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.

Big Questions
What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding for the first time this year on Friday, March 23. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?


Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.


Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This story originally ran in 2017.

Big Questions
What Is Fair Trade?

What is fair trade?

Shannon Fisher:

Fair trade is a system of manufacturing and purchasing intended to:

1) level the economic playing field for underdeveloped nations; and

2) protect against human rights abuses in the Global South.

Fair trade farmers are guaranteed fair market prices for their crops, and farm workers are guaranteed a living wage, which means workers who farm fair trade products and ingredients are guaranteed to earn enough to support their families and comfortably live in their communities. There are rules against inhumane work practices. Fair trade farming organizations are monitored for a safe work environment, lack of discrimination, the freedom to organize, and strict adherence to child labor laws. Agrochemicals and GMOs are also forbidden. If these rules are not followed, a product will not receive fair trade certification.

The quality of life in many communities producing fair trade-certified goods is greatly improved. Sometimes, farming communities are given profit sharing from the companies that source their ingredients, and those profits go to improving the community as a whole—be it with a library, medical facilities, town infrastructure, or opening small businesses to support the residents. A major goal of fair trade is to help foster sustainable development around the globe. By helping farming communities in third-world countries, the economy of the entire region gets a boost.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.


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