live the role (the Regency gentleman; the Texas ranch hand; the WWII householder on the home front).
Women, however, are suddenly surrounded with do’s and do-nots. An Edwardian maid carrying on with a footman could be fired; Regency women are not allowed to amuse themselves outdoors in the carefree and physical manner men are. On the Texas Ranch project, all five women in the project felt discounted by the men and left out of any important decisions and opportunities.
On the ranch, this led to a contretemps that could have spelled the end of the venture had this really happened in 1867. In this setting, the cowhands expected Mr. Cooke, the owner, to deal with them “man to man”, on the strength of his word. The input of Mrs. Cooke in the rancher’s dealings was universally resented as interfering at best, and emasculating at worst. While the men’s attitudes were era-appropriate (a headspace modern men fell into quite readily), their expectations of the ranch owner challenged his 21st century practice of his wife having equal input into decision-making. In frontier Texas, the hands come to disrespect her husband because it was thought his wife pulled his strings and he did not keep his word. This assertive modern woman needed to put a lid on it, or she risked creating resentment and power struggles.
Unfortunately, she was not able to remain hands-off. Mrs Cooke felt she and the other women on the ranch were cut out of all business of importance and made to be inconsequential. Her antidote for this feeling of powerlessness was to assert more control in her husband’s ranch business. Yet the more she exercised authority with her husband, the more the ranch hands resented both Mr. Cooke and her interference. Things came to a head when finally – two days before the project officially came to an end – every cowhand quit their employment and left the ranch en mass. While the rancher’s daughters were saying “I don’t understand. Dad’s so nice!”, what they were blind to is the fact that he made some harsh decisions and went back on his word to his men on several points under the influence of his wife’s input.
If this had been real 1867 Texas, the rancher would have been hard pressed to find a new qualified crew of cow hands in a frontier where every such person was eagerly snapped up by competing ranchers. The desertion of his crew might have spelled out the failure of his ranch. It is an unhappy ending for the Texas Ranch project, and one brought about in no small part because of the clash of expectations between a modern woman and her more limited 19th century role. Mr. and Mrs Cooke were startled at their failing evaluation; based on the pleasant time enjoyed by their family, the Mrs had deemed the ranch stay a success. But according to evaluators, the more systemic elements in their scenario (poor use of food resources, muddled accounting practices, and the complete alienation of work crews) would have doomed this fledgling ranch or at least made its long-term survival very problematic.
Living Under a Microscope
Obviously, a PBS “House” project is in many ways like life in a fishbowl. Constantly under observation, cast into a strange setting with clothes that make daily functioning a challenge, often short on food or facing physical challenges in the environment, thrown in with strangers, and with many constraints built in on what one can and can’t do in the era: this set-up has many of the elements which make reality shows so popular. Unlike Survivor, however, the drama is not manufactured. People come into these projects generally expecting a good time and a pleasant adventure. There is no built-in dynamic that pits one against another, but what we do see happen is a stratification and alignment of factions based on the historical elements that were in play.
In Regency House Party, for instance, there is surprising tension between the marriageble young women and some of the older women chaperoning them. Class tensions spring into life with the economic and labor divisions inherent between masters and servants in the Edwardian Manor House. Likewise with the Texas Ranch, where at one juncture Mrs. Cooke thinks the hands should be appreciative of the work the family puts into feeding them, while the cowboys resent what to them feels like calculated charity at the rancher’s table. Friction arises organically, just as do alliances, cooperation, and strong bonds forged by shared challenges. Quite often participants remark afterwards how real the period felt to them. With the modern world absent from view and lived experience, it fades even more from mind as daily life and coping with problems demands that they “be here, now.” In doing so these modern time travelers fall into an historical “present time” that becomes their very real life for that time.
For a microcosm of human behavior, one could choose far worse to study than these people who abandon their ordinary lives to exist as fully as possible in another era. If you’ve ever wondered how you would get by if you were suddenly transported to another place and time, these historical House programs on PBS and Channel 4 (UK) are well worth checking out. At least these documentaries permit us to see how our contemporaries fare in such settings, and if you’re like me, you can do some vicarious living through their experiences at the same time. It is not time travel, exactly, but of all the modes of experiencing history, this seems to be the closest thing to being there.
These period living experiences are produced by various organizations, and have been aired by PBS in the U.S. It does not appear that they are working on any new ones at this writing, but previous shows are available now on DVD or online at YouTube. The episode embedded below is from the Texas Ranch House series, which illustrates some of the tensions between women, rancher and ranch hands discussed earlier in this post. See especially Mrs Cooke’s complaints about not being part of management decisions around the 17 minute mark, and her reaction to veiled threats from a visiting Comanche around 34 minutes.
If you’ve watched these shows, which ones were your favorite and why? What period would you most like to participate in if you could be part of an immersive experience of this sort? Please leave your comments below.