Historical Reenactment Societies

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The area of historical reenactment has taken on many different forms since its beginnings in northern Europe in the 1890s. Historical reenactment, also known as living history, can be defined as the use of the fives senses as well as intellect and emotion to animate and provide an "historical experience" to the learner (Boardman, p. 1). The interest in historical reenactment and the degree of authenticity to which it is practiced appears to follow the public's interest in the anniversaries of historical events as well as the evolution of educational approaches through the history of the twentieth century. Historical reenactment provides the individual with a myriad of opportunities to explore his or her own sociocultural history, identity, and the experiences of one's ancestors along with many other personal benefits.

Development of Living History Organizations

The development of living history organizations in the United States can be traced to the promotion of handson learning by such people as Henry Ford with the founding of Greenfield Village, Michigan, in 1929, and the founders of the Witter Agricultural Museum at the New York State Fair in 1933. After World War II, these factors, coupled with the model provided by the northern European folk parks, led to the creation of new open-air museums in the United States such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

Often, when people think of living history organizations, they tend to think about those organizations that attempt to re-create military organizations of the past such as those who re-create units of the American War for Independence and the American Civil War. However, there is also a significant portion of "living historians" who eschew the grandiosity of many of the military battles to focus on the everyday experience of the common civilian throughout our history. One such organization that follows this philosophy is the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM). ALHFAM was founded in 1970 at Old Sturbridge Village as an outgrowth of the conversation and experimentation of the 1960s that suggested a need to organize a cooperative environment in which museums could communicate more effectively with people in disciplines such as education, history, agriculture, archaeology, and others, that had the potential to contribute to the living history process. ALHFAM has continued to develop and serve the public through the 1990s and early 2000s as an "organization of people who work to bring history to life" (Boardman, p. 2).

Military reenactment groups have followed a path of development similar to that of open-air museums. In the interests of safety, educational standards, and historic authenticity, military reenactment units typically are associated with umbrella organization such as the North-South Skirmish Association (NSSA). The NSSA was founded in 1950 to "commemorate the heroism of the men, of both sides, who fought in the American Civil War (1861–1865)," as well as to provide opportunities for its members to compete in the shooting of Civil War–era weapons. Coincidentally, this surge in popularity was associated with the upcoming centennial of the American Civil War and the popular interest in re-creating battles and events of this period.

The formation of the NSSA was an outgrowth of the resurgence in interest in the preservation of the craftsmanship and artistry of traditional muzzle-loading firearms, which resulted in the formation of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) in 1933. Another umbrella organization that provides standards for military reenactment units is the Brigade of the American Revolution (BAR). This national-level organization, founded in 1962, is an international organization dedicated to re-creating the life and times of the common soldiers of the American War for Independence. The BAR represents organizations and individuals that portray soldiers of all armies involved in the conflict, as well as civilian men, women, and children from all walks of life. The BAR has grown to include over 3,000 members enrolled in over 130 separate units.

Units, clubs, or groups that are affiliated with these umbrella organizations are held to the highest standards for authenticity related to their time period. An example of a typical BAR unit is the Second New York (recreated). Two New York families interested in American history founded the Second New York in late 1971. These two families started a living history association formed under the umbrella of the Brigade of the American Revolution and stated as their goal an organization "dedicated to educating its members and the public in the period of our War for Independence by portraying the life and times of the New York soldier during that cause." Organizations such as the Second New York often have very exacting standards for the authenticity of materials used by their members. The standards often dictate the types of cloth that can be used for clothing, the number of stitches that can be used per inch in their hand-sewn-only clothing, and the type of accoutrements and weapon that can be used.

An example of a nonmilitary living history club is La Compagnie des Hivernants de la Rivière Saint Pierre (The Company of the Winterers of the St. Peter's River). This club, also known as HSP, is a social and educational organization that was formed in 1978 to share information, knowledge, and experiences of the fur-trade era, by sponsoring events and activities that interpret and dramatize this period. HSP, as a club, strives to represent an accurate depiction of the French Canadian, British, and American employees of the fur-trading companies that once traveled the current boundaries between the United States and Canada. These depictions include engages—or indentured servants, clerks, and managers—as well as the families of these employees. While not military in nature, the standards set by this club are as high as any regimental military unit. The club expects that clothing and equipment, even food, be accurate to the time period that is being depicted at any one of the varieties of sites where they actively interpret.

Another organization that has a relatively long history in the United States, as well as internationally, is the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). This organization, founded in 1966, attempts to re-create medieval Europe and the days of chivalry through careful research into the customs and dress of the time. However, the SCA differs from other organizations that are tied more closely to American history in that the members of the SCA have literally "created" what they consider the "known world" as a basis for their current activities. The SCA participates heavily in the popular "Renaissance fairs" of today, as well as hosting events and mock battles that are open only to members.

Genesee Country Village and Museum

It is a cool summer morning in a typical Upstate New York village. The old Toll House sits quietly awaiting another day of traffic. A small gentleman dressed in light blue knickers, a sweater vest and a golf cap quickly wheels by on a high-wheeled bicycle. This scene, not out of the ordinary in 1892, is actually occurring 100 years later at the Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, New York.

A visitor at the Toll House called out to ask him how he gets off the bike. The rider immediately stopped the bike and skillfully stepped down and, after only a moment, he was up and peddling away.

Douglas Redmond, a grey-haired, handsome gentleman, takes pride in educating visitors on the particulars of his 1892 bicycle. During the weekdays, Doug works in the research and development department of a Buffalo, New York company. As Doug engaged the visitor in conversation about his love for bicycling back into history, he handed the visitor a brochure for a bicycle museum that he was endorsing. His interest in bicycles of the nineteenth century led him to people with similar interests. A couple with whom he had become friends started a small, but unique, pedaling history museum. This couple, like others he has come to know, also shares his love and interest in bicycles.

Why does Doug commute over an hour each way to ride his bicycle around the museum's village for five hours twice on a weekend? According to Doug, he loves blending into the landscape of this nineteenth century village. He can safely ride this classic bike in a quiet setting free from the sidewalks and traffic of today's busy neighborhood streets. As Doug pedals by, visitors stop in their tracks and point and look in amazement.

How does the museum compensate him? Doug says they offer him as many free tickets as he would like to return to the village. However, he says that he only takes two, for himself and his wife. He says that compensation is not the primary factor that brings him and others like him to historical settings. What Doug says is the most important factor to him, and others like him, is the camaraderie and the sense of place. Doug transports himself to a place where time has stood still. Here he is an active participant in a simpler time. A time where the pace was slow, hard work was the norm, and leisure time was treasured.

The time periods represented in living history are multitude. Time periods represented depend largely on individual interests, but as a rule are generally tied to the history of a geographic region. There is nothing to limit an interested individual in the continental United States from portraying a Roman soldier or classical Greek persona, but the opportunities for some of the benefits to the individual are more limited than the portrayal of a character that has a history closely tied to the geographic region.

Why Do People Do It?

There are many reasons reported regarding the motivations of individuals to participate in living history activities. Jay Anderson in the Living History Sourcebook proposes that many people are motivated by, surprisingly, fear to get involved with living history. In essence, when as children they visited historical sites, these static places—which appear to have been frozen in time—provoked in them fear; that fear can be a very alluring emotion. Another primary interest in living history is that of personal enjoyment resulting from the highly social atmosphere of the hobby. The camaraderie and inherent interdependence of many historical social settings remind us of a more simple time. As modern life becomes more complex, the popularity of experiencing it in terms that are more concrete provides allure to many living historians. A desire for familial closeness leads many families to engage in this activity together; in many cases, men, women, and children can equally contribute to the historical experience.

Another motivating factor in the decision to engage in living history as a hobby is a particular interest in one's family history or genealogy. Living history provides participants with exciting opportunities to delve into the experience of one's ancestors and to attempt to see the world through their eyes. By participating in living history, one can enhance the sense of place and time, which makes the oftentimes-dry family history come alive with all the senses. This "feeling" of history creates a connectedness with the past and engenders a deeper understanding as to possibly why we behave and do things the way we do.

Another allure of engagement in living history activity is the furthering of personal educational interests. An interest in a particular aspect of a time may lead individuals to portray characters to which that particular aspect applies. As an example, a person with an interest in primitive shooting sports may acquire a muzzle-loading musket and, as he or she pursues the sport, may develop an interest in how the weapon was used as a tool for defense or to provide food. This may lead the individual to seek out people with similar interests and become involved with a club that focuses on portraying the lives of people who would have used these tools in their daily lives. Then, rather than just shooting a muzzle-loading firearm at a paper target, the act of shooting becomes an action that has context and provides the individual with a deeper understanding of the historical importance of gun care, safety, efficiency, and so forth. The same example could be used for any number of historical implements from spinning wheels to canoes. The object becomes more than a dusty artifact with a label. It becomes a small part of a much larger picture and life.

Personal education is merely one aspect of the motivations for individuals to participate in living history activities. Another motivating factor is the desire to share with others one's knowledge and experience related to a particular historical time, place, or experience. This motivating factor often leads teachers to practice living history activities during time away from school as a means of achieving personal enjoyment as well as a means of honing skills that can be used in the classroom.

What Does Participation in Living History Entail?

Participation in living history activities involves various degrees of personal commitment depending on the motivations of the participant. At the most basic level, individuals join groups that focus more on the social aspect of the experience with a moderate to low level of focus on the actual authenticity of the portrayal. At the other end of the extreme, living history can become, for some, a way of life in which the participant never totally disengages from the hobby. Financial aspects of the involvement in living history are generally reflected by the level at which the participant engages. In the case of military-based living history, such as those involving re-created units of the American War for Independence or the American Civil War, the initial costs can be quite significant. The cost of obtaining uniforms, weapons, and accoutrements can run into the thousands of dollars. As an example, a generic Civil War reenactor without ties to a specific unit (which may have special requirements for equipment) may expect to pay approximately $800 to $1,000 for a musket, approximately $400 for a uniform, plus the costs of period correct shoes, accoutrements (belts, cartridge box, bayonet, head-wear, canteen, etc.), cooking implements, and a shelter.

That is not to say that the interested individual must have significant financial resources in order to be involved in living history. Those who have an interest in the everyday lives of our ancestors can be involved in re-creating civilian aspects of daily life. This area of interest can be much more affordable for the interested individual, especially if the individual has some of the skills necessary to create his or her own clothing and accoutrements. With adequate research, most of the clothing that one would need could be obtained for no more than the cost of needles and thread, appropriate cloth, and a pattern. In this case, the significant costs would be for headwear and correct shoes, and a "kit" could be put together for less than $300.

Chronology of Selected Living History Organizations in the United States

Resources for living history can be, at times, difficult to locate. Following is a sample list of umbrella organizations presented in chronological order of the dates in which they were founded. Additional information can be found through the sources listed in the bibliography and by using the titles of the organizations as keyword searches on the Internet.

  • • National Muzzleloading Rifle Association (NMLRA)—1933
  • • North-South Skirmish Association—1950
  • • Brigade of the American Revolution (BAR)—1962
  • • Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA)—1966
  • • The California Bounty Hunters—1967
  • • American Mountain Men—1968
  • • Association of Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM)—1970
  • • Northwest Department, Brigade of the American Revolution—1972
  • Northwest Territory Alliance—1974
  • • Great War Association—1976
  • World War II Historical Reenactment Society—1976
  • • American Living History Association—1980
  • • World War II Historical Federation—1980
  • • The Eighteenth Century Society—1981
  • • National Association of Primitive Riflemen—1983

Aside from the monetary commitment, the greatest resource demand on the individual is time. Much time must be devoted to research and interaction with others, as well as to traveling to and attending events. Many reenactors (with and without ties to a particular site) spend a great deal of time traveling from event to event. As an example, the 135th annual reenactment of the battle of Gettysburg, in July 1998, drew over 20,000 reenactors from California to Maine. Participating in living history can produce many benefits for the individual, and provide a host of opportunities for leisure experiences. Living history participation can be a lifelong leisure pursuit, is not limited by age or infirmity, and can be individually tailored to the skill and interest levels of the individual.

See also: Heritage Sites; Memorial Day; Wild West Shows


Alderson, William T., and Shirley Payne Low. Interpretation of Historic Sites. 2d edition. Nashville, Tenn.: Association for State and Local History, 1985.

Anderson, Jay. The Living History Sourcebook. Nashville, Tenn.: Association for State and Local History, 1985.

Association for Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums. "Living History Help." Available from http://www.alhfam.org.

Boardman, Kathryn. "Revisiting Living History: A Business, an Art, a Pleasure, an Education." Summary of panel discussion presented at the 1997 annual conference of the National Council on Public History. Available from http://www.alhfam.org.

Grinder, Alison L., and E. Sue McCoy. The Good Guide: A Sourcebook for Interpreters, Docents, and Tour Guides. Scottsdale, Ariz.: Ironwood Press, 1985.

Knudson, Douglas M., Ted T. Cable, and Larry Beck. Interpretation of Cultural and Natural Resources. State College, Pa.: Venture Publishing, 1995.

Lowenthal, David. The Past Is a Foreign Country. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Reid, D. "Research and Living History: Facing Challenges." Available from http://www.alhfam.org.

Roth, Stacy F. "Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation." Association for Living Historical Farms and Agricultural Museums. Available from http://www.users.voicenet.com/.

Second Battalion of Foot, New York Provincial Forces (1775). "Living History Since 1972." Available from http://members.aol.com/SecondNewYork.

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. 3d edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977.

James A. Newman

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Historical Reenactment Societies

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Historical Reenactment Societies