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History-lite

Every year, on what is always the first really hot, sticky weekend of the summer, I lay out my annual costume: linen shift, boned undergarment, petticoat, stockings, shortgown, apron, cap, scarf, and hat. I pin together the front of the shortgown, period correct, and under my white ruffled cap, my hair is sturdily pinned also, away from my neck and ears. I slip on my clogs, and then check out the effect: a prim throwback from 200 years ago, dressed in five layers of what will be sweat-sodden 18th century garments by the end of the day.

I am prepared to be asked at least 60 times, “Aren’t you hot?” Of course I’m hot. What a ridiculous question. But clearly, the point isn’t to be cool; otherwise I wouldn’t be smothered by compacted linen like a colonial club sandwich. I’m sacrificing comfort that Saturday for history- or something like it. Let’s call it “history-lite.” History-lite isn’t about history by the book. It’s about history by the heart- and it’s everywhere here in the Chesapeake. In St. Michaels for example, home of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, a sign proudly touts its War of 1812 history-lite, “The Town that Fooled the British”. I’ve overheard local tour guides in my own community, Chestertown, tell their visitors about how the town square was where the colonists “used to burn witches.” History-lite, for sure. And every year, as a Chestertonian first and a historian second, I prepare to don my period sweat-suit to celebrate our most irrepressible history-lite legacy: the Tea Party Festival.

                                            

                             The author, prepared to perspire like it’s 1774.

A festival since 1968, the Tea Party (ahem, not that kind) commemorates the actions of a few Revolutionary Kent County patriots that, in 1774, boarded the Brigantine Geddes in support of their Boston counterparts and dumped overboard the cargo of dutiable tea. In honor of these rebellious forebears, Chestertonians and thousands of tourists eat fried food, drink beer, dress up, buy wind chimes made from old spoons, and generally make merry.  The known but largely ignored fact that the original event probably didn’t happen at all is moot (all researchers have been able to dig up are a series of published “Resolves” in which the prosperous burghers of Chestertown agree not to import tea, down with tyrannical taxes, and so on- not quite as memorable as tea trashing for liberty). In the last hundred years since the legend was resurrected, and in the last thirty or so that it’s been a clarion call to celebrate, it has indeed become local history- just not ‘authentically’ colonial.

     

      Crowds at the Tea Party Festival, cheek-to-jowl with funnel cakes and redcoats.

History-lite is about memory. With each generation, we revise and edit our past, meticulously curating the stories, legacy, and sense of place we pass along, leaving behind the parts that seem irrelevant, uninteresting, or ugly. For example, there are no slave stories told as part of the Chestertown Tea Party, even though by the time of the Revolutionary War, almost 50% of the population in Kent County was African or African-American. Instead, through the festival, the past is rewritten to focus on faceless freedom-loving heroes whose ideals are lofty and motives seek to stamp out the merest whiff of tyranny. History-lite reinforces the things we wish to be (idealistic heroes) while diminishing the things we fear or revile (slavery). And it happens all the time- consider how we think about Thanksgiving: history-lite. Or Christopher Columbus, or Thomas Jefferson, and a hundred other historical events or persons we half-commemorate. We seek tidy, pretty, friendly bits to remember and to inform us about what we come from, and we just discard the bony, gristly pieces of history that are hard to swallow.

        

The Wallis-Wickes House- one of dozens of 18th century houses that populate Chestertown’s downtown.

Even the physical reminders of the past have been edited to conform to the happy rigors of history-lite. Chestertown itself, like many 18th century Chesapeake towns, is peppered with lovely examples of Georgian architecture. These hulking edifices, made of the best materials in the largest quantities for the upper echelons of tidewater society, have been scrupulously renovated and maintained over the several hundred years since their construction. What is missing, of course, are the ramshackle outbuildings each of these houses required to function- slave dwellings, smoke houses, stinking privies. And also missing are the houses that the rest of colonial society, the 99%, called home- one room, crowded, pestilential hovels that were usually worse than most of the slums back in England. Archaeologists frequently find ammonia stains on soil directly outside of what were the windows of these houses- telling us that the contents of chamber pots  were dumped right outside. That paints a bit of a different picture than the one conveyed by Chestertown’s modern day colonial mansions, doesn’t it? Yet these shacks made up the majority of the houses in the county. The present-day Chestertown makes the 18th century version of itself seem clean, orderly, prosperous. But that’s just a little fraction of the real story.

Ultimately, each generation rewrites the past to suit the present. And how (and what) we remember is far about more about us, and what we value, than about ‘real history’.In Chestertown, we celebrate independent thinkers, a prosperous period when the town was vibrant and connected to a greater purpose. We also celebrate the men that profited from the sweat and toil of others, and look to a history that champions a very narrow, and very wealthy slice of the story. It makes you wonder what the Tea Party and other ‘commemorations’ spawned around the time of the ‘76 Centennial will look like in 200, 300 years?

       

Who knows? But I bet one thing for certain- there will be funnel cake.

For more information on the roots of the Chestertown Tea Party, I recommend a wonderful article that digs up the skeletons of Chestertown’s favorite legend: "Tea and Fantasy" by Adam Goodheart.

What examples of ‘history-lite’ do you have in your community?

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