The allure of time travel — which century would you choose?

By Caitlin Kelly

I haven’t yet read this book, by an American author who spent time with some hard-core historical re-enactors who re-make the Civil War on a regular basis.

But we recently had New York City photographer Mike Falco over for dinner. He’s obsessed by the Civil War — an odd pursuit for a Yankee from Staten Island — and has been traveling the U.S. to photograph Civil War battlefields, using a pinhole camera he made himself. 

A pinhole camera requires making long exposures, so that movement is blurred, giving the images a ghostly, timeless feeling.  I love his passion, and his artisanal way of moving backwards in time. He even wears period clothing, and people have greeted him by name as Mathew Brady, the legendary Civil War photographer.

He’s met hundreds of re-enactors, some of them the descendants of the men who fought those battles.

English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997,...
English: American Civil War re-enactors, 1997, by Rick Dikeman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was extraordinary hearing him describe some of these people and how emotional these encounters and re-enactments are. In the same landscapes, unchanged two centuries on, they’re re-making history, lost in time.

I read a lot of history, for pleasure, hungry to know how we got where we are, politically, economically, philosophically. So I  understand this impulse to try and feel what it might have been like to live 100, 200 or 500 years ago.

I’m intensely curious about what other lives are like — although there is a very large gap between a temporary dress-up fantasy of 19th or 18th century life and living it as it was — without anesthesia, antibiotics or a woman’s right to vote or own property.

I once owned, and wore, a Victorian combing jacket, with its own internal cotton corset. Paisley wool, with drifts of lace and ribbon, it was a glorious garment and I walked very differently when I wore it: more slowly, more deliberately. It was an intimate encounter with the woman who might have worn it then.

For my first wedding, I wore a cotton dress from about 1905, complete with a eyelet underskirt. My maid of honor wore a Victorian dress. I wasn’t trying to be anything or re-create a moment, but had hated every contemporary wedding dress I tried on.

Surprisingly, I felt completely comfortable, and we married in this rivers’s edge chapel from 1840 with no electricity, just a huge chandelier lit with candles.

Here’s a link to the most recent Victorian ball held in Nahant, Massachusetts a week ago, at which guests wore period clothing, much of which they made themselves.

I bet this is part of the fascination with the HBO television series Game of Thrones, which I occasionally watch. And steampunk. I love the Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, for their stylish re-creation of period London. The films Moulin Rouge and Ana Karenina did this well, too, although the jewelry worn by Keira Knightley, (Chanel, carefully placed) was entirely wrong for the period. If you’re a historical accuracy maven, it’s fun to see when they get it wrong, or right.

I’ve had two experiences that moved me back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. One was riding in, and driving, a horse-drawn sleigh through the woods of Quebec, much tougher than it looks!

The other, best week ever, was crewing aboard Endeavour, an Australian replica of a Tall Ship. We slept in narrow, swaying hammocks, climbed the rough rope rigging dozens of times a day to furl enormous, heavy square canvas sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a narrow footrope (just as it sounds.) We handled lines (ropes) so heavy and thick that two of them filled my forearm. I’ve never been more cut, more exhausted or more empathetic to the lives of the men who worked aboard whaling ships and other marine craft. Dangerous as hell!

I fantasize about living in Paris in the 1920s, England in the 1600s, with Elizabeth I on the throne and turn of the 20th century Vienna, when some of my favorite artists — Secessionists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele — were alive.

I’d also like to have been a British or American or Canadian woman in the 1940s, when women first poured into the workforce en masse, although the loss of loved ones to WW II would have been terrible to bear.

Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag)
Red Ensign (pre-1965 Canadian flag) (Photo credit: Lone Primate)

I’m also somehow drawn to Edwardian England. (Hello, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End) but above stairs, please!

Do you ever wish you could time-travel back in history?

Where would you go — and why?

56 thoughts on “The allure of time travel — which century would you choose?

  1. Being a Doctor Who fan, that is a tough question. I doubt I’d go back to World War II and Nazi Germany, despite that being the focus of my History major. I think I’d love to go Victorian England. It sounds like fun, especially the balls and whatnot.

      1. I said I doubt I’d go back, even if it’s the focus of my major. Though I could infiltrate the Reich Headquarters and kill Hitler….nah, that could ruin the space-time continuum in ways I don’t know.

  2. camusr6

    Hi Caitlin

    Fun post. The folks who present the Nahant Ball are colleagues of mine, I used to dance with them when I lived in Boston. I used to do a good bit of 19th century and early 20th century balls and dances, with costumes and everything (which I still have). Lots of fun. I researched and taught the dances (I even have a video for sale). I don’t do it as much anymore though. I plan to do a story on the dancing in period films like Anna Karenina (ridiculous dancing as far as authenticity goes) and Great Gatsby.

    I have lots of friends too who currently or used to do reenacting of various periods. My husband was part of a really amazing and very authentic group of 14th century reenactors called La Belle Compagnie, in Virginia. He helped them with their book, which we’re both in, called The Peel Afinity. It’s pretty neat (it’s on Amazon:


    1. Wow. Just…wow!

      When I lived in NH for 18 months, I was introduced to contra dancing. That was a revelation in itself.

      What an interesting life you and your husband lead! 🙂

      What was it about the 14th century that appealed?

      1. camusr6

        Thanks. Yeah, I started contra dancing (and English country dancing) when I was eight years old at a camp in Plymouth MA. It’s called Pinewoods. Really really amazing. It was magic.

        My husband Alex says he likes medieval history better than American history, because it’s more magical and fantastical, he thinks. Probably does have a lot to do with that Game of Thrones thing you were talking about (and he loves that series, books and show). He definitely likes to travel to places, either literally or figuratively, that are not like the real, contemporary world.

        Btw (1), Alex’s brother used to be first mate on tall ships for a living.

        Btw (2), if you like games, you all might like Chrononauts, by Looney Labs. It’s a time traveling card game, and kind of explores things like what might have happened if Hitler were assassinated or the Titanic didn’t sink. It’s pretty clever. 🙂

  3. Steve

    All my heros since I was a boy have a always been cowboys. I suppose for me the draw of a simple basic life style of open sky and lots of space appeal to me still so I would suppose the 18880’s in America would do just fine.

    1. One of the coolest experiences of my life, when researching my book about American women and guns, was staying on a ranch in a very isolated area of Texas — and the husband of my source was, in his late 70s, still a working cowboy. It was like seeing a unicorn!

      One of my favorite movies is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, set in that time and place.

  4. In Williamsburg, Virginia, my wife and I rode in a horse-drawn coach. It happened to be the coach that Lafayette had ridden in, during one of his post-war visits. It was still mostly original material. Impressively, its windows could be raised and lowered by pieces of felt. But the most authentic part of the experience occurred after we arrived home. We had fleas. (The carriage must be stored in or near the stable.) We like to think that we were bitten by the descendents of the fleas that bit Lafayette.

  5. You do lead an interesting life and try all kinds of things 🙂
    I’m addicted to two things: proper toilets and hot running water. Maybe the future would be fun, but I think I’ll stay far away from the past.

  6. Jessica Slavin

    Hmm, this is a tough one for me! I think that this is probably the best time yet to be a woman, so where and when I’d want to visit would depend a lot upon whether I could be sure I’d get to return to here and now! 🙂 And even then….I don’t know. The times that most fascinate me, e.g., the fall of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the empire, or the meeting of the European colonializing nations with people of the Americas, were so violent and horrible in many ways, I don’t know if I would actually want to experience it. I think that when we look back at history, it is so easy to think of it like a buffet, oh, I’d like to see this or that, try this role on for size, but forget that reality is so much more complicated.

    Well, now I feel like a party pooper. It’s definitely fun to think about. And, oh, the photos! So beautifully spooky.

      1. Jessica Slavin

        Well that is true. I can’t think of any time where my privileges would have exceeded my own current ones, though.

  7. Loved the blog. I have always wanted to be in a different time and place at times. If it could be like a day trip or short vacation, it would be great. I like to read history and I can only imagine how much better our understanding of other times and places would be I f we could pvisit.

  8. It seems to me most other centuries have involved more vomiting, fevers, and poor hygiene than our extremely clean and convenient present.. I’d really rather not. I shudder to think of life before antibiotics and would hate to live in places and times where lancing and leeches were valid medical practices. The introduction of covered sewers is also something I’m glad to benefit from every day.

  9. As an observer? Around the time when Leibniz and Newton were figuring out calculus and lots of other things. The process of such discovery is fascinating.
    If I actually had to live it? Yesterday, when I defiantly ( and responsibly) took the day off just because.

  10. I would probably do the same as another poster above. Back to WWII and get Hitler and Himmler even Stalin. I think if I were to time travel, I’d also get a sex change so my life would be less oppressive!

  11. With my love of old architecture, I’d want to go back to a period earlier in the 20th C, before Toronto thought urban renewal was the way of the future rather than a better balance with architectural preservation. Apparently, Toronto had an amazing amount of Art Deco buildings, one of my favourite periods of design. Although it might make me quite sad to see what we’ve lost.

  12. What I find interesting about reenacting and experiential history (like your stint on a sailing ship) is how it privileges the material, sensual feel of the past. While some of the other things you mention about life in the past (lack of women’s rights, etc) are about abstractions and mental states–much like the causes of the Civil War. It’s funny how the two things are divorced in the way we engage with history: the literal feel of the past and the thoughts and feelings of the past. Anyway – Confederates in the Attic is well worth reading!

    1. Thanks!

      Good point. Wearing the jacket did make me understand how physically constrained a Victorian woman’s body felt.

      And working aboard a Tall Ship really made me appreciate its many physical dangers.

  13. Kieran Winterburn

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  14. Given the option of viewing I’d be nipping about all over the place but to stay I’d have to settle for late Victorian and Edwardian times since I love the style of dress from then. I love wearing my frock coat. It was also a fantastic time for art. You’ve mentioned Klimt but I love Burne-Jones and others of that school. The Meiji period from Japan ( my waling sticks) and almost anything art nouveau.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  15. Napier, New Zealand in 1939 would have been astonishing, because all the art deco was brand new – and complete. I remember the stuff as a kid, down-at-heel and old; and they didn’t start preserving it until after the best bits were gone – including a whole ‘deco’ pavement that was ripped up and destroyed as part of the ‘preservation’ effort (sigh)..

    It would be amazing, I think, to be able to go back to any period as observer – because the way these times actually were to those who lived in and experienced them is very different from the way we imagine them. Certainly different from the aspects that become our way of envisioning them. It would, I think, be an absolutely incredible eye-opener in so many ways.

  16. Ancient Egypt! We still know so little about that civilization, and I would love to go up and down the Nile a few hundred times over the centuries, and watch everything play out. It would be amazing to see all of the temples and monuments in their unfaded glory. And I wouldn’t mind getting a peep at the books in the Library of Alexandria in the early centuries C.E., either. 😉 Actually, that would be my number one destination.

    Of course it would also be great to spy on some of the pivotal moments of history, and find out what *really* happened. And that’s just as an observer. If I could start editing history… I don’t know where I would start.

    1. I am so utterly fascinated by “history” as journalism, it is said, is the first draft of it…I am very aware of that whenever I publish a story, as I hope one day it informs a historian in his or her understanding of our era.

      But there are some awful moments === Elizabeth I used to draw and quarter traitors publicly as an example. Ew! Not to mention lynchings and wars and…I’d be pretty selective. 🙂

  17. Rachel

    Late to the party (life has been hectic)…I’d want to visit the Golden Age in Spain when the followers of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism managed to coexist peacefully and fruitfully. Like other readers here, I would also want a guaranteed return to modern plumbing, public hygiene, immunizations, and other health-preserving knowledge and techniques. Hmm. Typing this out makes me realize that even as a “not quite where I expected to be” resident of the post-industrial urbanized West I enjoy many privileges and advantages still inaccessible for too many other “citizens of the planet” (in the words of Paul Simon). I have no desire to permanently relocate in time because it would mean rearranging too many of the threads that led to my current, satisfying web of family and friends.

    1. What a great choice!!

      One of my favorite places in the world is Andalusia — Cordoba, Granada, Seville, Ronda — where I visited the Mezquita. It is a really interesting time and place and makes me wonder how we have now ended in this place of hatred and terrorism in the name of religion.

  18. Rachel

    P.S. So many interesting, thought-provoking comments from others! Thanks to Karl Weber for mentioning “Time and Again” (wonderful). There’s also “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” by Mary Norton, a children’s book which I learned to my dismay was colonized some time ago by a Disney recreation (see goodreads dot com). Okay, my biases are definitely showing (I prefer the original “Pooh” as written by A.A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest E. Shephard. And yes, I had to look up various bibliographic details in order to post something even semi-coherent.
    Caitlin, thank you for hosting all of these interesting discussions. It’s amazing how community can cohere in cyberspace sometimes.

    1. LOVE Winnie the pooh and those fantastic pen and ink illustrations. I keep a copy of When We Were Six on my shelf and can recite at least some of Alexander Beetle by heart. 🙂

      It is a fun crowd here!

  19. Oh, Paris in the 1920s! My WIP (a novel) is set in that period. It’s a little intimidating to write about — it’s not as if this subject hasn’t been covered by some of the greatest writers of the 20th century! So I would love to time travel to that era and make sure I could accurately capture all of the little details for my story.

    1. Parlez-vous francais?

      That would help you tremendously if you could read materials of that period. If you ever have the budget to hire a translator, I’ve done that before for authors needing to read original documents in French for their work.

      1. Solamente italiano, I’m afraid.

        I was thinking along those lines (best to get first-hand accounts) and I’ve been searching for articles written by the many English language journalists who had descended upon the city in the 20’s such as Harold Stearns. I’m not having much luck at the moment. Will do more digging!

        PS – My house publishes all of the Winnie the Pooh books. I have one I think you’ll enjoy and I’ll bring it when we go ice skating. 🙂

      2. Ooooh. 🙂

        I did some translation work for a New Yorker who wanted me to translate 18th century first person accounts of a mad priest in the Gambier Islands. It still ranks as one of the most amazing projects I’ve ever worked on.

  20. As long as I’m time hopping, I’d like to meet Jesus; find out what happened to the lost colony at Roanoke, Virginia; help catch Jack the Ripper; see a real dinosaur (and live to tell about it) and successfully make it back to 2013. Then maybe think up a few other time adventures to go on.

    1. Love all of these! It would be extraordinary to see a dinosaur, (from a safe distance!)

      Ray Bradbury, the sci-fi writer, wrote one of my favorite stories ever about a company that took people back to the age of the dinosaurs to hunt them as big game. But they HAD to stay on a special path floating above the land so as not to disturb the delicate balance that would affect us all aeons later. One man steps off, squishes a butterfly and…. !!!!! Gotta read the story.

      1. That sounds like a great story. Don’t you know, someone is always going to step off the path. I think that would be the main problem with going back in time. What happens if you get stuck?

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