A June 2005 trip
to Williamsburg by Taylor Shelby
Quote: I went to Colonial Williamsburg for Under the Redcoat, which is the reenactment of the British Occupation of Williamsburg in 1781. As a participant in the reenactment, I had a unique perspective, but my tourist side was well represented.
I had anticipated to go as a reenactor and not really spend a lot of time actually doing the stuff that the city is known for. Yeah, that lasted about 5 seconds. As soon as I walked into the town, I started planning the stuff I wanted to do. One of the days I didn't even dress in my colonial garb, just so I could spend the day wandering.
Williamsburg is magnificent. My first impression concerned the sheer size of it. I was thinking it would be one street with maybe 50 buildings, but it was an entire town. It is vast. Every walk of life is represented, from the Colonial Governor's palace to the slave quarters. There are shops, restaurants, homes, museums, gardens, gardens, and gardens. It is truly stunning.
The Governor's Palace - Completely recreated but wonderfully done, this massive home was the residence of the governor and is filled with antiques and reproductions to give you a sense of the grandeur of the household.
Raleigh Taven Bakery - It is home to the magnificent "tavern rolls," of which I consumed so many that I am embarrassed. It also has a wonderful collection of colonial cooking reproductions, so you can try you hand at terrapin soup.
Bindery and Post Office - It is a charming shop where you can buy excellent books and reprints and also has a nice selection of reproduction maps, games, and legal documents. It also serves as a working post office. How's that for realism?
Mary Dickinson Store - This is for the fashionable Colonial lady. Not only do they have an impressive selection of hats (and a woman to decorate them right in the store), they also sell period clothing, sewing notions, and accessories. Hat pins, anyone?
Now, I must emphasize that I didn't see everything there, not even close. I missed quite a few of the big sites just because of time, so this is a partial journal
If you do, get one of the upper-level passes, as then you are privy to something called the "express pass." This means that you can reserve your tour times at big sites like the Palace. I didn't find out about this until Sunday, so I never got a chance to take advantage of it. It would have saved me a lot of time.
And finally, bring comfy shoes, drink lots of water, and wear sunscreen. Virginia is hot, even for me. And I'm from Charleston!!
You probably need a car to get to and from Williamsburg from your hotel, unless you are staying in one of the Park Hotels. Oh yeah, and parking is free. Whee!!
But there is a lot more than that. You can also get fabulous cookies ($1.50), cornbread, and various cakes. This is a good plan if you want a light lunch or a snack. I ate here quite a bit. You should also try some of the different drinks they have here. I had a bottle of the root beer ($2), and it was amazing! I sat outside the bakery, watched the rain, and drank my root beer. It was a lovely way to spend a bit of a rainy Sunday.
The bakeshop is also a store, and they carry everything you would need in your colonial kitchen. They had some beautiful copper cookware that was pretty pricy, but also a lot of stuff that was quite reasonable. You can get things like bags of hominy grits ($3.50), a hand-turned wooden rolling pin ($16), or one of many cookbooks, like The Williamsburg Art of Cookery. I also picked up a beautiful handmade basket for only $15.
If you are even mildly interested in cooking, this is a great place to stop by. You could also find some unique gifts to bring home to your favorite chef.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 30, 2005
The Raleigh Tavern Bakeshop
Behind the Raleigh Tavern
Williamsburg, Virginia 23185
The Mary Dickinson store has an impressive selection of hats for ladies. They have numerous styles that can be personalized with a variety of ribbons. The prices range from $18 for a plan straw hat up to $70 for a truly personalized and highly ornamented hat. If it is a blustery day, you can also pick up some hat pins ($3-$5) here, which were invaluable to me over the weekend. You can also find a variety of different caps ($12-$20) here (to be accurate, you should always wear a cap, even under your hat). There are different styles, so make sure you try on different types to find the one that suits you.
Probably the most interesting to me was the different sewing notions that you could purchase in the shop. I picked up a turned wood needle case for $1.25, which I thought was a great buy. They also had some beautiful bone sewing accessories (I loved the bone thimbles) and nice scissors and chatelaines. You can also pick up various styles of colonial jewelry, which beckoned me. I resisted, however, because the woman I portray would not have been able to afford such fine decorations (and, frankly, neither can I!)
Lastly, there are the clothes themselves. Now, most of this stuff is hand-finished, so be prepared to pay for it. Here you can pick up a complete colonial wardrobe, but it will be basic stuff (you aren’t going to find a silk ballgown here). This stuff was a little pricey for my taste, but I make most of my own period clothes. You can get a pocket for $19 and a shift (or chemise) for $42. I didn’t even look at the other stuff because I didn’t need it, but they did have gowns in the back that were somewhere around $300.
Mary Dickinson’s is located right on Duke of Gloucester Street. Just hang a right after palace green and you will see her sign hanging up. The shopkeepers were very helpful, too!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 29, 2005
Mary Dickinson Store
Duke of Gloucester Street
The building you see today is a reproduction of the original building that was constructed in 1772 and burned in 1781. In that short timespan, it saw quite an impressive amount of history and some fabulous parties. Home to seven royal governors and two elected governors (you may have heard of them – Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson), the home stopped being used as an official residence when the Capitol was moved to Richmond in 1780. When the fire erupted, it was being used as a hospital for the wounded from the battle of Yorktown. Today, 158 men and women are buried in the gardens.
In 1930, a massive two-year archaeology project was launched on the palace. The information gathered in the dig, along with a couple of major historical lucky breaks (think very informative documents surviving) allowed enough detailed information for the entire building to be reconstructed. In 1934, the building was reopened. In 1981, Gov. Botetourt’s inventories were found, which allowed the buildings to be accurately decorated in 18th-century fashion.
I will get my one complaint out of the way at the beginning, because I want this to be positive. The tours are too big! I realize that thousands of people come through Williamsburg, and I sympathize, but 45 people on a tour is too many. Some of the rooms are taxed for space, and with so many people, I could scarcely hear our excellent tour guide. Okay, with that out of the way, this place is fantastic! The décor! The furnishings! The information! I loved it.
You get to see quite a few rooms including offices, bedchambers, dining rooms, and the ball room, among others. Probably the most impressive to me was the great hall, which is crammed floor to ceiling with weapons. The tour is worth it for that alone. There is also an impressive collection of curtained beds, two original paintings of King George III and the Queen, and incredibly beautiful hand-tooled leather wallpaper in one of the entertaining rooms. I wish I had more time because I just wanted to gaze. And Williamsburg is really good about finishing touches. It was like the residents had just walked out of the rooms.
Tours of the Palace are every 15 minutes and last about 30 to 40 minutes. There are also extensive gardens that I will address in another section. This is one of the places you can use that express pass, and I recommend it. It took me forever to get in.
The Governor's Palace
Attraction | "The Wigmaker"
The wigmaker was one of the people that I really wanted to be able to talk to, because it fascinates me. I think that the practice of wearing wigs is very curious and it was so important in the 18th century. Most of the upper class, men and women, wore wigs. Or, at the very least, elaborate extensions.
The shop is tiny, but it is filled with the most amazing stuff. There are wigs of every shape and size, along with all the tools you would need for wig-making and upkeep. There was a woman sitting at a table and actually making a wig, so you really got a chance to see how they do it (You can commission the wigmaker to make you a custom wig, but I didn't ask how much).
They used all sorts of hair for making wigs, horse, goat, and human hair being the most prized. The woman was making one out of yak hair when I was in there, which really threw me. Yak? Really?
When you go in, they have a little presentation that they do, which gives you the basic information about wigs. She told us about the history of wigs and how they came to be so popular during the Renaissance. Long hair was a symbol of manhood, so if you couldn't grow it, you bought it. Eventually it became a status thing and helped to show off wealth (they didn't come cheap then, either). If you can picture the Kings Louis or King James the first, they all had massive, flowing curls down their back. Not really my idea of manly, but you don't argue with the king.
After they finish the basic information, you can ask questions. One woman asked about cleaning the wigs. You didn’t really wash them more than once a year (don’t you just know how terrible the 18th century must have smelled) and usually they were cleaned by airing them out. It was frequent to have a small army of insects and vermin living in your wig. I asked a question about coloring wigs. Usually the ones we see in moves are white, but I have read a lot of sources that mention colored wigs. She told me it was very common for people to powder their white wigs to make them blue, red, pink, or some other color. They actually had one in the shop that was powdered mauve. This was just something you could use to coordinate. Blue dress, blue hair.
Because it is small, a limited number of people are allowed in at once. Turnover is quick, though, so you shouldn’t have to wait long.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 30, 2005
Duke of Glouceser Street
Attraction | "The Post Office"
The shop is small, so it was usually pretty crowded. I liked it, though, because I actually felt like I was in a real colonial store. For one thing, all of the people who worked there were exceedingly friendly, even more so than the rest of the employees. I felt like I was talking to my neighborhood post-master in the 1950s or something, it was great.
This store is mainly full of reproductions. As an admitted bibliophile, I am always intrigued by old documents, pamphlets, and books, which there were plenty of in the small store. They have a lot of different reproductions of legal documents including an Indentured Servants Agreement, which may come in useful if your kids are being rowdy. It was fascinating to be able to read the legal jargon of the 18th century. They also had some great old political works like "Common Sense" by Thomas Paine (in case you need to brush up on your American History).
What I was most lured to was the beautiful reprints of antique maps, games, and incredible prints. They had some lovely images of flowers that I was lusting over. They also had a surprisingly large collection of reproduction fashion plates, which I thought were wonderful ($8 each).
I picked up a really nice handmade paper journal ($7) and if you want to complete the writing set, you can also buy goose quill pens ($2), ink, inkwells, beautiful writing papers, seals and sealing wax. They had a set that you could get with a quill, ink, and papers for only $12.
In the back they have all manner of books that are related to the 18th century. I got Tidings From the 18th Century by Beth Gilgun ($30). This is a book that is an invaluable resource for living historians or anyone interested in daily life from that time period. I was surprised to see it because it is difficult to find. I could have gotten it cheaper, but I was so thrilled to be able to have it immediately that I couldn’t resist. They also have a really great selection of children’s books about colonial life and early American History.
Probably one of the most unusual aspects is that it is an actual working post office. You can come here, get a reproduction colonial Stamp, and drop your mail in the basket to be whisked away across the country. What a nice way to make your friends envious!
134 Henry Street
Williamsburg, Virginia 23185
Now, this is an event unlike most Revolutionary War events, in that it does not center around a battle, but around an encampment. There is no battle at Under the Redcoat. This is a chance for reenactors to get to play. It is basically a weekend of war games. There are people picked out to play the roles of spies and ne’er-do-wells, and it is the job of the Provost Guard to pick them out and throw them in jail. The rules given to us were: You are in the presence of a hostile army. In a bad mood. You may expect to be searched. Repeatedly. You have no rights. Welcome to life under martial law.
And they aren’t kidding. Everyone is a suspect (at least everyone in period attire). I myself was searched more times that I can count. There were numerous checkpoints throughout the town, and you were stopped at each one and questioned. You had to take an oath of loyalty to King George III and carry it with you at all times. If you couldn’t present it, into the stocks you go. Even when I had my oath, I was once almost put in jail, but thankfully, I had a friend in the British Officer’s Ranks who kept me safe from the horrors!
It may seem strange that there is no battle, but please don’t think this means that there is nothing for the visitor to see. This is an excellent chance to see what life in the camps was like. British armies had large numbers of "camp followers" with them at all times. This does not mean loose women, although they were certainly there, but rather refers to the important wives and children of the soldiers, also known as the distaff. I am one of these women.
Under the Redcoat is first and foremost an educational opportunity, and most people who do reenacting do it for the opportunities to interact with the public and teach them about the American Revolution. Going into the camps, you will get to see what these women did. You can see how food was prepared and what they subsisted on, you will see numerous women sewing and learn about period tools and techniques. I sat with women doing laundry for quite sometime (and have never loved my washing machine more!). There was even one women writing letters for the soldiers and demonstrating the use of quill pens and calligraphy techniques. This is an incredible opportunity to see what domestic life was like for the soldiers and the other people in the camps.
You will certainly get a chance to learn about military tactics as well. This is, after all, a city under military occupation. With all the different regiments there, you get a chance to see people drilling, marching, and performing guard duty. They also have various activities to demonstrate military aspects to the public. There were firing competitions and demonstrations, dragoon demonstrations, and one of the highlights of the weekend, a Tug-of-War between the Army and the Navy (won, of course, by the Army – and my very own regiment, the 64th Regiment of Foot!).
But perhaps the best thing about Under the Redcoat is the opportunity to completely immerse yourself in 18th century life. The lives of the soldiers and the civilians are all around you. You will see lines of troops marching, women chatting, Redcoats on horses riding down the street. Colonial Williamsburg is already a wonderful way to get a feel for Colonial times, but if you throw 1000 re-enactors in the mix, it only multiplies the fun. These are people incredibly dedicated to helping you learn about the past. They are eager and willing to interact with visitors, teach them something, and help the understand American History. Under the Redcoat is only of the most popular events at Colonial Williamsburg, not only for the participants, but also for visitors. If you have never seen a reenactment, this is certainly a place to get a wonderful introduction to the hobby.
Charleston, South Carolina