The Moose, his parents and I went to Old Sturbridge Village over the weekend for the last days of sugaring off. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Village, it is what I would call an interactive outdoor museum showing American life in the early 19th century. There are costumed historians, antique buildings, a working farm, heritage breed animals and several mills.)
I have been coming to OSV for over 50 years and amazingly, it took until this weekend’s visit to cure me of the notion that, merely by their presence, long dresses make everything romantic. For probably the first time in my life, I didn’t regret soulless modern fashion. I was actually glad to be on the side that wore boots and leggings.
It was a dark, overcast, damp day and the whole village exuded an early spring chill – the kind that gets into your bones. It was re-enforced by the wet, wood smoke in the air and the lingering covering of snow from the storm two weeks ago.
The snow was long past its Christmas card look. It was patchy, mushy, dirty, icy and slushy. It wasn’t inspiring. It wasn’t magical. It didn’t make you want to rush about and frolic. It made you watch your step, lest you miss a patch of ice and become suddenly intimate with all that damp slush, now thoroughly mixed with mud and clay, that covered the village roads.
And it wasn’t just mud and clay on the roads. These roads are shared by people and horses pulling wagons. In all that slushy mush of horse droppings and mud you couldn’t really tell where one thing began and another left off. It was an eye-opening mess.
And as messy as it all was, I guarantee it was not nearly as dreary and slippery as the real deal would have been, because in 1830 there would have been far more horses about. To say nothing of cows, pigs, sheep and chickens going about their business on the farms.
I couldn’t imagine trying to cope with all of this in a long dress. No matter how careful you were, at some point during the day, it would drag on the ground. And you couldn’t be careful all the time as you would have been in a daily rush with chores to do and dinner to get. I also couldn’t imagine coping as a young mother (in a long dress) with toddlers running about the place. Toddlers are going to fall into the muck – repeatedly – because that’s what toddlers do.
I remember a trip to the Village with Moose’s father when he was about three. He stomped in every puddle he could find. He waded through the center of everything. And at the end of he day, with a beatific smile on his face, he announced: “Mud is my favorite department.” At least on this trip we had The Moose in a hiking backpack high up on his dad’s shoulders, away from all that temptation. And his dad, I am happy to say, even though he is free to walk where he will, has since moved on from his early love of the stuff.
In 1830, a young mother wouldn’t have had a hiking backpack. Nor would she have had running water, a washing machine or a drier. I now appreciate in a vivid way why in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Mary Musgrove complained about the damp, muddy dreariness of Uppercross during the winter, and why Lady Russell extolled the pavements of Bath. I get it – I can visualize it in a way I never quite did before.
And, since clear-eyed reality is no friend of romance, the romance of the ‘olden days’ and their lovely long skirts is now dead.
Far from being sad about this, it set me thinking: it doesn’t really matter how well-read, imaginative and empathetic you are. It doesn’t really matter how supposedly wonderful and life-like video games are, or how amazing virtual reality is. To truly understand and appreciate something, it takes a “real life” experience.
We’re made to live in the “real” world, the three-dimensional world of not only sight and sound, but also taste, touch and smell. And this is where places like Old Sturbridge are so valuable. Done well, they take an academic, one-dimensional understanding and transform it into something vivid and real.
I could end right here, but I have further short musing on how things change – and by that I don’t mean the changes over the last 180 years. I mean the short span of just over 50 years since my first visit to the village. A favorite aunt brought me (as she did all her nieces) and we dressed up for the occasion: she in a beautiful aquamarine silk and wool suit and I in a pale peach and yellow striped cotton dress (starched) with a sailor collar and sash. Also white patent leather Mary Janes and white ankle socks with lace trim. We were not overdressed or out of place.
The last time I took my granddaughters to the village, they wore leggings, a tee shirt and wellingtons. I wore jeans. We were not underdressed or out of place.
On that first visit we were able to sample the treats being baked in the fireplace at the Freeman farm and at the Salem Towne house. I believe it was gingerbread at the farm and sugar wafers at the Towne house.
Current ‘health and safety standards’ make it more difficult to get a taste of life 180 years ago. There are no more treats straight from the oven for visitors to enjoy. Fortunately, the damp and the chill, and the wood smoke are all still part of the experience. I regretted this no treats policy until a visit last autumn when a thick layer of flies covered everything on the farmhouse worktable. No amount of towel flapping could force the pests to retreat very far. Another eye-opening experience!
It was too cold for flies last weekend, which was a blessing. Instead we had the mud. What a trade-off! Truly, our great-great grandmothers had much to put up with. And how important to have a place like OSV to make us realize that.