Star Goes Colonial: Grand Illumination

GIGrand Illumination is an event in the first or second week of December that brings people from all over the world to Colonial Williamsburg. It’s estimated about 30,000 people are in town for this one event. There are lots of things going on, including shopping, touring, guided walks, demonstrations, fireworks, a special fife and drum march and more.

I worked one Grand Illumination when I was at Chowning’s. I was on a cider stand, across from the Magazine, where they were setting off the fireworks. As the day went on, I was stuck out there with someone only coming around occasionally to restock me. I was lost in a sea of people, with only some tables to protect me. It was fun though. And I got to see the fireworks. And I had cressets. I love cressets.

This year, I was at Tarpley’s. It was chaos, to say the least. I have never seen the store that busy before. The day was such a blur that I only remember bits and pieces. But here are those bits and pieces that made up the most insane day at Colonial Williamsburg, that year.

-A female customer was hitting on me really blatantly while I helped her. She was looking at some jewelry when I asked her if she needed help. She kept commenting on how beautiful I was and called me “pretty girl” like I was some kind of parrot. When I checked her out, she started talking about how attractive I look in my costume and asked me about my underwear. I told her about my stays and she remarked that I had such a beautiful figure. The woman was about my mom’s age, I’d wager and she was with a man who acted like her husband. It was strange, to say the least.

-Fireworks are awesome. They’re like exploding sparkles.

-It’s our policy to ask for photo ID whenever someone hands us a credit card that has some form of “see ID” on it or if it’s not signed. Usually, it’s not a problem and a lot of people thank us for checking ID when they use their cards. But one woman handed me an unsigned credit card and said that she didn’t have ID on her when I asked for it. She told me, “It’s me!” as if that meant anything to me at all. In the end, her husband had to pay for it because he had both a credit card and an ID.

-A man was asking me a bunch of detailed questions about fife and drum. Like who the leaders of it were? Are they CWF employees? Do they volunteer in schools? How long do they train with the corps? I had no clue. I know very little about fife and drum other than I love to listen to them. I don’t know everything, sir.

-That night as a night of people shouting at me from the street. Seriously. They wouldn’t come inside, they would just see me walking past the door and shout something to me.

-We usually have a large, drop-leaf table in the middle of the floor, close to the entrance. For Grand Illumination, it was moved into the hallway, away from the customers. Whenever there were enough people in the store, it seemed very natural that it wasn’t there. But as soon as it cleared out, the floor looked bare and strange.

-A woman asked me where the restrooms were. I told her, diagonal across the street, behind the William Pit store. Which is completely accurate and my standard answer. The woman, however, stared at me blankly and kept demanding more details. I didn’t even know what she was talking about at first. She asked me where the restrooms were and I told her. How much more detail do you need?

-Our goal was pretty steep for the day and I was slightly concerned that we wouldn’t make it. But then I saw the sales numbers in the late afternoon and we were almost there. We ended up hugely over budget. I was pleased.

-As I was dealing with another customer, a man came up and started asking me about the busy season in Colonial Williamsburg and how stressful it got for me. However, I’m not naive and I’m not going to talk about how stressful it is to deal with silly customers to a silly customer. I dodged a lot of his questions about how hard the job is and he finally gave up and talked about how awesome it is to do something you love and get a paycheck. I didn’t want to alert him to that reality either.

-Robert came over from the Pit to do some heavy lifting. I totally don’t mind lifting boxes and I have enough upper-body strength to do it. But as soon as I get into those stays, lifting and carrying heavy items just becomes entirely too difficult. I’m so glad Pit doesn’t mind lending us their men to carry around cases of beer.

-Speaking of the Pit, their flag was stolen. We put flags out front to signal that the store is open and when they went to collect theirs at night, they found that it wasn’t there. There was some talk of William and Mary kids being to blame. But it’s still an odd thing to steal. And highly childish.

-A woman was looking to buy the marcasite bow ring, which is the ring that I own. She started off talking about how you can’t get marcasite wet under any circumstances. She didn’t know why, but the stone didn’t like water, for some reason. I told her that I own that exact ring and have gotten it wet several times, as I wear it every day. I showed her my ring, which looks the same as the day I bought it. She finally dropped that and started hyper-analyzing the two rings that she was given to try on. She insisted that one looked “rounder” than the other one. She asked me what I thought. I couldn’t even pretend to see what she was talking about. I just told her that they both looked really round to me.

So that was my Grand Illumination. May I never work another one.

Star Goes Colonial: The Zoo

1779842_1484546168478106_5758607744776412575_nSometimes, when you’re working in this living history museum, you feel like you’re an animal at the zoo. For whatever reason, some people suspend normal ways people treat other people and develop an entirely new method of dealing with employees. There are several things that I see people commonly doing that I’ve never experienced outside of this work environment. Some of them, I understand. Others, no so much.

Smile for the camera

I have no problem taking pictures. In general, at work, no biggie. I love photos. But there’s something that irks me when I’m doing something and I look up and notice that my photo has just been taken by some adult across the room. Pictures of me scratching my nose, yawning, concentrating, and doing otherwise unflattering things have landed themselves into countless strangers’ scrapbooks and photo albums. You wouldn’t just take a stranger’s photo while out on the street. So why take all these photos on the sly, just because these strangers are wearing certain outfits?

“Do you know where Spencer is?!”

I was once walking to work when a woman on her cell phone turned to me and loudly demanded to know where Spencer was. I didn’t answer her at first because I wasn’t sure that she was talking to me, but when she asked me again, where Spencer Chestnut was, I realized that she was indeed addressing me. I told her that I had no idea who that was. And the lesson that she needed to learn from this was that just because I was in costume does not mean that I have a personal relationship with everyone else that’s in costume. There are hundreds of CWF employees and volunteers. Not everyone knows each other.

Point A to Point B

One time I decided to go on a date in costume. It was after the late shift and I forgot to bring all of my proper clothes to change into. So I thought, why not just head to Merchant Square in my colonial clothes? And so I did. I walked around with my date a little afterward and got stopped by no less than 3 people. I’m usually more than happy to stop and talk to people when I’m in costume, but come on, dude. I was clearly not on the clock and with someone out of costume. People were also asking me questions about non-CWF matters that I wouldn’t have even known had I not also been a tour guide and someone that’s grown up in Williamsburg.

Just because I’m in costume doesn’t mean that I’m public property. Putting on a bunch of layers of uncomfortable clothes doesn’t mean that you own me, I owe you a history lesson, directions, or entertainment. Working in costume is my job, not my lifestyle. And just because I’m wearing stays doesn’t make me an expert on everything or your personal tour guide.

Star Goes Colonial: Working in Costume

10807531_10100850817602154_195110987_oThere are some hard truths that you will learn once you start working in colonial costume. Some are fun, some are weird, some are just downright bizarre. But working in full colonial get up is something that very few people can say that they’ve done. And even fewer can say that they’ve enjoyed.

You will use your apron for everything

Aprons are meant to mainly be decoration on your costume. But like our colonial predecessors, when you work in said costume, you will find yourself using your apron for just about everything. When you need to carry lots of items, it becomes a basket. When you want to have a different look to your outfit, it becomes a fashion accessory. When you want to dust off the register, it becomes a swiffer pad. And when you don’t have a tissue and it’s a goddamn emergency, it doubles as a Kleenex.

You will have to listen to tourists complaining about the heat

When I was a hostess at Chowning’s Tavern and Christiana Campbell’s Tavern, I often worked outside on the porch. In the Virginian heat. In an abbreviated costume that still required socks that go up to your knees. It never failed that some annoying guest would come up and complain about having to wait outside for dinner in the heat. At the time, I would be fully covered and sweating like a pig, observing this person in shorts and a tank top complaining about the weather.

You will have to lace up your own stays

Back in the colonial days women lived at home until they were married, then they settled down to pop out kids. So they never really lived alone. So they always had someone to help them get into their underwear. Unfortunately, this is not always how it works in the modern era. Eventually, you will find yourself alone and seeking desperate measures to get your stays on by yourself. When I went to the Costume Design Center and told them that I needed help, they suggested that I get dressed at work and get one of my co-workers to help me get into my stays. Which, my co-workers are awesome, but they’re not that awesome. I need to be able to get dressed by myself. Like a real adult.

You will go to the grocery store in costume

There comes a time when, for whatever reason, you can’t get home and change. You end up going to the grocery store, going out to eat, going to the doctor, going on a date, or doing something outside of Colonial Williamsburg while still in costume. Without the context of the colonial setting, you look just plain weird. People will stare, children will point, and you will just get on with your life. Because this is just something that happens to you when you work in costume.

People will touch you

When I was working at the taverns, one time I was folding napkins in the hallway with my back turned and a woman came up behind me and started to untie my apron. Feeling that I was being undressed and not at all happy about this, I yelped a bit and whirled around. The woman backed off, looking sheepish and said that she just wanted to see how I was tying my costume. Rob, one of my co-workers, told me that he was working one day when a random woman came up and just started to undo the buttons his waistcoat. She kept going until things were about to get awkward and Rob had to physically stop her.

It’s interesting to people when you’re wearing these costume and in completely authentic period pieces. But then they just get handsy and things get weird. Just because someone is dressed up, doesn’t mean that you get to touch them. Even if they’re wearing something really cool.

If you’re a dude, everyone will assume, at one point, that you’re Ben Franklin

Rob told me that there’s a pervasive theory around the guests at Colonial Williamsburg that if you’re male and wear glasses, no matter your age, your build, your dress, anything, they will ask if you’re Ben Franklin. I work with Mike Thomlinson, who is a Ben Franklin impersonator that puts effort into looking like the man. So when people ask if he’s Ben Franklin, we just laugh and say yes. But for someone thinking that Rob was Ben Franklin, that’s a little more than a stretch. But these are just things that will happen when you work in costume.

Star Goes Colonial: The Language of the Fan

1.5.15 144At Tarpley’s we sell three kinds of fans. Each ones comes with a complimentary sheet of paper that talks about how fans were used to communicate in the 18th century. Fans were not just instruments used to keep yourself from sweating like a pig during the ungodly heat of the Virginia summers. They were ways of talking without saying anything at all. But it got me wondering why you would need a special language with a fan instead of using words. Like normal human beings.

Before I get into that; here is the language of the fan:

 I desire your acquaintance…. Carry fan in left hand in front of face

I wish to speak to you…. Close the fan

Follow me… Carry fan in right hand in front of face

Wait for me… Open fan wide

Kiss me… Hold fan to lips

We are watched… Twirl fan in left hand

Yes… Rest fan on right cheek

No… Rest fan on left cheek

I love another… Twirl fan in right hand

I wish to get rid of you… Place fan on left ear

I am sorry… Draw fan across eyes

I am engaged… Fan very quickly

I am married… Fan slowly

We will be friends… Drop the fan

So yes, there are a lot of things that you can say, including rejecting suitors, with just your fan. But why? Why was this form of communication so popular? It seems to me that women suffered from the same problem today that they did back then; rejection, no matter how soft, could be met with violence. So they didn’t even use words to do it. They used a fan.

Of course, the idea of having wordless communication is fun and interesting. I mean, who doesn’t want to know how to talk through means other than just speech? I think it’s fucking cool. But I don’t think that the reasons behind it were so innocent as learning something neat and new.

Regardless, I find the language of the fan interesting, but ultimately indicative of women’s inability to be able to freely communicate their wishes to others, including men. There is a method of spelling out letters with fans even. But it hardly seems like an effective way to communicate seeing as how complicated it was. Also, there seem to be conflicting reports on just how many people knew this fan language and how often it was used in polite society.

Star Goes Colonial: Tarpley’s Special People, Part 2

11314065673_87ba8319f8After I wrote one blog about all of the special people I had encountered while working at Colonial Williamsburg, I was quite sure that that would be all I would have to write about the topic. But I’ll be damned if the universe didn’t keep providing me with material! Here are more special snowflakes that I have encountered throughout my time at Tarpley’s.

Blast from the Past

I was giving lunch breaks at the Golden Ball one day, when a woman entered. I greeted her and asked her if she needed any help from my safe place behind the jewelry counter. She had an old book that she was flipping through and she asked if she could talk to me about a few things. Being the expert at customer service that I am, I agreed.

She then informed me that the guidebook to Colonial Williamsburg that she was holding had been written in 1954 and she wanted to see if things in it were still accurate. I couldn’t help but give her a look of utter confusion. Why would someone use a guide book that was 60 years out of date? Why would it even matter if things were the same now as they had been that many years ago? And why ask me when I clearly wasn’t even alive back then? My mother was 5 years old in 1954.

But she asked me her questions. One was about a silver tobacco box that I had been told previously was currently on display at the apothecary shop and hadn’t been sold in CW for over 40 years. The other two questions she asked me, I had absolutely no clue what she was talking about. Granted, I’ve only worked at this job for a few months. But I grew up in Williamsburg and worked for CWF previously. Even that wasn’t enough for me to have any knowledge of these things.

When I told her that I couldn’t help her with either of the other two items, she was nice enough about it and left the store. But it made me wonder what exactly she was trying to accomplish by using such an out-dated book and going around asking questions about it. The woman was clearly not old enough to have been alive at that time either and it’s not like she was seeking something out from a previous visit. But like a lot of other people, it seems that some don’t realize that Colonial Williamsburg is a living organization that changes and evolves through time. We’re in the 1770s, but we’re still refining history as we go.

“Do you know what this is?”

We don’t get a lot of kids at Tarpley’s. Most of them go over to the William Pitt toy store across the street. Between the fact that we don’t have much that would interest children and so many of our items are breakable, some parents don’t even allow their children into the store. Which, let’s face it, I am perfectly okay with.

A mom and a daughter came into Tarpley’s one quiet October morning and started looking around. I greeted them and told them about a sale that we were running and they seemed happy to explore on their own. The mother started asking the daughter what certain colonial items were. The daughter answered rather well and seemed very articulate. The mother picked up a traveling candle and quizzed the child about it. Sandy, one of my co-workers, filled her in on some of the details that she didn’t know.

It was all going well, until the mother picked up a tavern pipe and asked the child what that was for. The little girl had no idea. So the mother informed her that it was a candle snuffer, used to extinguish the candles before you went to bed. I hesitated. I didn’t want to outright inform the woman that she was completely wrong and no one would make a candle snuffer out of clay or with a stem that long, but I just let it go. The little girl can walk around thinking that she encountered a really strange candle snuffer at Colonial Williamsburg.

The Republicans

When you work in customer service, you’re stuck. You can’t tell people what you really think. No matter how incredibly unintelligent, rude or total assholes they are. You’re stuck in this bind where you have to be polite no matter what horrible things come out of their mouths. Simply put, your job is at risk if you don’t. Case in point, a family came into Tarpley’s. It was a husband, wife and their son that has downs syndrome. I was dealing with a customer when they came in so my co-worker, Angela ended up talking with them.

Her suspicions that these were not nice people were first aroused when the wife asked her what they would have done with people like her son in the 18th century, in a sarcastic tone. The woman then complained that her son is 38 and still lives at home. Angela, who has extensive dealings with mentally disabled people, was more than happy to talk to the man and engage him in conversation.

Later, I was working with an employee that was making a purchase and the following exchange between Angela and the wife took place:

Wife: You work here, you know what the first hat shop was called.
Angela: I don’t, actually.
Wife: You don’t?! You should.
Angela: I know our store and our stock. We don’t have training outside of our location.
Wife: Well, you could read a book. Do you have a degree?
Angela: I’m currently working on one in green and sustainable management.
Wife: What does that even mean?
Angela: I want to be a soil scientist.

Things devolved from there. The couple then asked Angela if she believed in global climate change and when she said that she did, this launched the husband into a triad of Republican paranoia and insanity the likes of which I’ve only ever seen on Fox News. The man accused her of being “brainwashed” by a handful of people that believe in climate change with no real proof to back it up. He told her that our carbon footprint hasn’t changed significantly since the 1800s. And not only that, but the climate changes all the time! So this change is nothing new and definitely nothing that we have anything to do with.

As the man was in the middle of his rant, his back was to me while Angela was facing me, so I was able to make horrified faces at her and flail my arms in a T Rex fashion in sympathy. The couple eventually left with their son. Later that night, they stopped outside of the shop and since the door was open, we could hear the wife announce to her son that they had already been in our store and her husband had told Angela that she needs to be a republican.