Monday, February 11, 2013

Isn't this a Mennonite colony?

I haven't had one of these rants in a while, but I figured it was finally worth it to speak out again.  I'm not sure if it's just an honest mistake or sheer ignorance, but it's disturbing either way.

I work in Columbia State Historic Park in California.  Generally I wear a collarless button-up shirt, skirt, and about two or three petticoats when I go to work (I'm not claiming by any stretch of the imagination that I have been dressing historically accurate).  I keep my hair pulled back so it's out of the way.  On any given day I deal with at least a handful of really off the wall history questions.

Yesterday, a woman came into the store I work in with a couple of school age children that had probably been on the "Gold Rush field trip" either last year or were going to be this year.  She asked me what it's like being a Mennonite.  I stood there in complete shock holding a coffee cup in my hand.  I told her I was not a Mennonite by any stretch of the imagination.  She the proceeded to say as she walked out the door with her family "oh I thought this town was a Mennonite colony."


I can see where she might have come up with this conclusion, but it's still rather shocking.  I've maintained for a long time now that the CA park system have created a fantasy world rooted pretty heavily in the TV series Little House on the Prairie; they have cleaned up history to make it politically correct and wholesome for the family.  They have censored the truth about the kinds of people and shops that existed.  However, one of the worst injustices that's been committed is against the clothing.  Below, I have posted several different slants on what the women who work in CSHP are forced to wear each day.  I do not see how the following images accurately portray what Columbia, CA looked like between 1850-1870.
Mennonite girls.  Photo from this site
Little House on the Prairie cast photo, from here
Prairie dresses from commercial pattern, found here
Funny thing is, even if you do a simple google image search or wikipedia search for 1850s women's fashions, the results are staggering and completely different from the above images.  For example:
image from here

image source

image source
All very different styles; all very different from the first set of images; all randomly selected; and ALL representing different social classes of women.

So the long and short of it is this:
Dear California State Park System, 
You fail epically at your mission statement of recreating a "Gold Rush era" town c.1850-1870.  When people that come to visit start asking employees of the stores if they are Mennonites or Amish or Quakers when they are supposed to be representing a time frame of around 1850, there is something severely wrong.  Perhaps it would be advisable to consult someone with a history degree and an interest in clothing to correct some of these problems.

Someone who believes we can do much better
Oh and all this also means that as soon as I get my house back in order from the new flooring, there will be a new, corrected outfit made.

Edit: 6/1/2013
Until I find motivation to sew a new work outfit, allow me to share my mockery with you all on here:
Oh so attractive...I'm standing over the heater vent to make the mumu poof out


  1. Bravo to you! LOVE your post! Even here in New England we have our share of insipid so-called museums and such purporting to be "educating" the public but in reality spewing out oft times ridiculous "facts" not grounded in historical reality!
    One thing that comes to mind was my first trip to Plymouth Mass, before I moved to New England and still resided in the midwest. One thing my traveling companion and I saw was "Plymouth rock"---an hilarious sight, really---a silly rock in a cage plunked in a small park on by the seaside, and most certainly based on legend and not historical fact. As a reenactor, I have also seen my share of laughable "farby" costumes!

  2. I totally agree with you. I'm actually a dress historian and the same is going on in the UK. Its very difficult dealing with what people expect to see rather than what history happened, but im afraid sometimes it comes down to the bottom line and how much money these places make so they can keep running. I think there is a balance to be struck whereby you can surprise people in a good way and challenge their perception.