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Camden County Historical Society

Why Even Wealthy Women Worked in Colonial Times

By Hoag Levins ...| ...May. 21, 2001

CAMDEN, N.J. -- HADDONFIELD, N.J. -- Noting how excited she was about taking her first musket lesson next month, Clarissa F. Dillon also explained how difficult it had been last month to plow straight furrows with a yoke of oxen.

Photo: Hoag Levins.
Clarissa F. Dillon at the Indian King Tavern Museum.

Related Photo Feature:
The Creation and Repair of Colonial Clothes
The audience knew right off that this was not your normal tourist-attraction docent.

Appearing at the Indian King Tavern Museum's Saturday open house, Dillon regaled visitors with tales of her unusual, sometimes harrowing, hands-on approach to local historical research. Her appearance was part of an ongoing series of performances by historic artisans, musicians and character reenactors at the 250-year-old tavern that has been restored as a museum of local life in the 1770s.

Past Masters
President of Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts, Dillon believes that local historic site interpreters can't truly understand and demonstrate eighteenth-century life skills unless they actually practice them. In that spirit, her group regularly performs hard labor that was the daily routine for Colonial-era inhabitants of the Delaware River Valley.

First, Past Masters researches domestic work skills and practices from primary sources such as diaries, letters and period newspaper accounts. Then, members find ways to perform those same tasks with authentic tools and techniques. For instance, they join military re-enactment groups to learn how to operate and maintain muskets. They spend days before wood-stoked forges hammering red hot iron into horse shoes, and work in historic
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Clarissa F. Dillon

audio bug Why even wealthy colonial women worked.

audio bug When the man was sick, away or in jail...

audio bug Docent refuses to wear inaccurate apron.

carpentry shops handcrafting period furniture. Last month's oxen-pulled plowing was done at a farm in rural Pennsylvania.

Farm women did it all
"In the eighteenth century, if a man was sick, away, in jail, or whatever, his wife ran the business of the farm," said Dillon, a retired first-grade teacher from Haverford, Penn., who has a doctorate in history from Bryn Mawr College. "I'm trying as many different men's work activities as I can to experience what they were like. Plowing is extremely difficult for me. Making a Windsor chair was also unbelievably difficult. On the other hand, blacksmithing was not as hard as I thought it would be. It was more about a steady stroke and an even beat than physical strength."

The final product of all this -- historical intelligence rooted in scholarship and physical experience -- then becomes the basis for the demonstrations Past Masters members do at historic sites and educational facilities throughout the region.

Discontented docent
The seed of discontent that would become Past Masters sprouted during the 1976 Bicentennial when, as a volunteer docent, Dillon was forced by a historical facility to wear a Colonial "working woman's apron" that was trimmed with lace. It was an absurd inaccuracy.

"I picked all the lace off my gauze apron because I realized it shouldn't be there," she said. "I became uncomfortable with the opportunities available for volunteers at historic sites," she said. "A volunteer was supposed to come in, wear what they were told to wear and accept the information they were fed without further comment, even if the information was wrong."

Over the next decade she became increasingly vocal about the need for exactly correct historic detail in the clothing, accoutrements and work procedures used at local historic sites.

In 1986 she and a group of like-minded historical researcher/docents formed Past Masters. The group's goal was to research the everyday details of common life in eighteenth-century America and use that information to more authentically recreate the skills, customs and mindsets of the time for adult audiences and student groups.

"We decided that members of Past Masters would go onto a site with all their own gear, do what we do, and then go away. We didn't want to be involved in site politics," she said.

Why Martha Washington worked
"The operative word for the eighteenth-century activities that Past Masters interprets is work," Dillon continued. "Because that is what everybody did -- even the wealthy had to work in Colonial times. A woman like Martha Washington, who was wealthy and married to a politically powerful man, still had to do a great deal of work. Much of it was supervising but she had to know how every single chore should be done so she could teach people who needed teaching and supervise people who were doing it so they would know she would catch them if they did it wrong. So even Martha Washington did not have an idle life. It was not like the French court, where people stood around and looked decorative."

Past Masters has also compiled its research findings into books and newsletters. One recent book is called "Perils of Period Clothing." Members are currently working on a cookbook of eighteenth-century recipes they have actually prepared.

Members -- they teach each other how to do scholarly historical research -- regularly use primary source materials to write on topics such as maternal mortality, the clothing of runaway servants, and the making and wearing of stays in the eighteenth century.

Stale human urine
There is also a quarterly newsletter, the most recent issue of which explains how members made jellies from insinglass -- the membrane of fish bladders. The next issue will detail how they dyed cloth with indigo and "chamber lye" or stale human urine. "It was a very smelly and instructive project," Dillon said with a laugh. "We learned a lot and we don't have to do it again."

Dillon so frequently goes about her daily business dressed in period garb that her neighbors refer to her as "the colonial lady who lives on the corner."

She also draws stares at places like the post office, particularly from children. But even then, she's a stickler for historical detail.

"I'll hear a child nearby say, 'Mommy, why is that lady dressed like that?'," she said. "But I speak up to answer the child before the mother can -- because she's going to get it wrong. She's going to tell the child that I'm Amish. But that's nineteenth-century German. I'm eighteenth-century English."

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