02 April 2013

Colonial Williamsburg

We have finally moved into our new place in DC, but before I do anything about that, I wanted to write about our quick trip to Colonial Williamsburg.  I think I'd been there once before, but since it was 30 years ago and I was only 7, I don't remember any of it.

The place was fascinating for so many reasons.  You have the whole theme park/resort/spa/vacation side of things with the hotels, Busch Gardens, the water park, etc.  Then there's the history side of things in Williamsburg itself with the museums, archeology, and traditional trades, but it was really interesting to see how the acting side of things interacted with the "real" side of things.  

I'm not saying at all that the actors weren't doing real jobs, but the wheelwrights and blacksmiths and coopers weren't acting- they are wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and coopers even though they have to wear period clothing to work.  One of the wheelwrights in particular made it clear to visitors that he wasn't doing his work for the visitors, even if that was a side benefit of doing the work at Williamsburg.  Sometimes the whole thing felt theme parkish, with the clean streets and reenactments, and I understood why he made a point of saying that to so many people.

The family as a whole enjoyed watching the tradespeople most of all, although one of my sons really liked the reenactments.  I felt like I could ask whatever I wanted and everyone had lots of interesting things to say.  One of the coopers showed us all sorts of tools, and I talked to another cooper, a woman, about her job and Colonial Williamsburg's (not the 18th-century town, but the modern organization) past policies on women and minorities.  There's a lot more to CW's history than what they put on display and it was very different talking to the people who practiced a trade instead of acting.

One thing that I learned that should seem obvious is that the colonies really did have a colony-type relationship with Britain. I knew we'd had a hard time transitioning our economy during and after the war, but I hadn't realized how little our economy had developed before the war.  It was a traditional send-your-natural-resources-to-Britain system on our side and a traditional we'll-send-you-everything-you-need-and-you-can-only-buy-it-from-us system on their side.  There were so many times that people would say that this or that was made in England because it was cheaper to buy made-in-England products instead of made-in-the-colonies.  Fascinating stuff.

I was also really curious about the work the modern tradespeople did and the value of that work.  Colonial tradespeople's labor wasn't valued (for example, iron tools were simply sold by weight, no matter the labor costs), but valuing a bedrug that a weaver makes in 2013 is a totally different thing.  So it appears that CW pays a salary to its employees who are tradespeople and those employees create things that are, for some of the trades, priceless because they are the only people with the skills to create those items in that way. 

There were a few items for sale from the silversmiths and the difference in price between pieces created with modern techniques and colonial techniques was huge, and I'm still betting that the prices of the colonial-style pieces didn't reflect their true value.  From what I asked, it sounds like a lot of what is produced in CW is used on-site (for example, the blacksmiths have been doing lots of work for a new building in town), or produced for other museums.  A museum in North Carolina provided the materials for a couple of bedrugs and the weavers at CW are making them- apparently all the NC museum will pay is for the materials (which is historically accurate, in a way).  The wheelwrights were working on the carriage or whatever you call it for a cannon.

In the evenings after the shops closed, I went over to the museum twice.  They had a really interesting but really short display about the hospital that the museum is in, and while I was there the last night, looking at the amazing display of musical instruments, one of the CW musicians came and tuned and played several instruments to get ready for a function that night.  That was cool because I was the only one around and he answered lots more of my questions.

The whole thing was really interesting and gave me a lot to think about. 


  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Colonial Williamsburg. My family did a cross-country trip from California to Washington D.C. the summer before I went to college, so reading your experiences on the East Coast is kind of like reliving that trip for me.

    I remember being really impressed in CW that you could engage the people in conversation, and they seemed to know so much beyond their script, like part of them really did live in the past.

    I was reminded of that when we went to the Roman ruins at Dougga in Tunisia, and our local guide just happened to have master's degree in history. She could answer every random question we could think to ask. The picture she gave us of what life was like there in Roman times was so vivid it seemed like she must be from Ancient Rome.