How to be a Boss at Research - Part 3

Mar 22, 2017 5 comments
How to be a Boss at Research Part 3: Rules of Engagement - Primary Sources

Alright, kids, we're here. Part 3 of what appears to be a very long series about researching historic dress. Let's do a recap before we move on - yes?

Part 1: Introduction to this long series. Go back here if you're just now tuning in.

Part 2:  What are Primary sources and Where you can find them. This section directly coincides with what's coming up. This is a good link to just bookmark so you can refer back to the different databases I've listed in the post.

Rules of Engagement: Primary Sources (AKA how to actually use these silly databases so you get something out of it. (Note: All of my examples are related to the 18th century, but the guidelines are applicable to all time's just the best era for me to use as examples.)

1.      Spelling. In the 18th century there was more than one way to spell a word, and this lack of spelling formality affects how we research today. Just because you know that we spell Mantua-maker this way today, does not mean that will bring you up a lot of hits on your database. You might (and should) try multiple spellings of words to help you find what you’re looking for. For example: Mantuamaker, mantua-maker, manteau maker, manteau-maker, mantoe (seriously.), etc. You might get repetitive hits, but you also might find hidden information that you missed in your first search.

2.      Understand that our dress history terms are not the same as they were in the 18th century. This is crucial when you are searching 18th century American or English databases. We use French terminology today to describe a lot of the clothing and accessories, but 18th century Americans and Brits did not do that. For example, A robe a la franaise is called a Sacque or Sack in 18th century English. You might find a couple of hits if you search the French term, but you will find a lot more if you use Sacque. (Sack is problematic since it is…well…a sack and you’ll probably get a lot of hits on boring stuff like grain prices, etc.)
True Story.

3.      Accept all information for what it is, and do not leave out things of your research that you do not like because it does not fit your personal narrative of how history is supposed to be.  I cannot state this enough. I have seen time and time again (hell, I’ve probably been guilty of it too!) where people will purposefully manipulate or ignore primary documentation because it does not suit their personal opinion of how that time period is supposed to be. PLEASE DO NOT DO THIS. If you are researching a subject it is now your responsibility to try and understand it from the perspective of the 18th century. Listen to what history is telling you, and learn from it. History is not here to fit into our molds of what we think it was like. We learn from her.

4.      Beware of confirmation bias This is a lot like above, but instead of ignoring information you’re misinterpreting or manipulating faulty resources to suit your viewpoint instead of acknowledging that the information cannot confirm or deny your hypothesis.

Let’s use aprons as an example for both of these bad habits. You’re trying to figure out the most common way to tie an apron during the Rev War period, but information is kind of all over the place, and frankly, the more you look the more your eyes go cross. So you start to only look for images that suit your viewpoint and ignore ones that contradict it. When you do this though, you realize that your image and source documentation is weak, and so you start including images that are debatable (they do not prove or contradict your point, but you want to include them in the “prove” category), misidentify objects to validate your argument, and try to use how people wore aprons in the 1910s to validate how they wore them in the 1770s.  It’s hard for us as costumers and reenactors to acknowledge our deep desire to put history into sealed boxes. We want it to be easy. We want it to be clear. We want rules to follow so we’re not “farby” or “n00bs”. We don’t want to be attacked by people we consider our peers, idols, or anyone. The problem here is when it goes to an extreme and you are ignoring the human element. We are researching a culture. A people. And we are all different. Whether it was the 18th century or the 21st century people are as people are, and we cannot be put into boxes. The more I have researched the 18th century, the more I have realized that while there may be good solid guidelines, there are very few rules, and just like the English language, for every rule there is a lot of breaking of that rules. Look, it’s just human nature.

5.      Running around with a “UFO” as a rule. This goes to the opposite end of the spectrum that I discussed above. There was weird stuff happening in the 18th century. WEIRD. People wore weird fabrics, clothing, etc. They styled themselves differently. This all goes into the human nature element I was discussing above, but it’s also important that you do not take one weird ass story and make it gospel. For example: There is a man’s jacket in the Tailor’s shop at Colonial Williamsburg. It is made out of a bright red and white checked fabric that is commonly used for furniture. When you ask the tailors about the jacket, they’ll go on to explain that they recreated it based off a newspaper advertisement of a runaway slave. This enslaved person ran away…a lot…. so much so that it seems like his master had a jacket made out of the bold fabric check so that way he could be easier to spot. It was so weird, even for the 18th century, that it was made to be used a signifier. Does this mean that you should make a jacket out of red and white fabric check? Not unless you are portraying that particular individual, or one very similar to him, and you use that fabric as an education point. This jacket is a UFO and should be treated as such: Proceed with extreme caution. Context is everything.

Whew! We did it! We got through the Primary source part of this series! Next up is the readily available, but sometimes confusing Secondary sources!


  1. Regarding spelling -- there's also the whole issue with some search systems misreading the long s (ſ) as a lower-case f.

    For example, looking for what reenactors call "market wallets" (and what 18th century English people just call "wallets") under their French name, "besace," wouldn't have helped me find ... because Google Books reads that ſ as an f. ;-)

    1. Absolutely yes!! I found a Google books facsimile of "Madam Johnson's Present: Or, Every Young Woman's Companion in Useful and Universal Knowledge." Darn thing is near, impossible to read!


  2. I love that you're addressing the mindset of research as well as the tools and tricks. I think a LOT of this great advice can go hand in hand with "The more you know the more you realize you don't know" and *that's ok.* One of our difficulties that we have this tension between wanting to know more, learn more, get more out of research...yet also come to conclusions that as historical costumers, living historians and/or reenactors let us actually, you know, accomplish making something or interpreting something. We have to give ourselves permission to do our darndest, make a choice...and still be wrong and revise later :)


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