Thursday, 9 April 2015

Bringing Your Ancestors to Life

We all collect names and dates for our family trees. Those who are serious family historians (what I, in my old fashioned way, would call ‘proper’ family historians), will look for detailed biographical information and examine the local and social historical context for our ancestors’ lives. How ever assiduous we are about this, it is still difficult to really understand what life would have been like a hundred, two hundred, four hundred years ago. I have the good fortune to be able to get closer than most to the daily lives of my ancestors as an historical interpreter. For the uninitiated, this basically means dressing up in funny (to you that is) clothes and learning about life in past times. My own venture Swords and Spindles concentrates on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but I am known to time travel into other eras. I even spent a week building houses using Neolithic tools and techniques - techniques which actually lasted into the recent past. That was a real eye opener. What is the most efficient way of riddling chalk? What material and method made the most water-tight or long-lasting thatch? Your ancestors will have struggled with these issues. Have you ever thought how difficult it is to build a home, from wattle and daub, cob, lathe and plaster, or whatever material would have been prevalent where your ancestors lived? Do you even know what vernacular housing would have been built from in your ancestral areas, because it will vary according to what building materials were available locally?

Have you considered something as simple as collecting water? Walk to the well/pump, which may be many yards/metres away. Use a fair amount of physical energy pumping or winding up well buckets. Carry the water home in a bucket that would almost certainly have been wooden and therefore heavy. A full wooden bucket might weigh as much as four stone (25kg). It is estimated that two gallons (two large buckets full) of water would be needed by each person per day. Have you tried carrying a full bucket of water that weighs this much? You have to either use a yoke or carry it away from your body in a manner that makes it much more difficult that carrying say a suitcase of similar weight. How difficult is this? Very. How do I know? Because I have tried it. It isn’t the same because I do not have the muscle power or the stamina that my female ancestors would have had to have had and I can go back to my own comfortable, modern life afterwards but it really highlights some of the difficulties of our ancestors’ lives.

How about making clothes? First shear your sheep. Ever tried lifting a wet sheep’s fleece because you will need to wash it. How difficult and time consuming is it to spin, weave and sew in poor light? Then you have to perform your daily tasks wearing what you have made. Have you ever thought about something as simple as climbing stairs in the costume of the past? It is tricky, remember that women were frequently pregnant, carrying small children or other items.

And then there is food. How much energy does it take to make butter or bread (by hand of course) or to grind flour? It takes about an hour to do your ‘daily grind’ i.e. to produce enough flour for one loaf. I have to confess that although I have tried grinding flour, making bread, and butter and have cooked using historic recipes and equipment, I haven’t yet sampled the really gory bits, such as wringing the necks of chickens or killing pigs but I am aware that I probably should.

If you get an opportunity to participate in living history - we don’t use the r word (re-enacting) or experimental archaeology, grab it with both hands, there is no better way to bring your ancestors to life. If you care about your ancestors you owe it to them to try to better understand their lives.

Janet Few


  1. Your descriptions are so vivid. Almost make me want to try it. I actually probably would if presented with the opportunity. Yes, I would. I'm getting emotional even thinking about it. Very interesting concept.

  2. I am almost 75 years old and grew up on a small farm. Early in my childhood, at about 8 or 9, I learned how to chop the head off of chickens, put them in a pail, pour boiling water over them to loosen the feathers, then pluck, clean, and dress them. Also at about the same age, I learned how to kill, skin and dress domestic rabbits. We raised both many rabbits and chickens each year for meat for ourselves and to sell.

    We also raised a large garden and spent the late summer and fall canning the vegetables to carry us over the winter. We didn't have fruit trees, so Mom bought lugs of fruit to can and to make into jams and jellies. We also made our own pickles and sauerkraut each year in large crocks.
    As a teenager, my parents, brother, and I built a large two-story addition, with a large fireplace, onto the cabin we lived in; my Dad only had an electrician do the electrical wiring. Our heat for the house was a oil stove in the cabin part and a fireplace in the addition; our air conditioning was open windows and a couple of small electric fans. Our water came from a community spring, until we dug our own well-by hand. When the spring or the well ran dry, we got pails of water from the creek to use for drinking, cooking and bathing. When the electricity went out, sometimes for days, we used kerosene lanterns to work and read by.

    We didn't sit in the house and watch television--we didn't have one until my last year in high school--as there was work and chores to be done, plenty of space and sunshine to play in and books from the library to read. We never dared say we were bored.

    Each summer since the age of eight, I picked fruit (cherries, apples and prunes) and from the age of ten, I also did house cleaning, ironing, and babysitting for other people to earn "extra" money for the movies, to buy books and treats. and to buy birthday and Christmas presents for my family and friends.

    Not once during my childhood and teen years did I feel abused or being used by my parents. The whole family worked hard, as that's what we had to do to have a good life. We also took the opportunity and time to play, with community get-togethers two to three times a month at least and to hunt, fish, and take trips to the city. It is unfortunate that most of the children of today do not have the opportunity we had so many years ago to learn to be self-sufficient and thrifty.

    Thank you very much for the opportunity for the trip down memory lane. In looking back, times seemed so much simpler and much more fulfilling when I was young.

    1. Louise, although I'm younger than you, I can relate to your comments. I grew up on an outback grazing property, and I've heard my father's stories about domestic life in the 1920s. I totally agree about learning to be self-sufficient and thrifty - and we were never bored!

  3. Thanks for thie eye-opener.I think I'll have to pass - I'd probably be a casualty in the first five minutes.

  4. great post, I can also relate to your comments Louise and Judy. I certainly don't regret growing up on a station in outback NSW.

  5. In our travels in the USA in our RV I frequently think, when I am tired and worn out, how I just did 250 American miles. How long would my ancestors been on the road to do those 250 miles.

    We were just at a cemetery site, which was so far up and so steep that hubby and I could not make the trek, they took oxen and carts to remove the bodies to that site to bury. I cannot imagine.

    Those ancestors of ours, they were tough!

  6. I completely agree Carol. When I drove over the mountain ranges (going from the East Coast to the West Coast) I thought - wow I have highways and gas stations and rest stops and a lovely V-6 engine in m sporty car. How the heck did our ancestors do it? There is a summer program in Oregon that picks a part of the Oregon Trail and people spend a week on the Oregon trail (wagons, mules, horses, cooking over the open fire, no electronics, and you dress appropriately - you also get to walk it like the pioneers did - complete eye-opener. Thanks for making us think a bit Janet - wonderful post.

  7. Thank you for all your lovely comments - glad I made you think :)


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World Wide Genealogy Team