Hot! Five Ways for 18th Century Reenactors to Improve their Camps

Following on the heels of my post about how 18th century reenactors can eat more authentically, I got a request for a post about how to improve the look and feel of 18th century camps.  Admittedly, this is not a subject I know as much about, but I got great input from other reenactors, and this is what we all came up with:

Drastically reduce the amount of “baggage” you carry.

QOLVR member Aaron carrying all he needed for four days at Fort Ticonderoga.

One of my favorite policies we have in the Queen’s Own is that we generally only bring what we can carry from the car in one trip (two, max).  Here are some things you should maybe consider leaving at home:  tables, chairs, dining flies, lanterns (especially lantern stands), wooden chests, large amounts of iron cookware, etc.  In the setting that most reenactments take place in – i.e. an army on the move, not garrisoned in a fort – soldiers would not have even a third of the stuff you see in a typical reenactor camp these days. Save yourself money at the sutler’s and put your pocketbook away, or if you have too much stuff already, consider selling some of it.

Get rid of farby haybales.

The modern square haybales that we have today didn’t exist back then, not even close.  I know that sites provide the hay in that format because it’s the easiest thing to do, but you don’t have to keep them as bales!  When you get to camp, immediately break up as many bales as you need to bed down your tents or shelters, and then give the rest back.  The ground is perfectly fine for sitting on.

Keep your camp activities period-appropriate and follow military protocol.

QOLVR drilling in the morning.

Instead of sitting around the campfire endlessly jaw-jacking about the latest TV show, why not keep your camp period-correct?  Have some of the men on fatigue duty.  Set a schedule and assign a watch.  For those who are off-duty, consider period-appropriate activities such as mending your clothes, cleaning your firelock, or playing a period game.  There’s so much cool stuff that you can do around camp that’s period-correct, so save the modern discussions for your own living room.  As for following military protocol, have the men stand up and salute when an officer enters the camp.  Do some drill every once in awhile.  Not only does it make your camp/unit look better, it also helps to maintain a sense of unit camaraderie and cohesion.

Put thought into organizing your camp.

If you can, find out what the regulation width for regimental “streets” was, how far apart the tents are supposed to be, etc, and then stick to it.  Before people start putting up their tents willy-nilly, figure out where everyone should go, where the camp kitchen will be, where any other fires will be, how and where arms will be stored, etc.  Putting just ten minutes’ thought into how your camp is going to be organized will go a long, long way toward making your presence at an event look more professional.

Switch from cotton canvas tents to linen tents, or consider using a brush shelter.

QOLVR's brush shelter camp at Fort Ticonderoga.

I know that tents made from Sunforger canvas are both cheap and easily available, but they’re also not really all that authentic.  Consider pooling unit resources to buy enough linen to make even just a few linen tents and your camp will immediately go from average to awesome.  While you’re at it, house the proper amount of men per tent.  If your unit is small and/or is an atypical unit such as militia, rangers, etc, consider making do with a simple brush shelter instead of a tent.  They’re accurate as all get out, can be quite warm, are not difficult to build, and really help to break up the endless lines of white tents.  A hatchet and some twine is all you need to build one and they can shelter a large number of people.

If you have other advice or would simply like to chip in and say “hear hear!”, please do leave a comment using the form below.  Comments on Facebook are all well and good, but they don’t reach the general public, which is what this blog is for!

[ This post was written with input from Anna Gruber Keifer, Jason Melius, Travis Shaw, Patrick Morton, Sean Edwards, Malyson Haight, Sean Lothar, Will Tatum, and Sherri Rapp. ]

21 Comments

  1. Awesome points–so often in the rush to get uniforms/clothing and accoutrements documented and up to par, we forget about camp. One thing I would add is that, before you do anything else (well, excepting getting rid of the darn straw bales), research what your unit actually had and consider what part of your unit’s history you’re portraying. Some units really did have tons of stuff (though questioning whose stuff it was–common soldier or officer’s?–is probably wise). Others were on campaign had nothing but what they could carry. Still others were garrisoned–a challenge to think about how to represent that in a camp setting, but worth considering! Like you said about camp layout–just thinking about it for a little bit and making a concious choice can make all theh difference.

    I think people often forget that keeping activities period-correct needn’t be a hardship–no one is saying you can’t talk and catch up! There’s so much to talk about–news from family and friends, 18th century books you’re reading, whatevs–that translates much better than discussing this season’s American Idol or whatnot. And you can talk and joke and have a good time while portraying activities common in camp.

    • Yes. Have stuff that is appropriate to your impression. If there’s a lot of stuff that is written that the officers had, leave it to the officers – ordinary soldiers would not have had their own. I think a lot of reenactors just don’t really *think* much about their camps, but in reality, it’s very important!

      Yes. I don’t mind if people talk a bit about their modern lives, but do so with an eye (or ear) to the period you’re supposed to be representing. If I hear one more reenactor crack a Family Guy or Futurama reference around a campfire, I’m going to strangle someone.

  2. One alternative to straw bales is rolls of hay. Wait you say, there were no hay rolls in the 18th c. either. In some events I helped run in the 1990s we bought hay rolls, tilted them on to their sides, jammed a stick into the center of the roll on what is now the top, then peeled the outer, weathered layer of hay off the outside of the roll and threw it top making it look like a haystack. The hay on top provides a water resistant layer and the folks just peel off hay around the roll as needed. The hay on top tends to spill down keeping it looking like a haystack. This can actually be cheaper than straw bales and avoids the need of a big blue tarp to keep the straw dry.

  3. The flame-thrower shown is being used by the USMC Historical Company, which is NOT a re-enactment group! It is dedecated to the preservation & interpretation of Marine Corps history. A few members, such as myself, are long-time re-enactor/living history folks, but most are not involved in the hobby/obsession!

  4. Egad, I wish we could afford linen tents! I’d settle for seeing other pre-industrial groups lose the metal grommets and switch to hand-stitched eyelets. Midwest tents handsews eyelets, and they’re dreamy, or like some groups do, one could learn to sew one’s own.
    One of the things I love about the middle ages and earlier is that we get to have a lot of really cool stuff. The lists of what people took on crusades is gob-smacking. It would be more authentic if we had more servants and horse-drawn wagons though.
    It’s nice to see more of the groups sticking to documentable equipment types and amounts too. I can see why 8 modern men wouldn’t be inspired to take a nap all under one tent together, but I’d be impressed if they did.
    I’m kinda looking forward to dabbling a bit more in the second half of the 18thc too, so thanks for the tips. :)

  5. Grymm Grymmsson

    Owing to the rise of the eco types there is a lot more hemp fabric (Canvas is s’posed to be hemp .. same root as cannabis) out there, search for Hemp Canvas, makes for wonderful tents and dead awfentick tudor doublets for working men =o)

  6. I do appreciate the direction of these comments, so don’t take this as a counter argument. While an army on the march wouldn’t allow for each soldier to have his own wooden chest and personal water keg and stand, etc, We do know an army ont he march had a baggage train with campfollowers and camp gear. While it is rarely ever seen to have an ox cart and oxen on display, wouldn’t a camp still be historically accurate to have ont he display the canvas and ironmongery that the soldier’s themselves wouldn’t have carried? Keeping in mind the lack of camp followers from Rev war to ACW. Also, would the Crown forces with their authorized camp women be a different lookign camp than their Continental counterparts? i.e. less women and camp gear?

  7. Yes, definitely, I used to go for 4 days in the Moutains of New Mexico with what I carried on my back. I was also 19 years old. See how long you can maintain that level of authenticity and how many are going to go along with you. Just saying.

  8. Any sources for information for making these authentic tents? I work at a battlesite, 1780, which had an encampment. I am looking to make some tents to use for children’s programming. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has done so, or has any ideas that could help me.

  9. Thank you for this article. I’ve been finding that I want to take my impression farther than many in my unit want to. More first-person, marked equipment, etc. (I like the marked tents in the first photo.) I can’t afford a linen or hemp tent at this point, but I’d at least like to number my tent. Can anyone point me to a source on how tent markings were determined in F&I War British forces? My unit is a Maryland company, and we were never above half regimental strength, so normal standa4ds might not apply, but I’d like to at least do an educated guess.

  10. I’m interested in how you manage to waterproof and keep linen tents from getting mildewed. Also is there a way to fire retard a linen tent?

    • James "Jake" Pontillo

      I don’t know about ‘waterproofing’ any tent -linen or cotton- BUT it it is properly pitched, the fibers will swell and water will not come thru UNLESS YOU RUB THE INSIDE OF THE TENT and a leak will form there., BUT the best cure for Mildew, is one passed along to me by My good Friend and ace Basket maker Jim Fischer from Springfield Vt who makes great baskets- put the item in the freezer and then you can just shake off of vacuum it clean! U hate the smell of mildew and would get it in my cap or hair brushes and washing did nothing, and then I learned from Jim how to put it in the freezer- problem solved

  11. My only issue is the idea of making a brush shelter. If your unit makes 10+ shelters, think of how many trees you would denude if there was not an overabundance of ground clutter.

    • If you’re making 10+ brush shelters, that would imply that you have 50+ men in your company, in which case it *is* more authentic to have tents. However, I’ve very seldom seen folks with that many members at an event.

  12. Other activities: my unit (Scots regiment re-enacting the Civil Wars of the mid 17th C in Britain) held a pay parade at one event. Pay was in dockets, drawn on the paymaster in Edinburgh, we were in the north of England at that event so it involved much arguing about how useless the system was and how were the sojers meant to live without plundering if they didn’t get hard cash. And the arguments cropped up at various points at drill parades and the like through the weekend,

  13. Deb Peck Kelleher

    Great suggestions but my pet peeve here – straw bales are the yellow stalks of grain – wheat, rye, etc. used by farmers for bedding. Hay bales are green grasses used by farmers to feed animals. as common 18C knowledge, we should know too

Leave a Reply