By Tyler Rudd Putman
Doing good history takes a good imagination. But the problem with imagining the past – the first step to writing good history—is not that it’s a foreign country, as in David Lowenthal’s eponymous book, or that it isn’t even past, as William Faulkner wrote. It’s that it’s just really hard to imagine the past. I’m in awe of people who can do it with just the inspiration of words. Some people I know can look at diary entries or newspaper advertisements alone and evoke a whole world with a novelist’s literary abilities.
As for me, I’ve always needed more tools. In addition to the words, I need objects, images, smells, and feelings to get even close to imagining the past. That’s how I’ve spent most of my free time and a lot of my professional life over the past decade. I’ve dug centuries-old objects out of the ground and out of flea markets so that I can better imagine the material culture of the past. I’ve pored over art and photographs in museums and books to help me picture it. I’ve visited historic sites and landscapes to stand in places where things happened. But I’ve always wanted to get closer to how things felt, and so I’ve tried to experience history. I’ve cooked meals on open hearths and clay bake ovens, marched miles in the snow, slept under a thin sheet of cotton canvas – or under nothing at all – in the rain, sailed under canvas aboard wooden ships, planted and harvested flax and heirloom vegetables, and made, by hand, replicas of dozens of historical objects. In all of this work, I’m not experiencing the past, per se. But what if we broadened our definition of history – the process of imagining and interpreting the past – to more often include something like “experiential history”? Even then, you can only approach the past. You can’t recreate it, but you can catch glimpses of it turning a corner.
When I was fourteen, I realized I could pretend to be a Civil War soldier by reenacting the Civil War. Shortly afterwards, I realized that I could make the same things Civil War soldiers used. I grew up in a household where my parents made things and I was lucky enough to fall in with reenactors who made the clothing, accoutrements, and paperwork they used at events. I learned everything I could about being a Civil War soldier. In the years since, as a historian and archaeologist, I’ve held and read hundreds of original Civil War letters and diaries, examined photographs, and even excavated Civil War artifacts—unseen for 150 years— from archaeological sites. But I’ve never felt closer to the past than when I’m dressed in wool clothing, nursing a tin cup of coffee into existence over a few embers somewhere in Virginia, just before the sun rises and a bugle announces reveille.
I’m under no illusions that I’ve experienced the Civil War or any other historical period. So many elements of what I do keep me hopelessly in the present. As a tailor at Colonial Williamsburg one summer, I spent three months hand-sewing a linen tent in an eighteenth-century building. But when I sewed, my needles were cast steel and not drawn wire. My thread was mechanically spun. My clothing was only an approximation, in cut, construction, and material, to eighteenth-century clothes. My teeth were cleaner and my gut free from any number of parasites and diseases so prevalent in past ages. I went home at the end of an eight-hour workday. And my mind was a modern one.
But when you practice a historical skill, you still move in much the same way as someone three centuries ago. You learn how to relax your grip on the needle to prevent hand- and wrist-aches. You feel how your back muscles tire and your posture changes after a day sitting “tailor fashion” with crossed legs. And you start to notice things. Lint floating in the air. The miniscule sensation in your fingers communicated by a needle that has a small barb growing at its tip. How it’s possible to daydream and almost even fall asleep amid the rhythmic motions of sewing long seams. We will always need words to create history. But it’s in these moments of experiencing elements of what is was like in the past that you connect with people long gone. This makes you a better historian because you can describe the past better.
I think historians are getting more comfortable with this sort of experiential history as we look beyond traditional practices and decolonize the academy, opening up the field of history to more nontraditional practitioners and approaches. More academics are receptive to forms of evidence once considered beyond the pale of historical work. Scholars are considering how to recapture the past in new ways less bound to old means, and they are rediscovering old family stories, legends, objects, and rituals, and seeking to imagine how food tasted and what the past might have felt like.
All of these sources have bias. All are problematic. But are they any less so than the documentary record? These are apples and oranges. We cannot – we should not – assume that a family recipe ostensibly passed down by word-of-mouth from the eighteenth century has the same credence as a document written in that century which survives today (or vice versa). We should not assume that a day spent cooking over an open fire means anyone has experienced the past or is any more an authority on it than a historian who hasn’t.
But what this work does give you that nothing else can is a fleeting, embodied glimpse of past experiences. It gives you empathy. The world needs more of that. And isn’t that just what our work as historians requires? In order to study the past, don’t we have to imagine what it was like for the people who were there? And shouldn’t we use every tool at our disposal to do so?
“Go to Plymouth today,” wrote historian John Demos of the recreated Pilgrim village in A Little Commonwealth in 1970, “visit one of the old houses still so lovingly preserved, sit in one of the high-backed chairs, and try to ‘live’ for a bit in the middle of the seventeenth century.” For Demos and others, this quest was imperative, but it was less amount summiting a mountain than realizing that more mountains lay beyond each one you climbed. “It is a chastening experience,” he wrote, “The objects are all right there before you, solid, tangible, real; but gradually they being to dance before your eyes… Alternative possibilities begin to suggest themselves: chairs move, dinnerware disappears, pots change places, lamps and heddles and buckets hang uncertainly in midair.” You realize the past is gone.
We can never really put that dining room back in order. But maybe, if we’re creative enough, and if we get away from our desks for a day or two and into the world, we can create a history that feels every bit as real as the past once was. We can put the chairs and dinnerware and pots and lamps in new places – in just the right places – so that we can imagine a new version of what it all once was.
Let us imagine.
It’s a weeknight in seventeenth-century Plymouth. It’s cold enough that the wind finds its way through the small seams of the mud-daubed walls. The hall smells of wood smoke and animal manure, but you don’t notice. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. Fat lamps flicker from a few corners, and it’s pretty dark inside tonight. You’re looking forward to bed after a long day of work. But those pots and plates need to be washed. It’s time to stoke the fire, check on your animals, and put things in order for tomorrow. Roll up your sleeves. You can’t make good history without getting your hands dirty.
Tyler Rudd Putman is the Gallery Interpretation Manager at the Museum of the American Revolution and a PhD Candidate in the History of American Civilization Program in the Department of History at the University of Delaware. He has explored history through work as an archaeologist, historical tailor, antiques dealer, and sailor on tall ships.