Sexism at Historic Sites: Should Women in Historical Costume Blacksmith?

It should not be too surprising for you to learn that sexism is present in historical parks. I mean, sexism is still present in 2013, shockingly enough. However, when your job as a costumed historical interpreter is to portray a woman in a time period before the emergence of the feminist movement in the mid-twentieth century, you will likely encounter a certain amount of sexism, inherent in the part, particularly when it comes to portraying women’s roles, women’s etiquette, and the treatment of women by men. The extent to which various historical parks insist upon their staff matching their behaviour to historical roles differs, but in many cases obvious portrayals of historical sexism is a given: e.g., female interpreters (doing first person interpretation, anyway) will not speak publicly as often as men, will more often be found “at home” or “on the farm” than in a workplace (though not always), will often be discouraged from walking the street without a male escort, and so on. Male interpreters may make disparaging remarks about a woman’s place in front of visitors, women may be required to do certain tasks that men wouldn’t do (e.g., serving food or cleaning up if they are visible to visitors), etc. Even programs involving, say, interpreters marching in support of women’s suffrage may also involve some costumed anti-suffrage “protesters”. 

However, in these cases, these actions are generally expected and, well, forgivable, as the people in costume are essentially actors playing a role. Agreeing to work in a living history museum generally means that those in costume knew what they were signing up for, and most parties know that what’s said in costume when in front of visitors is not a true expression of one’s opinion of a women’s place in the world. In fact, by portraying historical instances of gender inequality, costumed interpreters hope that they can educate visitors on the origins of sexism today and can unpack and even debunk concepts like “traditional womanhood”. (“Women have always worked outside of the home! No, I’m not going to wait for my husband to come home to chop this firewood. Hand me that ax.”) Addressed in a conscious manner, portrayals of historic examples of sexism society should be used to educate visitors, not make cheap jokes at the expense of women. 

This woman isn't oppressed enough, judging by this man's expression! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, Summer 2011.
This woman isn’t oppressed enough, judging by this man’s expression! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, Summer 2011.

Most of the male interpreters I have known, despite the act they put on in front of visitors, are some of the most progressive feminist allies I know. I have worked with colleagues who have felt bad about the “show” they put on for visitors and do all they can to make it up to us. For instance, after I served the gentlemen their tea (in my position as a lowly maid in the fort) for a program for the benefit of visitors, these men would make a point of rolling up their sleeves and doing all of the washing up in the employee-only areas, out of sight of visitors who may question why Fort Edmonton’s Chief Trader or Chief Factor was doing the dishes while the maid put her feet up. While the line between sexism as an act for the benefit of the audience and everyday sexism as encountered in the workplace can be a fine one that is crossed at times – even if it is an act, the psychological effects can still be similar – most male interpreters are conscious of these gender issues and try to make it clear that the historical views of a woman’s place are not their own. Having a respectful workplace is important, even when your workplace involves portraying historical examples of disrespect.

However, aside from the expected performance of historical sexism for the benefit and education of the visitor, there are other forms of sexism at play in historical parks. Namely: can or should female interpreters take on male roles, up to and including portraying men or performing historically male tasks? These issues are particularly important when it comes to positions that are considered prestigious, especially when it comes to job training and acquired skills. For example, at historical military forts such as Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, or the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where a great many interpreters are in military positions, is it acceptable to have a female interpreter don a man’s uniform and portray a man? I have heard that in some Civil War re-enactment circles there is some controversy over women wanting to participate more fully than in the “camp follower” or “nursing” positions. Need they limit themselves only to historical women soldiers who dressed up as men to fight for the cause? Or do too many people invoke the nebulous “it’s not historically accurate” “rule”? I’d welcome an inside view, from both the visitors and the men and women in costume! (Side note: one MA student at Carleton this year is writing her thesis on the subject of women soldiers at the Fortress of Louisbourg – I look forward to reading her work, as should you.)

While I am no expert on women in male military uniforms (though I have portrayed a (female) military nurse with the rank of Lieutenant), I can speak to my experience at Fort Edmonton Park. (Disclaimer: I am no longer an employee of Fort Edmonton Park, so my views are my own and do not necessarily reflect current park policy.) One of the skills I most like to brag about is my ability to drive vehicles from the 1920s. However, as far as I understand it, women interpreters on 1920s Street did not often drive the cars until relatively recently. Why not? Because it was thought to be “historically inaccurate” for a woman to get behind the wheel in 1920. Sorry ladies, but get in the passenger seat, because only men can drive automobiles.

Understandably, this policy would be likely to cause some tension in the workplace. There is a lot of prestige attached to driving such cars, and let’s be honest, it’s incredibly fun. Was it “fair” to exclude costumed interpreters from learning this valuable skill simply because of their gender? Now, in this case, there was a fairly simple solution: women interpreters (before my time), fed up with not being allowed to drive, did some digging in the library and the archives and found that yes, women did drive in Edmonton in the past. In fact, while still a minority, female drivers were not even that uncommon a sight in the 1920s in North America and Great Britain! (For example, Hazel Rutherford, daughter of Alexander Rutherford, Alberta’s first Premier and a very important figure in the early history of the University of Alberta, played chauffeur to her father for over thirty years in the early twentieth century, as he never learned how to drive.) The “historical accuracy” argument barring women from driving fell apart in the face of documentary evidence, and female interpreters were allowed to get behind the wheel at the park. As is generally the case with programs at Fort Edmonton Park, if an interpreter can prove that it happened in Edmonton during that time period, it’s generally acceptable to present to the public. (This is why the park does not show train robberies, gun fights, or other “Wild West” style performances, no matter how exciting to the public that may be, for the simple reason that as of yet they have not found any evidence of such things occurring in the Edmonton area.)

On a similar note, female interpreters were not allowed to participate in the York Boat arrival program in the fur trade era. (In summary, it involves a contingent of men with a York boat loaded with goods rowing down the river to be greeted by visitors on shore, a spectacle that further emphasizes interpretive themes of travel and trade.) Why weren’t women allowed in the boats at the park? Again, it’s historically inaccurate. The Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t want European women taking up valuable space in the boats that could go towards carrying more valuable cargo, and from the late 1600s through to the 1830s, white women were banned from fur trading posts and boats. This ban – which also generally encompassed missionaries and their wives, as they also were not considered profitable goods – was one of the reasons for the rise of “country marriages”, or unions between First Nations women and Euro-Canadian or Scottish company employees. Too bad, female interpreters: you can’t participate in the largest program of the season at Fort Edmonton Park, because we have few written records of women in boats.

The York Boat arrives at Fort Edmonton! Photo credit Cassidy Foxcroft, August 2011.
The York Boat arrives at Fort Edmonton – with a lady on board. (From left to right: Tom Long (rowing), Joseph the carpenter and boat builder (steersman) and myself, Lauren Markewicz (waving).
Photo credit Cassidy Foxcroft, August 2011.

There were further practical considerations to be had. The York Boat program requires all hands on deck; it’s one of the largest programs run by the park and requires about twelve or more people in costume to pull off: not only the rowers, the steersman, and the lookout on the boat, but it also at least one person on shore to direct and talk to visitors and one or two people to literally “hold down the fort”, as it can’t be left empty while the program down by the river is under way. As the fort rarely has more than ten paid interpreters present on any given day, plus potential volunteers, to even get enough people at the oars, supervisors and even interpreters from the other time periods would get into the costumes of labourers from the 1840s. In this context of staffing numbers, it was really difficult to justify having additional interpreters – women – as “dead weight” in the boats, and so often they were left on shore, unable to fully participate in what was often considered the biggest program of the year at the fort. Yes, women participated in after-hours rowing practice to fill the ranks of rowers, but could not be in the boats in that position in front of visitors because it was “too inaccurate.”

In this case, with some debate, women were allowed to participate, again by subverting the “historical accuracy” clause: instead of coming from the Hudson’s Bay at the end of a long journey, the boat was portrayed as coming from a different fort, Rocky Mountain House, along with its Chief Trader, John Edward Harriott, and Nancy Harriott, his mixed-blood wife (also the daughter of the Chief Factor of Fort Edmonton, John Rowand). In fact, changing the program to one of inter-fort travel instead of the return of the boat brigade from Hudson’s Bay made the optics of the program even more realistic; the park never had enough cargo to fill the boat to “accurately” portray the huge mounds of trade goods that would have been brought from the Bay. (By some accounts, these one ton York Boats could carry up to four tons of cargo!) However, it was just right for some inter-fort travel.

Mrs. Harriott Disembarks the York Boat with the help of Tom Long dit "Pas de Cheveux" and Erik who had no potentially embarassing fur trade nickname. Photograph by Cassidy Foxcroft, summer 2011.
Mrs. Harriott disembarks the York Boat with the help of Tom Long, dit “Pas de Cheveux”, and Erik, who had no potentially embarrassing fur trade nickname. Photograph by Cassidy Foxcroft, summer 2011.

In this case, the question of whether or not the park could allow women on the boats had a relative “easy” solution, simply by demonstrating through historical documentation that women would be on the boats in the past in certain contexts. The “it was really historically accurate!” card was waved to justify the change in policy. More often than not, interpreters at Fort Edmonton Park would rather do additional research to “prove” that women in the past did indeed do the things that interpreters in the present are banned from doing, challenging the supposed historical accuracy of that particular sexist ban rather than the concept of historical accuracy itself. There is good reason for this – as people trying to portray elements of Edmonton life in the past, they don’t want to challenge visitor expectations too much. They want to “accurately” interpret the past as much as possible, holding themselves up to an idealized standard. By subverting visitor expectations a little bit – by challenging the notions that “women didn’t drive in the 1920s!” or “no women were ever on HBC boats ever!” – but in a way that was “true to the past”, interpreters can use the supposed “inaccuracy” to further discussion of historical events instead of just shrugging and awkwardly explaining that what they’re doing isn’t completely “accurate” and missing out on a learning experience for the visitor.

Sorry ladies, only real men can interpret in the trade store.  Photograph of "Mr. Anderson" by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2009 at Fort Edmonton Park.
Sorry ladies, only real men can interpret in the trade store.
Photograph of “Mr. Anderson” by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2009 at Fort Edmonton Park.

However, what about positions that cannot be “proven” to be “historically accurate”? For example, the “Trade Store” in the fort is one of the most dynamic buildings in which to interpret fur trade history to visitors; it is full of excellent artifacts – furs and trade goods, as illustrated on the left – and allows for some very interesting conversation starters. In many ways it is the “heart” of the fort. However, technically, this is a post that would have been literally “manned” by a (literate) officer who would conduct trading. Would women be in the trade store by themselves? Probably not. (In fact, labourers like Mr. Anderson, pictured, may not have been in there either.) Interpreters don’t often comment on it; if asked, women often claim to be the Cree or Blackfoot interpreter or the wife of the interpreter, whose room is in the trade store, around the corner from the fireplace, out of view. In this case, men and women, who portray a range of socio-economic classes in the fort, all interpret to visitors in this location, for the simple reason that everyone should have a turn to staff the most popular building in the fort.

Then there is the issue of blacksmithing; historically, this was not a skilled trade that First Nations women in the West learned. (Remember, there were no white women at Fort Edmonton in 1846, only Cree and Métis.) Blacksmithing at the park is normally done by experienced volunteers, historical workers, or volunteers, who often teach male employees the basics: e.g., how to make nails, how to make a cloak pin, and so on. Visitors greatly enjoy seeing these men at work. But what about the female interpreters who want to give it a shot? As far as I understand it, this debate is still ongoing, in particular because there are also health and safety issues in play. Men in the fort were allowed to learn to blacksmith but they must wear appropriate footwear: steel toed boots. It isn’t terribly difficult to find black leather boots that look accurate enough for the 1840s to be worn while blacksmithing in costume, but the ladies of the fort are all interpreting First Nations or Métis people. Their costumes always involve mocassins and dresses, which are not ideal blacksmithing wear. Health and safety should always be a consideration, but is it waved as an excuse, leaving only men with the training to learn this fascinating skill?

However, if women are barred from learning historically male skills like blacksmithing because of health and safety issues, should men be barred from learning other skilled female tasks? Alternatively: if women aren’t allowed to blacksmith, should men learn how to do  beadwork? The women at the Fort all tend to quickly learn how to do plains-style beadwork on looms, embroider leather, or make beaded necklaces. In fact, considering the busy lives of these indigenous women historically, interpreters probably spend a bit too much time doing beadwork everyday, but it is a source of fascination for visitors as well as entertainment and pride for the staff, and opens up many fascinating conversations about trade goods, status, fashion, and skilled labour. I much preferred to be doing a skilled task when visitors approached me to speak, as opposed to waiting and twiddling one’s thumbs and “springing to life” when a visitor enters the room. You want to appear to have been going about your day when the visitor comes upon you, and asking about what you are doing is an ideal conversation starter. However, male interpreters at the fort really wanted to learn how to do beadwork as well, and in the years I was at the Fort it wasn’t uncommon for men to learn and be found at their bead loom, particularly during the slow hours. Nevertheless, the argument that it was historically accurate for men at the forts, particularly French Canadian or Orkney Islander employees, to do beadwork is a difficult one to make. Often these men would rely upon third person interpretation to explain how beading works instead of addressing visitors in-character while beading.

Yes, this is a lady's bike - note the low body for ease of pedaling while wearing an ankle-length skirt - and yes, I did cycle in that uniform. Summer 2012. Photo Credit: Bert.
Yes, this is a lady’s bike – note the low body for ease of pedaling while wearing an ankle-length skirt – and yes, I did cycle with relative ease in that uniform. Summer 2012. Photo Credit: Bert.

On the same note, there are a few other objects that should be reserved for the exclusive use of women but are not. With only a handful of accurate and working artifact bikes available on site, all but one of which have the low lady’s bar (to allow for riding while in skirts), is it acceptable for a man to use a lady’s bicycle? Especially if the visitors generally “won’t notice” the difference? Can you single these bikes out exclusively for lady’s use?

Why is it okay to be historically inaccurate in some ways but not in others? Is historical sexism an appropriate justification for modern sexism at historic sites? Need we kowtow to “historical accuracy”? Probably, to some extent, because if we deconstruct the concept too much then it may chip away at the very methodological foundations of living history museums.

Still, I’m not about to give up my historical driver’s license. And let’s be honest, if/when I return to the park, I’d love to give blacksmithing a try. Hey, it’s 2013: we have the right to vote and regularly wear trousers. Nothing can stop us now!


For the purposes of this blog post, I have defined sexism as, roughly, distinguishing between the sexes/genders in a way that is detrimental to one and giving advantage to the other: or, the elevation of one gender over another.

The concept of “historical accuracy” is very nebulous and contested, and I have mused upon it before in an overly-long blog post. Look out for a follow-up post some time in the new year.

Related Posts On Costumed Historical Interpretation and Fort Edmonton Park:


(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part IV: the 1846 Fort and the Return to 2013

Last Time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street


Circle:  Teepees are erected with a base “tripod” of three poles tied together. The other poles are laid in place in a circular fashion before another rope walked around them.  The canvas is attached to the tops of the tops of the last two poles and is dragged up – these form the smoke flap.  The poles are heavier and more unwieldy then they look.

“Ceiling shot!  Ok, I do this thing where I take pictures of ceilings.  Teepees are no exception.”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part IV: the 1846 Fort and the Return to 2013”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street

Last Time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street

Dominion Day Bunting

Dominion Day Bunting:  I love the word “bunting”.  I find it a cheerful piece of vocabulary, although I also associate it the action of booting/kicking for some reason.  These are also the colours of the British/Imperial flag, not a celebration of France or the United States, though some visitors do get confused.  God save the Queen!

A tourist’s confusion.  While I was taking this picture one of the other visitors made the comment about how the bunting (Not a permanent fixture, just a Dominion Day decoration) must be an homage to the French contingent of Canada’s history.  I’m fairly certain that it’s just the colours of the Union Jack and not the French flag though, especially in a province that was named after a member of the British Royalty.  Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria who at the time was the ‘Queen of Canada’.”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street

Last time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street

Fire Station Red Brick, Red Engine:  This building is one of the reasons that the man who interprets the police officer on 1905 street is often mistaken for a fireman.  The interpreter this past summer kept a running tally of how many time he was mistaken for a fireman over the course of the season, and it was in the hundreds.

The Lost Kids.  When we were small kids my brother and I crawled into one of the sections of the building that was roped off to prank our mom and hide.  We didn’t always consider the rules…  or the angry mother… or the angry interpreters…”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street

A photograph of myself taken by my good friend Cassidy Foxcroft, during the York Boat arrival program in August 2011.
A photograph of myself taken by my good friend Cassidy Foxcroft, during the York Boat arrival program in August 2011, which is one of the most involved programs in the fur trade (1846) era of the park. I was interpreting the mixed-blood wife of the Chief Trader of Rocky Mountain House: hence the bonnet and lace.

My name is Lauren Markewicz, but in years past, when I worked at Fort Edmonton Park as a costumed historical interpreter, I was also known as Nancy Harriott (when working in the reproduction of the 1846 Fort) or Nancy Sparrow (when working on 1920s Street). Fort Edmonton Park portrays four distinct time periods of Edmonton’s history: 1846 (fur trade era), 1885 (early European settlement), 1905 (industrial era: post-railway but pre-war), and 1920s (roughly post-First World War to the 1930s). It is a park full of original buildings and reconstructions of buildings and sites that once existed in the Edmonton area. The park is animated by costumed historical interpreters who interpret past events, activities, and personages to visitors. As an interpreter, it was my job to try to bring Edmonton’s past to life, so to speak.

The following photographs were taken last summer by Kirsten Seiersen; this post appears in near duplicate on her blog, which you can find here. I look upon these images with nostalgia, as they were taken in the first season after my four years at Fort Edmonton were over. I was doing an internship at Library and Archives Canada in Gatineau, Quebec, bound to my desk in a cubicle instead of being paid to bake Saskatoon berry pies, knit socks, drive historical vehicles, and talk to people about history all day. I suppose I had to get a “big kid” job that didn’t involve dress up at some point, though if the park were open year round I honestly would never consider seeking another profession. Alas, this lovely historical park nestled in Edmonton’s river valley is only open for four months of the year. But what a season!

I was invited by Kirsten to comment upon the photographs she took while at Fort Edmonton on Dominion Day – that’s Canada Day, July 1st, to the rest of you – to get two alternate but at times complementary descriptions. My comments appear alongside hers. In my version of the post, her writing will appear in quotation marks and will be italicized. These posts will also be divided roughly according to era, creating a four part series. Allons-y!

Going to Fort Edmonton Park really is like stepping into the Tardis and popping back out in a different era.  I’ve been to the park plenty of times as a kid but the great thing about it is that each time you visit you notice something that you didn’t before.  The pictures in this post were taken the last time I went to the Park on Canada Day (July 1st); although at the Park it’s still referred to as ‘Dominion Day’ due to the fact that most modern area in the Park dates back to the 1920’s when Canada was still under more direct British rule.  I would also like to note that I think the interpreters at Fort Edmonton Park are superb.  They really are the root of what turns the park into an interactive experience rather than just another open museum.  It’s not that they simply dress up according to what time they supposed to be from and recite a couple historical tidbits here and there; they really act the part, stay in character, and engage visitors by sharing the current events of their time.  I also happen to know an ex-interpreter and history major who ever so kindly agreed to coauthor this post with me.”

(For ease of reference for those who have never visited the park, you can find a PDF map of the site here! We begin at the park entrance, on the Eastern side of the map, and work our way Westward. Isn’t that just the way?)

Drive to Work – All the Way to Work The 1906 Orient, seen on the left hand side of the frame, parked in the Motordrome’s office, is the oldest of the many functioning vehicles at Fort Edmonton Park. Made by a bicycle manufacturer, it is fairly light weight. No seatbelts of course, and like other comparable vehicles (like the one I talk about in this blog post or other vehicles it does not have a conventional steering wheel but a rudder (the red bar). It is owned and operated by a volunteer who comes by a few times a season to take it out. Very few have had the opportunity to ride in this vehicle.

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street”

Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations

A quick scenario: you’re a costumed historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park or another living history museum, wearing a bonnet and petticoat, sitting in front of a chuck wagon and attempting to light a fire with flint and steel. It isn’t going well. One of your esteemed colleagues used up the last of the extremely dry wood the day before and the kindling you have is slightly damp from the rain last night. You have all the ingredients for a delicious batch of drop scones, but you need to get this fire going soon or you won’t be finished in time to help out with another program that afternoon: Glee Club at MacDougall’s church, your favourite.

A visitor walks up to you, watches for a moment as you struggle with the flint and steel, making sparks on occasion which just aren’t quite catching onto your charcloth. Then, he quips: “Hey, wouldn’t life be easier if you just got a microwave?”

You are the first person to ever tell me that extremely original joke, sir, you can be sure. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2012 on 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park.

How do you respond? Do you acknowledge that you are in fact a twenty-first century kind of gal in costume and explain that you can’t make good scones in microwaves? Do you feign confusion, and repeat the word slowly: “micro…wave?” Do you ignore the comment and greet him as if he hadn’t said anything?

Here’s another scenario. Let’s say you are in the Alberta Government Telephones office, working as a Hello Girl: a bright young thing in the 1920s. You have just finished “training a new telephone operator” (i.e., a visitor to the park) on the switchboard, demonstrating how to connect calls, make the telephone ring, and so on, and one of the observers (why are they always young men?) calls out: “yeah, that’s great, but can it send text messages?”

You now have a few options. As I have already mentioned, I have seen people at other historic sites repeat the phrase slowly – “text… messages?” and then ask if the person has been in the sun for too long. It doesn’t matter what it is: “micro…wave?”, “eye… pod?”, “astro…not?”, etc. Personally, I feel that is a lazy way out, and it’s easy to sound more condescending than intended. I have seen interpreters do it with some success, granted, but it can easily be overused, especially if all interpreters at the site do it. However, more often, visitors get frustrated with this kind of response, particularly if they’ve heard it from the mouths of multiple people in costume that day.

The visitor may also have had a valid question that just has modern terminology; perhaps they were inquiring into how long distance phone call quality and costs may compare between 1920s landlines and cell phone reception in 2013, and by responding with feigned confusion the person in costume is shutting down their curiosity and leaving a legitimate question unanswered. The visitors may also take your inane response as a challenge and try to trick you, the costumed interpreter, into revealing that you aren’t actually from the 1920s and have been deluding yourself. (I never understood what people get of trying to do this, but be warned, it happens often enough.) In any case, feigning complete confusion causes annoyance and unnecessary confrontation on both sides. Interpreters should be continuing a conversation with visitors on mutual grounds, not shutting it down because of one anachronistic comment or word. Because how can a visitor respond to something like a flat denial?

You can't always turn your back on modernity (represented symbolically by this grasping modern hand of a visitor). Keep a firm hold on your historical goat! (A metaphor for something deep, I am sure.) Photograph taken by Lauren Markewicz on 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, 2012.
You can’t always turn your back on modernity in the historical park (represented symbolically by this grasping modern hand of a visitor). Keep a firm hold on your historical goat (a metaphor for something deep, I am sure), look visitors and their modernity in the eye, and engage them. Photograph taken by Lauren Markewicz on 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, summer 2012.

Feigning confusion or denying what a visitor says entirely can also backfire spectacularly if it’s a concept that a person in the past would know and the visitor is genuinely trying to engage you, while in character, on the subject. For example, a few years ago I visited a small living history museum which shall remain nameless which interpreted the fur trade era. (There are quite a few such places in Western Canada, so that won’t narrow it down too much for you.) The interpreter asked me where I was from, and I replied “Edmonton”. He slowly replied “Ed…monton? Where’s that?”

“The Saskatchewan District,” was my reply. While the city of Edmonton is now in the modern province of Alberta, before Canadian Confederation when the region of Rupert’s Land was nominally under the jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company, any HBC forts along the North or South Saskatchewan Rivers were in what was termed the Saskatchewan District. This is something that most in the area during the time period he was interpreting would know, because almost all employees of forts in the West would have to pass through the Saskatchewan District at some point along those very waterways. If nothing else, it dominated maps.

“Sas…katchewan? What’s that?” Was his unoriginal response.

I was actually genuinely confused by his answer. I mean, as an interpreter he would have presumably learned something about other HBC forts… and basic geography. The Saskatchewan River would have been known by that name in the time period he was portraying. It’s as if a Canadian trucker had asked me what the Trans-Canada Highway was. You should know that simply because of your job description. It’s what you travelled on. The Saskatchewan Rivers were integral to the very job of being a fur trader during the time period this man was interpreting.  So my response was something like: “Uh… it’s the largest district of Rupert’s Land? Just east of the Columbia District, and the Athabasca district? Home of Fort Edmonton, the largest Hudson’s Bay Company fort in the West?”

The interpreter continued to deny knowledge of Edmonton. Apparently he was used to asking that question, and his go-to schtick was to point out the fact that he didn’t know such modern places existed. Haha, look how oldey-timey I am! See, that response only works if you know for sure that that a place didn’t exist or wasn’t well known in the era that you are interpreting. Denying the existence of things that did exist in the past, and were common knowledge, doesn’t educate anybody and in fact promotes misinformation, not to mention frustration from the part of the visitor. It also reveals the interpreter’s ignorance of the history that he is supposed to be teaching, making me mentally fact-check anything else he said.

I had been trying to engage him, with a wink and a nod, to say that I too have interpreted the fur trade, working as an employee at a different Hudson’s Bay Company fort. We could have had an amazing conversation that way – I have done so with the interpreters at the Ukrainian Heritage Village North-West of Edmonton, who are very on the ball about sly references like that. They know their history and can run with any metaphorical conversational ball you toss them, using many otherwise innocuous visitor comments, such as where they were from, as a jumping-off point for interpretation. Even if I hadn’t been trying to engage him as one interpreter to another, spouting misinformation about the history of a visitor’s hometown isn’t terribly professional and is not only historically inaccurate but I would even say rude.

A skilled interpreter can take something like my response – “I’m from Edmonton” – and respond with something like “Ah, the jewel of the prairies! Have you lived there for many seasons? You know, some of the men in our brigades pass through there on their way to York Factory!” That could then lead into an (in-character) educational conversation about the historical links between this interpreter’s fort and the city in which I lived. I have done the same with visitors who were from Scotland – “Oh, are you new on the brigades? Many of our men are from the Orkney Islands!” – or from Montreal – “You’re not a Nor’wester are you? We don’t like them very much, unless they want to defect to the HBC.” Visitors generally respond very well to getting a bit of their own region’s history linked to the history portrayed at the historical site. Conversations with interpreters who don’t break character don’t have to always be confrontations between present and past.

Now, it’s not like every interpreter has an encyclopedic knowledge of world history and geography. But you should be aware of what is happening in your region and around the world during your time period, on a basic level, and feigning ignorance can reveal your own actual ignorance. Your options as an interpreter aren’t stick to your (confused) guns or break character entirely (and “lose”). You should not be competing with the visitor. You can remain in character without acting completely confused and denying the existence of the object or concept. In fact, having a few witty replies can trick the visitor into learning something, even when the visitor’s intentions were to be snarky or combative.

At the Ukrainian Heritage Village, the interpretive staff, who cannot break character, are very game with playing interpretive ball when confronted with something that doesn't fit into their historical world view. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, June 2009.
At the Ukrainian Heritage Village, the interpretive staff, who cannot break character, are very adept at playing interpretive ball when confronted with something that doesn’t fit into their historical world view. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, June 2009.

Engaging the visitors in some way is of course the goal. However,  I have also seen interpreters whose comments can be seen as a personal attack upon visitors. I feel that the first interaction between an interpreter and a visitor should not be a negative one. For example, I have seen costumed interpreters chastise visitors in short-shorts for being improperly dressed in public.  An historically accurate response? Perhaps. Nevertheless, one of the duties of interpreters is to make the visitors comfortable and to give them a pleasant experience. Fashion mores have changed. You should be able to bring it up, and you can do so in-character, but criticism or negative comments should be treated with care. For instance, you can wait to bring it up when prompted by the visitor about the differences between modern and historical clothing; you can be selectively blind until that point about their modern clothing. All people in historical dress  are familiar with this question from people dressed in modern clothes: “Aren’t you hot in that?” (As if we need reminding.) That common question is an excellent point to jump in and talk about the practical use of the bonnet as a sun screen, and the fact that having bare skin exposed to bright sunlight can actually make you feel more hot than by having a protective layer of light cotton, or whatever you wish to discuss regarding historical clothing. (I personally love to “complain” about “old-fashioned” fashions that my historical character’s mother would have worn, and point out what makes my particular outfit fashionable by the standards of whatever era I am portraying.) Comparisons between past and present can be gentle and don’t require a verbal attack on the visitor’s fashion choices. Gentle teasing often works far better than aggressive, unsolicited comments about modern clothing.

Of course, sometimes the visitor is not trying to be polite, but instead wants to show off their wit or their superior modernity, trying to get a one-up on you, the person representing the past. Many visitors suffer from prestentism, or judging the past by the standards of the present, and will assume that everything in the past is inferior in some way to the standards of their present. Visitors may try to force you to break character by pointing out what they perceive to be anachronisms, or by making fun of a historical task you are performing that is much easier to do or completely unnecessary in the modern era. However, with some thought you can still incorporate such comments into your historical world view and make it into a learning experience for the visitor. Let’s revisit a few favourite exchanges of mine, in which I turned a snarky visitor comment into a learning moment. Assume that each of these bits of dialogue is followed by  a conversation about the historical point introduced:

  • Recall the story about the telephone operator above: “Yes, but can it send text messages?” – to which I replied something to the effect of, “No, you would need a telegraph machine for that. This is much more modern!”
  • Also at the telephone office: “Don’t you have a cell phone?” / “No, this machine doesn’t run on batteries.” (The “cell” in “cell phone”, as you well know, refers to the fact that it runs off of a cell of batteries, not electricity via a cord like a land line.

These were all responses I came up with on the fly, and only had limited circulation later on – mostly when a different visitor made the same terrible joke. Even if you do have a favourite line – that aforementioned “have you been in the sun too long?” when a visitor speaks about something anachronistic – don’t rely on it too heavily. Be inventive! Come up with other phrases or jokes! Share with your fellow interpreters; even a good line can become stale very quickly if used by multiple interpreters with the same visitor.

The fact is, whether their intention is to ask astute comparative questions or to try to force you to break character, visitors by their very definition introduce modern elements into your historical site. You can answer their “modern” questions with a wink and a nod without breaking character.  For example, an easy way to ground a visitor in a time period, if your park has different eras, is to make mention of specific events and dates in your conversation, so the visitor isn’t forced to ask you what year it is: e.g., “A few years ago, after the end of the war, you know,” or “We were really pleased to begin the new century with the arrival of the railroad!” Your historical bubble remains unbroken, and the visitor has received the information they wanted and needed. If you want to pursue first person interpretation, it is entirely possible to be engaging and informative to modern visitors with modern perspectives without breaking character in many instances.

In general, I would advise you to fit any anachronistic comments made by visitors into your world view without shutting the visitor down. A positive and open attitude is essential. Your response should not be the verbal equivalent of a slammed door, but an open doorway, leading to further discussion and learning. You may notice that these examples provide just such an opening for further conversation. That being said, if the visitor is genuinely being verbally combative and abusive, use your own judgement. You should feel capable of extracting yourself from the verbally abusive situation and finding a colleague; most visitors are not dangerous, but if you feel uncomfortable, don’t stay. You should be supported by your employer and feel safe at your workplace. It is your job to interpret history to visitors, not to be subjected to abusive or belligerent comments or actions. However, most often it doesn’t come to that; I would say that the vast majority of visitors I have had the privilege of meeting are genuinely interested in the past and what I have to tell them.

Costumed historical interpreters have to come to terms with the modernity of visitors and react in engaging, educational, and original ways. They may not be wearing bonnets and petticoats, but visitors by their very presence are indicating their willingness to learn history. Don’t shut them down because of an off-hand reference to Sputnik or Angry Birds.

(Incidentally, costumed interpreters have been known to make sly references to information gleaned on social media between each other in front of visitors, but in code. “I read about it in the Book of Faces,” for Facebook, for instance, or “A little bird told me,” for Twitter. A wink and a nod, folks: a wink and a nod.)

If you are a costumed historical interpreter or re-enactor, I’m sure that you have some metaphorical (or perhaps literal?) war stories to tell. Please share them in the comments below!

Further Reading

First Person Versus Third Person Interpretation

First, a quick word about what I mean by “interpretation.” Costumed Historical Interpretation is a term that is used at Fort Edmonton Park and some other historical sites to refer to what it is the people in historical costume do at these living history museums. As opposed to popular conceptions of historical “re-enactment”, interpreters do not present or represent themselves as carbon copies of past events. They strive towards historical accuracy, but they acknowledge that everything they do is an interpretation of the past. Hence, “interpreter”, not “re-enactor”. The terms have different philosophies at their terminological roots, though both may draw from common theories and techniques. The goal of historical interpretation is to educate the visitor about a certain time period and its people in ways that can’t be achieved through books or traditional static museum displays.

There are several different types of historical interpretation, and each has its own advantages and drawbacks. The system that I learned uses the grammatical terms “first”, “second”, and “third” person – i.e., think “I”/”we” for first, “you” for second, and “he”/”he”/”they” for third.

North West Mounted Police Officer, 1885 street at Fort Edmonton,  from the Mountie Strike Program in 2012.
Interpreting a North West Mounted Police Officer on 1885 street at Fort Edmonton Park, from the Mountie Strike Program in 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

First person interpretation is probably one of the most well known and expected. In essence, the interpreter projects the persona of a historical figure or character, speaking as if they were that person in that time period: e.g., a blacksmith, a tennant farmer, Sir John A. MacDonald,  Louise Umfreville, Father Lacombe, etc. Some historical parks, such as the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village outside of Edmonton, do not allow their interpreters to break character in front of visitors except under very specific circumstances, which I think are limited things such as first aid emergencies and interpretation within a consecrated church. For most intents and purposes, they try to react as if they are indeed Ukrainian immigrants from the early twentieth century. 

If anachronisms are pointed out to an interpreter operating in strict first person – e.g., a visitor commenting upon an airplane flying overhead to someone acting as if they live in 1860 – the interpreter may insist that it’s a bird, dismissing things that don’t fit into the 1860s worldview. Visitors can get some pretty nifty responses this way. Interpreters don’t have to pretend not to understand anachronistic things that visitors tell them but can use it as an opportunity to practice their wit and verbal gymnastics.

This is where the elusive second person interpretation fits in, in which the visitor becomes more heavily involved. Think of it as a game of tennis: a costumed interpreter acts in-character with first person interpretation, and the visitor responds to that volley by sending the ball back, also pretending to be a historical person, though ignoring the fact that they aren’t dressed in period costume. Many interpreters performing in first person set this up automatically when they speak with visitors. They may say things like:

“Oh, are you new in town? When did you arrive? Was it a long journey?” Based on the visitor’s period-appropriate response, they can then have a conversation as if both individuals existed in the same historical time period, discussing (or commiserating on) the hardships of immigrating to Western Canada or other topics. The goal of interpretation, after all, isn’t just to be entertaining, but to be educational and informative.

Visitors don’t have to be history majors to interact in this way with interpreters. Even a “wrong” answer – guessing that they would arrive by train or automobile before they were invented or reached that region of the country, or indicating the wrong length or route of the journey – gives the interpreter the opportunity to express surprise and explain that they thought that the roads were too rough to allow for motorcars to come to town, or express hope that a proper highway or railroad will soon be built. The visitor doing second person interpretation does not have to provide historically accurate responses for the skilled costumed interpreter to “play ball”.

Acting as a customer in a store, in this case at the milliner's, is a common example of visitors engaged in second person interpretation. 1885 Street, Fort Edmonton Park, summer 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.
Acting as a customer in a store, in this case at the milliner’s, is a common example of visitors engaged in second person interpretation. 1885 Street, Fort Edmonton Park, summer 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

Now, of course, first person interpretation can be problematic. For instance, an historical interpreter cannot wholly adopt the views of the past and react to visitors accordingly. I have seen some interpreters berate young female visitors for being immodestly dressed, which can embarrass them rather than teach them something valuable. Furthermore, how does one address issues of racism or other distressing topics such as eugenics while being incapable of breaking character? How do you explain that such negative views existed without coming across as being a supporter of them? Some visitors also like to force interpreters to break character. They may see it as a game, but it can come across as a power trip when they try to trick or force the costumed expert to acknowledge that they are a twenty-first century actor through the visitor’s “superior” knowledge of the past.  Often, if first person interpretation is not done well, every interaction with a visitor can end up being a confrontation of some kind. (More on how to avoid this in an upcoming post: Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations.) How would someone who was really from 1880 react to an immodestly dressed set of strangers barging into their farm house and interrogating them about their livestock and insisting upon eating some of their food?

Demonstrating how to make fire with flint and steel at Fort Edmonton, summer 2011. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.
Successfully demonstrating how to make fire with flint and steel at Fort Edmonton, summer 2011. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

In third person interpretation, the interpreter openly acknowledges that they are a contemporary of the visitor, simply one in historical dress. Some interpreters operate exclusively in third person. This means that they never attempt to be in-character and fully acknowledge their role as a modern museum or park guide; the costume is treated no differently from an employee uniform in that case.

For example, in the above picture, the interpreter is performing a fire starting demonstrating with flint and steel. As she prepared the kindling she narrated what she was doing and explained the history of matches (which existed in the 1840s in different form and were completely unreliable and unhealthy compared to flint and steel), when and why one would light fires within a fur trading fort, and perhaps even when flints fell out of use and other topics related to fire starting. Lighting a fire for no practical purpose and putting it out right afterwards in the middle of the courtyard in front of an audience is not something that a Métis country wife would do in 1846, but this a demonstration of a historical skill that is made all the more interesting and education from situating it verbally in a wider historical context.

The main advantage of third person interpretation is that it can provide much needed perspective. Interpreters can feel free to broach numerous topics without their hands being tied by the need to remain in-character.  This interpretive style allows the interpreter to comment upon the park as a museum, explaining which houses or artifacts may be original and where they came from, or what happened to the people who originally lived or worked in that building, and so on, which visitors are often keen to know.  A friend and classmate portrays a pregnant prisoner in the Goderich Gaol in Huron County, Ontario, and one of her most popular questions is: “What happened to your baby?” Without third person interpretation, the visitor leaves with that question unanswered, unless the interpreter, in first person, speculates what could happen with a wink and a nod.  In third person, I could speak at length with visitors about changing perceptions of fur trade “country marriages” from the 1700s through to the late 1800s based on recent scholarship and a twenty-first century perspective. This breadth and understanding cannot be achieved if I were genuinely trying to remain in-character as a young illiterate Métis country wife who had never left Fort Edmonton. That is one of the main advantages of third person interpretation: perspective. If a visitor is intensely interested in the subject, remaining in first person – in-character – can be very limiting, particularly if the visitor wants to know “the end of the story.” Did this person get out of their current troubles? How did they die?

Many Fort Edmonton Park employees use what is termed Loose First Person Interpretation. They often begin speaking with a visitor in first person, but are not afraid to break we call their “historical bubble” by stepping out of character and acknowledging that they are in fact a person from the twenty-first century, in costume, who has done historical research, and elaborating on their previous points. They do this so that they can discuss concepts that, say, an illiterate Métis country wife or a soldier just returning from the battlefields of Europe in 1919 could not possibly know. Think, for example, of the interpreter dressed as a returning soldier, discussing their experience in Europe during the Great War, reacting to a question from a visitor: “What’s the Great War?” The interpreter can then feel free to stop and explain that the First World War wasn’t termed as such until the Second World War had occurred. (Before the 1940s, it was the Great War: the biggest war anyone had ever seen. When you referred to the “war” in 1920 everyone knew which one you were talking about. It was only after the second had occurred that you could refer to the first one as the first.) Switching to third person can help the visitor get a fuller picture.

Loose first person has its own set of challenges. It is often quite difficult to then switch back to first person once the interpreter has broken character. Furthermore, many visitors expect a person in costume to remain in character at all times and would rather get that than further historical detail, despite their questions. They can be thrown off by the change, or become disappointed, as the interpreter has failed to live up to their expectations. Some visitors, by contrast, get frustrated if the interpreter dances around their questions by remaining in first person and just want their question answered. The interpreter has to be adept at reading the situation and determining what the visitors really want: no easy task.

I am aware that some historical sites only teach one of these forms of interpretation, but I feel that we were quite lucky at Fort Edmonton to have the flexibility to react to visitor needs. Some of my interpreter colleagues were only comfortable in third person; others exclusively used first. I would love to know what other historical sites use. I imagine that there must be other ways of thinking about costumed historical interpretation out there, and I welcome any comments about alternate interpretive styles from other veteran interpreters – or dedicated and observant visitors!

Coming soon: Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations

Where is Fort Edmonton?

When I worked in the 1846-era at Fort Edmonton Park, there were quite a few questions I would get asked more or less dozens of times a day. One, if the visitors didn’t get the introductory tour from the train platform, was a variation on the theme of: “Where did the soldiers sleep?” This question would prompt us costumed interpreters to patiently explain that this wasn’t a military fort, but a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, and generally having soldiers on site threatening to shoot your customers (the local Cree and other First Nations from further afield) was bad for business. However, just as often we got this question: “Is this the original fort?”

Fort Edmonton Bastion - View Coming From the Train Platform Fort Edmonton - View of the Wall From the Cree Camp

It’s a fair question. The wood of the fort looks quite old. The park also has numerous other original historical buildings on site which have been moved there over the past decades. Unfortunately, the answer is no, it a reconstruction of Fort Edmonton as it stood in 1846.

“Where is/was the original fort?” is often the follow up question.

The answer? It’s complicated.

Fort Edmonton was nominally founded in 1795, but no fort by that name stood for more than a decade or so in the same location until the fifth and final fort was constructed in 1840. They were built either too far away for local customers to conveniently visit (e.g., the location that was way down near modern Fort Saskatchewan) or in a location prone to flooding (a really relevant topic this year) like the two times it was placed near the Rossdale Flats. They were also never meant to be permanent structures and were not designed to stand the test of time.

You can still see faint evidence of the fourth fort now: right next to the old fort cemetery, on the North side of the Walterdale Bridge, where they have graves, a figure of eight or stylized tipi statue, and interpretive signs. I have been told that the fort stood on the big flat square that is now the intersection of 95 Ave and 105 street NW. I would highly recommend visiting the site – uh, the graveyard, not the intersection, that’s suicide, please don’t stop in the middle of the road to admire the asphalt – because according to our records and archaeological digs, numerous individuals from the early history of the Fort are buried there… including a woman I portrayed for one season, Nancy Harriott, daughter of Chief Factor John Rowand. That intersection has a lot of history underneath it.

Anyway, that still hasn’t answered your original question: where is the original fort, the one represented at Fort Edmonton? The fifth and final one? Well, they had trouble with flooding in earlier iterations, so they moved the location of the fort up the hill… to a very familiar hill, in fact, if you live in Edmonton today. Let’s go to Google Maps:

This is a map showing the grounds of the Legislature building in Edmonton, which houses the provincial government of Alberta. In behind the Legislature is a set of stairs: go down them. At the bottom, you’ll find a lovely flat area where they do lawn bowling today: a square of cleared land. (Zoom in on this map; the salmon-pink “A” pin points the way.) That green square is where the original fort stood.

If you visit the site, you will see little obelisks set up where some of the old bastions used to be. Hence, too, “Fortway drive”, the name of the road that runs parallel to the river below that site. There’s also the photographic record, because Edmontonians and tourists to the city loved seeing the contrast between old (the fort) and new (the construction of the high level bridge and the Legislature) on postcards of the era. The Legislature shared the grounds with the fort for nearly a decade in the early twentieth century.

Postcard 7081 The Valentine & Sons Publishing Co (Publisher) . Parliament Buildings and Old Hudson's Bay Co. Fort from High Level Bridge, Edmonton, Alta.. Montreal: Toronto: Winnipeg: Vancouver: The Valentine & Sons Publishing Co., Ltd., Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, [after 1907]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 7081
Parliament Buildings and Old Hudson’s Bay Co. Fort from High Level Bridge, Edmonton, Alta. Montreal: Toronto: Winnipeg: Vancouver: The Valentine & Sons Publishing Co., Ltd., [after 1907]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Postcard 7080  Leonards Cigar Store (Publisher) . Old Hudson Bay Post and Parliament Bldg., Edmonton, Alta.. Edmonton: Pub. for Leonards Cigar Store, Pantages Theatre Bldg., Edmonton, Alta, [after 1913].
Postcard 7080
Old Hudson Bay Post and Parliament Bldg., Edmonton, Alta. Edmonton: Pub. for Leonards Cigar Store, Pantages Theatre Bldg., Edmonton, Alta, [after 1913]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

PC006361.14  The Canadian Promotion Co (Publisher) . High Level Bridge at Edmonton for Canadian Pacific Ry. and general traffic. Winnipeg: Published by The Canadian Promotion Co. 415 Ashdown Bldg., Winnipeg, [1913].  Courtsy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
High Level Bridge at Edmonton for Canadian Pacific Ry. and general traffic. Winnipeg: Published by The Canadian Promotion Co. 415 Ashdown Bldg., Winnipeg, [1913]. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
 The old fort wasn’t torn down entirely until 1915, though previously the tall walls had been removed and the wooden buildings whitewashed. It had looked more or less like it was portrayed on this postcard for over a generation.

Why was it torn down, if it is such an important part of Edmonton’s history? Well, by the first decade of the twentieth century, it wasn’t in the best of shape. The fur trade had been in decline in the area since the 1860s and 1870s – curse Prince Albert and his trend-setting silk top hats! – and the fort’s buildings had been mostly abandoned for several decades after being used as a warehouse for the HBC. Photographs of the era show the buildings to be listing rather severely to one side, necessitating crossbeams to be added to prop them up.  The company no longer owned the land, and in all honesty, the buildings were probably spoiling the view of the grounds from the legislature building. It was rotting and full of vermin. So they took it down.

(As an interpreter who shall remain nameless told me in my first year at the fort: “then they put the rot and the vermin in the new Legislature building instead! Haha?” I loved that joke, but I was always afraid to tell it too often lest an actual politician, such as an MLA, was in the audience.)

There are several unverified theories as to what happened to the actual wood of the Fort Edmonton buildings. People did object to the demolition of the structure, and so the city(?) promised to save the wood and reconstruct the fort at a later date. Apparently the wood was stored down by the river for a long while before going missing. Perhaps it rotted away. Others say that the Boy Scouts burned it in 1953 to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, as the city did apparently donate a bunch of old, dry wood for their bonfires. One man claims that his barn is made up in part of the wood from the fort, and the wood is certainly old enough, but there’s no obvious “made in Fort Edmonton” stamp on it, so who can tell at such a late date? A mystery for the ages.

And anyway, you don’t really want the park’s fort built of the same wood as before. I mean, if it was in rough shape in 1915, how much worse would it have been in the late 1960s when the fort was reconstructed, let alone today in 2013? No visitor would be allowed inside the fort because of safety concerns.

But fear not! You can still see some original pieces of Fort Edmonton at the park. Go into Rowand House, behind the stairs on the main floor. Ask an interpreter about the big metal box you see there. (It may be the subject of a future blog post.) I have also heard rumours that the top of the fort’s flag pole may also be original to the old fort, but this historical tidbit has yet to be verified.

Oh, and one more thing: the reconstruction of the fort at the park, while made to the exact measurements of the Palliser plan from 1846, is different in a handful of ways, but most significantly is this: it is a mirror image of the original fort. Why? The old one was on the North side of the North Saskatchewan River. The park stands on the South side. The gates had to face in the correct direction: the river.

Further Resources:

  • Brock Silversides. Fort de Prairies. Edmonton, AB: Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd, 2005. Aside from a detailed history of the forts in the Edmonton area, drawing liberally from primary sources, it also reprints what may be all known depictions of Fort Edmonton since the early 1800s. If you would like to consult one of the photographs or maps that I mention, it is in all likelihood reproduced in this book.
  • A photograph (which also appears in Silversides’ book) of the old fort being demolished in 1915.

Beyond the Bob: 1920s Hairstyles for the Rapunzels Among Us

Listen: ♪ Shall I Have It Bobbed or Shingled? 

One of the first challenges I came across when preparing to work as a costumed historical interpreter on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park last summer was the issue of hairstyles. Namely, when you think of the 1920s, what pops into your head? Probably something like this:

Eatons Spring and Summer 1926, page 17. (Mail order catalogues always began with women’s fashion.) Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Known as the “bob”, this short hairstyle is iconic of the 1920s, a decade which saw dramatic changes in women’s fashion and attitude. As in nineteenth century dress reform movements, a woman’s fashion choices and outward appearance reflected but also affected the gender roles women would and could play. Called the “garçonne” or “boyish” look  (“garçonne” being a feminized version of the French term for “boy”), or what many of us today would call “flapper style”, the silhouette of the 1920s was very slender and almost rectangular, with lean bodies, flat chests and narrow hips. This shape was achieved not through corsetting but girdling, which could be just as restrictive. Short hairstyles, like the bob or the shingle, were a significant component of this boyish look. Ironically, the obvious use of makeup such as rouge, eyeliner, and bright red lipstick among women who were not ladies of the night or stage actors became almost socially acceptable… though as with any fashion trend, the visible use of makeup was still frowned upon by old fuddy-duddies worried about the moral degredation apparent in modern society. (“Kids these days!” – said older people in every generation ever.)  Youth culture was in, and nothing visually marked the dramatic change in ideas than the look of young women with short hair. Cutting one’s hair into a bob was more than a fashion statement; it was a statement about a woman’s attitude towards modernity and how they viewed their own body.

So bobs are iconic to the 1920s and of course I wanted to portray myself when in character as a modern Bright Young Thing at Fort Edmonton Park. I was provided with a lovely drop-waist dress in “modern” rayon fabric by our talented costumer, and got my dancing shoes and makeup. However, there was yet one problem to be overcome to complete my 1920s “look”: I have waist-length hair.

Shall I get it shingled or bobbed??  Photograph taken at the Selkirk Hotel on 1920s Steet at Fort Edmonton after work. The woman on the left was at the time an interpreter on 1885 street, with era-appropriate long hair. Observe me on the right: how could I possibly make that hairstyle fit the 1920s?
Shall I have it shingled or bobbed?! ♪
Photograph taken at the Selkirk Hotel on 1920s Steet at Fort Edmonton after work. The redheaded woman on the left  (with whom I was having a long-hair measuring competition – she won by a hair an inch) was at the time an interpreter on 1885 street, with era-appropriate long hair. Observe me on the right: how could I possibly tame that hair into a style accurate to the 1920s?

To put the finishing touches on my outfit, I would have to change my hairstyle dramatically. 1920s Street is in fact the only era portrayed at Fort Edmonton Park in which I have to hide the length of my hair instead of showing it off. Did I really want to chop it all off for work? No, not really. Maybe not ever. (Well, maybe to support cancer research or to create wigs for cancer patients.) I have been growing out my hair continuously since high school, and have only had the ends trimmed once or twice every few years since then. I am happy with it. It had taken a long time to get it to that length, and I like doing twists and braids and buns. I didn’t want to cut it short for what would only be a short period of time; come the autumn – and winter – I wanted my hair long again. Cutting it would cause me much anxiety and would change my fashion style and the framing of my face entirely.

But here’s the thing: my dilemma is not unique to historical interpreters. It was a struggle – sometimes mental, sometimes literal, with Victorian and Edwardian parents – that women in the past also went through. Women didn’t wake up in 1920 and go happily en masse to the hairdressers to have their hair put into bobs simply because it was the new fashion. It was far more controversial than that, particularly among the older generations. Until the 1920s, women had been raised for generations believing that short hair was a masculine trait and that real women wore their hair long. Then, they were suddenly faced with this new, extreme fashion of short hair. But was it just a passing trend? Would they look ridiculous the next year when it went out of style, after taking so drastic an action? If you cut your hair, that’s it. Going back is not as simple as parting your hair differently, or curling or straightening your hair instead, as had been the case with previous extremes in fashionable hairstyles. (I’m looking at you, awkward 1830s!) Cutting your hair is permanent and it can take years to grow your hair back to the length it once was. For women who had experienced almost nothing but variations on the theme of long hairstyles, choosing to cut your hair was a big step. There is no going back. So what do you do if you want to play it safe and keep your hair long? Can you still be a fashionable young woman?

Enter the forgotten long hairstyles of the 1920s: the nervous bob (AKA a Swaithed Hairstyle or faux bob) and Mary Pickford curls. Oh, yes, and why not the “earphone” hairstyle too? These women were doing the cinnamon bun hairstyle before Princess Leia made it cool. For the purposes of this blog post, let’s put braids and buns aside and discuss the main alternatives to bobbed hair in the 1920s – Mary Pickford curls and the nervous bob.

Mary Pickford - the girl with the curls. From "Coquette" (1929)? Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.
Mary Pickford – the girl with the curls. (Note: while wearing a short skirt and very fashionable shoes, she appears to be dressed as some sort of fairy – do not take this as proof of the popularity of lolita-style fashion in the 1920s!) Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

(Canadian born!) actor, writer, and producer Mary Pickford was famous for her long hair – she was “the girl with the curls.” In the 1910s and early 1920s, she was famous for roles that emphasized her youthfulness and innocence. With that, of course, came long hair, emulated by many a young woman, particularly in the first half of the decade. These were thick, heavy, and above all long ringlettes. When she cut her hair in the mid-1920s, it was headline news across the world – it even made the front page of the New York Times. It was probably one of the single most famous haircuts ever, and really speaks to the divisiveness and extremity that was the bobbed hairstyle.

'Sick of Cinderella' – Mary Pickford before and after she bobbed her hair (Courtesy Birds Eye View, via Silent London)
“Sick of Cinderella” – Mary Pickford before and after she bobbed her hair (Courtesy Birds Eye View, via Silent London)

Young women emulated Mary Pickford’s style well into the 1920s. Photographs of high school girls in Western Canada in 1928, for instance, show that well over half of the students wearing their hair in this way. However, the main reason that I didn’t do Mary Pickford curls on a daily basis is because they are a lot of work. It’s not that they can’t be done accurately in the twenty-first century – it’s definitely possible, just time-consuming. You can even use your current metal or ceramic hair curlers to achieve similar effects with less risk of damaging your hair than you would in the era you are emulating. Non-electric hair straighteners and curling irons have existed for ages. Hair irons were often literal clothes irons put on the stove and ironed on an ironing board, though metal irons and crimpers not dissimilar in design from modern ones were also used and heated on wood burning stoves as well. However, even the early electric ones in the 1920s could still fry the hair of the users. No thanks! Still, don’t be afraid to use modern electric hair straighteners in creating your Mary Pickford hairstyle – the fancy modern ceramic ones may not be period-appropriate, but the effects will be.

These curls can also be created in a different way, far less damaging for one’s hair, though too time-consuming for an impatient young thing like myself: through the use of rags. (Tutorials linked below in the “resources” section.) They work in essence like modern hair curlers and have been used for ages. (You may recall scenes from movie adaptations of Jane Austen’s works that show the characters creating the small curls popular during the Regency era this way.) It involves wetting the hair, rolling it up tightly with a small piece of fabric, and tying it off. Then, all one has to do is sleep and let it dry out overnight, and in the morning, when you take the rags out, you end up with ringlettes – the same scientific principle is the reason why one’s hair comes out of braids wavy or kinky. I have also done “rag curls” before, because ringlets were popular in the 1840s as well, “when” I previously worked at the park, but with my length of hair they take up to half an hour of prep time the night before and about ten or fifteen minutes in the morning… and I wasn’t a skilled enough hair dresser to make sure that they came out perfectly every time. If you mess up, there are no quick fixes, and I would often do a hasty bun if the ringlettes didn’t come out the way I wanted them to. However, rag curls are definitely feasible and easier than one might think.

Then there’s the issue of how representative Mary Pickford curls are of the 1920s period, related to issues of “historical accuracy”, which we’ve discussed before. Long hair, while accurate to the 1920s, particularly for young woman, even moreso for the first half of the decade, is just not what visitors expect. The year that I worked on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park, we had four costumed historical interpreters, several volunteers, a (male) historical worker, a roving troupe of drama people, and costumed game and ride attendants who were mostly limited to the Midway. On the street, there were therefore two full time female interpreters in costume, and so with our days off factored in, four days a week there could only be a single woman in 1920s costume on the street representing a city with a population in the tens of thousands. 1920s street is also the street closest to the entrance at the train station in the park, so we were often the first people in costume visitors see. Often, it is better to meet visitor’s expectations right away – so it’s obvious we’re in 1920s costumes – than to challenge visitor expectations right off the bat. 1920s = short hair in most people’s minds. If they’re looking at you from a distance, you want to be recognizable as an employee in costume. If we were in a large group of costumed interpreters, I would have considered doing the Mary Pickford curls in a nice contrast to the other interpreters in bobs. However, I was often alone (the only woman who lived in Edmonton in 1920, by all appearances!) and so I instead adopted the nervous bob or faux bob as my daily hairstyle. Despite the fact that Mary Pickford curls were still quite popular among young women even until the mid-to-late 1920s, historical representativeness was still a valid concern for us at the park. In my case, I was playing into visitor expectations – but only halfway. Instead of bobbing my hair with a pair of scissors, I could use my hair as a jumping off point for just how explosively controversial bobbed hair actually was. It’s stealth interpretation.

I may be getting ahead of myself. What is a nervous bob, exactly? Women who didn’t want to cut their hair – or who were forbidden from doing so by their parents, employers, or social expectations – could simulate the effects of short hair with gratuitous use of hair pins. For that reason, they are also known colloquially, at least where I’m from in North America, as “bobby pins.” (I blew the minds of many visitors with this simple fact.) It was sometimes called the “nervous” bob because those who wore it were considered too “nervous” to cut their hair into a “real” bob – though I am uncertain of how popular this term was, or if the hairstyle had a proper name at the time. In simple terms, it involves brushing out your hair, folding or curling it underneath itself, and securing it with bobby pins to create the illusion of short hair. There are numerous ways of doing so. One of my fellow costumed interpreters would curl her hair into ringlettes and pin them individually up and under, giving her hair a wavy look, which was also very fashionable in the 1920s. Her hair was just past shoulder length, but my hair, which is almost waist-length, would pull itself out of that hairstyle due to its sheer weight. I know because we tried.

I had two techniques that I found relatively simple, which became my daily hair styling staples. In one, I would braid my hair loosely and tuck the long part underneath the base, pinning it in place with large bobby pins after evening it out to hide the bulk. I would also put my hair in a low ponytail (secured by an inaccurate brown or black elastic to match my hair colour), and twist it until it folded into a bun (my usual technique), which would then be tucked underneath itself so that the hair closest to my skull covered it. This may be difficult to visualize, so to that end, I have included a photoset of what my hair generally looked like. Also included is a photograph of a nervous bob as done by another interpreter on 1920s street. In this photoset, my hairstyle is the result of a loose side braid, folded back and forth and pinned underneath my unbraided hair, creating the illusion of a short hairstyle, particularly when viewed from the front:

Caveat: as previously mentioned, my hair goes down to my waist. I have probably the maximum advisable length of hair to try to stuff into a nervous bob. This hairstyle actually works even better if you have mid- or shoulder-length hair, as it is likely to look far less bulky and more natural than my own when I dress my hair in this way. Furthermore, my hair is not layered. Layered hair may make nervous bobs and other up-dos more difficult to do, as I have found that the ends tend to flip out of areas you want to control more tightly.

Drawbacks to nervous bobs:

  • Real bobbed hairstyles take almost zero time to style in the morning, if done well. Brushing takes almost no time. Nervous bobs, even with practice, can still take at least five or ten minutes to do.
  • Your hair does not disappear. It sounds like an obvious observation, but it means that you still have the bulk of your hair on the nape of your neck, which can be hot in the summertime and can make it difficult to wear a stylish cloche hat. Luckily for me, it was also fashionable to wear hats with the brims low on one’s forehead with one’s nose ever so slightly in the air, so I didn’t have to try to fit the bulky part of my hairstyle under the hat’s brim.
  • You must take care to secure your hair well before doing any strenuous activity, such as dancing the night away doing the Charleston with a real Sheik. You don’t want it popping out in the middle of a dance!

Advantages to nervous bobs:

  • You can look reasonably fashionable without annoying your more conservative (read: nineteenth-century) family members and colleagues! Remember, until the late twenties Western society as a whole viewed women with short hair as morally suspect. A professional nurse, for example, could still be fired in the 1920s if she decided to bob her hair (even if her uniform involved a whimple which covered her hair). If you were trying to look mature and professional so you could keep one of the few employment opportunities open to women in the 1920s, it probably wasn’t advisable to cut your hair short. Unless you were, say, a glamorous newspaper writer who wrote columns on fashion and the modern woman. Then it was a good career move.
  • They keep your hair versatile. For the modern (read: twenty-first century woman), you can play at having short hair one day, then decide to go for a Gibson Girl topknot the next, or wear your hair down and loose for the bohemian look the day after. Long hair, I find, is far more versatile than short or mid-length hair when it comes to hairstyles. For so much of our history, women have worn their long hair in any number of ways. The possibilities are almost limitless if you have the right length of hair. Retro and steampunk looks are “in”; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to new hairstyles. Why limit yourself by chopping off the majority of your hair?

One final disclaimer: I am not a professional hairdresser or hair stylist. My experience solely comes from historical research (I have found photographic hairstyle tutorials from as early as 1911!) and practice, practice, practice. If you spend five days a week for four and a half months dressing your hair in this way, you learn a thing or two if only so you don’t have to redo your hair every hour as it falls out. (That’s valuable time you could have spent practicing your driving skills in 1920s vehicles! Am I right, ladies?) What works for me and my hair may not work for you and yours.  For example, I almost always dress my hair when it’s damp (I don’t use a blow drier), which I find gives it weight and promotes smoothness (I often have a bit of frizz if I dress my hair when it’s put in an up do when dry) and prevents my preferred hairstyle from sliding around as I pin it. Having damp hair makes my hairstyles more stable. I have no idea if it is advisable to dress your hair while very damp – I have not yet asked a professional hair dresser – but in my case it works really well, allowing me to avoid using hair products, or “lotions and potions” as my mother calls them. I did not use hairspray in any of these photographs, but for some it may be useful in securing the hair in place. The best piece of advice I can give you is to practice dressing your hair in its new hairstyle when you’re in no rush, so you can see how your hair sits. Everyone is of course a special unique snowflake; your hair will hold differently depending on the length and thickness of your hair, the size of your bobby pins, how damp your hair is when it goes in… any number of factors. Practice makes perfect!

A Hello Girl at the Alberta Government Telephone Office on 1920s Street at Fort Edmonton Park. (Incidentally, I wasn't a pretend operator: that machine actually connects 15 working phones within the park!)
A Hello Girl sporting a nervous bob at the Alberta Government Telephone Office on 1920s Street at Fort Edmonton Park. Interestingly, the photograph behind my head depicts operators from the 1920s in Edmonton… who upon closer inspection also have faux-bobs like myself. Visit Fort Edmonton yourself to investigate my claim!  Furthermore it should be noted, I wasn’t a pretend operator: that machine actually connects 15 working phones within the park! (No, I will never stop plugging the park. It is a magical place full of history and wonder.)

Resources for 1920s fashion and style:

  • series on the development of fashion in the 1910s and 1920s: The History of the Flapper, Part 1: A Call for FreedomPart 2: Makeup Makes a Bold EntrancePart 3: The Rectangular Silhouette, and finally Part 4: Emboldened By the Bob. See also: The Rebellious Roll Garters
  • Photo Detective series on the many varieties of bobbed hair.
  • An extensive online collection of Canadian Mail Order Catalogues is available for viewing in PDF format via Library and Archives Canada. This is an incredible resource for those interested in historical fashions and material culture. They are also key word searchable. You’d be amazed at what you can find in these catalogues. Exercise instructions and music on records from the 1920s! Early deodorant brands like Odorono! And of course amazing fashion styles – they always begin with women’s fashions.
  • In case my instructions weren’t very easy to visualize, here are a few Youtube tutorials that may come in handy: a rag curl tutorial (for those attempting traditional Regency curls or the Mary Pickford look, or, alternatively, have broken hair curling irons) and a finger wave tutorial.
  • Further 1920s long hair tutorials, including faux finger waves. Bonus: silent-film style instruction cards in their videos.
  • Mary Pickford biography via Library and Archives Canada.
  • Mary Pickford: from the ‘girl with the curls’ to ‘woman’s woman’ via Silent London.
  • Why I Have Not Bobbed Mine” by Mary Pickford in which she justifies convincingly the advantages of long hair. This page also includes stories from other women with bobbed hair, either for or against, but always acknowledging that it was no easy decision to go forward with shorn locks.
  • The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada’s collection of historical sound recordings, which include popular songs from the 1920s. For example, why not check out Yes! We Have No Bananas? and of course Shall I Have It Bobbed Or Shingled? Many if not all are downloadable, so coupled with the music that industrious people have uploaded onto Youtube, you now have a soundtrack for your 1920s themed dance party!
  • Speaking of which: Charleston tutorials on Youtube! (Uh, I may have gone overboard in this set of links? You’re not complaining, are you?)
    • Here’s a historical tutorial (beginning at about 1:00, after the demo) from the time period, in which they go through the steps in slow motion. Also includes a video of a couple dancing the Charleston on top of a taxi cab. Shenanigans!
    • Dance Move Fridays: The Charletson: honestly, I find these guys a little bit annoying: they say that the Charleston is from the 1940s! Shock and horror! But they admit that they’re not historians, just dancing fiends. Nevertheless, their tutorial is very clear and they do have some sweet moves. Edit: wait, I take back my first comment. They grow on you, particularly as yous see how much fun they’re having dancing.
    • How To Charleston: this woman is very methodical in teaching a variety of moves, going from the basic butterfly knees (yes, from the 1920s! And considered obscene at the time!) to the more complicated steps. She doesn’t quite manage the full twist in the step in the end (not like in the Dance Move Fridays guys do), but I find that her video was very helpful in letting me know where I should be putting my weight as I do that step.
    • How to Charleston 1920s style – Lesson 1 (Solo Charleston):  this dapper man hints at the many varieties of Charleston moves, and teaches the solo Charleston as well as partnered versions of the dance.
    • Honestly, there are so many dancing tutorials on youtube. I feel like that’s almost the site’s true calling. You can spend hours going through various videos. Happy dancing, fashionable ladies!

Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part III: Using Artifacts as Props

Or, Why Motorcars Were Made To Be Driven

In my last two posts, I enthused about Fort Edmonton Park’s motorcars, and then explained (more or less) how to go about driving a Ford Model A from 1928. Now, let’s talk about why it’s so important to have these cars available at a living history museum.

Aside from just the “being really, really cool” factor, what are the main advantages of having functioning artifact vehicles on 1920s street? Why are interpreters and historical workers so keen on keeping them up and running? Wouldn’t it be safer to just have them sit every day as museum pieces behind ropes with “tombstone” placards with the model name, the years they were produced, their top speed, and their original price?

(Caveat: that being said, of course there is something to be argued for preserving motorcars for future generations. But are you just preserving the image of the object behind glass, separated from society? Or are you going to allow it to be used and loved?)

Advantage #1: Driving cars populates a street that visually looks very empty. 1920s street is the biggest and yet least developed street at Fort Edmonton. The park began with the fort, which was built with the help of the money and interest in Canadian history coming out of the 1967 centennial of Canadian confederation. The park was further developed with 1885 street in the 1970s and 1980s, and 1905 street in the 1980s and 1990s. Until the last decade or two, there was very little on 1920s street, aside from Mellon farm, which is the only structure that still stands on its original land in the park (though it was moved from its original foundations which were nearer to the train station entrance). In the past decade, 1920s street has acquired a Midway, and just got a new movie theatre (which I am pleased to see is now showing films from the 1920s (silent films and talkies) and more modern “historical” movies in addition to the “Northern Lights” video about the park). However, the landscape of the street is dominated by a very large farm, with most of its buildings clustered at the far end of the street away from the train station and entrance.

It’s also the street with the fewest interpreters and volunteers in the largest space, at least compared to the concentration of the fort or the large number of buildings on 1885 street. Last year on 1920s street we had four interpreters, one historical worker (George, the mechanic), a handful of Midway staff to run the theatre and the Tom Thumb golf course (the rest being segregated on the Midway), and about six or seven volunteers who came in once a week or so. Less than ten people, spread across several hundred metres, were meant to represent a city whose population was in the tens of thousands; on many days, there could be only two or three people in costume on the street for hours at a time. Having cars driving down the street does a lot to liven the place up, making it look more populated. I do recall a proud moment last year where the streetcar, myself in one of the cars, one of the maintenance guys in one of their historical trucks, and one of the other interpreters coming from the other direction, all stopped at the railroad crossing as the train went by. I overheard a small child shout out: “Look mum, it’s a traffic jam!” That’s a rarity, but an ideal to strive for; we don’t want Edmonton looking like a ghost town, particularly when it’s meant to be a bustling metropolis… and it is the first impression visitors have of the park when they walk in through the front gates. That’s one of the reasons I liked to take the cars for a spin down to the train station to honk and wave. If a person in costume driving a cool historical vehicle is the first thing one sees when one enters the park, the visitor is instantly reassured that their day is going to be an awesome one.

A 1929 REO, parked near the train station at Fort Edmonton Park. It has lovely comfortable seats, an electric starter, eletric headlights (not acetylene), and even an electric windshield wiper (unlike the one on the Ford Model A, which must be moved by hand). A classy vehicle.
The 1929 REO, parked near the train station at Fort Edmonton Park. It has lovely comfortable seats, an electric starter, electric headlights (not acetylene, like some of the earlier models), and even an electric windshield wiper (unlike the one on the Ford Model A, which must be moved by hand). A classy vehicle. Note, too, the luggage rack on the back.

Advantage #2: It gives (female) interpreters a chance to speak about some little known aspects of Edmonton’s past: women drivers.

One of the comments I got a lot was surprise at the fact that a women was driving. People often think in terms of dichotomies with the past: as we are modern and enlightened in the 21st century, so it must be that in the past we were not. Women didn’t have the right to vote, then they got the right to vote. People have the impression that women didn’t drive in the 1950s, but do now, so of course they wouldn’t have driven in the 1920s. Simple ideas of historical progression precludes the notion. People are uncomfortable with “regressions”, or challenges to the narrative that places us in the present day as the enlightened ones who corrected the mistakes of the past. For instance, many are shocked to learn that in some areas of North America, women, particularly widows who owned land, had the right to vote for generations until it was explicitly taken away from them. Women in what is now Quebec had the right to vote in specific circumstances until 1847 and then lost it until 1940. Women had the right to vote in many of the British colonies (particularly those dominated by religious groups who believed in rough equality of the sexes, like the Quakers) until the American Revolution when the new legislation enacted by the Republic explicitly took those rights and privileges away. The same holds true of free black men in many areas who voted in many elections until the American Revolution. Unfortunately, we as human beings are not necessarily becoming ever more enlightened, as assumed by so many, so I believe it is important to challenge these assumptions and our self-congratulatory attitudes as citizens of the modern world.

So it should be with women drivers. Thinking in simple dichotomies of “women in corsets being oppressed by men and having no say in the world” versus “modern women entering the workplace and being able to vote and wear pants” ignores the strength and agency of the women who lived prior to the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s or the women’s suffrage movements which culminated in the 1910s and 1920s.

Long story short: it wasn’t just men blazing trails in the early decades of the automotive industry. These stories should be told and represented.

Now, women were never a majority of drivers, but they were often more common than many would think. Alexander Rutherford, the first Premier of Alberta, never learned to drive, for example; his daughter, until his death in the 1940s, was also his chauffeur. Once cars became easier to start and thus less strenuous to use, it became more socially acceptable for women to drive. The main barrier for a while was the cost of cars, and as fewer women worked outside of the home for wages, that was a big consideration with regards to car ownership and maintenance. Some early female car mechanics also had to challenge the notion that they couldn’t use tools designed for bigger male hands. However, even if their husbands owned cars, that did not mean that those vehicles weren’t driven by women: why drive to work and park it outside all day (like we often do today) when your wife could use it all day to call upon people and do errands… and be seen about town in an expensive car? In some areas in the first decade of the twentieth century, driving motorcars was even considered a feminine pursuit. The history of female drivers is a fascinating one. See the reading list at the bottom of the page or speak to interpreters on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton for more information on the subject – and anecdotes!

3) Then there’s the whole social history of automobiles itself that can be better explained and demonstrated with moving vehicles. Beyond the technical considerations of operating early motorcars (seen in Part I of this post), there is also the social history of automobiles. As I’ve shown in a previous post on Edwardian Street Life (with videos taken from streetcar lines in 1908!), people interacted with cars and other vehicles on the street very differently in the past.

Until the 1920s and 1930s, people understood the street as a place to be in very different ways. It was a living space, dominated by pedestrians – also known as people going about their day – and everything on the road moved at the same pace, more or less, be they walking, in horse-drawn carriages, cycling, or even in cars (speed limits were very low at first in inner cities). People had to be taught that jaywalking was a thing, a dangerous thing, and a social faux-pas as well as a crime. (It used to just mean a country rube who was so unused to how cities bustled about that he wasn’t watching where he was going.) People had to be taught that roads were places for cars, not people. It was an important and revolutionary shift in thinking.

Now, we can’t fully demonstrate at Fort Edmonton Park this dramatic change in how cities and roads were understood and used without endangering people, but we can make clear the idea that having a landscape dominated by motorized vehicles was not a given. The cars at the park share space with hundreds of pedestrians, in addition to the streetcars, cyclists, horses, and horse-drawn carriages. As previously stated I like challenging the idea of progress and the inevitability of modernity; for a while, there were many people who actively resisted the introduction of automobiles to cities, thinking that the change in lifestyle but more importantly the loss of life was not worth the convenience of travel for the rich few who could afford automobiles. Try to imagine a world in which automobiles were banned as dangerous and reckless weapons. How would our cities – and our country – have developed differently?

Interpreting with artifacts isn’t just about barraging visitors with facts about the original prices, top speeds, and manufacturing information of various models of vehicles. While interesting, and definitely important and of interest to visitors, it’s nothing that they can’t look up using our trusty friend Google or find out from any other museum with motorcars in their collection. Why is it so important that these artifacts are driven? To me, it’s about the social history of cars: the material experience and reality of being a driver in an earlier time period, not facts and figures about technological changes. Visitors can investigate the cars in far closer proximity than most museums would allow (provided, hopefully, that a costumed interpreter or other employee is monitoring them), and seeing them move in person is very different than even seeing historical footage. As an observer, you can see, hear, and even feel how different these vehicles move. You may have to do some emergency repairs, just like an earlier generation of motorists would have done. Visitors can feel the heat of the engine and the rumble as the car moves, and can hear the raspy bleating sound of the horn. The visitor’s sensory experience isn’t just limited to sight, making what they learn all the more memorable. The sheer materiality of artifacts that can be understood through multiple senses should not be underestimated.

Everything can be turned into a learning experience for the visitor. It was in fact a part of my interpretive style. I didn’t want to just lie in wait for visitors to come into my line of sight and then pounce upon them verbally with historical facts (though that did happen on occasion). Instead, I liked to be doing activities – going about my day normally – and have visitors come across me. I felt more authentic; I was a real person, not a mannequin waiting to be animated by the presence of visitors. Driving – doing errands – was a huge part of that. I could be on my way to the drug store from the train station, ready to pick up some prescription (anti-asthma cigarettes, perhaps?), and deliver them to a friend at Mellon Farm. I could easily pull over and speak to visitors who were interested, and then I had at least two or three ready made conversation starters: what are you doing? What are you driving? Why are you driving that car? Where are you going? (Can I come with you?) The motorcar wasn’t just a way to access stories about the technological history of automobiles: it was a bridge to many different stories from Edmonton’s past.

Disclaimer: As previously mentioned in the disclaimers of my previous post on blacksmithing at Fort Edmonton and Fort Langley, I am not a current employee of the park. I am speaking purely from my (awesome) experience as a past employee. Policies may have changed. Perhaps the vehicles are now merely decorative, or are reserved for special occasions. But I hope not. Nevertheless, please do not sidle up to interpreters and demand rides in the historical cars. Getting a ride in the historical vehicles is not a right, but a privilege, dependent on a multitude of important factors, including safety regulations (i.e., weather conditions, crowds, if the car is in need of minor repairs), interpreter availability and training, whether or not the interpreter has other responsibilities (sadly, interpreters and volunteers are not paid or expected to spend the entire day behind the wheel but have other duties and responsibilities), current park policy, number of visitors requesting rides, and whether or not the interpreter is comfortable with bringing that particular individual into the vehicle with them. “Don’t get in a car with strangers” applies to interpreters inviting you into their vehicle too. If you are too distracting, which would make it difficult to concentrate on driving, or make the interpreter uncomfortable, they reserve the right to not get into a potentially dangerous situation for either person involved. (That also means that if you made an inappropriate sexist or sexual comment about me and women’s roles in society vis à vis their ability or right to drive cars (“Hey beautiful, move on over and let me drive!”), now you know why I looked really unimpressed and made excuses to get out of there and park the car in the garage out of sight.) In short: admire and discuss the cars and see what happens next.

Recommended reading/learning:

  • Pick the brains of costumed interpreters, historical workers, and volunteers at Fort Edmonton Park hanging around the Motordrome on 1920s Street.
  • If you are in the Edmonton/Calgary area and have a motorcar of your own that is capable of driving along the highway, I would definitely recommend visiting the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin. They have an amazing collection of old vehicles, from early home made snowmobiles, luxury cars from the 1920s, gigantic tractors, and everything in between.
  • The Reynolds-Alberta Museum also put out several small books on the subject of early automobile travel, specifically in Alberta, which are fascinating reads full of local photographs and anecdotes: Kelly Buziak’s Taking to the Road: Early Auto Touring and Camping in Alberta and Sean Moir’s Perilous Journeys: Early Motoring in Alberta.
  • For a more extensive comparative study of early female drivers in England, America, and Australia, check out Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists by Georgine Clarsen
  • The Modern Moloch“: a 99% Invisible Podcast episode on the definition of jaywalking and early reactions and resistance to the dangerous mechanical contraptions that were taking over living space in cities. It will change how you think about cars and pedestrians and how the distinction came to be.
  • As a cyclist, I find this article an interesting “what could have been” case study: Meet the one city in America where cars have been banned since 1898.
  • AMA Vintage Vehicle Weekend Flickr set by Fort Edmonton Park.
  • History of the Ford Model T (blog, video and photo gallery) via