It turns out I’m not done with the whole Colonial Williamsburg thing. In fact, I recall staying awake nights fretting about newly discovered details (new for me, anyway) concerning life in the 18th century as I worked on my Revolutionary War saga, Treason, Treason! Seriously, how many of these things could I squeeze into one book before readers held their collective noses and disposed 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 unusual and/or generally unknown facts about a particular period in history, 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 bedsheets. 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 (or she) 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? A white one. 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 five percent of the population. So, all the other guys had to make do with plain old hair. And more specifically, their own. Those who could afford fancy hairpieces were not restricted to white ones. They had a full range of styles and colors to choose from. This 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 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.
If you haven’t had a chance to get a copy of Treason, Treason! there’s still time. That and a couple dozen other titles by yours truly are available via Amazon. Sorry about the blatant plug, but I’ve still gotta pay the bills.