What's Your Source?

By Bob Sullivan

Most of us decide to make or buy something in this hobby at some point. And when we are finished and proudly displaying our new creation or purpose, we often get the question that is the title of this article. As a sutler, and a member of some discussion groups, I keep hearing this question over and over. Here are some of the answers I don't like to hear:

All of these answers may be true, but none of them are correct. None of them make that thing you're using, or carrying, or wearing, correct. Now, I'm not going to get into a discussion here of relative authenticity. That is best left to others. Besides, as we all know, there are three kinds of re-enactors in this hobby:

  1. Authentics - That's us.
  2. Farbs - Those who cut more corners than we do.
  3. Damned Stitch Counting Fanatics - Those who cut less corners than we do.

The real answer to the question should be: I have seen the original item. Also acceptable is: I have seen photographs (emphasis on the plural) of an original item. The fact is, almost everything you want to make or buy is (or certainly should be) based on an original. That original exists somewhere in a museum, or a private collection. Even if you have only seen it in a book, such as The Collector's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, it still exists. So then, why do we see so many discussions about different types of items, when in fact many of these are rationalizations for items that did not exist in the eighteenth century? Why can't we just say, about our things, "This is a copy of an item that I saw in the ABC Museum, and it is as close to the original as I can make it."

In the last few years, I have taken the personal stance that I will not make anything until I have seen the original in person. I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of people around the country who have taken time from their days or jobs to help me with my requests. Oh, I have heard my share of museum horror stories from others, and have been witness to some unfriendly museum-type people, but the great majority of people I have come in contact with have been very helpful. But maybe their willingness to help me occurs because I follow some basic "museum etiquette" that I have learned over the years. I thought I would pass tips and techniques that have proved helpful along to you, so that we can all benefit from our collective research. Here are some tips about researching items that will make your next purchase or endeavor your best one yet. I am confident that if you follow these procedures, your total "look" will improve.

First, figure out what you want to buy before you buy it. You, or your unit, know what you need to turn out in the field. You have priorities, and you have a budget. What do you need now, what can you make or have made for you, and what can wait.

Second, find an original and look at it. This is not as hard as it seems. If you see one in a book, look at the picture credits and find out where that item is located. I can give you some hints on this. You can find just about every piece of equipment carried by a Continental soldier at Valley Forge National Park. They have most of the George Neuman collection, the one that makes up the majority of the photographs in The Collector's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. You can find matches for every article of clothing worn by Continental soldiers at Colonial Williamsburg. Most of us go by or to these places during the course of the re-enactment season, so why not plan a day for research? Call ahead of time and set up an appointment.

Here's an important point: When on the phone and arranging your visit, ask for the specific item that you want to examine. If you just say that you want to see their collection, they'll tell you to buy a ticket. When you ask to see specific items, chances are better that someone will help you. Ask also if you can take photographs. If so, photograph the heck out of the item or items when you are there. Some folks bring along a small voice-activated cassette recorder, and record their thoughts as they examine the item. Some folks use a camcorder, but a camera works fine too. I personally prefer to use camera and draw rough sketches, as sometimes the final pictures will miss details that I have drawn. And since I'm no artist, the pictures will help me make sense of my sketches.

Explain what you are trying to accomplish to the person helping you. Often, these people have items "in the back" that you won't know about. If they have time or want to help, they will often bring out associated items from the museum's collection.

Don't photograph anything that you haven't received specific permission to photograph. Many items in museum collections are extremely rare, and you could be perceived as a prospective thief checking out their collection. For those of you who wonder why some museums don't permit photography, the possibility of theft is one of the main reasons.

If you plan on handling anything, bring some cotton gloves. These can be obtained at any photography shop, and are often necessary for handling antique items. Even if the person working with you says they're not necessary and you never end up using them, at least you have given the impression that you understand how to handle antiques.

Offer to send copies of everything you do to the museum. I don't know what the museums do with the stuff I send them, but I know that I get a nice thank you letter when they receive it. And, believe me, the next time I want to go there, I don't have to do nearly as much convincing or explaining. I just remind them of my last trip there and the welcome mat is rolled out for me, as opposed to having the door slammed in my face. Write a thank you letter to the person that helped you, and send a copy to their boss. We all like to be appreciated, and a note to someone is just a common courtesy. Writing to their boss will always ensure that you will receive more help next time you go back.

Write up what you have learned. Even if it never gets published [although The Continental Soldier is a perfect forum for such information — Ed.], writing the information down will ensure that the next time you or anyone else needs the information, there will be a full and complete report on your information. If your unit has a newsletter, put your findings in it. Over the long run, your unit will build up a list of fully documented information about various pieces of the uniform, so that new members won't have to use the answer, "Because the unit says it's OK." They will have a documented source of information about the item.

And you will learn something as well. You will learn that you don't have to take anyone's word for it on the subject of authenticity, you have seen an original item or items for yourself. You will learn that there is a great deal of detail to be seen in an original item, and that they do exist and can be studied. You will be able to share what you have learned with others, and you will know, deep down, that what you are saying is correct because you have seen and held the original. You have held a piece of history in your hands, and it will make you appreciate even more what you portray on the weekends.

Copyright © 1996 Bob Sullivan. All rights reserved.