Stephanie West - Guest Blogger: Collections Tech
There are many things that have gone into bringing the 1863 Civil War Journey
at Conner Prairie to life. The recreated town of Dupont, Indiana will feature a dry goods store and a farmhouse following General John Hunt Morgan’s raid. The last several months have brought many entertaining challenges that will appear seamless once our exciting, new experience opens June 4th.
At Conner Prairie we balance a mix of historic artifacts and reproduction objects. One example is using period appropriate reproduction glass lamps instead of original Civil War pieces. Believe it or not, oil lamps that would have been used in an 1863 Indiana home aren’t readily available at your local home store! We searched far and wide and finally found the right style reproduction lamps. To my dismay when I attempted to order these gorgeous lamps, I was informed there were only a few left as they were no longer being manufactured. I have since been guarding my box of lamps with my life!
You may have previously read about the Civil War era fashions being made at Conner Prairie. Women’s fashions in 1863 included hoops being worn under the dress’ skirts, creating a large bell shape. Most of us in 2011 don’t worry about our clothing knocking things over as we walk around a room, but that was a real concern in 1863. Although I don’t doubt it would be extremely entertaining watching our staff create havoc as they walk about, that’s not exactly the part of history we’d like guest to concentrate on. So before the Historic Clothing Department could start creating the storekeeper’s skirt, they had to know how much room there would be between the store’s furnishings to make it easy for the storekeeper to easily traverse the floor without knocking anything over.
Home decorating styles change from year to year today, and that holds true for styles in the 1800s. Using research and looking for resources that are available today, we picked out a reproduction wallpaper pattern and paint color for the parlor of the 1863 Farmhouse that are historically accurate. I have to be honest, my modern sensibilities were offended and I know I wasn’t alone in that sentiment. Sure enough a few weeks ago I received a call; the painter was extremely concerned because the color he was painting the woodwork in the parlor was horrible. I laughed, and confirmed that burnt orange is indeed the correct color. As the room comes together, with the wallpaper and paint, I must admit it is actually stunning.
For Conner Prairie, balancing guest safety and comfort against caring for 150+ year old objects can be challenging, especially when it comes to seating. We often let guests sit on our chairs, but a chair that is over 100 years old, may not be in a condition to sit in safely for either guest or the chair. For this reason most of our chairs are reproductions of historic styles made by our woodworkers based on artifacts in our permanent collection. Another challenge is the durability of our seating options. We have to consider what will stand up to every day wear and tear. For our sofas that means durable upholstery. What is historically appropriate upholstery yet will stand up to thousands of visitors? Answer: horsehair fabric. It was often used on finer chairs and sofas during the 1800s, and fortunately for us, it is still made today, and is just as industrial in strength as it was then.
There were many packaged products available in the Civil War era. Many of these historic items have been salvaged from sunken steamboats of that era. We have been studiously reproducing these boxed, bottled and bagged items to furnish the new dry goods store. Most recently I brainstormed a way to recreate bagged coffee and beans. It would be extremely impractical and expensive to fill a dozen large burlap bags with actual coffee and beans. And, I was also worried about pests feeding off these things. The final solution was to fill the bags with a mix of pillows and packing peanuts. Why pillows? Well, if you are a power shopper like I am, you can find them cheaper than fiber-fill. Why packing peanuts? Because they give the bags the lumpy affect of coffee or beans.
Now that I have shared some of my behind the scenes secrets I hope that you come see the new 1863 Civil War Journey this summer and watch how the magic unfolds.