What is “Historical Accuracy”?

Abstract (or TL;DR): An academic with living history experience muses on ideas of “historical accuracy”. True historical accuracy is impossible to achieve, but is an ideal to which one should aspire in living history museums, historical re-enactments, and historical dramas. “Accuracy” is not simply a matter of paying close attention details of costume or setting, and reconciling them with modern health & safety regulations, but also involves attempting to portray the more intangible aspects of the past.


Come on, guys, don’t you know that watermelon-headed fur traders didn’t start wearing Glengarry hats with beadwork like that until the late 1850s, not the mid-1840s? Do your research! (“M. Melondeau” in the Fort Edmonton Employee Break Room, summer 2011)

This will not be the last you hear from me on the subject of historical accuracy. The nebulous ideas of “historical accuracy” or “historical authenticity” are things that are often bandied about a lot in discussions of living history museums, historical re-enactments, and historical dramas. But what does it actually mean?

It’s not just as simple as avoiding the tell-tale square bulge of an iPhone in one’s apron pocket when portraying an Edwardian maid, not having late Victorian gentlemen sporting aviator sunglasses, or eschewing the use of late twentieth century slang in a nineteenth-century fur trading fort. Let’s get this out of the way straight off: it is impossible to be entirely historically accurate. Full stop. It is an ideal to strive towards, but is never entirely attainable. We do not live in the past. We have (unfortunately) not yet acquired the ability to travel in time. Much ink has been spilled by historians in past decades, and they have generally come to the consensus that we cannot know everything about the past, let alone translate that to writing and then costumed interpretation or re-enactment. (“History is all a construct!” is one of the catchphrases among the Public History MAs at Carleton University, an exclamation which is often accompanied by us throwing our hands up in the air in despair.) However, simply because the “perfection” of complete historical accuracy is physically unattainable doesn’t mean we should just pack in our bonnets and petticoats and give up. What an interpreter can do is provide the veneer of “historical accuracy”: something that doesn’t break one’s “historic bubble” unnecessarily. That means, on a most basic level, avoiding jarring anachronisms in dress, speech, and behaviour, and doing one’s best based on the information available. (Be prepared to do a lot of reading, and get a lot of practical experience in historical skills.)

Some exceptions are made, of course, as I would always tell visitors who enjoyed pointing out, say, the fire extinguisher hidden behind the door next to the wood burning stove. (“Hey, is that supposed to be there? I’m not sure that they had these in 1920!” they would say with a wink as they waited for me to finish baking a saskatoonberry pie.) I will always flat-out tell them that safety of course trumps historical accuracy at all times. I also portrayed a nurse, a veteran of the Great War: would you rather I used my twenty-first century First Aid training, certified by the Red Cross, in a medical emergency in the park, or the historical skills I’ve learned about in the course of my research, in the name of historical accuracy? Can you actually require interpreters at your museum to wear corsetry, or to abandon their inaccurate glasses? In the example of the fire extinguisher, I like to use the (often mocking) comment made by visitors as an entry point into discussions of fire safety in the early twentieth century, and I often surprise my audience by then talking about the surprisingly long (though not so surprising, if you think about it deeply) history of fire extinguishers. As an interpreter, I always liked to make everything into some kind of learning experience for the visitor. I don’t respond to sarcasm with snark, but with interesting historical facts! So yes, while we wouldn’t have had an extinguisher like this modern one in this particular farm in the 1920s, it isn’t difficult to imagine a surprisingly similar one in its place. Though its primary function isn’t an interpretive tool, but an adhesion to modern fire safety laws, the idea of having a fire extinguisher there is “accurate” (or at least not inconceivable). However, its modern appearance means that most people would view it as “historically inaccurate”.

Often, I feel “inaccuracies” are most often jarring,and easy for a critic to identify, when they are physical, tangible objects, like those fire extinguishers. Historians and history enthusiasts revel in pointing out little inaccurate details, such as the use of what look to be late Victorian boots in the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, or any number of aspects of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: most notably, cursed zombie pirates. Costume details are very visible and fascinating to analyze and debate. Is it “typical” of the time period, or even possible for them to have? Is the silk print of that dress, or the cut of that coat, “accurate” to the time period, based on the sources we have? How dirty were people, really, in the past, and so how much dirt should be on my skin to “accurately” portray a medieval peasant? And, most importantly for re-enactors and costumed interpreters: what about the smell?

It’s the less tangible things, like beliefs and inner motivations, that are more difficult to portray on screen or in person. How to you act out the deference of a servant to their employer? How do you explain the goals of early twentieth century women’s suffrage activists without colouring your interpretation with knowledge of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s? Yes, some (but not all!) corsets may have been uncomfortable, but would they have gone on about it as much as they like to do in movies? (Having worn a corset for extended periods of time while in costume, and knowing what I do about etiquette and the strict avoidance of drawing attention to bodily functions, I’m going to hazard a guess and say that no, they didn’t whine nearly as much.)  “Inaccuracies” in the discourse of a time period are really what I now notice in films.

Take, for example, the character of the obligatory-sassy-heterosexual-love-interest in A Knight’s Tale. (Caveat: this film uses anachronisms in a very self-conscious and often effective way. Click here for a defense of the anachronisms in the film.) This character grated on me for several reasons. Many of this character’s scenes involved mocking 1970s-style critiques of women’s gender roles in medieval French society. Would an historical figure even conceive of mocking them in this way? We don’t know! But it “sounds” very wrong to me, and overall rings “untrue” in a way that many other anachronisms in the film didn’t. This was also coupled with the really, really odd modernist costume choices for that particular character. This type of costuming makes me shake my fist at the sky, considering how many other gorgeous and more “accurate” choices they could have made for the time period! (See: so many good examples from art history.) Though I am admittedly no expert in medieval French fashion, in none but the broadest strokes do they even vaguely resemble the fabric, cut or style as laid out in books like Le Costume français. These aspects of the film do double-duty to annoy my historian’s sensibilities. Anyway, in summary: good film in terms of plot and most of the characters, though full of deliberate inaccuracies (many of which are successful in achieving a specific cinematic purpose, and that I found quite entertaining). However, I couldn’t get over that one character, her attitude, and her costume, which rang so “false” to me. Much of my vehemently negative response to that one character was an emotional one which came out of my reaction to the perceived historical “inaccuracies” of her character. She was embodying a modernist mocking tone I hear too often – everything about the character was designed in my eyes to show how “backward” and “stupid” they were in the past, which is a dangerous path to take. I am fully aware that many may disagree with me on this point. The film may have been satirizing historical dramas, but I seriously couldn’t get over this character.

(Edit, because I feel it needs clarification: in particular, what bothers me about characters like this one in other “historical” films is that many audience members would consider female characters whining about corsetry and other restrictions on women in general as “historically accurate.” I do use the word “whining” very consciously to describe how these characters are written. Post-1970s-style critical impressions of how women should dress and act are often applied to earlier time periods in these historical dramas but are not considered jarringly anachronistic, though they are. Women had other forms of resistance and critiques of their places in the world in earlier time periods; they had different priorities than the feminist goals of the 1970s, and the former should not be forgotten. So many historical dramas seem to just pay lip service to restrictions women lived under, summarizing them with characters expressing brief annoyance at not being able to do something “because you’re a girl” or complaining about how tight corsets are or how annoying their petticoats can get if they’re trying to do their “action girl” thing. There are far more interesting historical gender issues that could be employed by writers and limiting their “feminist critique” of the time period in these characters to shallow pronouncements about how uncomfortable historical clothing styles are is shallow and, I believe, lazy writing. So unless your character is forced for some reason to tight lace (and most women didn’t), please stop complaining about corsets – these women had bigger fish to fry!)

In complete contrast, I am going to profess my love for Downton Abbey in at least trying to get some of the attitudes “historically accurate” to the time period… in addition to their glorious costuming achievements. Some reviewers have derided the story line in Series One in which Gwen, a housemaid, has ambitions to become a secretary. This is a very modest goal by modern standards, but to her, in that specific time and place, it was almost insurmountable. It was also entirely believable for the time period they were portraying. You can’t have everyone bucking the patriarchy in historical dramas; by dismissing the modest goals of characters like Gwen the Aspiring Secretary and insisting that they should be worrying about, say, the right of women to vote or not wear a corset, you also dismiss the experiences of all of the awesome ladies who have had to live, historically, under what we today consider oppressive conditions. Do you have to espouse post-1970s feminist rhetoric to be considered a strong woman, particularly in historical interpretation? No. (I will likely expand on this in a later blog post.)

Downton Abbey’s actors also pay close attention to etiquette, posture, and behaviour which is still relatively rare in costume dramas and even many costumed re-enactments. The series isn’t perfect, and it isn’t “history”. Of course the plot requires some stretching of historical events, and the series does like to “name drop” historical events and people quite often; I’m looking at you, Lord Grantham, with your casual mention of Ponzie schemes! Nevertheless, overall, in my opinion, the series does an excellent job at striving towards “historical authenticity”, especially in comparison with many others.

I have so many more thoughts – and feelings – on “historical accuracy.” In fact, I probably should be more careful with my terms and distinguish between “authenticity” (which is a real buzzword in the field of public history) and “accuracy”. I have a feeling that “accuracy” can be applied in a much more scientifically “objective” way, and that “authenticity” has more to do with discourse and subjective interpretation, but there must be more to it than that… Does anybody have any thoughts or reading lists on the subject? Regardless, this post is not the final word on the subject (though I would of course be flattered were it considered to be so). Consider it my first foray into musing on the subject.

(Apologies, as well, to those who would draw a sharp distinction between what people in costume do in living history museums, historical dramas, and historical re-enactments. There was some slippage in terminology. However, I defend this take because they are all concerned with notions of “historical accuracy”.)

Now I’d best get back to my knitting. By which I of course mean the research and writing of term papers.

Big Long Disclaimer: the authority I perceive myself to have on this subject comes from several different places. I write as someone who worked for the past four years at Fort Edmonton Park, a living history museum in, you guessed it, Edmonton, Alberta, which portrays four different time periods. I worked on 1920s street and in the 1846 fur trade fort. I am not currently employed there, due to internship requirements in my current course of study, but I hope to go back in the future. In addition to this practical experience in costumed historical interpretation, I am currently pursuing a Master’s in Public History at Carleton University in Ottawa, which is where I have been learning a lot of my theory. I am also a fan of historical dramas and have done extensive reading online on the subject of historical interpretation (as you are likely doing, dear reader). In short: I have worked as a paid employee of a living history museum and have done a lot of deep thinking, research, and writing on the subject in a specialized program at the Master’s level. I have not been involved historical re-enactments, though I would love to be someday, and I am not involved in any historical costumed dramas (yet). My ideas come from a very specific set of experiences and academic background. Feel free to engage in friendly debate, particularly if you have a different set of background experiences in the field! Verbal fisticuffs only, please.

Terminology used:

  • Interpreter: (often accompanied by the words “costumed historical”): my former job title at Fort Edmonton, the living history museum. We were/are people who “interpret” history to the public. We are not re-enactors, who of course have their own definitions of what they are and what they do – I do not profess to speak for them. Our main goal as costumed interpreters is to interpret/teach aspects of the past to visitors in the present. By using this term, we acknowledge that what we are saying and doing is only one possible idea of the past, and not objective historical “Truth” with a capital T (which, as many attest, is impossible to achieve or nonexistent).
  • Public History: roughly, interpreting/presenting history to the public, as seen in museums, archives, documentaries, and many other mediums. There are only a handful of Public History programs in North America and beyond (there’s a conference here in Ottawa in a few weeks which I am very excited to attend!), and everyone defines it slightly differently. The Carleton Centre For Public History will soon be coming out with a series of podcasts on the subject (I performed one of the interviews), which will likely be linked here on the blog when they do come out.

Related Posts on Costumed Historical Interpretation – Coming Soon (or soon-ish):

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12 Responses to What is “Historical Accuracy”?

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  6. Lily says:

    so if I am talking about accuracy do I need to find other sources which match up with the dates in the representation I am using

  7. Leila says:

    Great article! Lately I have gotten into thinking about historical attitudes and behaviour, and how different they were from our present-day ways of thinking, especially when it comes to our hyper-independent and individualistic attitudes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but 19th century and early 20th century people had more a sense of “duty” and responsibility and doing what is right than we do today, no? Today it is popular to say “do what makes you happy” but that it is a relatively recent philosophy isn’t it?
    All that to say that I find it jarring when female characters portrayed in 19th century and early 20th century roles have present-day feminist ideas and they talk boldly and loudly about it, and openly flirt with men and tease them and touch them in ways that I think would have been scandalous for the time period. Have you ever noticed that? What do you think about that? Have you ever read the semi-fictional biographical series of books about the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder? In those books it showed some girls as being rather bold flirts (with older men!!) and I was surprised, but it was also shown as being shocking, and her parents heartily disapproved. I also remember this one part in the Little House on the Prairie books when Laura reminds herself that “a lady never draws attention to herself in public”. It is just so different from how we think today!
    There’s my 2 cents haha.
    PS: if you ever watched ” When Calls the Heart” I think you would die of “historical inaccuracy”.

    • lamarkewicz says:

      It depends. It’s hard to say what people thought. Certainly, people seemed to talk and act upon a sense of “duty” quite often – duty to one’s country, to one’s family, etc. That being said, that impulse still exists today, but perhaps we don’t harp on it as much. I find the history of etiquette fascinating because while some things we seem to have done away with entirely, many things are unchanged. Certainly people in Western societies were much more highly regimented in terms of social classes in the past.

      “Do what makes you happy” I think originates with the radical notion in the American Declaration of Independence – “all men were created with certain unalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That last one was apparently a super radical notion at the time. Perhaps the idea didn’t originate with the writers of that document, but Americans have taken that idea and have run with it, and many other people since have sat up and thought it’s a good idea too.

      I also find it jarring when filmmakers directly impose 20th and 21st century feminist ideals onto characters in historical films. I think that the stories of women under the limitations that they actually lived under are fascinating and undertold. I totally did watch part of the first episode of “When Calls the Hart” and at first I was like, okay, I can get behind this… and then she was an absolutely helpless women disgusted at outhouses and incapable of safely handling a wood burning stove and I’m like BUT SHE’S FROM THE SAME TIME PERIOD IN TORONTO. TORONTO DIDN’T HAVE MANY FLUSH TOILETS EITHER. Why can’t we have female characters who are strong of will within the paradigms of the period and not have a flakey 21st century helpless young woman stereotype??

      I’m not saying that everything about the past was great – in so many ways, rigid gender roles harmed women. Women couldn’t give speeches in public, for instance – as you say, drawing attention to yourself was whorish. That being said, there were so many women who both worked within and cleverly defied the conventions of their day and those stories should be told with a mind to the context in which they originated. Sometimes that context makes their actions all the more admirable and amazing because of how many limitations these women worked under.

      • lamarkewicz says:

        Also: pet peeve of mine – complaining about corsets. It was underwear! People didn’t know any better! They’re not too bad as long as you don’t tight lace, and let’s be real, very few women did! Also, it was considered vulgar to draw attention to bodily functions. Don’t complain about the corset! Also, there’s tons of evidence that the anti-corset league was led by men, particularly male doctors, who argued that corsets interfered with women being baby-making machines, as god intended.

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