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Melinda Hughes-Berland
Melinda Hughes-Berland

13 Secrets of Historical Reenactors

Melinda Hughes-Berland
Melinda Hughes-Berland

While time travel might be impossible (so far), historical reenactors say their hobby is the next best thing. But what’s it really like to take part in a Revolutionary War battle or to live in a Viking village? How—or why—does one get started as a reenactor? And really, aren’t those shoes uncomfortable? Mental_floss spoke with several historical reenactors to get their insights on what it's like to bring history to life.

1. THEY’RE OFTEN JUST REGULAR PEOPLE—IN CHAIN MAIL.

While some historic reenactors are paid museum employees or professional historians, the majority are people with regular jobs who got inspired by a particular period in history. Some say they got hooked visiting a reenactment village, while others describe a more surprising inspiration. Benjamin Bartgis, a Maryland-based reenactor who specializes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, says it was reading the My Name Is America historic novels in elementary school that got him interested. Jack Garrett, founder of the California-based group the Vikings of Bjornstad, says that for him it was the 1958 movie The Vikingsplus a curiosity about what it would feel like to wear chainmail.

2. IT’S NOT JUST DUDES DOING BATTLE SCENES.

One common assumption about historical reenacting is that it mainly consists of people (usually men) recreating specific battles from history. And while battle reenactments are popular, many reenactors are equally passionate about portraying daily activities. Historic villages, like Colonial Williamsburg, and events like the Jane Austen Festival in Kentucky often showcase reenactors carrying out historic trades, such as cooking, tailoring, and blacksmithing, as well as going about other ordinary aspects of daily life. Such “everyday” reenactments may become even more popular in the future: “Millennials are more interested in everyday life and civilian portrayals” compared to older generations, Bartgis says.

3. THEY DON’T WEAR “COSTUMES.”

Some reenactors will bristle if you call what they’re wearing a “costume.” They refer to the clothing and other physical gear needed to create a historical persona as a “kit,” and lavish a lot of time and labor on making their kits as accurate as possible. Period-appropriate, handmade clothing can also get very expensive, with specialty items such as coats and shoes starting at several hundred dollars.

4. EVEN HISTORICAL REENACTMENT IS SUBJECT TO TRENDS.

As with a lot of things, pop culture influences which reenactment eras and activities are popular at any given moment. The release of a smash book, movie, or video game can cause a surge in popularity; WWI and WWII video games have particularly boosted reenactments of those eras in the past few years. Historical anniversaries—like key dates in the Civil War or American Revolution—can also spark a flurry of renewed interest and commemorations.

5. THEY HONE HISTORICAL SKILLS.

Jack Garrett

It’s not just about dressing the part: Reenactors also practice the skills of an earlier era. Albert Roberts, a reenactor who portrays physicians in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, jokes that when he began he didn’t have any practical 18th century skills at all. “I couldn’t hunt, I couldn’t fish, I couldn’t soldier, I couldn’t ride horses, I couldn’t blacksmith, I couldn’t carpenter, I couldn’t birth babies,” he says, “so I had no value.” But after assisting, and then taking over, for the doctor at historic Mansker’s Station in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, he now has a deep knowledge of old medical techniques.

Bartgis, in addition to mastering Colonial penmanship and bookbinding for his 18th century persona, also has a basic grasp of sailing skills for his work with Ship’s Company, a living history organization dedicated to preserving late 18th and early 19th century maritime history.

Plus, many reenactors also have significant craft skills. Garrett notes that his group crafts most of their Viking gear, aside from speciality items like helmets. They even created their own Viking treasure hoard by molding and casting ancient coins.

6. THEY ARE HISTORIANS.

Most reenactors spend countless hours delving into the history of their preferred era and becoming knowledgeable specialists. Steve Santucci, the adjutant (military secretary) for Revolutionary War group the 2nd New Jersey Regiment, tells mental_floss: “the amount of time spent on the field is quadrupled by the time we spend researching.” He refers to the battles themselves, which are fought as much as possible in the same places they originally occurred, as “walking in the footsteps of history.”

But while reenactors pride themselves on their scholarship, there can be some guesswork involved, especially for particularly ancient or less well-documented eras. Garrett (whose own library numbers 700 volumes) says researching 9th through 11th century Vikings often requires testing equipment and theories in order to connect random dots. “A good deal of what we do is what we call ‘experimental archaeology,’” he says, explaining that he will often take information from archaeological sources—like ancient carvings depicting Vikings carrying their swords a particular way—and test it out.

7. THEY GET ASKED SILLY QUESTIONS.

Members of the public seem to love to ask reenactors the same kinds of questions. Among the queries they get tired of hearing: “Are you going to eat that?” (referring to food they’re cooking); “Aren’t you hot?” (referring to period clothing); and “Is that real fire?” (this one seems hard to explain). And inevitably there’s the smart aleck school kid who will ask where they’re hiding their TV.

8. THEY LIKE TO SHARE THEIR KNOWLEDGE.

Jack Garrett

Bartgis is quick to say that educating the public is one of the best things about being a reenactor. “As much as we like to make fun of questions like [the above], they’re all valid,” Roberts adds. “We’ve done all this research so we’ll have this knowledge that we can pass on to the public.”

Garrett agrees. “It’s very rewarding,” he says. “Nothing makes you feel better about doing this than the smile of someone who may have a different understanding of history.” For instance, he particularly enjoys combating the image of Vikings as “wild, uncouth barbarians intent only on rape, pillage, and slaughter.”

“Without sugar-coating the realities of the Viking age, we try to put that in the context of their times and overlay the image with descriptions of their art, culture, religion and technology,” he explains. “What’s the most common artifact found buried with Vikings? A comb.”

9. THEY DON’T ALWAYS REENACT FOR THE PUBLIC.

As much as they like interacting with the public, reenactors will sometimes stage separate events for themselves. Bartgis describes taking part in a 15-mile overnight march in single digit temperatures as part of a reenactment of the 1777 Occupation of the Jerseys (part of the Revolutionary War). Besides the reenactors’ own enjoyment, the immersive event was staged for museum educators and professionals to enhance their understanding.

But sometimes reenactors will plan private events just for fun. Garrett’s Bjornstad crew convenes with other Viking reenactment groups at a twice-yearly feast held at a historically accurate longfort in Missouri.

10. IT CAN GET CLIQUE-Y.

Asked about the worst part of reenacting, Roberts says it’s the cliques. Reenactors often split themselves up according to their degree of commitment to accuracy and in opposition to the much-maligned, less accurate “farbs” (sometimes said to stand for “far be it from authentic”). Likewise, some professionals working at museums and historic villages take offense as being called “reenactors,” preferring instead the term “living historians.”

“The thing is, if you don’t encourage and educate the farbs, your hobby dies,” Roberts says, noting the need to educate new blood.

11. THEY MIGHT WEAR BREECHES TO THE GROCERY STORE.

“You really know that you’re a reenactor when your reenactor clothes make their way into your modern wardrobe,” Roberts says, explaining that he once wore his 18th century stockings to school, under his pants, because he had no clean socks. “Nobody knew but me, but I was like ‘I may have a legitimate problem.’”

“If you do this for a while,” Bartgis adds, “you end up going and doing grocery shopping in your old-timey clothes ... or putting gas in your car while wearing breeches and stockings and a wig.” He also says that he and his partner have flown on a plane in their kits, and sometimes ended up in a bar kitted up after an event—to the delight of the bartender and patrons.

12. IT’S A CHANCE TO ESCAPE THE EVERYDAY.

Reenactors say they love the chance their hobby offers to get out of the daily grind. Bartgis says the many magic moments he’s experienced are exemplified by “working with a bunch of people to haul a cannon up a hill, while someone is singing a work song, and you’re all pulling together—or coming together on a sail boat that’s under a full press of sail.”

According to Garrett, “The thing that connects all of us is that for a moment it’s nice to get out of traffic and the normal day to day stuff that we all deal with, and just do something different.

13. THEY DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN THE PAST.

Most reenactors, while drawn to the past, are happy enough to be living in the modern era. Asked if they’d like to live in the time periods they reenact, the answer is typically a resounding “No!”

“Intestinal parasites and fleas,” says Garrett. “Dysentery and smallpox,” says Santucci. “I like my modern medicine,” says Roberts.

However, Bartgis notes that while studying the past has made him more appreciative of the present, he’s also been able to recognize that many other things have not changed much. “People have been arguing about what kind of country this country should be since the Revolution,” he says. Also, “people have been struggling to make ends meet for a really long time.” He adds that his perspective on the tenuousness of life in the past has given him “a lot of perspective about how we take modern stability for granted.”

All images via Getty except where noted.

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Christine Colby
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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of TV Meteorologists
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The first weather forecast to hit national network television was given in 1949 by legendary weatherman Clint Youle. To illustrate weather systems, Youle covered a paper map of the U.S. in plexiglass and drew on it with a marker. A lot has changed in the world of meteorology since then, but every day, millions of families invite their local weatherman or weatherwoman into their living room to hear the forecast. Here are a few things you might not know about being a TV meteorologist.

1. SOME PEOPLE JUST NEVER MASTER THE GREEN SCREEN.

A view of a meteorologist as seen on-screen and in the studio against a green screen
iStock

On-camera meteorologists might look as if they’re standing in front of a moving weather map, but in reality, there’s nothing except a blank green wall behind them. Thanks to the wonders of special effects, a digital map can be superimposed onto the green screen for viewers at home. TV monitors situated just off-camera show the meteorologist what viewers at home are seeing, which is how he or she knows where to stand and point. It’s harder than it looks, and for some rookie meteorologists, the learning curve can be steep.

“Some people never learn it,” says Gary England, legendary weatherman and former chief meteorologist for Oklahoma’s KWTV (England was also the first person to use Doppler radar to warn viewers about incoming systems). “For some it comes easily, but I’ve seen people never get used to it.”

Stephanie Abrams, meteorologist and co-host of The Weather Channel’s AMHQ, credits her green screen skills to long hours spent playing Nintendo and tennis as a kid. “You’ve gotta have good hand-eye coordination,” she says.

2. THEY HAVE A STRICT DRESS CODE.

Green is out of the question for on-air meteorologists, unless they want to blend into the map, but the list of prohibited wardrobe items doesn’t stop there. “Distracting prints are a no-no,” Jennifer Myers, Dallas-based meteorologist for KDFW FOX 4 writes on Reddit. “Cleavage angers viewers over 40 something fierce, so we stay away from that. There's no length rule on skirts/dresses but if you wouldn't wear it to a family event, you probably shouldn't wear it on TV. Nothing reflective. Nothing that makes sound.”

Myers says she has enough dresses to go five weeks without having to wear a dress twice. But all the limitations can make it difficult to find work attire that’s fashionable, looks good on-screen, and affordable. This is especially true for women, which is why when they find a garment that works, word spreads quickly. For example, this dress, which sold for $23 on Amazon, was shared in a private Facebook group for female meteorologists and quickly sold out in every color but green.

3. BUT IT’S CASUAL BELOW THE KNEE.

Since their feet rarely appear on camera, some meteorologists take to wearing casual, comfortable footwear, especially on long days. For example, England told the New York Times that during storm season, he was often on his feet for 12 straight hours. So, “he wears Mizuno running shoes, which look ridiculous with his suit and tie but provide a bit of extra cushioning,” Sam Anderson writes.

And occasionally female meteorologists will strap their mic pack to their calves or thighs rather than the more unpleasant option of stuffing it into their waistband or strapping it onto their bra.

4. THERE ARE TRICKS TO STAYING WARM IN A SNOWSTORM.

A young TV weatherperson in a snowy scene
iStock

“In the field when I’m covering snow storms, I go to any pharmacy and get those back patches people wear, those heat wraps, and stick them all over my body,” explains Abrams. “Then I put on a wet suit. When you’re out for as long as we are, that helps you stay dry. I have to be really hot when I go out for winter storms.”

5. THERE’S NO SCRIPT.

Your local TV weather forecaster is ad-libbing from start to finish. “Our scripts are the graphics we create,” says Jacob Wycoff, a meteorologist with Western Mass News. “Generally speaking we’re using the graphics to talk through our stories, but everything we say is ad-libbed. Sometimes you can fumble the words you want to say, and sometimes you may miss a beat, but I think what that allows you to do is have a little off-the-cuff moment, which I think the viewers enjoy.”

6. MOM’S THE AUDIENCE.

Part of a meteorologist’s job is to break down very complicated scientific terminology and phenomena into something the general public can not only stomach, but crave. “The trick is … to approach the weather as if you're telling a story: Who are the main actors? Where is the conflict? What happens next?” explains Bob Henson, a Weather Underground meteorologist. “Along the way, you have the opportunity to do a bit of teaching. Weathercasters are often the only scientists that a member of the public will encounter on a regular basis on TV.”

Wycoff’s method for keeping it simple is to pretend like he’s having a conversation with his mom. “I’d pretend like I was giving her the forecast,” he says. “If my mom could understand it, I felt confident the general audience could as well. Part of that is also not using completely science-y terms that go over your audience’s head.”

7. SOCIAL MEDIA HAS MADE THEIR JOBS MORE DIFFICULT.

Professional meteorologists spend a lot of time debunking bogus forecasts spreading like wildfire across Twitter. “We have a lot of social media meteorologists that don’t have necessarily the background or training to create great forecasts,” Wycoff says. “We have to educate our viewers that they should know the source they’re getting information from.”

“People think it’s as easy as reading a chart,” says Scott Sistek, a meteorologist and weather blogger for KOMO TV in Seattle. “A lot of armchair meteorologists at home can look at a chart and go ok, half an inch of rain. But we take the public front when it’s wrong.”

8. THEY MAKE LIFE-OR-DEATH DECISIONS.

A meteorologist forecasting a hurricane
iStock

People plan their lives around the weather forecast, and when a storm rolls in, locals look to their meteorologist for guidance on what to do. If he or she gets the path of a tornado wrong, or downplays its severity, people’s lives are in danger. “If you miss a severe weather forecast and someone’s out on the ball field and gets stuck, someone could get injured,” says Wycoff. “It is a great responsibility that we have.”

Conversely, England says when things get dangerous, some people are reluctant to listen to a forecaster’s advice because they don’t like being told what to do. He relies on a little bit of psychological maneuvering to get people to take cover. “You suggest, you don’t tell,” he says. “You issue instructions but in a way where they feel like they’re making up their own minds.”

9. DON’T BANK ON THOSE SEVEN-DAY FORECASTS.

“I would say that within three days, meteorologists are about 90 percent accurate,” Wycoff says. “Then at five days we’re at about 60 percent to 75 percent and then after seven days it becomes a bit more wishy-washy.”

10. THEY’RE FRENEMIES.

The competition for viewers is fierce, and local meteorologists are all rivals in the same race. “When you’re in TV, all meteorologists at other competitors are the enemy,” England says. “You’re not good friends with them. They try to steal the shoes off your children and food off your plate. If they get higher ratings, they get more money.”

11. THEY’RE TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME JOKE OVER AND OVER.

“There’s always the running joke: ‘I wish I could be paid a million dollars to be wrong 80 percent of the time,’” Sistek says. “I wanted to have a contest for who can come up with the best weatherman insult, because we need something new! Let’s get creative here.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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