Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Time Machine: Colonial Williamsburg

Have you ever wondered what life was really like during the 1700s? Reading books and watching movies can only go so far toward helping you understand how people lived and worked hundreds of years ago. 

Since time machines have yet to become widely available, most of us have no way to revisit the past. If only there was a place where people recreated Georgian life, so we could see and experience it first-hand. Oh, wait—there is! At Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, you can do precisely that. 

I first visited Colonial Williamsburg in the early ‘90s. Pre-teen me had read all the American Girl books about a girl named Felicity who lived in Williamsburg during the colonial era. I learned from them that the historic center of the city has been restored to look the way it did in the 1770s, on the eve of the American Revolution. Although I considered history to be one of my least-favorite subjects in school (I was twelve; please forgive me), I loved learning about how people lived in days gone by. 

Around that same time, we moved to North Carolina, and our first spring there, my dad had to attend a conference in Williamsburg, VA. I convinced my family we should all go along so we could experience the colonial recreation for ourselves. We’d been to many living history spots over the years, and we expected this to be similar: a handful of restored buildings, a dozen tour guides in period clothes, a few people demonstrating handicrafts, maybe a blacksmith. I hoped there would be a gift shop. 

Imagine our delight when we stepped onto the cobblestone streets of Colonial Williamsburg. Not a small cluster of restored buildings, but several streets lined with them! Not a dozen tour guides, but hundreds of reenactors in period dress! Not a few handicrafts being demonstrated, but shop after shop where you could see people plying their trades. (And yes, there was a blacksmith.) Not just a gift shop, but store after store where you could buy recreations of household items, books about the town, and more, plus several restaurants where you could eat food prepared from colonial-era recipes! Paradise! 

My whole family fell in love with Colonial Williamsburg. In fact, it became one of our favorite places. We would plan our vacation routes so we could stop there for a day or even just drop in to eat a meal. And the best part? It continues to grow! New houses are restored, more reenactors are hired—it keeps getting better and better. I went back in 2011, my first visit in almost a decade, and I was astounded at how it had grown. 

On that first visit, we discovered many different ways to learn about and experience colonial life in Williamsburg. We began by buying the tour package that let us traipse through the Governer’s Mansion, the Raleigh Tavern, the powder magazine, and homes of people great and small. I particularly loved the houses, the way they gave me a glimpse of the world inhabited by colonists in all different walks of life. And the reenactors fascinated me. Most of them are portraying a specific character, or even historical figure, complete with name, personal history, and an occupation. Visitors are encouraged to engage them in conversation, and although I’m still too shy to talk to them much, I’m blessed with a father who loves to ask questions. That first visit, I was young enough to be unembarrassed by him accosting reenactors, asking them, “Now, who are you? What are you doing? Tell us your story.” They gladly did just that. They explained what they were doing, whether it was cooking, sewing, or making a pair of boots. They told us their historical character’s names, where they were born, what their parents did, if they were married, if they had children, how long they’d lived in America, what their aspirations were—this budding writer was fascinated indeed. 

The shops and restaurants are all open to the public, as are most of the gardens. The shops are one of my favorite things to visit. I love browsing their wares: period clothes and accessories, hand-bound books and journals, quill pens, clay pipes, hand-dipped candles, mob caps, tricorn hats, books that explain various facets of colonial life, and more. While I haven’t gotten into wearing period clothes while I’m in Williamsburg, I love buying little things like soap, hats, and candles there. 

We’ve recently learned that if you want to experience living as a colonial American for more than a few hours, you can even rent a restored house to stay in overnight. There are a multitude of these lining the side streets of Colonial Williamsburg, and they’re furnished with antiques and replica furnishings, but also have modern plumbing and electricity. In them, I can easily imagine myself wearing period clothing while seated at a desk, writing in a hand-sewn journal with a quill pen—it's as close to a time machine as I’m ever likely to get.

(This post originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Femnista magazine.)

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