Living History


by Jennifer Marek

A unique approach to learning history is to use a technique called "living history." This method draws students into learning history by discovering that history includes people--what they thought, how they dressed, how they lived, what items they used. This kind of history is not easily obtained by the traditional, time-worn method of memorizing names and dates.

Living history basically involves people dressing in period clothing to help interpret history. The interpretation can range from simple (demonstrating a skill) to complex (pretending to live in a certain period). A demonstration is the simplest form of living history because it requires only a knowledge of the skill and its relation to society. Local festivals and most county museums have craftsmen who demonstrate how to make soap, weave, grind corn, etc. Simple interpretation has a general appeal for teachers who want to add a new dimension to their classrooms and supplement the students' textbooks. A variation of the demonstration technique lets the students try their own hand at the task. Such an activity provides a basis for discussion of the history of the time and ties the experience into students' reading.

Demonstrations themselves are simple but can quickly become complex with the demonstrator's switch from a third person to a first person character. This is because acting in the third person allows the demonstrator to remain in the present while explaining the activity. First person characterization, on the other hand, requires that the demonstrator actually pretend to be from that time period and know nothing about the present. This is a far more challenging endeavor.

Pretending to live in a certain era is a complex activity. Done in first person, short visits involve the interpreter and participants performing activities appropriate to the place and time. For example, a four-hour visit to a living history 1870s-era farm would require that everyone cooks on a wood stove, chops wood and performs the many daily chores necessary to ran a farm more than a century ago. Indeed, even conversation topics would be limited to the "current" 1870s or previous events.

The highest level of immersion in living history extends the participant's short visit into a weekend or even a week-long journey back in time. Twenty-four hours a day of this definitely makes the past come alive, as people become intimately familiar with both the hardships and pleasures of history. Weekend wagon train excursions are an example.

In Kansas, four museums offer short-visit living history programs, all pertaining to one-room schools. The most recent addition is the "Rural School Days: Kansas in 1920" at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. Begun in 1993, Rural School Days presents a 1920s experience which is enhanced by an extensive pre-visit packet which prepares students for maintaining a 1920s atmosphere during the session. At the one-room school, the classroom teachers turns the class over to a trained 1920s teacher and sits back to enjoy. While there, students experience everything from reading and writing to relying on a coal stove for heat. The program lasts four hours and is free. To reserve a day, call the Education/Outreach Division at 785-272-8681.

Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita has a two-hour program in their one-room school. They provide an outline and bibliography for the classroom teacher to use in preparing the students and in leading the 1870s/1880s school day. The classroom teacher plans and teaches the lessons. To receive a complimentary copy of the Wichita Museum Sampler which contains examples from the program, or to make reservations, call 316-264-0671. The fee is $1.50 per student and $3.00 per adult.

The Lanesfield School Living History Program in Shawnee offers a four-hour session. Their pre-visit packet includes an overview of one-room schools and activities to prepare students for their visit. At the school, the date is 1904 and adults become older students while the interpreter leads the class. The cost per student and adult is $2.00. Reservations can be made by calling the Johnson County Historical Museum at 913-631-6709.

Island Creek School at the Agricultural Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs presents a four-hour program. A pre-visit packet provides hints and activities designed to enhance the experience of attending a 1900 school day. At the school an interpreter becomes the new teachers while the classroom teachers observes. The fee is $75 per class. Call 913-721-1075 for reservations.

Choosing the right living history program for a class trip is important. Each one offers something different so it is necessary to decide which would benefit the class most. Would you prefer receiving all of the necessary information for preparing the class, or would you rather find your own sources? Do you want to teach the period class or have an interpreter lead? How close do you wish to stay to authenticity? What time period is preferable? Is cost a concern? Before deciding on a program, it might be wise to request information on the programs to determine the best one for your class.

In order for "living history" to succeed in teaching students something of value, teachers must carefully prepare the students for the experience. All of the programs listed above offer background material, including information about subjects taught, games played, and rules enforced. Class preparation should involve discussions about what exactly living history is and how it works. Your students need to understand that they will be pretending to be in a certain time period and must work at knowing nothing about events or items past of a more recent vintage. Part of this includes being dressed appropriately. A good source for period clothing is Children's Costume in America 1607-1910 by Estelle Ansley Worrell. Lunch is also important. The most authentic lunches would be leftovers wrapped in paper and a tin cup. Try to restrict soft drinks, potato chips, plastic bags, etc. Stressing these fundamental aspects of life will give students a better feel for history than if they bring modern victuals with them.

To get maximum benefit from the living history experience the students must be well-prepared. They must know how to role play and have some idea of the historical time frame. Adults (classroom teachers and parents who aren't participating) should sit quietly in the back, since it is distracting to leaders to have adults whispering among themselves.

Incorporating living history into your educational plan may be more feasible if it is brought directly to the classroom. Inviting craftspersons to visit the classroom or preparing the demonstration yourself are ways to do this. The Directory of Folk and Historical Demonstrations and Performances in Kansas offers an excellent source of people who are known for their craft and how to contact them. The majority of these craftspeople will stay in third person. The participation of the students will vary. The Directory can be obtained from the Kansas Museum of History gift shop for $3.50.

Teachers and students working together on such projects provides a readily accessible outlet for living history efforts, although obtaining the necessary equipment may be difficult. Listed below are three activities that do not require any special equipment.

Apple drying was a typical 1870s - 1920s farm activity. Every fall brought an abundance of apples that needed to last through the winter. The best way to preserve them was to dry them. The women peeled, cored, and sliced the seemingly endless supply of apples. The sliced apples were strung like popcorn strings and hung above or close to the wood stove where the heat dried the apples in a couple of days. They could then be stored in a box and used over the winter in pies, cakes, or even eaten by themselves. If people did not plan ahead for winter and did not dry apples or other fruit, they did without fruit until next year. Equipment needed for drying apples include apples, paring knives, bowls, thread, needles, and buttons. Students peel, core, and slice the apples into medium size pieces. Before stringing apples, a button should be tied to the end of the string so the apple pieces will stay on the string. Hang the apples close to a heat source, such as a radiator, so they will harden in a couple of days. They will become mushy, perhaps moldy, if not near heat. Before using, soak them in water for a few hours or overnight.

Before radio and television people often spent spare time in the parlor or living room playing games. These parlor games provided opportunities to practice manners and be in the company of others. "Acting Proverbs" was a popular game. A number of old proverbs (wise sayings), such as "A penny saved is a penny earned," were written on slips of paper. To play, one person picked a proverb and acted it out while the rest tried to guess what it was. During the whole time, the person didn't say a word but still gave clues. One finger held up indicated that he was acting out the first word; three fingers meant the third word and so on. Players could start on any word, as long as they let the others know which word they were acting out. If someone said the word, acknowledgment was made by nodding and pointing to the person who said it. Play continued in this version of "Charades" until someone guessed the whole proverb. Each player took a turn at acting out a proverb. Proverbs that could be used in class include: "A stitch in time saves nine," "Idle hands are the devil's work," "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." In today's classroom this game could be used not only for teaching history but also for sharing the meaning of these proverbs with today's students who are perhaps not familiar with them.

Many of the toys with which children once played involved little or no expense. Kids used materials at hand to make toys instead of buying ready-made ones at the store. One toy easily assembled from scraps is a button spinner, also called a buzzer, spinner, hummer, or button yo-yo. To make a button spinner, thread a piece of heavy string three feet long through the holes of a heavy button. If it is a four-hole button, thread the string through the two diagonal holes. Tie the string ends together and move the button to the center of the string. Place the middle fingers through the loops of the string and start the button spinning by whirling the button to twist the string. As soon as the button is started, keep it moving by alternately pulling and releasing the string ends.

Jennifer Marek was a graduate student in American History at Emporia State University when she compiled this information.