A Concise Ethnography of Reenactors

Reenacting draws a diverse crowd. Generally, those who participate in living history interpretation enjoy history and spending time outdoors (to varying degrees). But that’s where the similarity of motivation and degree of participation ends. Some are more interested in military activities, while others enjoy recreating 18th century foodways or agricultural practices. Some are consumed by molding their impression to be as authentic as possible. Others enjoy talking to the public about history. Some just want to hang out with friends.

Natives in the Parking Lot, Plains of Abraham, Quebec City. RL Fifield Photo, 2004.

Baking Bread at Ft. Ligonier. RL Fifield photo 2008.

Within the reenactor world (and even if I don’t really care for the term, I’ll use it here to distinguish from the museum-based interpreter), participants are volunteers, and are generally led by volunteers. As volunteers, nobody has to adhere to a required set of outcomes in order to receive a paycheck. Cross varying levels of dedication with different areas of interest and a few populations emerge. Below are some tongue-in-cheek classifications, based on a combination of  reenactor euphemisms and my own observations.

The Powder Burner – Many of these reenactors began the “hobby” (that would be reenacting, for those of you who aren’t familiar). Their primary reason for attending is fielding in battle demonstrations, at different levels of authenticity. These folks have little interest in authentic 18th century camplife or history beyond firing their weapons.


The Martyr – People who love the hobby deeply, are dedicated to its continuance, and signed up for the running of the organization. Often the target of either deserved or undeserved criticism by the hobby’s participants.

The Inauthentic Pragmatist – Main phrase being “if they had it, they would have used it.” Folding bamboo dishracks, lantern stands, and directors chairs are present at these campsites. Also crows about coat material purchased for $5/yd in 1980, even if its use has been disproved fifteen years ago.

The Lifer – A person who says “I’ve been doing this since 1965.”

Pay call at Under the Redcoat. Colonial Williamsburg. RL Fifield photo, 2001.

The Progressive – Proclaims a rabid passion for developing the most authentic portrayals, often the dandies of the hobby. May be found drinking beer in the parking lot if an event is deemed to be lame. Also known for not being able to tell a raw from a cooked ham, resulting in very authentic retching and flux.

RL Fifield as a second-hand clothing petty sutler. Photo: Sean Dermond.






The “I’m Here Because My Husband/Boyfriend Is Here” – women who participate only to spend time with their significant others, but aren’t really interested in camping or history.

The Threadcounting Nazi  – Can be either a man or a woman. A subset of Progressive, focused on dress. A person so focused on authenticity that they themselves are blind to the compromises they’ve made in their own kit. Generally forgets manners.

Are there others you would add?

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.