Watching a group of young girls put the finishing touches on their cloth dolls and excitingly show me their finished product was the perfect way to spend my Saturday morning.
These little ladies were participating in the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation’s award-winning monthly program, “Windows Through History,” which kicked off the year featuring the Civil War. The program features a different historical time period each month and allows area girls to immerse themselves in the era with activities such as dancing, cooking, craft work, and sewing. Each activity is centered around the historical events and popular culture of the era. “Windows Through History” is for young girls, ages 7 to 14.
The Windows Through Time Experience
Located at the Captain William Vicary Mansion in Freedom, which overlooks the Ohio River and route 65, the program takes place one Saturday a month from 10 am until 1:30 pm. They ask that the girls arrive around 9:30 am and bring a small basket used to carry their projects. Upon arrival, they will begin their experience by dressing in period costumes, provided by the program.
This particular group of girls began their morning with the cooking activity, in the large kitchen area of the mansion, deep in the cellar. Using period-specific recipes and equipment, the ladies were taught to bake gingerbread, hand-crank ice cream, and make potato soup. After the morning activities are complete, the girls will reunite with the other groups, in the dining room behind the gift shop, and dine on their handmade meals and socialize, drinking root beer and switchel, a period-specific drink made from vinegar and sugar.
After their meal preparation was complete and the bell to change activities rang, the girls headed upstairs to the first floor, and began work on their own hand-quilted potholders. While learning the small intricate quilting stitches, they were educated on the local organizations that handmade quilts and sent them to our soldiers on the frontline during the Civil War. They also were taught about the Underground Railroad and the practicality of a quilt code that was said to have been used.
Hearing the bell and carefully placing their handmade potholders into their baskets, this group of ladies ventured to the second level of the home to make a cloth doll by hand. The girls assembled around a large sewing table and listened as one of the instructors, Dorothy, explained how the doll would be constructed. They eagerly went to work, creating a doll of their own.
Civil War Era Dresses
While the girls were putting the finishing touches on their dolls, I stopped and chatted with Dorothy about the program. She pointed out that each girl was dressed in dresses from the Civil War era and that this is done with every session, even down to the differences in dress for the different ages.
Dorothy continued that during this time, young girls wore dresses similar to shifts, which buttoned in the back, signaling their need for assistance and young age. The older girls, however, wore dresses with fitted bodices and fuller sleeves, which buttoned in the front, showing their transition from child into adulthood. With that, the bell rang to change classes and the girls proceeded into the large open area of the second floor for dancing.
Learning the Dances
The dance instructor, Larry Spinnenweber, lined up all twenty-two girls evenly on both sides of the long hall, as the program helpers began handing out hoop petticoats to the girls along one wall, to tie on top of their dresses. This gave the ladies the illusion of what it felt like to dance during that period and also caused me to become just a little jealous, watching as they swirled in those large skirts.
Dave instructed the girls on the mechanics and history of the Virginia Reel, a group line dance that quickly went out of style after the Civil War. The dance involves couples lining up parallel to each other, “women” on one side and “men” on the other. The couple at the top of the line greets and dances together, and this process continues down the line. The girls struggled a little initially, but quickly got the hang of it- curtsying, bowing, and twirling away the afternoon before their social. There they dined on their own homemade soup and goodies, as well as being instructed on dining etiquette, such as napkins on laps and feet on the floor. Don’t cross those legs, ladies!
Upcoming Windows Through History Eras
For the month of February, “Windows Through History” will feature the Victorian era with activities such as embroidering a crazy quilt patch and using a treadle sewing machine piece it together, as well as making tea sandwiches and baking a Waldorf Astoria red cake.
The Roaring Twenties will be featured in March, while other time periods will be World War II, Eastern Woodland Indian/1750’s, Frontier Beaver County, Lewis & Clark, and the 1820’s/Vicary Mansion. Check out the Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation’s website for more information. Each session is $20 per young lady and to be paid in advance to guarantee a spot, as class sizes are limited.
For all you ladies who don’t exactly fall into the 7-14 age range but enjoy learning activities such as bobbin lacing or weaving in a historical setting, they have a program for you. “Windows Through History” offers a second session available featuring these type of activities. Please see the above link for signing up and don’t be surprised if you see me there, begging to wear a hoop petticoat for the evening.