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?