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Where Do Historical Reenactors Get Their Gear?

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. With all eyes on America’s historic battlegrounds, it’s going to be a big year for sutlers, too.

Sutlers, historically, were civilian merchants who sold supplies to armies in the field and in their camps. They often followed marching soldiers across long distances, selling merchandise out of the back of a wagon. We still have merchants like this today—the defense contractors who supply the military with state-of-the-art equipment.

But there are also a handful of modern sutlers selling the same rifles, ammo and tobacco that they might have sold in the 1860s. Only these days they do it on a website instead of a field camp, and the shots and soldiers aren’t real.

When interest in the Civil War and reenacting bloomed during the war’s centennial in the early 1960s, entrepreneurs saw a need and filled it. Today, there are an estimated 50,000 historical war reenactors in the U.S., and a cottage industry of modern sutlers keep them – Union and Confederacy alike – supplied with the guns, uniforms and other gear they need.

In the American reenactment scene – which you might say was born on the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, when septuagenarian veterans from both the Confederacy and the Union returned to the battlefield to wave their canes at each other in a reenactment of Pickett's Charge – authenticity is a tricky thing.

While some groups and events are more strict about authenticity than others, most will attempt to at least conceal inauthentic items (water bottles, cell phones) from their audience and maintain gear that looks authentic from the distance where the audience usually stands.

No Knockoffs

The hardcore reenactors will only consider items with documented historical use during a given period. That's where the real money is for sutlers. These reenactors have been known to seek out subpar dental care, starve themselves, and soak their uniform buttons in urine in order to look just like Civil War-era infantrymen. They’re willing to pay extra for hand-woven, naturally dyed uniforms, period-accurate rifles, and even vintage pencils for taking notes and writing letters during their downtime at camp.

With a standard Civil War wardrobe and accessory kit retailing for about $1,000 and a rifle going for another grand, sutlers' business should be pretty good this year.

When business is a little slow with the reenactors, historic gear merchants still have other customers to keep the money flowing. Historic sites, museums and movie and television producers often call on them to create replicas of historic items for use and display. Some sutlers, like The Discriminating General — which American Spirit calls one of the big three companies cornering the reenactment gear market in the U.S. — also perform historical research and consulting services to museums, historic sites, and even private collectors and history buffs.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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