Negus not Negas

Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake

I was recently invited to party in honor of a fellow Regency Girl’s Birthday. The party was touted as a Regency Gambling Party and instructed that costumes were required. The invitation was issued through the events feature on Facebook, which got me thinking about how this wonderful little world of 19th century reenactors are embracing modern technology to help promote and support the events that they adore so much.

New straw bonnet

New straw bonnet

I was looking forward to this party because it provided me the opportunity to wear a hat I made several years ago, but never had the right place to wear it. Most Regency era events I attend are either evening balls where headwear leans towards turbans, ribbons and feathers, or outdoor day functions such as picnics, where a bonnet is called for. I thought that sitting around card tables would be perfect for my little lace cap complete with lappets, and so it finally made its official debut. While on the topic of hats, I was gifted one at the party by a fantastic lady who I had done a small favor for. She made me wonderful straw bonnet as a thank you gesture, and I was thrilled with it.

While driving over to the party I had another clash of eras. Me, dressed in a regency dress and spencer with my little lace cap pinned on my head, car windows rolled down, lappets blowing in the breeze while singing along to XTC’s “Generals and Majors” on the radio. I may have been in my own little world, but the entire spectacle was quite visible to other motorists, which I noticed giving me strange looks about half way to my destination while stopped at a red light. All I could do is laugh, and continue on to the party.

When I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all of the guests were in regency finery. For some of the guests, this was their first exposure to a reenactment event, but almost everyone made an effort to dress the part, and the atmosphere was all the better for it. Some of the ladies borrowed dresses from the gracious hostess, one lady sewed herself a dress by looking at pictures of gowns from Jane Austen films on Pinterest, and one of the fellows in attendance shaved off his beard to craft himself a fine set of mutton chops. Each and every gentleman in attendance was fitted with a cravat, and a good deal of the evening was spent discussing how wonderful we all looked.

A fine 19th century spread.

A fine 19th century spread.

The food was one of the finest regency spreads I have ever seen. The table was dominated by two Croquembouche, towers of small cream puffs held together by caramelized sugar. Around 9pm the food was set out. Platters of roast duck, salmon, and ham. Chicken in aspic, welsh rarebit, devilled eggs, nuts and sweetmeats. As a cook, I fully understood the cost and the time a table like this took to prepare, and I was beyond impressed.

There was even a pot of 18th century warm spiced wine called Negus on offer, and I admit I had more than a few servings of it, so delicious, and the perfect lubricant for conversation. There were literary and pop culture quotes flying fast and furious over the course of the evening, from Austen and Bronte to Harry Potter and Star Trek, brought on by the Negus, as opposed to ‘The Negas’, leader of the Ferengi Alliance. Again I noted that folks were standing around in 19th century attire, sipping an 18th century beverage and discussing Star Trek. In my mind it doesn’t get any better than that.

Negus

Negus

Negas

Negas

I spent most of the evening in the parlour chatting with friends, and never did make it to the card tables where games of Whist and Faro were being played. The hostess handmade the gambling chips for the Faro table, which added to the overall ambiance of the event. I am not sure if any fortunes were made or lost at the tables, but I saw no tears so assume all went well.

The Faro Table

The Faro Table

At one point during the evening, I was sitting in the parlour with a cup of Negus, taking in everybody’s costumes and I found myself thinking of a line from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth observes “Perhaps by and bye I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones”. I shared the thought with the person I was sitting beside and we discussed it. There were differences between this private function in comparison to public events. The intimacy, the attention to detail, being surrounded by familiar faces, having some quiet spaces to sit and catch up with what was happening with people. I hope to see more of these smaller, private functions in the future, and am appreciative that I was a part of this one.

Lace cap
Lace cap
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Not All Farms Are Created Equal

My mind has recently turned to how work has changed since the 19th century when more people were attached to the land and their own sources of sustenance. And while the work might have been gruelling, it also provided opportunities for social interaction and connection with others that we do not often see in our modern working environments. I have had a few experiences over the years that have given me a sense of connection to homesteaders of the past and how their lives might have been.

Take the process of harvesting and storing fruit. I recently spent an afternoon sitting in a log cabin topping and tailing gooseberries with three other ladies, and while we worked, we talked. We talked about family, and local events, and ordinary things that were happening in our lives. We topped and tailed and talked for hours. When is the last time you sat and had this type of interaction with folks at the office? Regretfully, many of us know very little about the people we work with. Although we are crammed together in cubicle farms, we seldom talk to each other while we work.

Topping and tailing gooseberries

Topping and tailing gooseberries

A few years ago I had the opportunity to work on a ranch in Alberta, where I had charge of a group of pigs and a small herd of bulls. This ranch was a special place, 10,000 acres of organic prairie land, with an assortment of buildings that the original homesteaders had put up. For a history geek like myself it was like hitting the jackpot. The part of the farm I was living on had three original houses standing on the property, showing how the owners progressed through the years from a tiny starter dwelling, to larger more spacious homes.

The first house built on the property.

The first house built on the property.

The second house built on the property

The second house built on the property

I lived alone, in a small 1920’s farmhouse that had a furnace that I had to shovel coal into twice a day for heat. There was no running water in the farm yard, or electrical outlets to keep the water troughs thawed during the cold winter months. I had to hand pump water for 150 pigs three times a day, and use an axe to crack the ice off the top of the water troughs several times a day so they could drink. There is nothing like the sleep that comes after a day of that kind of activity in -30 degree weather. During the spring I found an old version of a water trough heater made out of iron. You put hot coals inside of it and attached it to the trough to prevent ice from forming on the animals drinking water. I wish I had of found it during the winter months so I could have given it a try.

Water Pump

Water Pump

Trough Heater

Trough Heater

Inside of the trough heater

Inside of the trough heater

One day during the spring months, I had arrived home from doing some shopping to discover that a small group of pigs had escaped their pen and were having a free for all digging holes on the front lawn of the property. A quick phone call to a neighbour, and within a half hour there were eight people there to help patch up the pen, and return the escapees to their home. For anyone who has not worked with pigs, let me tell you they are not amiable to being herded. While the task was not easy, and was certainly comical to anyone watching, we got it done and afterwards sat around for about an hour having a chuckle over it, and recounting the hijinks of other animals we have worked with over the years. Again, I compare this type of experience to what you find in some modern workplaces, where the slightest hint of an emergency situation sends people into hiding, not into helping.

Two of the escaped pigs

Two of the escaped pigs

Participating in activities like these allow me a unique understanding of just how important connections with other people were to early homesteaders. Many of the books I have read about 19th century Canadian homesteading emphasized the problems associated with isolation, and the relief experienced at finding out you finally had some neighbours. It seems today many people are in the opposite situation, feeling over crowded in their environments, with no escape from other people. As with all things I suppose it is about balance. I can say that when I work in the nearby Pioneer Village, rarely a shift goes by where one of the guests does not make some type of comment about how peaceful or quiet the village is, and I agree wholeheartedly. I’ll take shoveling manure and pumping water over sitting in a cubicle farm every time, because not all farms are created equal.