How did I come to understand what it was like living without these comforts? And how do I teach who come to visit the Miller's House?
On Friday I have to get myself into period clothing and talk to school kids about what it was like to live in the Miller's House in the 1740s. Perhaps it is a give back for all the things I've learned working at these sites. More likely I love telling people what I know about the past.
How do you get a kid to appreciate what they see in a room full of antiques, where they can't touch anything because of its fragility and its value? I do it by asking questions. I am a regular Socrates.
My favorite "what do you think this is?" is the chamber pot. The most frequent answer? "It is for holding snacks in case you get hungry in the night." Good idea, it is rodent proof and convenient. But no.
When I was a kid we spent two weeks every summer at our grandparent's cabin on a New Hampshire lake. Electricity had been installed before I was born when some great aunt fell down the stairs with a kerosene lantern and nearly burned the place down. My father installed running water in an out building one summer when I was in high school. My jobs were to do the slops (clean out the chamber pots) and walk a quarter mile to the spring for drinking water. I had to do this daily rain or shine. The up side was that I seldom had to do dishes or sweep or make beds.
Few people today have much appreciation for how dark it can get at night. I can go out for walks at any time without carrying a flashlight. Colors fade to gray, but most everything else is quite clear in the light of street lamps, car headlights, porch lights and sky glow from the city. It is not difficult to get down the stairs and out the back door to the necessary at midnight.
For the miller and his family, unless the moon was full, they would have to use artificial light to get down the stairs in total darkness. Yes, they could light a candle, but not with matches. No matches yet. There might be coals in the fireplace if they had had a fire there in the evening. Have you ever tried to start a fire with a flint and steal? I think the record is 31 seconds. It takes me half an hour. You strike sparks off a piece of metal with a piece of flint. If you are lucky the flint doesn’t cut your hand. The spark has to land just so in a prepared bit of lint set in wood shavings.
And have you considered the cost of candles? Not in dollars but in effort and the use of scarce resources? Where do candles come from? The questions can go on and on.