Friday, July 24, 2015

A Sturbridge Village Learning Experience

The girls enjoy some candy and fudge in front of a gift shop at Old Sturbridge Village
This week, I took my daughter and her friend to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. The Village is the largest living history museum in New England on over 200 acres of land. It recreates an 1830s New England community with over 40 structures that include a general store, mills, homes, barns,  workshops, a school,  and more. The girls accompanying me were twelve-years of age and are about to dive into American History this fall as seventh graders. Our little trip gave them a taste of some of what they will learn, but the main lesson for my daughter surprised me.

The girls were disappointed with the beds of straw, but were enamored with the cozy wallpapered bedrooms. The cramped quarters in the stagecoach made us appreciate my car even more. They liked some of the outfits, but were glad that they did not have to wear them on a hot date. They enjoyed the games, but were not happy that they would be spending so much time at the age of twelve doing chores instead of playing.

Early in the visit, my daughter asked if she could have been artist during this time. I explained that art was a profession for very, very few and those few would not be from a village like this. If you lived in a city you may be exposed to art as she knows it, but not really on a rural farm. You would not be able to afford art supplies. You would not have had the time to practice drawing. And so, my daughter's thoughts turned to, "What profession could I have had in the 1830s?"

I have talked to my daughter about how much life changed for women in the 20th century. I told her about how when I was a kid, I was told that I could not run a steeplechase race that I really wanted to compete in because I was not a boy. I told her how much it annoyed me that our physics teacher often made points about physics by throwing baseballs to the boys in the class and not the girls. I told her about how grandma was turned away from her school entrance because she wore pants on a snowy day, even though she had a skirt in her bag for changing in the bathroom. But these are stories. These were my stories. Sturbridge Village helped us turn these stories into part of my daughter's own narrative when she was better able to apply what I've told her to herself.

The female interpreters in Sturbridge were sewing, caring for animals, baking and caring for the gardens. My daughter, who is an avid writer, wanted to visit the print shop. The girls hung back and I asked a lot of questions (trying to be a good role model.) "How did they make paper?... What was the ink made out of?" As we left, my daughter asked me if women could do that work. "I don't know" (Yes, I did.) "Let's go back and ask."
Her face grew grim at the negative response we received from the interpreter. Women may have done a little typesetting to supplement the family income, but that would have been rare and it would not have truly been a job. Women worked in the home.

My daughter walked through the houses with new eyes. Early in our trip, she mentioned how she liked the parlors and that she would spend most of her time there drawing. Now, she looked at the kitchens. She had no interest in the rooms for sitting and sewing. "I could spend my time in the kitchen. This room is open. I think I could do my chores here [and be comfortable and happy.]

When the girls saw the school house, they decided to be teachers.  "We could have done this!" they yelled as they ran toward the door. "You can pretend your the teacher now. I'll be the student." "I'll teach you spanish!"

The schoolhouse was actually moved from a town near us in New Hampshire, so I mentioned that fact hoping it would help the girls even better place themselves in the past. They ran into the building and were greeted by an interpreter who was standing at the teacher's podium. We took seats on the benches. Asking questions, we learned that the kids of Sturbridge attended school in summer and winter. They learned on their own at their own pace, from their own books. The teacher tested them on their lessons, but did not "teach" as we know it today. Teachers were young people who probably had just finished their own schooling. Adults did not teach. Young ladies would have taught in the summertime, if they had the opportunity to do so. They may have taught one summer session and that would be it. Teaching was not a "career."

The thought that my daughter would not have had choices in the early nineteenth century was eye opening for her. At various times during the day she talked about running away to the city. She learned she would likely then work in a mill. (Not appealing.) She imagined hiding in the fields so she could have some alone time for a day. I told her that she would not have even considered this. She would have been raised differently from the start and this would just be the only way of life she knew. She similarly said that she would have been terrible at sewing. I told her that if I started her off sewing at the age of four that she would have been just fine at it.

Our visit to Sturbridge made the experience of nineteenth century American life come to life for the girls. My daughter in particular will never see her place in the world quite the same way again. Furthermore, this fall the kids will be able to look back on our trip to give them better context and understanding for all of their American History lessons. I think now they will be able to imagine themselves in the full narrative of our country's roots and with an understanding that as girls, their opportunities would have been greatly limited from the full scope of what they learn.

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