What does an author of historical fiction do when she goes on vacation to the largest living history exhibit in the U.S.? She learns even more history that she can apply to her writing, of course!

Last week, in honor of Independence Day, my family and I traveled to Williamsburg, Virginia, to experience the living exhibitions depicting colonial Williamsburg, circa 1776. I learned about areas of history that would have been familiar to Jane Austen and her contemporaries, and I thought you would probably enjoy learning about them too.

One of the first shops we went into was a wig maker’s shop. Fascinating!!!! Wigs were common in 1776 but by Austen’s day they were starting to get a bit passe. Still, many men had them. Men tended to wear wigs a lot more than women, for a simple reason: to properly fit a wig, the customer’s head had to be shaved so that the wig maker could construct a model to use for fitting. Since most women did not want their head shaved, wigs eventually became almost exclusively a male adornment.

Once the model of the head was made, the wig maker fitted the model with netting and then sewed the strings of hair into the netting. Two or three wig makers could construct a wig in roughly three days with this painstaking method. The hair in the wig came from horses, other animals, or other humans.

But what was a woman with thin hair to do if she didn’t want to shave her head completely? What if her hair didn’t grow as long as she desired? For these women, there were extensions and plugs just like we use today. (The interpreter explaining all this to us said, several times, “Everything old is new again,” and we really saw what she meant!!!) They used the same materials as for men’s wigs, and the wig makers matched the hair color to the women’s own hair color. Except sometimes they didn’t!!! Occasionally women preferred blue or red streaks in their hair, just as women do today. The hair extensions could be curly, straight, short, long, or whatever the customer wanted.

Another shop that fascinated me was the apothecary’s, where people went for medicine and sometimes to see a doctor. So many bottles! So many names!!

In Austen’s day a wealthy woman would have her own still room filled with potions and elixirs for whatever might ail a family member. (I have written- and read- scenes in JAFF where the newlywed Elizabeth Darcy learns the contents of the still room at Pemberley as part of her new role.) But even Lady Catherine might have had to visit an apothecary for some ingredients she didn’t stock at home. Less wealthy women, of course, could not afford to keep a wide variety of medicines on hand, so they visited the apothecary more often when someone in their family was ill.

I was shocked when the interpreter here told us that most of the ingredients in an apothecary’s shop were either emetics or laxatives. In other words, “They were going to get rid of what made you sick, through one end or the other!” There were also a handful of medicines for “female complaints” and a small assortment of painkillers. But they tended to avoid painkillers on the theory that a)some of their painkillers were addictive and b)it was better to get rid of whatever was making you sick rather than just make you feel better. Which takes us right back to the emetic/laxative dilemma. If a laxative didn’t make you feel better, then maybe an emetic would! Beyond that they just didn’t have a lot to offer.

It’s fun to imagine how we might have lived if we had been born back in Austen’s day, but I think we can all agree there are some parts we would not like. Say it with me, my friends: when it came to health care, the past was the worst!!!

Besides these exhibits, we also saw carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, hatmakers and other craftsmen at work. You can see which shop was my daughter’s favorite!

When the day was done we took a ghost tour of the town in the dark (wonderful fun!) and then watched fireworks go off! What better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than in such an historic place?

The next two days we spent in Water Country, USA and Busch Gardens, getting sunburned, sick to our stomach (on some rides, anyway!) and bug eaten. But we had an amazing time!!!  I highly recommend a visit to a living museum near you, especially if you want to understand history in a new way. If you get to go to amusement parks at the same time, so much the better!

If you could step back in time to a town in Austen’s day, what would you most like to see and why? Please drop a line below and tell me about it!

6 responses to “When History Comes Alive”

  1. Glynis Avatar

    A fabulous experience indeed. When my children were young we went to Styal Mill to see how the cotton was made (alas no John Thornton) we also toured the Apprentice house where the children lived. There was a garden where, as well as working in the mill, the children grew their own food. The girls sewed clothes etc – at night by indifferent candle light. The beds were wooden frames with a straw filled mattress, my 10 year old son barely fitted.
    My daughter and I visited Shambellie House in Dumfries where each room was set for a different age with models dressed appropriately.
    I would love to visit Beamish where they have shops and transport from yesteryear.
    If I could go back in time I would, of course go to Pemberley and meet Mr Darcy. I’ve visited both the 1995 and 2005 Pemberleys many times but alas have never seen him.

    1. elaineowenauthor207097889 Avatar

      I suspect if you went to Pemberley you would join quite a crowd, all there to see Mr. Darcy!

  2. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    I was to Williamsburg many moons ago when I was young!lol So I don’t remember much about it. I think that may have been where my Sister and I got our Little house on the Prairie bonnets as we call them but I am not sure. I agree I would go back in time and see Pemberley and hopefully Mr Darcy! Pemberley seems a lovely place!

    1. elaineowenauthor207097889 Avatar

      This was my second visit to Williamsburg, the first being decades ago, before my kids were born. I remembered almost nothing from my first visit, but I felt at home in the colonial setting in many ways because of all my Jane Austen research!

  3. Riana Everly Avatar

    I visited Williamsburg once, many years ago, when my kids were too young to go into the houses and see the demonstrations and interiors. It was still fascinating, though, walking through the town. I didn’t realise the people had to shave their heads to be properly fitted for wigs. That would give me second thoughts as well.
    As for what I’d like to see, I’d love to be a fly on the wall at a ball. We’ve read about what was supposed to happen, but how did people really behave? What did the dances really look like, and what was the noise like? Little things like that would fascinate me.

    1. elaineowenauthor207097889 Avatar

      I wonder if they’ve ever held a ball at Williamsburg. I should suggest that when I submit my review!!!!

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