(Photo credit: The Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg, courtesy Alyson Hurt, Flickr Creative Commons)
In my early days in America I knew very little about Colonial Williamsburg. What little impression I had formed of the place was not particularly positive. Somewhere along the line I’d got it into my head that it was little more than a cheesy colonial Disney World. I was wrong about that. Colonial Williamsburg is actually a worthwhile endeavor, if a little pricey. Still, there is a whiff of Disney about the place, and it can’t be avoided.
For those of you who are unaware, Colonial Williamsburg is an entire reconstructed colonial-era town built on the original site of the capital of pre-Revolutionary Virginia. Williamsburg was the center of political life in the colony for most of the 18th century. However, after the capital moved to Richmond, in the midst of the Revolution, the town atrophied. By the early 20th century the whole area was in a state of decay and many historic buildings had been lost, including the original Capitol building. But efforts began in the 1920s to restore the historic site and save the remaining colonial-era buildings. These efforts drew the attention and deep pockets of, among others, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the hugely wealthy financier and philanthropist and son of the founder of Standard Oil.
Over the following years Rockefeller bought up much of the property in what is now the historic site. The plan was to recreate 18th-century Williamsburg, demolishing newer buildings at the site, restoring surviving 18th century structures, and rebuilding key structures that had been lost, most significantly the Capitol Building and the Governor’s Palace. Eventually a whole section of the town would be remade to resemble the look of Williamsburg when the capital was still part of the British empire. It would be staffed with scores of interpreters and craftsmen who would recreate the look and feel of that time.
This was public history writ large. Nothing like it had ever been attempted in the United States. It took decades, but eventually the project was more-or-less completed. Today the entire main street—Duke of Gloucester Street—acts as the central spine of Colonial Williamsburg, running from the College of William & Mary in the west to the Capitol building in the east. Adjoining streets maintain the colonial character, while the reconstructed Governor’s Palace and Palace Green anchor the north end of the site. (The palace was the home of the infamous Lord Dunmore, John Murray, a Scottish noble who seemed uniquely gifted at pushing colonial Virginians toward rebellion and independence.) Visitors can spend a few hours, a day, or many days walking around and visiting shops, living history sites, museums, and sites of historic interest. Tours of the Capitol and Governor’s Palace provide anchor events around which visitors can organize the rest of their schedule. Those who really want to go the whole hog can even dine and stay overnight at one of the colonial “inns” on Duke of Gloucester St.
Colonial Williamsburg has over the decades become widely respected as a site for interpreting America’s colonial history. The non-profit Colonial Williamsburg Foundation places an emphasis on using the site for research and education into early American history. An incredible 100 million visitors have been to visit the place, and their number has included Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, and most U.S. presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on.
This is all very interesting and engaging, and it gives the site some serious historical street-cred. For me, though, questions remain surrounding the vexed issue of authenticity. You see, even after visiting the place myself, and thoroughly enjoying it, I’ve never been able to completely shake off a concern about creeping Disneyfication. Just how authentic is Colonial Williamsburg? Does it take too many liberties with history in order to provide a level of familiarity and comfort to 21st century visitors? Does it cross the line from historic interpretation to Disney theme park? Does it matter either way?
A big issue with regard to authenticity is the neatness and cleanliness of the whole place. Most people today are probably aware that 18th century towns and villages were not very clean or tidy. They didn’t smell too good either. Copious amounts of mud, dust and filth, not to mention flocks of people with very questionable personal hygiene, made the streets and homes of the day pretty unhealthy. You get no sense of that today. Twenty-first century Colonial Williamsburg is immaculate, and armies of ground staff ensure it stays that way. Duke of Gloucester St is very wide, the road is covered in tarmac, and the shops and inns all have heating, air conditioning and electric light. The result is a main street that starts to feel a little like a mid-20th century small-town high street has been grafted onto an 18th century village (though at least vehicles are banned, except for a few staff and delivery trucks making errands early in the morning). Naturally, this all threatens to detract somewhat from the site’s authenticity. Inevitably, perhaps, architects and cultural critics have lined up over the years to slam the prevalence of mod cons in what is supposed to be an accurate depiction of 18th century life.Walking through the streets of the town, you can never get away completely from the accoutrements of modern living. This bothers me a little, but not so much that I’m ready to fully jump on the trash-talking bandwagon.
Any historical site that wants to appeal to visitors in the 21st century has to make accommodations for the mores of the modern age if it is to attract people in large numbers. It’s hard to provide meaningful experiences to folks if they won’t come to the site in the first place. And you really can’t have parents and their kids stomping through authentic mud and urine and excrement while people appear at second-floor windows to fling more authentic urine and excrement from buckets onto the sidewalks below. Some compromises have to be made. Parking and modern food hygiene and nice bathrooms all have to be provided for. If Colonial Williamsburg has taken these compromises a step too far—and yes, I think it has—it’s probably because it’s so hard not to in this day and age. People today expect a certain standard of comfort when they’re on vacation, and that standard has only risen in recent years. This is particularly true of more senior visitors, who spend more money and expect more than anyone else. It’s fine to dine at an 18th century inn but God forbid someone comes down with a case of 18th-century food poisoning. And your colonial inn bedroom had better include decent heat, light, and cable TV. Oh and by the way, no bed bugs, please!
So far, so grudgingly acceptable. I draw the line at the whole colonial diction thing, though. That is a step too far.
The main street is full of costumed historical interpreters—actors who dress in 18th century clothing and for the most part talk to each other. They use colonial speech, diction and grammar, though the accents are sort-of contemporary middle American (perhaps because no one is absolutely sure what colonial Americans sounded like). They approach visitors in an over-loud stage voice and say things like “A good day to you, sir!” and “How does your lady, sir?” I have always found this sort of thing tremendously off-putting. Again, like the layout of the town itself, it’s a weird hybrid of the 18th century and the present day. It’s not completely authentic—it only tries to get things half right. It also leads to awkward exchanges between the actors and visitors. No-one really wants to talk to these people, except perhaps for parents with young children who get a kick out of listening to the weird men and women who talk funny. It’s also noteworthy that the craftsmen at the site who make cabinets, silverware, flintlock pistols and all kinds of cool 18th-century stuff don’t have to affect 18th century diction. They do dress in 18th century garb, but they’re allowed to talk normally to people. Maybe that’s because it’s important that they are actually able to connect with visitors and not repel them. It’s pretty clear to me that the whole colonial diction thing is a pointless affectation that has nothing to do with actual interpretation.
Speaking of craftsmen, Williamsburg is full of them. Along with the tours, this aspect of the place is what really makes it worth visiting. There are carpenters, cabinetmakers, milliners, gunsmiths, silversmiths and more. It is fascinating visiting workshops of these people and watching them work only with 18th century tools. This is authenticity of a different order. These craftsmen and women are employed by the foundation; many of them have spent much of their working lives at Williamsburg and are highly regarded for the depth of their expertise. Many are employed year-round and they produce high-quality finished items that are put up for sale. Thus, for example, the gunsmiths create fine reproduction firearms that are sold around the world. The waiting list for such items can run to years. This provides a steady source of work, income and stability for these craftspeople, and it subsidizes the cost of operation. These individuals are not there just for show.
Perhaps because of my professional background, the most interesting site for me was the printer’s office and bookbindery, two separate buildings that stand behind the post office. The printer in particular was immensely informative, knowing just about everything there is to know about movable-type printing presses. I’m a fan of 18th century printing methods, though not so much the work practices. Printers worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, throughout the year. It was hard work, requiring strength and stamina. Working at full steam, a good printing team of two or three individuals would be expected to print up as many as 3,000 sheets a day. That works out as 180 to 240 copies an hour—three to four a minute, one every 15 to 20 seconds.
Just getting a start as a printer wasn’t too easy. Back then, anyone who wanted to get into printing had to work an apprenticeship for at least seven years, typically starting sometime between the ages of 12 and 15. Apprenticed printers would essentially act as indentured servants for the duration of their apprenticeship, after which they would strike out on their own. In this way Ben Franklin, colonial America’s most famous printer, was originally apprenticed to his brother, James, in Boston. But 12-year-old Ben got a particularly raw deal, being stuck in an apprenticeship for nine years, till his 21st birthday. In this case, Franklin got tired of the arrangement and ran off to Philadelphia. He became a hugely successful printer there, but he had to work hard at it until he was ready to retire from the business in his early 40s.
Our man at the print shop hadn’t had to go through all that apprenticeship stuff. But he could talk your ears off about printing processes and Ben Franklin’s life and work as a printer, all while churning out printed sheets that would later be bound into 18th century-style books that, again, were being produced in response to lucrative orders from external institutions and members of the public. He made it all interesting and engaging.
Overall, the Colonial Williamsburg balance sheet has plusses and minuses. On the minus side is the sometimes-excessive pandering to 21st century tastes and home comforts. And I’ve said enough about the colonial diction thing. But on the plus side there’s the well-conducted building tours—some of the best I’ve seen—and the fantastic levels of skills and expertise on display with the craftsmen and women. And at the end of the day there’s the fact that you can visit an entire, working, 18th century town that isn’t completely a work of imagination. Some of it is even genuinely authentic. And that’s not bad.
M. Kent Brinkley and Gordon W. Chappell. A Williamsburg Perspective on Colonial Gardens. From The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg. Available at http://www.history.org/almanack/life/garden/garintro.cfm
Alfred Chandler & James Cortada, Eds. (2000). A Nation Transformed by Information, Oxford Univ. Press.
Suzanne E. Coffman and Michael Olmert (2000). Official Guide to Colonial Williamsburg, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia.
Sue Corbett (2010). Insiders’ Guide to Williamsburg and Virginia’s Historic Triangle. Guilford, CT: Morris Book Publishing.
Frequently Asked Questions. Colonial Williamsburg. Available at http://www.history.org/foundation/newsroom/faqs.cfm
Cathy Hellier. The King’s English: Eighteenth-century English. Colonial Williamsburg. Available at http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/june03/english.cfm
Susan E. Klepp (2006, May). Benjamin Franklin and Apprenticeship. Pennsylvania Legacies.