I have always loved history. A large part of my fascination with history I believe I can thank my parents for. From an early age I was able to visit historical sites and locations that brought these descriptions of great battles, events, and people into a real-world context that made them seem to come alive. Re-enacting and research into the lives of people piggybacked on my history interest and allowed for a much greater insight into what it meant to live or experience certain eras and events. Later on in my life I began branching out into the preparedness community and found a lot of roll-over from some of my reenacting and living-history experiences. I believe that there is a wellspring of useful information and skills available from the re-enacting and historical research community for people interested in preparedness to tap into. In this article I hope to lay out some of my thinking regarding this example and showcase a few examples of skills and information I have managed to pick up from my time in the living-history community.
It is often difficult to comprehend the effects industrialization has had on the everyday realities of life the majority of people face. While the technology created has removed some of the urgency that may have existed for peoples of the past, our basic needs remain the same. Whether a person is alive now or living 300 or even 1,000 years ago, the basic needs to stay alive and functional are the same. We all need food year round, a clean source of water, to stay clean and hygienic, and shelter from the elements.
I think one of the most interesting aspects of a post-industrialized world is that we no longer need to utilize materials and resources that are nearby, instead relying on various entities to produce and provide materials that may be shipped from the other side of the globe for our consumption. Everything from architecture to basic hygiene products like soap bars reflects this change and the differences that have occurred. Where previously a local community might produce its own lye and tallow for soap, or harvest its own nearby forest for lumber, now most people’s goods are bought from supermarkets and come from all over the planet.
In the past, people were not so far removed from some of their basic needs and had to deal with them on a fairly regular basis, addressing them using the skills passed on by their parents. Their insight and legacy are available for us to garner from to aid us in our growth in becoming more self-sufficient. Often in the pre-industrial world, people lived on what we might refer to today as a homestead, where many of the food, goods, or processes were worked or created nearby in a somewhat self-sustaining pattern.
When going through a living-history or re-enactment camp, it is often the case that someone will be portraying a specific profession, such as, for example, surgeons, butchers, or tanners. There, individuals often have spent a good deal of time looking into records and texts and even testing out some of the skills they have learned in their attempt to get a better grasp of how such professionals would have lived in their own time. Talking with these re-enactors is often fascinating and is a useful source of information regarding their specific fields; from them, we may be able to garner examples for modern replication. There is a lot to be learned from the lives and examples that were left for us to see.
A quick disclaimer, though: not everything that you get from historical sources is always something we want to emulate. For example, I once enjoyed a two-hour presentation on civil war surgery practices, most of which makes me shudder when considering putting them to use and I would not advise the replication of the techniques or the usage of the tools discussed in this case.
For the average person interested in preparedness I suggest that there are three great resources that may be overlooked where one can gain skills, ideas, methodologies and hopefully a little wisdom and inspiration from past peoples. First would be written sources: journals, almanacs, newspapers and other historical records can be great resources for those looking into the lives of, for example, American frontiersmen, who often kept detailed journals chock-full of information on taming the American wilderness. This first group can be a great resource for people who are interested and willing to read often older English and obsolete vocabulary. However, for those with perhaps less time to go back to the original sources, other works such as biographies, magazines, and history books detailing the lives of people in a certain time and place are also excellent sources from people who have hopefully spent a lot of time going through the first channel of research.
Finally, what I would argue is perhaps the best resource for survivalists and preppers is to go and attend a living history program. Whether it be a short-term re-enactment event or a permanent spot like the Jamestown Settlement or Colonial Williamsburg, these are excellent resources for people to learn from. While there, you will often come across individuals who have spent years researching the lives and activities of people from that particular era and will have often attempted to recreate and live in imitation of them. If attending such events, look for presentations that may be scheduled, such as a presentation on contemporary medicine or cooking, or certain buildings that may be given over to a trade such as carpentry or blacksmithing.
The people portraying the period inside will often have initial presentations to give and are more than willing to answer any questions you can think of. I often ask such things as:
* What did they build their houses out of and where did they acquire these materials?
* How did they deal with personal hygiene?
* How did they deal with waste?
* What did they bring with them when they went travelling or into the backwoods?
* What kind of food did they store to last through winter and how did they make it?
There are endless rabbit holes one can go down learning about the lives led by our predecessors, and re-enactors are generally more than happy to share their experiences. Some of the friendliest people I have met participate in this out of a true love and passion for sharing what they learn about a period and are most often excited when an honest interest is shown in their work.
Some Example Projects
In this section I have included a few practical lessons, skills, or recipes I have gained primarily from living history experiences. I have included some that would lean more towards a survival setting and others that would definitely be more useful in long-term preparedness and sustainability settings. Some of these projects are fairly small and can be done in a day while others may take quite a bit of preparation; these are also not meant to be an end-all-be-all source but a showcase of ideas gained from the re-enactment and living history communities.
Flint Striker: Roman, Medieval, Colonial
I’m probably preaching to the choir here with this one, but a flint striker is one of the most reliable, and oldest, forms of fire starting available. Even the 5000-year-old “Iceman” Otzi was found to be carrying iron pyrite to use with flint to create sparks. Percussion fire starting was used in Europe from the Iron Age onward and only fell out of style in the past 200 years. While those attending this site are probably familiar with fire making, it is nonetheless interesting to take this as a testament to the usefulness of this ol’ “tried and true” method.
Parched corn, or pinole, as it is known in the Southwestern United States, has a long history and has been a staple food for both European and Native Americans when travelling long distances. It was mentioned as early as the colonial period by Benjamin Franklin, and its virtues were extolled by the outdoorsman legend Horace Kephart. A handful of parched corn followed by some water was known as a solid meal for the traveler that may have at times only brought this food for weeks-long journeys. The fact that it is an incredibly stable food that will last for years makes it one of the most incredible survival foods I have come across. The process to prepare it is fairly simple: starting with a non-popping corn, the kernels are dried and then simply roasted to a nice deep color. The corn is then ground into a fine powder and is ready for use or storage. There are a variety of ways to prepare it, including the previously mentioned handful of corn followed by water, heating it with a bit of water like oatmeal, or simply adding a few pinches into water to create a flavored drink.
Fermentation is one of the oldest preservation techniques known to man, but it has waned in popularity in recent generations as the need for long shelf-life goods has diminished. It seems in recent years there has been an increased interest in some of the techniques involved, as more and more people attempt fermenting at home. I personally became interested in it after reading about the popularity of home cider fermentation in early America.
Before the late 1800s homemade cider was one of the most common beverages in America. Fermentation of apple juices was a straightforward way to preserve the harvest from orchards on homesteads, and allowed for a clean drinking source for the family. Cider can even be used for the creation of vinegars for preserving other goods. I have personally fermented juices, meads, sauerkraut, kvass, and a couple of other interesting drinks and recipes. Fermenting cider is a fun and rewarding project that can easily be done at home, and can yield a variety of results depending on simple factors such as types of juices, time allowed to ferment, and types of yeast.
Clay Brick Making
Many years ago I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia. While there, I spent a few days alongside their re-enactors getting to learn about and experience various professions they showcase. Brick making was a fairly straightforward and interesting skill I was able to pick up and practice for a few days during my time there. Using clay that has been filtered from nearby sources, the clay is softened by walking on it in a similar process to how wine grapes were pressed by foot. This process is nearly nonstop at an operation like Williamsburg that operates on a large scale.
Clay that is soft enough is removed from the batch and covered in a thin amount of sand similarly to how dough will be sprinkled with flour when working with it. It is then placed into a brick mold and formed to the shape and size of the preferred bricks; these proto-bricks are then laid out to dry a while before baking. Baking entails stacking all the shaped clay bricks into a furnace with spacing between each brick. This allows the heat to circulate around each individual brick so each brick can get fired evenly. The furnace is surrounded by already fired bricks and then covered in more clay to trap the heat into the pile, an opening in the top acts as a chimney for the entire furnace. A fire is tended for a few days so the entire thing heats up and then, after the fire dies down, a few days are allowed for the entire furnace to cool down before it is dismantled revealing bricks usable for their construction projects on property.
In the busy, post-industrial world we find ourselves in it is often difficult to comprehend the types of lives our forebears led. Our pre-industrial ancestors often lived in a manner that might be more interesting to those of us who consider preparedness to be an important goal in our lives today. Often functioning in more self-sufficient manners in a homestead or small community function, our ancestors, especially from America’s colonial and pioneering ages, had to deal with the reality of sustaining and surviving often in isolation.
There is much to be gained in terms of inspiration from their lives and experience from their actions even now, so many years later. I believe that re-enactments and living-history events are an excellent resource for preparedness-minded people to learn from. My experience working in and around these events has allowed for not only a greater appreciation for all that my ancestors have done for me, but also ways that lessons from their lives can affect me today. Luckily it is both a fun and fascinating experience for the whole family, that also provides insight into how people lived in their time as well as inspiration for ourselves today.