It turns out I’m not done with the whole Colonial Williamsburg thing. In fact, I’ve stayed awake nights lately fretting about newly discovered details (new for me, anyway) concerning life in the 18th century. Seriously, how many of these things can I squeeze into one book before readers hold their collective noses and dispose of my meticulously plotted tome in the nearest dumpster?
In case you missed my last discourse on this — feel free to go here to catch up; I’ll wait — now, here’s more on a writer’s research conundrum: when it comes to bizarre and generally unknown facts about an historical period, how much is enough?
Let’s begin with something simple, like oh, I dunno… napkins. It turns out that patrons of the finer colonial inns could expect to be fitted with bibs roughly the size of bed sheets. The photo at left captures your humble correspondent just prior to being served a magnificent Colonial-style meal, sans soup. One wonders how carefully our ancestors dined, or if they were all as frenzied as Henry Fielding’s legendary rogue, Tom Jones. (In this still from the 1963 movie, “Tom Jones,” you’ll note the obvious historical booboo — no giant napkins. On the other hand, such would only have covered up another pair of booboos. Thank you, Hollywood.)
And then there’s the business of headgear. Based on most of the period movies I’ve seen, all males living in the 18th century were equipped with tri-corner hats. Right?
Men’s hats at that time generally had a round brim, and the wearer could opt to fold up, or “cock” the brim, any way he liked. Tri-cocked hats were all the rage in France and were widely emulated in the colonies, but the good folk in Williamsburg insist that as often as not the brims were done differently, and zero to two “cockings” (“cock-ups?”) were common.
All right then, just what did the well dressed gent wear under his hat? A wig, right? White. And probably powdered to hide the smell or kill bugs or…. Wrong again.
For openers, only the upper crust could even afford wigs. In Virginia that amounted to about 5% of the population. So the common weal had to make do with plain old hair. And more specifically, their own. Those who could afford the fancy hair pieces were not restricted to white. They had a full range of styles and colors to choose from. The same held true for the ladies, too. A cheap wig, according to the Williamsburg experts, cost about the same amount as a good team of oxen.
And, speaking of oxen, I also learned that there’s no such “breed” as an ox. Pretty much any old cow, or pair of cows since they usually worked in teams, could earn the Oxen Merit Badge. Males, females, steers, brothers, sisters… didn’t matter. Hitch ’em up! Or trade ’em in for a wig. Hard to beat a deal like that. (And something else I didn’t know, city slicker that I am, all of these critters have horns — boys and girls — kinda like modern day teens. C’mon. You saw that comin’.)
Okay, almost done for this session. But this one I really like: surgeons were held in lower regard than physicians. Why? Because the latter usually went to some sort of medical school while the former earned their trade from barbers and/or butchers. Your best bet, however, was a trip to the herb lady. She normally carried a wide variety of herbal remedies. And, if all else failed, she also carried a saw and a knife for removing limbs, as well as something torchy to cauterize the stumps. One in four such patients actually survived — the same odds you’d get from a surgeon, and at a reduced cost.
Don’t forget: Treason, Treason! is coming this fall. Keep an eye on this space for announcements. Seriously, this is one book you don’t want to miss.