Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Experiential History: Living in a Corset

When I started reenacting/doing living history, I was looking for a reason to dress up.  Over time that rationale has morphed into dressing up as a way to teach others about history (creating 'the look' of a time), and--as I've lately come to realize--to teaching myself more about how people lived and performed various activities.

Exhibit A: Wearing a Corset.

When I started living history, I expected to be somewhat hampered by the clothing: that I'd need to learn a different way of moving, and that some activities would be difficult or even impossible.  As it turns out, very little is impossible (no back bends), and the operative d-word is actually 'different'.   

Even among living historians corsets have a reputation as uncomfortable, problematic, or even downright dangerous.  They've been out of mainstream wear for a good 3 generations, leaving a nebulous mythology of Scarlet O'Hara's tight-lacing, professional invalids, professionals of another sort, and 'fainting couches'.* I've seen visitors (who had just commented on the group's good posture) visibly flinch when it's mentioned that the ladies present are, in fact, wearing corsets.  Others have assumed that I'm not wearing one because I'm doing 'X' activity, or that women of the period didn't do 'X' because of corsets, or that corsets of the period must be different from the one I'm wearing because I can do 'X' while wearing it.  (For the record, the following list is largely based off my experience wearing 1850s/1860s corsets--either gored or shaped-seam styles--which are somewhat shorter in the torso and less heavily boned than some other time periods).

Activities I have done while wearing a corset:
  1. Dance (ballroom, contra, swing...)
  2. Cook over a fire or on a stove
  3. Split kindling with an ax
  4. Start a fire
  5. Sing
  6. Pick apples
  7. Scale a low fence
  8. Jog/run (not recommended)
  9. Wait at table
  10. Move furniture
  11. Shoot arrows (also tried throwing a tomahawk once, but I'm apparently very bad at it)
  12. Nap
  13. Eat
  14. Dig potatoes
  15. Play games (rolling hoop is a bit tricky, see #8)
  16. Strike tents
  17. Act in a theatrical
  18. Drive a car
  19. Style hair (own or others)
  20. Help others to dress
  21. Ride the bus
  22. Jump over puddles
  23. Tie my shoes**
Things that I can't do in a corset:
  1. Slouch
  2. Overeat
  3. Practice Yoga
'No slouching' is the really noticeable bit, in my opinion.  It can be bit weird and somewhat tiring to sit up straight all the time--and it makes modern car and movie seats really annoying (no, leaning back isn't comfortable)--but the corset also provides ample back support.  I can and have sat down to elaborate dinners in period dress, and enjoyed many of the delicacies offered, but learned that you need to take small portions if you want to try everything.  And you can do a number of yoga poses while wearing a corset--just not all of the ones involving lots of torso flexibility (though I can still touch my toes).  

In all cases, the different ways of moving become more intuitive with practice.  You can't bend much at the waist, so you bend at the knees when tying your shoes or lifting an object. You walk briskly rather than running because it's easy to get out of breath (though, even with snug laces I can sing or do moderate exercise without trouble). Stretching to pluck an apple is no problem--from the corset at least, dropped armscythes are another issue.  Straight-back period chairs are actually really comfortable when your only option to sit up straight. 

The other thing that gets easier with practice is actually wearing the thing.  When I was dressing 5+ days a week this summer, I found myself getting dressed a bit faster each time.  The 'comfortable snugness' also changed with practice: I adjust my laces based on feel rather than measurement, and by the end of July most of my dresses were getting loose at the waist because my comfortably laced corset was tighter than it had been in June.  For a while there, not wearing a corset actually started feeling really strange; I remember taking a walk one day and just feeling really weird about my posture and carriage, only to realize that it was the second time in ten days that I'd been in modern attire.

It was certainly a different perspective: not so much 'liberated' as 'awkward and somewhat exposed'.  A feeling shared, I imagine, by those dress-reformers who went without stays (not all of them did) in the 1850s, by some of the women adopting the early regency/directoire fashions of the late 1790s, and by many young women after WWI.

The only time I've found a corset really uncomfortable is when a bone works it's way loose and started poking me in the hip or shoulder.  Bits of metal hurt.  The plastic's better in that respect--my first two corsets had plastic boning--but in all other ways, 1/4" spring steel really is more comfortable.  It gives better support than featherlight or zip ties, and is much less bulky than the latter.

One thing that's stayed true over time: however comfortable a corset is to wear, however good the support (think your favorite bra times about a million), taking it off always feels really nice.

*The true purpose of a chaise lounge is, of course, posing dramatically.  For maximum effect, clutch at your pearl necklace with one hand, while dramatically holding the other up to your forehead. Employ smelling salts as desired.

**Nonetheless, I prefer to take care of my shoes and hair first when getting dressed in period attire, particularly the shoes


Monday, October 6, 2014

HFF #10: Let Them Eat Cake



The Challenge: Make a cake.

The Recipe: Lemon Cake with Almond Icing from Mrs. Beeton's.

Date/Year & Region: 1861, British

How Did You Make It:  Separated 10 eggs; beat the whites, then added orange-flower water, 1.5 cups granulated sugar, minced lemon rind, and mixed well.  Stirred the juice of 1 lemon into the 10 egg yokes and added to the preceding mixture.  Slowly stirred in 3 cups of flour.  Baked in an oiled bundt pan for 55-60 minutes at 350F.

For the icing, whipped 4 egg whites (used pasteurized egg whites since this is to be served uncooked), added 4 cups powdered sugar, about 1 tsp almond extract and 1 tsp rosewater.  Poured over cake (letting it set made the icing runny), and garnished with fresh lemon wedges (Friday) or strips of candied peel (Saturday).

Time to Complete: About 90 minutes.

Total Cost: Uncertain.  Probably on the order of $6.

How Successful Was It: It seemed well received.  The cake came out a bit dark, having been cooked in an aluminum pan--the closest one I had to a period cake tin.  It was also a little bit dense, which I'm attributing to the lack of chemical leavening.  The lemon, almond and rosewater flavors were very interesting together, and I think I would use this recipe again.  However, I would not make the icing early as it became very viscous.

How Accurate Was It: Fairly.  I already mentioned the "make do" pan; again, I used converted volume measures instead of weights.  In the icing, pasteurized egg whites were an intentional decision, as was using almond extract instead of grinding up almonds in rosewater--which I considered, but dismissed because I had a lot of other things which needed to be done (this being part of my first big dinner).  Using an electric mixer was also a compromise, but I'm not quite mad enough to voluntarily beat than many egg whites by hand.  

So many eggs...
The yellow color is actually from the eggs, not the lemon...
All baked!
The other side is a little darker.
Garnished with lemon wedges on Friday night.
Saturday's cake has candied lemon peel on top.








HFF Challenge #9: The Frugal Housewife



The Challenge: Frugal cooking.  Unfortunately, the dinner party I cooked over the weekend didn't quite fit the bill (budgeting was a factor, but I didn't have historical documentation); instead, it's time to play with leftovers.

The Recipe: Fried Squash from Miss Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book

Date/Year & Region: 1846, American (used the 5th edition, 1871)

How Did You Make It: Took a few pieces of boiled squash leftover from dinner, and fried in a small amount of butter.  Salt added to taste

Time to Complete: Less than 10 minutes.

Total Cost: N/A. Used leftovers only.

How Successful Was It: Tasted like squash.  It's hard to go wrong with butter and salt.

How Accurate Was It: Followed the instructions as given.


Dinner Party Menu: Candlelight Tour (scroll down for pictures)

Washington Territory. Early October, 1855.

At the Hudson Bay Company's Fort Nisqually, Chief Trader W. F. Tolmie is entertaining a few friends with a dinner party.  Dr. and Mrs. Tolmie have many reasons to celebrate: their beautiful new house was completed in April, their fourth child--named James--was born in early September, and now word has come from London that Dr. Tolmie is being promoted to Chief Factor.  Mrs. Tolmie's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Work, have been visiting; very soon, Mrs. Work and her younger daughters will be returning to Fort Victoria, while Mr. Work proceeds proceeds to Olympia, the territorial capital, on business.     


For menu formatting, I consulted Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1860), What Shall We Have For Dinner? by Lady Maria Cutterbuck (1852), Eliza Leslie's New Receipts For Cooking(1854), and a selection of Godey's Bills of Fare reproduced in Civil War Recipes by Lily May and John Spaulding.

General Meal Outline (for a dinner party, accourding to Mrs. Beeton):

  • First Course: 1-2 soups and 1-4 fish or seafood dishes (for parties from 6 to 18)
  • Entree: 2-4 Meat dishes (one may be substituted for fowl, fish, or a vegetable dish)
  • Second Course: 1-2 Meat and 1-4 Fowl dishes, plus vegetables
  • Third Course (Entrements): 1 or more Fowl Dishes, 5+ puddings, jellies and sweet dishes; for larger groups add a meat dish, a seafood dish and/or a salad
  • Desserts ("and Ices" for parties of 8+) 

For the larger groups, some of these dishes are "removes" which replace an earlier dish in the same course: ie, the Beeton first course for a party of 18 reads something like "Soup-1, removed by Fish-Q, Soup-2, removed by Shellfish-A, Fish-X, Fish-Z".

Many other sources do not delineate the course numbers, but follow a similar outline (soups, fish, meat, fowl, puddings, dessert).  For example, on page 386, Miss Leslie gives an autumn dinner menu (for company): "Mock turtle soup; stewed rock-fish; roasted ham; boiled fowls; stewed ducks; fried rabbits; stuffed egg plant; broccoli and eggs; fried artichokes; stewed mushrooms; potatoe [sic] snow; sweet potatoes--Chocolate pudding; meringued apples; cake syllabub; peach ice-cream."   One thing I'm not sure of is whether this presentation is a way of saving space ('everyone know we mean "serve the fish and soup as the first course, then the ham and fowls, then the..."') or whether the authors expected all of the dishes to be on the table from the start.

The number of dishes in a given meal varies wildly as well; though Miss Leslie didn't specify a number of people for her 16-dish dinner with guests (compare to her 'family supper' of 1 meat dish, 4-5 veggies, and a pudding), Lady Clutterbuck's menus for a party of 8-10 persons range from 8 to 33 dishes.  Mrs. Beeton stays a bit more consistent, with each non-dessert course averaging 1 dish per 2 persons (or five dishes per course for a party of 10).

When I've attended a period dinner served ala Francais, all the main courses were on the table at the outset; servants brought soup to each person and removes were used to replace certain dishes as they emptied.  This was at a ball, so a dance set between dinner and dessert allowed the table to be reset and re-supplied.  Standing buffets (as in Beeton's "cold ball supper") also mix the dishes of 'different courses' freely.  The only time I've seen the course distinction maintained in practice, was while serving at dinners ala Russe, in which each course was plated up in the kitchen, and then served to the individual guest (this is a little different from Beeton's version, in which the guests select their dishes from a menu, and servers fill each plate at a side board containing the dishes).  Which all goes to say, that while I wish I could find explicit documentation for mingling courses 1-3 and the entrees on a table, I feel comfortable enough with the ambiguity to go ahead with it, as the best option for handling a dinner party with few servants, little local staging space, and a long walk to the kitchen.

And so, a (simplified) Bill of Fare for a party of 10 in October:

Dinner (courses served more-or-less concurrently)
"First Course"
Soups: Mullagatawny Soup (sample receipt; Thornhill has his own methods)

"Entree"
Pork Cutlets (prepared by Mrs. Repp) with Tomato Sauce
Beef Fricandeau (prepared by Trapper Dave, Mrs. Rowan)
Potatoes (German Method)
Squashes

"Second Course"
Roast Goose (prepared by Mrs. Keller-Scholtz) with Apple Sauce
Savoury Vegetable Pie
Boiled Kale 
Boiled Beetroot with Onions

"Third Course"
Chicken Salad
Damson Pudding (used yellow plums, Suet Crust); day 2: Melons
Flanc of Apple
Raspberry Cream (using raspberry jelly)

Company rises and table is re-set

Dessert
Dish of Fruit (Grapes, apples, plums, pears)
Dish of Nuts  (Hazelnuts, walnuts)
Lemon Cake
Pumpkin Pudding
Chocolate Cream
Baked Apple Custard

Number of meat dishes reduced to meet budgetary restrictions and to take maximum advantage of the heirloom foods produced on site (including kale, golden beets, squash, melons, pumpkin, cucumber, yellow plums, citron, apples, potatoes, and eggs).  Note that vegetarian recipes were available during the mid-19th century.

And finally, the pre-event pictures.  Professional photos were also taken during the event proper.
The Factor's House Dining Room, table setting by Mrs. Keller-Sholtz

Fort Nisqually's Beautiful Blue Italian Dinner Service
Pumpkin and plum puddings for Friday night

Friday Sideboard Close-up, including raspberry cream, apple custard, beets, bread, and lemon cake 
Friday Sideboard: apple custard, beets, bread, lemon cake, flanc of apple, kale, and cheese

Lemon cake, sliced melon, and decanters of faux wine

Saturday Sideboard Selections, including raspberry cream, flanc of apple, pumpkin pudding, apple custard, vegetable pie, chicken salad, beets, kale, apple sauce and tomato sauce (in pitcher); cheese behind the rightmost candle








Thursday, September 25, 2014

Completed Project: Quilt

I haven't posted any sewing projects in a while, so here's the quilt I was working on during August.

The block is 'flying star', from an 1840s (finished 1890s) original featured in Treasures in the Trunk.  I picked that particular design in order to use up small scraps from the various cotton dresses, aprons, and bonnets that I've made since my last patchwork project.  All recycled materials (batting is actually wool yardage from the skirt of my beige dress, backing is an old cotton sheet).  Machine pieced--because I needed it done fast--7 squares by 5, hand quilted in concentric semi-circular "fans", as per the original; wrap-around back to form the binding.




Wednesday, September 17, 2014

HFF #8: Jams, Jellies, and Preserves


I did the plums too early for this challenge, but a fortuitous late-season raspberry sale gave me something else to attempt.  (And, if all goes well, will lead to a fun treat in the future).

The Challenge: Jams, Jellies, and Preserves

The Recipe: Raspberry Jelly

Date/Year & Region: 1860, British

How Did You Make It:  Heated 2 pints of raspberries in a boiling water bath for c. 50 minutes to separate the juice from the berries.  Strained the juice through a muslin-lined colander to remove the rest of the solids.  Collected 2.5 cups of juice, added 2 7/8 c. granulated sugar, and heated on the stove on medium until the mixture started to 'gel'.  While heating, scooped off the 'scum' accumulating on the top.  Ladled into sterilized jelly jars and processed for five minutes in boiling water (deviation from period instructions).

Time to Complete: About 3 hours.  This involved lots of waiting for water to boil, and would likely go faster with practice and better organization.

Total Cost: $9 for 2 pints of berries; sugar to hand.

How Successful Was It: Well, it looks like jelly.  And the spoon tasted good.  Hopefully nothing went weird with the canning, so I'll be able to use it for some yummy desserts.

How Accurate Was It: I followed the preparation method as given, but using the (modern) equipment available to me.  Lacking a proper jelly bag or hair sieve, I improvised with available colanders and a piece of cotton muslin--no pictures of this step, as I prefer my camera not to be covered in berry juice.  Just to be safe, I processed the jelly after canning (5 min in boiling water), per these instructions.


Bruised raspberries in water bath
Juice and sugar on the stove.
Filled jars of jelly.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Flag Needlebook in Berlin Work, part II

Step 1: Berlin Work.  Based on the originals discussed in part I, I made the flag 42 stitches long x 28 stitches tall.  Each stripe is 2 rows of cross stitch, the blue field is 17 x 14.  I opted to do the stars as single cross-stitches, and went with a simple grid of 32 stars.  I actually meant to do a 33-star flag, on the presumption that my 1860s unionist persona was on a patriotic kick during the spring of 1861, but realized too late that I did the rows as 6/7/6/7/6 instead of 7/6/7/6/7.  So, I now have an 1858-59 style flag.  Go Minnesota! (Sorry, Oregon.)

Step 2: Making the cover.  I used a scrap of my 'candy-cane' silk to back the berlin-work, sewing around the flag motif on three sides (fabric right-sides-together) and turning the seams to the inside.  The double thickness of canvas and silk is fairly sturdy, but I decided to stiffen it further by adding a piece of pasteboard between the fabric layers.

To make the back, I covered another piece of pasteboard with blue (tropical weight) wool.  I experimented with using an unsupported back--either flannel or the suiting weight, but decided I didn't like the floppy back with the solid front cover.

Step 3: Pages. The two "pages" are each made from red wool flannel, cut smaller than the cover and edged in white or blue berlin wool (blanket-stitching edge).

Step 4: Assembly.  Both covers were finished (raw edges folded in and closed with a running stitch), and then joined with whip-stitches along the formerly-raw edges.    The "pages were laid inside the open cover, and fastened with small stitches.  Silk ribbon was added to the opening edge to make a closure; additional ribbon was laid over the spine to hide the assembly sewing.  More ribbons on the spine for decoration.


Needle-Book Front Cover

Inside View

Back Cover
Excepting the star miscount, I'm largely satisfied with this project.  Next time, I think I'll stick with one flannel page, as this material was fairly bulky, and two pieces folded in half is a bit fluffier than I would like.  Alternatively, I could effect a sleeker appearance by using silk for the back cover.