It’s the Little Things that Matter

A part of history that I find completely enthralling are the details. Not the sort of details that my university ‘History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union’ professor thought were important, like how many tons of coal were produced in Minsk in 1786 (and that, I really couldn’t tell you; that was the only class I ever failed) but whether Catherine the Great drank her tea from a cup, or a glass.

Years ago, now, I used to volunteer as a docent and historic interpreter at a living history museum in Massachusetts. My favourite assignment was the Asa Knight store, with its shelves of patent medicines, English import tableware, ice skates, bolts of fabric, boxes of hardware, barrels of flour and drawers of spices, straight razors, hair combs, canisters of paint pigments, shoe buckles, ladies gloves and gentlemen’s hats… things, glorious things!

Material things that have survived through the years give us a glimpse of the way our ancestors lived. They each have little stories. A toothbrush — depending on your family’s economic situation, there might be only one, so everybody used it; a pair of eyeglasses — once called ‘spectacles’: why were they considered a spectacle? Or maybe they were ‘spectacular’! This mirror — did a gentleman use it to shave in? Or did a girl examine herself critically: ‘Does he like this about me? Are my lips too thin; is my hair too straight?’

It may be fanciful — it probably is fanciful — but when I hold one of these objects in my hand, I can believe that it still retains some of the energy of its last owner. What letters did this pen write? This pocket watch, which once a gentleman wore on a fob attached to his waistcoat, tucked snugly in his pocket: did he pick it out himself at the jeweller? Or was it his father’s before it was his? Was knowing the precise time of day important to his business, or was this a status symbol, telling the time to him and him alone?

One thing in particular that interests me deeply was how we cared for people when they were unwell. We did not know why people got ill, only that it was inevitable, and that a fever could quickly turn deadly. Today we look at early modern medicine and say, ‘How primitive, how brutal!’ But our method of diagnosis and treatment was empirical. We applied those things that we could learn by observation. Both the physician and the patient must have had faith in the efficacy of a treatment, or it would have been discarded. Even if bleeding and cupping look barbaric to us today, leeches still have their uses! And herbal medicine is still widely used; if you go into a Boots in the UK you can find a cough mixture that still contains extract of squills, an eighteenth-century cough remedy.

So these kinds of details — what kind of fabric is his shirt ruffle made from? what is on their breakfast table? what toys do their children play with? — are important to me in a work of historical fiction. We are fond of saying, ‘We cannot know what it was really like, because we weren’t there!’  But we can learn a lot by looking at the things that were left behind.

One author who does this very well is Diana Gabaldon. Her details help shape the environment in which the characters operate, making it believable and immersive, and they are usually very well researched. Of course, it helps that her characters are time travellers who occasionally get ripped from century to century, so if they bring an anachronism back with them now and then, oh well!

There is another writer whose works of historical fiction I really enjoy (I’m not going to name the writer, because I’m about to say something critical, and I don’t want to disparage somebody’s work) but I keep tripping over the anachronisms. And often, they’re big ones… like setting a scene in a district of the city that will not exist for another hundred years, because the man it is named after has not been born yet. The author loves to describe the clothing the characters are wearing, but their clothing is largely fantasy. Before the creation of chemical dyes, some colours just didn’t exist, and there were specific pieces of clothing that were imperative in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that we do not wear any longer; these pieces of clothing had specific names. The pre-Industrial Revolution character who has shredded wheat for breakfast… did he, really? Did he pour it out of a yellow cardboard box that said ‘Nabisco’?

(I’m not trying to be catty. It comes naturally. I learned from the best.)

Most readers, I imagine, can read these books without noticing a single anachronism. It is my misfortune that I can’t help seeing them. It’s like missing commas or misplaced apostrophes. A ketch cannot be ship-rigged. By definition, a ketch is fore-and-aft rigged. Here I am, galloping along at the author’s break-neck pacing, and I keep getting thrown by one of these gopher holes.

One of the best things about the internet (there are plenty of things to dislike about the internet, but I’m not touching that) is the amount of verifiable information available at one’s fingertips. Where once it required trips to specific libraries or reading rooms, requests for materials from special collections, and hours spent lurking amongst the stacks, now you can check things with a few keystrokes. It is a thing of wonder. One of the websites that I love is the 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center, which you can access by clicking the link. 

You may not care one tittle or jot about historical accuracy, but these images are full of beautiful, glorious, humble little THINGS… things full of stories, things with histories. I invite you to spend some time amongst these things: imagine their uses, and the people who owned them. Maybe you’ll discover a story of your own.



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