Laura Ingalls Wilder at 150…

Today, 7 February 2017, is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 150th birthday, and celebrations are happening all year. My love for this iconic, and, at times enigmatic, figure is deep and complex and not something I’m very good at expressing in ways that make sense to most non-LIW fans out there. But my people know. The fans, the scholars, the literary critics, the educators, the historians–oh, especially my fellow historians, YOU get it–these people understand what those who have little if any familiarity with our Flutterbudget do not. And that’s fine.

But today is a big deal. 150 years since Caroline Lake (Quiner) Ingalls brought forth her second child in a tiny cabin in Pepin, Wisconsin. This humble birth began what is now the worldwide phenomenon of Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder, who is the embodiment of that great myth of the person of obscurity, rising from what seems to be the most mundane and ordinary of beginnings, passing a childhood and youth (and, in Laura’s case, much of her adulthood, too) riddled with struggle and misfortune, only to persevere, excel and become wildly successful against the odds. In Laura’s case, she did it as a relatively poor woman with relatively little education and relatively little opportunity all while at a relatively advanced age.

Gives a person a lot to think about.

I’m enjoying seeing how far her reach has influenced others and how many people come up with innovative observations. I dare say I have little in the way of innovation and this tomboy with ten thumbs doesn’t craft, so the best you’ll get from me is a pan of gingerbread with chocolate frosting. Maybe.

Meanwhile, the snarky part of me can’t wait to see how many bloggers and journalists will misattribute tv show dialogue to her wisdom* and, more importantly, how many people are really, REALLY confused by all of this information because they thought the show was documentary** and/or in current production.

In any case, I have LIW to thank for inspiring my adoration of history, research, museums, Dakota roadtrips, ancient cemeteries, abandoned homesteads, antique schoolbooks, and rag dolls with hand-drawn faces. Not to mention corseted karaoke with a diverse selection of like-minded Laurati. So, hats off to Laura!  (And bottoms up, if you’re inclined.) I’d love to hear how you’re celebrating Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Sesquicentennial in your life, whether today, this week, this year, or on whatever timeline suits you!

*I’m looking at you, Anyone Considering the use of “Home is the Nicest Word There Is” in your thinkpiece. Seriously, People. Laura never, ever, said that. Not once. She didn’t write it either. It’s scripted dialogue from tv, written almost two decades after she died. Say it with me: “Laura. Never. Said. That.”

**Trust me. It happens. At least once, at almost every public program I present. 😉

Once more, with feeling: #LauraNeverSaidThat

#IPromise

The Spontaneous Spencer

The completed project. Isn't it lovely?

The completed project. Isn’t it lovely?

This is a blog I just discovered today, and LOOK AT THE PROJECT completed here!

https://themodernmantuamaker.wordpress.com/2015/03/02/the-spontaneous-spencer/

A gorgeous pale blue dupioni silk Spencer. Absolutely stunning and extremely well-executed, entirely by hand. I cannot praise its maker enough! Oh, to have an excuse to start building a Regency-era wardrobe. Alas, I am still rounding out my late 1890s interpretation collection, so it will be a while…

The Modern Mantua-Maker

This is my entry for February’s Historical Sew Monthly challenge “Blue”. It wasn’t my initially intended entry, which was supposed to be a smart and clever-looking new pale blue wool coat made from a late teens/early 20s pattern I have. However, after doing a muslin and fiddling with it a bit I just wasn’t feeling it. I still hope to make it someday, but I wasn’t feeling totally enthusiastic about it and I think it’s too straight a silhouette for most of the clothes I wear, even though it has a little more flare than most styles from that period.

So, about the middle of the month I decided to completely switch tracks and make something that was nowhere on my sewing list/queue. Very practical decision (please note the sarcasm). I rationalized it to myself by saying that I had intended <someday> to make a new spencer from a piece…

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From Cup to Curl: How to Get Fabulous Historical Hair Using Straws

One of my favorite bloggers, Liz, at The Pragmatic Costumer, has posted another fabulous installment about historic hairstyles. This time, the subject is all manner of curls:

The Pragmatic Costumer

Big Hair was a Big Deal Long Before Dallas and Dolly Parton!

Those of you that browse my rambling frequently are well aware that I am hair illiterate. Indeed, I know next to nothing about taming my crispy, unruly mane. Yet, I am slowly teaching myself a few tricks here and there, and the internet has been a boon for my boring locks.

As a strong adherent to the old cliche that “every curly-haired girl wants straight hair and every straight-haired girl wants curls,” I have dreamed of lovely curls since childhood. When I was very young, my mother had tightly permed 1980s poodle hair (her words, not mine!), and I remember playing with her pink plastic hair pick, pretending I had a perm that needed fluffing, too. I am infinitely envious of those glamorous 1980s superstars like Bernadette Peters and Whitney Houston who had curls so luscious no scrunchie…

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The Myth of a Myth: Brushing Your Hair 100 Times

This is my favorite entry of The Pragmatic Costumer. The writer, Liz, makes excellent points about how the modern brushes and shampoos/conditioners/styling products simply do not reflect historic methods, and marketing has actually changed how we style our hair over the decades.

I’ve had my own odyssey with hair care as I’ve aged, and always hated styling products. Transforming myself into a reasonable facsimile of a woman in the 1890s goes far beyond getting a great dressmaker. Grooming takes center stage, and is very different than most 21st century women would find comfortable. I make some small compromises, but endeavor to be as authentic as possible.

When I was in the early stages of planning my first-person presentations, Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, I began growing my hair. I was putting together many necessary elements for a portrayal that was as close to accurate as possible, considering that Laura herself left behind great descriptions of her clothing when she was a teenager, but little of her appearance as a married woman with a half-grown child, a farm full of hard work and a flock of chickens to tend. I wanted my wardrobe and grooming to be as close to what she and other women of her taste and means and practical needs might have done as possible, but also to maintain a level of practicality that would translate for travel and everyday life. I knew I had a challenge. I have always had very oily, straight but unevenly-textured, mostly fine (but tons of it) hair. So, with the help of a great hairdresser and some experimentation, I expanded upon my earlier commitment to reduce damaging habits and products.

I had first eliminated any products with alcohols or silicones and other plastics about 15 years ago, and rarely touch even gels or other styling products. But to get my hair to maintain a healthy apppearance and grow well without split ends, I had to commit to regularly scheduled trims. That is simply a fact for certain hair types like mine. I also had to put the hairdryer down. More often than I wanted to. And, I had to buy better tools. But, by also by following a few more of the “always” and “nevers” of hair care, I found I could grow it to be the healthiest it has ever been since I was about seven years old. Here are some basics:

-ALWAYS brush hair before going to sleep. NEVER sleep with clips, barrettes, braids, or hair ties in your hair (it tugs and tears at the hair as your head moves on the pillow).

-NEVER use shampoos or conditioners which contain sulfates. You don’t need a lather to get it clean! Sulfates dry your hair and encourage breakage.

-NEVER use a brush in wet hair. A wide-toothed comb is gentler.

-ALWAYS avoid a hair dryer when possible/practical. If you must use one, get one with a “cold shot” setting and only use that setting. It will lessen damage.

-NEVER let your hair loose if the weather is very windy. The tangled mess will be difficult to untangle without damage; not worth it!

It took me 5 years to get to a length that works for all aspects of my life and isn’t too impractical for everyday. I compromised by keeping the length at the lower middle of my back, and use a carefully-matched switch to add realistic (and historically-accurate!) volume to my 1890s hairstyle.

Photos to follow!

The Pragmatic Costumer

A Tiny Bit of Historical Hair Care for the Modern Woman

Young Teenage Girl with Sausage Curls, circa 1860

I have very greasy hair and always have. It’s also fine, but dry at the ends, so I have to cleanse it every day yet hydrate it with heavy creams. Recently, I’ve delved into the world of alternative haircare. In my case, I’ve taken up co-washing, which uses conditioner as a “shampoo” that doesn’t strip hair as badly as regular shampoo. It’s basically alternative hair care for casuals, but so far, it’s been working pretty well! A lot of alternative haircare methods remind me a lot of pre-20th century haircare methods. Before the great hygiene shift created by 20th century marketing, women didn’t just style their hair differently than we do; they cared for their hair differently, too.

Lotta Crabtree, an American Actress
One of her defining physical features was…

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Hello, Gorgeous!

Hello, Gorgeous!

This pattern, with a few slight modifications, will be the foundation of my Fall/Winter “Best” Dress for Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder presentations. The fabric and notions are chosen, and now comes the long process of muslin mock-ups and several rounds of decision-making. On tap: sleeve volume, cuff width, belt and collar dimensions, “one petticoat, or two?” and “which hat frame will make the best icing on the cake?” I already am in love with it, and have indulged in enough extra yardage to make a special modern-day piece to wear when I’m not portraying Mrs. Wilder. Debut scheduled for September, 2014, but sneak previews will be forthcoming along the way.

What happens in a typical “Meet Laura” visit?

c. 1895 Summer-weight Visiting Suit, with modified "practical" sleeve on the pigeon-breasted jacket bodice. 7-gored, straight-to-bias skirt sweeps the ground and creates fullness in back without use of hoops nor bustle to create the highly-sought-after "S" shape. Photo by Connie R. Neumann.

c. 1895 Visiting Suit, with modified “practical” sleeve. Photo by Connie R. Neumann, 2012.

What is “First-Person Historical Interpretation?”

Very often, when I meet someone and the subject turns to my primary occupation, I am asked what “First-Person Historical Interpretation” means.  There are many variations in specifics, but, in general, it is the practice of taking a particular historic figure and learning absolutely everything one can about that individual, and then creating a live interpretation of that individual. These interpretations are complete with appropriate wardrobe, grooming, vernacular, and, of course, a thorough knowledge of the details of that person’s life, told from their own perspective.

If you can name any famous figure from the past, you can probably find one, a handful, or even a great many people who have studied that individual’s life and experiences extensively, and who can speak at length with some authority about that person.  As with any other topic, some scholars are more experienced than others.  Some scholars have researched and written volumes of work about their favorite person, while others have a more peripheral knowledge of the individual while retaining a great degree of contextual understanding; that is to say, their knowledge encompasses much of the wider world (region, culture, ethnicity, era, social and economic standing, or education level) in which that individual functioned.  Some scholars can claim both! Some scholars speak from their own research as well as that of others.  Some speak exclusively from their own work, some exclusively from the work of others.  Some always take on the persona of their subject, while others always speak from a third-person perspective.  Some scholars write a script for their presentations, while others work interactively and allow the audience to ask unlimited questions which direct the course of the program. Some toggle between the two approaches as the situation warrants.

Many scholars are rightly described by a combination of these features, having studied others’ work extensively while conducting their own research. Many of these scholars present in character almost exclusively, but adapt the program according to the ages, interest, and needs of their audience…and this is the best way to describe what I do.

So, what can I expect if I invite you to present a “visit” with Laura Ingalls Wilder at my event?

Expect:

~An interactive experience, wherein an adult “Laura” (a.k.a “Mrs. A.J. Wilder”) of the mid-1890s shares her experiences with the audience. This is the era when the Wilders have been married for about a decade, Rose is about 9 years old, and the family have settled on their new property, Rocky Ridge Farm, near Mansfield, Missouri.

~Research-based, factual information about Laura, Almanzo, Rose and their family and friends.

~Clarification of the differences between history and the fictionalized “Little House” series of books and other media interpretations.

~Abundant opportunities to ask ANY question you like of “Mrs. Wilder.”

~In-character answers which reflect Mrs. Wilder’s known activities, tastes, opinions, experiences, beliefs, and manners.

~”Mrs. Wilder” will be dressed in period-correct, authentic reproduction clothing, appropriate to Laura’s taste, means, activities and station in life, about 1895.

~An extensive display of relevant artifacts, including clothing, household items, books, and everyday objects, as well as some special “hands-on” items to investigate further.

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This reticule is hand-made of black silk, with a pink silk/cotton blend lining and a 1-3/4″ pink silk edging inside the opening. The drawstrings are black silk petersham (aka “grosgrain”), and the design is a hand-painted wild roses motif. The outer dimensions of the reticule are approximately 9″ wide x 10″ high. I acquired it in Northwood, New Hampshire, in 2009. It is approximately 130 to 140 years old. Photo c. 2009 by Melanie C. Stringer.

What program topics do you offer? Will you customize a program for my group?

I have several topics from which you may choose, and I regularly design new programs to suit the needs of individual venues.  If you have particular goals in your school curriculum, want to explore a topic related to your library or museum programming, or your private organization has a key interest in a particular aspect of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, work, and experience, I can accommodate you.  Here are my three most popular programs:

Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, LLC/Dakota Yankee Research

Program Descriptions* 

~”A Yankee Woman is a Curiosity”

While “Up-North Gal” Laura may have grown up all over the west, her family is deeply rooted in their Yankee heritage, dating back to the 1620s in Massachusetts!  As a married woman, Laura has lived as far south as the Florida panhandle and only recently moved to the Missouri Ozarks. Learn about the cultural differences and similarities between pioneers of the West, their folks “Back East,” and several places in-between.

~”Look How Far We’ve Come”

As the 19th Century draws to a close, Laura compares her experiences with a woman’s opportunities in the days of her Ingalls and Quiner grandmothers. Laura discusses the many advances women have made in just a few generations. As a mother, Laura observes women rapidly gaining more social freedom and political clout, including members of her own extended family. This prompts her to wonder, “What will the future hold for Rose?”

~”This Wonderful Modern Age”

Did you know that Laura followed the daily news very closely? Ask her about it! The Ingalls and Wilder family were voracious readers, and interested in gaining education throughout their lives. In this visit, Laura will offer a glimpse of the events and questions she finds most pressing in the Gilded Age of 1890s America.

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Playing in the overgrown field on a balmy March morning...showing off the (reproduction) c.1896 Ulster coat, tailored of a navy herringbone pattern wool/cashmere.  Photo copyright Gregory P. Stringer/Dakota Yankee Research, 2013.

Playing in the overgrown field on a balmy March morning…showing off the (reproduction) c.1896 Ulster coat, tailored of a navy herringbone pattern wool/cashmere. Photo copyright Gregory P. Stringer/Dakota Yankee Research, 2013.

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Wading in the real Plum Creek of Laura’s childhood, on the former property of Charles Ingalls family. The outfit is a late 1880s calico everyday suit, black print on a brown field. The skirt is a gathered dirndle with ruffled overskirt. Photo by Chrissie H. Velaga, 2010.

What if I want you to do a different kind of Meet Laura program from what you list here?

This is just a partial list of available programs. If you would like a program tailored to your specific curriculum, group, or venue, please inquire.  All requested topics considered. In the past, I have tailored programs for a wide diversity of groups, such as: a group of teachers who wanted Laura to help their 3rd-graders learn about overland migration and wagon travel, an antiquarian booksellers association interested in how I use period books to round out my research and enhance presentations, a community group that wanted to explore the Homestead Act and its impact on current land use, and a private organization which wanted to understand the Ingalls and Wilder connections with the Scottish Rite Free Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star. Don’t be shy–If you can think of a topic, I can relate it to Laura!

Please note:  While every attempt is made to stick to the program topic of your choice, due to the highly interactive nature of the program, many presentations will include elements of all of the above descriptions, as well as other topics, according to the questions asked by audience members.

No matter what topic you choose, or how the audience questions tend, every Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder program offers a Research-Based, First-Person, Interactive History lesson to students and Wilder fans of all ages. All programs feature original research, hands-on artifact displays, period-authentic clothing and much more. Presentations are available year-round, across the United States and Canada.

What if I want something more general in nature?  

I specialize in American Cultural and Social History, with a particular focus on Westward Migration, education, regional culture (especially New England, Upstate New York, and the Midwest), historic childrearing practices, and the occupations and opportunities of women and children in America from Settlement to ~1950.  Additionally, I offer a tutorial of Victorian clothing, including the design, purpose, use and standards of proper dress in the late 1800s, from corset to collar.  (Instruction in corset lacing at no extra charge!)

Tell me what you’d like to learn about, and I will design a program suited to you. I’m always up for a new challenge, and no event is too big, too small, nor too far away! For further information, or to inquire about booking a program, please contact me:

Melanie Stringer, Historian

Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, LLC / Dakota Yankee Research

603-867-5320

info@meetlauraingallswilder.com

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On the porch of the farmhouse, birthplace of Almanzo Wilder. The outfit is an 1891 visiting suit with high-waisted box-pleated skirt and close-sleeved basque. Photo copyright 2011, Melanie C. Stringer.

Best in Snow! The 1896 Ulster…and flannels…

Best in Snow!  The 1896 Ulster...and flannels...

Showing off my new 1896 Ulster last March…and the flannels underneath it! With thanks to the eternally patient Gregorio for the photo session, this is possibly the best series of photos in Laura garb to date. Of course, all that wonderful Laura garb is the product of the superbly talented Laurie, who deserves the highest of praise for the fantastic design and reproduction of so many period pieces. The Ulster takes my interpretation a giant leap forward, by offering yet another insight into the weight, scale, restrictiveness, functionality, and sometimes cumbersome nature of 1890s clothing.