A Dream Come True (Or So You Want To Be A Campfollower)

By Lauren Radecsky — President, 6th Pennsylvania Regiment

As far back into myself as I can remember, history was always a fascination for me. I would spend hours absorbing any book I could get on any historical subject. My favorite was American History, from the settlement at Jamestown to the Victorian Era. If I had to narrow it down, it comes as no problem to say "the American Revolution."

When I got older and could get around alone, I found something I thought to be a dream come true... Living History Re-enactors! Could this really be true? Do these people really live in the 18th Century? How can I get involved?

When my husband and I decided to find a Unit to join, we found that there were different "degrees" of participation. Some were only interested in the Bicentennial and were not going to be involved thereafter, some were only "window dressing" and were out there for the glory that only a parade or store opening could bring. We were discouraged. We were looking to join a unit who cared about history and what they were teaching to the public. Fortunately, we met the Unit we currently belong to, the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment.

I thought it had been hard to find the right unit and once we found them things were easy... right? Not necessarily! There is so much more to becoming a re-enactor than putting on the clothes, and first you have to make sure those clothes are correct. Don't ever, in a million years, believe everything you've read in a novel or seen in a movie. Sure, they look beautiful. But have they ever scrubbed out a blackened kettle in a gown? You bet your stays they haven't!

OK, so now I have decided to be a campfollower... what do I do next? I relied on everyone I could for information. Not all of the information was good, as you can guess. And along the way I made a horse's ass out of myself... MANY TIMES! So I have decided to sit my horse's ass down and put what I have learned on paper and possibly I can help someone else to avoid the mistakes I have made. I am by no means an expert! This hobby is a constant learning experience. And I think that if it no longer is such, then it will no longer be fun. A lot of people have helped me to learn; I hope I can help you... so here goes.

The first thing most people will do is to assume that "Campfollower" means something else.

I am always stressing that a campfollower is so much more than a woman of "questionable character". A campfollower was, in fact, anyone -- male or female -- who followed the army. Some followed because they had family members there and possibly had no place else to go. Some were hired to follow and served in the capacity of laundresses, seamstresses, and cooks. Some served as sutlers, suppliers of goods. And yes, there were THOSE ladies as well. But keep in mind, some of the officer's had their wives with them, and they, too, fall into this category, including Martha Washington. So as a campfollower, you are in league with some diversified company.

So now you have to decide what type of campfollower you are going to portray.

I portray a very common woman who has been following my husband since the war began. I am worn out, my clothes are worn out, and I generally look like hell. If this is the kind of person you wish to be, this is easy to attain. I reached this look naturally in the last ten years, however, it doesn't take that long to achieve. Linen doesn't hold up well to constant wear, perspiration, and modern laundering. All of my clothing is either patched, burnt, or stained.

I work in the kitchen and always have myself in the fire. Which brings up a good point, if you are not wearing the right fabric, such as linen, wool, and cotton, you have a major problem. Not only are you misleading the public, but you are putting yourself in danger. Natural fibers will smolder before they burst into flame, and you will be aware of a problem immediately. Anything with polyester will melt to your skin. So please, it is very important that you use the correct fabric.

The primary fabric should be linen, then wool, then cotton, and a treasured item made of silk is acceptable. While cotton was grown in the colonies, it was sent to England for processing and wouldn't have been affordable by the common sort such as I am portraying. I also, being strongly in support of the cause would not have wanted to wear anything that came from England. Homespun is liberty's cloth.

Remember, everything you have would be carried on your person.

Campfollowers were not allowed to put their possessions on the baggage wagons. So something treasured would be hard to hold on to, the same goes for any jewelry you may have. I know that it is easy to say that they had gold, silver and precious stones then. And while that is true, how do you justify owning them? If you had something of value, it would have been long gone, either sold or traded for food, or just plain stolen. The same goes for anything large, such as a trunk. It, too, would have been too heavy to haul around and long since stolen, sold, or abandoned.

So now you're wondering, what does she use to carry her possessions around? The greatest thing I have found is the market wallet. It can hold a multitude of sins (including anything 20th century you wish to hide). And you can sling it over your shoulder. A basket works well, too, but it can be tiresome if it has to be carried for any distance, especially if you are like me and stuff too much into it.

One thing that was important to a lady in the 18th century was her skin.

Even though she was in the field with her husband, she still tried to protect her skin with a hat. And you would NEVER be without a cap or kerchief to cover your hair. Most ladies, when they become involved in the hobby, hate wearing a cap. But a cap functioned as protection for your hair. It (hopefully) kept your hair clean and lice-free. And with the modern short hairstyles, caps hide the lack of hair. If you have really short hair you can stuff horsehair in your cap to give the appearance of longer hair. In the 18th century, the lack of hair meant that you were shaved for lice, illness, or punishment.

A wonderful protector for your complexion is some gentleman's cast off cocked hat. Take two of the sides down, and it covers you quite well. An old shallow-crowned straw hat is wonderful in the summer.

When dressing like a campfollower, you should think of both practically and creatively.

It is quite alright to wear anything that could have been cast-off, stolen or traded from a gentleman. Along with our clothing, it looks great.

The same goes for shoes. Wooden shoes, shabby shoes, worn shoes also look great. Don't think that wooden shoes mean that you must have been Dutch. Wooden shoes were worn by the working class. During the French Revolution, the workers threw their sabots (wooden shoes) into the machines to stop work, hence the word, "sabotage." Not everyone could afford buckles for their shoes. Ties look wonderful, remember to punch one set of opposing holes to lace the ties through in the 18th century manner.

No lady would feel proper without at least two petticoats. When it gets hot, pull one up through your pocket openings. It looks great and feels cooler. Pockets should be worn under the petticoat. If they're worn on top of the petticoats, how could you keep pickpockets out?

There has been some question about wearing stays. Some people believe that not all ladies wore them. I do not really know. What I can relate to you is that they give you the proper 18th century profile, and they definitely support your back muscles. As mentioned before, I work in the kitchen and without them, I hurt my back lifting heavy cast iron. You can chose to wear jumps, a lightly boned garment, if stays are too intimidating. While it was improper that you are seen in public with your stays uncovered, remember that you are of the working class, and it is time of war. Many things went by the wayside, but when in town, you would still put some kind of jacket over them, if only a weskit.

So now that you are dressed, you're ready, right?

Well, I guess the next question is "Do the clothes alone make the person?" No. You must think and feel like a campfollower.

The biggest mistake often made is to have this beautifully reproduced clothing topped off by wearing your 20th century eyeglasses. If you are truly blind without them, then wear reproduction 18th century glasses. Remember, not everyone who had a vision problem had access to or the money to purchase them.

Another often seen problem is modern makeup and nail polish. If you really want to wear makeup, do it the 18th century way. You have to make your skin pure white with red circles of rounge and red lips (not a pretty sight to the modern eye!) and really, you wouldn't be in camp "dolled up" in this manner unless you are practicing the world's oldest profession! Nothing does this hobby more of a disservice than misrepresenting yourself to the public.

Cigarettes are one of the largest problems. If you are a tobacco smoker, use a pipe — it looks great!

Now that you look like a campfollower, you have to think like one, too.

Remember, survival is utmost in our mind. Freedom meant as much to some of these ladies as it did to our founding fathers. Another thing to remember ladies, you are considered less than a man in the 18th century. I know, we raise our collective liberated hackles over that one! But in order to portray it right, remember ladies were almost considered property. However, a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, right, Mr. Jefferson? So go ahead, smoke your pipe... carry your stolen pistol... be a little seedy... and have a good time!

There are some excellent reference books available.

I strongly recommend them to you. Here are some; the list is too long to include in its entirety:

Tidings From the 18th Century by Beth Gilgun

Working Dress In Colonial And Revolutionary America by Peter Copeland

Remember The Ladies, Women in America 1750-1815 by Linda Grant De Pauw and Conover Hunt

Liberty's Daughters, The Revolutionary Experience of American Women 1750-1800 by Mary Beth Norton

Women Campfollowers of the American Revolution by Walter Hart Blumenthal

Copyright © 1995 Lauren Radecsky. All rights reserved.