Spend a day in the 1700s over a fine cup of tea
Jan 01, 2015 01:02PM
By Kerigan Butt
Stacy Flora Roth will bring her 'Revolutionary Tea' program to Odessa on Sept. 28.
By John Chambless
Bringing audiences face to face with history is a passion for Stacy Flora Roth. Even the simple act of drinking tea had wide-ranging implications and complexity in the colonial era, and visitors are invited to join Roth as she explores the subject during a program in Historic Odessa on Sept. 28. The program, “Revolutionary Tea,” will be held in the Collins Sharp House, where the 1700s architecture, Roth's authentic costume and her thorough knowledge of history will transport the audience to a lady's parlor of long ago. During a recent interview, Roth discussed how she came to love history, and how she brings it to life for audiences.
Were you interested in history as a young student? Did your parents encourage your interest?
I was interested in history as far back as I can remember. My first interaction with history was my fascination with my father’s souvenirs from his service in the Army Air Forces in the Pacific during World War II, particularly his signal mirror, his log book, and a book of the history of his bomb group, the 307th (The Long Rangers) that included many photos of the airmen and the natives on the base islands such as New Guinea and Morotai.
Even before studying history in school, I enjoyed watching television programs with historical settings. In elementary school, I had some wonderful history teachers, particularly in the fifth and seventh grades and in high school. We recreated historical debates and events. I became fascinated with the American Revolution. I grew up in Union County, N.J., frequenting streets where Continental Army troops and British troops marched and engaged in battle.
My interest in history was intertwined with my love of music, which was always part of my life growing up. My father collected jazz recordings and my mother and grandmother were entertainers who sang popular songs and showtunes for local audiences. I used to comb the bookstores and libraries for published collections and haunt record shops for recordings of historical songs including folk songs, songs of the Revolution and Civil Wars and sea chanteys. Many of these songs are incorporated into programs that I present to audiences today. Several are featured in "Revolutionary Tea."
Did you major in history in college? What was your career goal at that time?
I majored in history as an undergraduate, and American civilization as a graduate student. I also have an MLS (Master of Library Science). My goal was to work in the field of public history interpretation, which included the improvised, unscripted portrayal of people of the past. (In museum parlance, this is known as “first-person interpretation.”)
How did your group, History on the Hoof, come about?
It was born from an employment experience that was so unpleasant that I needed a break from working under bosses and supervisors. So I joined forces with another historical interpreter, David Emerson, an alumnus of Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg. We started creating our own programs and marketing them. That was in 1993. My grandfather used to say, “Better a penny working for yourself than a dollar working for someone else.” So I simply followed a family tradition of self-employment.
How did you select eras to portray in your presentations? Out of all the women in history, it must have been hard to decide.
At first, we worked with the eras with which we had the most experience through personal interest and previous employment. Eventually, we branched out to other periods, based on projects for clients and again, personal interest. In the past, I have portrayed a passenger on the Mayflower, a suffragist in 1915, and a Quaker during the American Revolution. My main characters these days are Mary Hays McCauley (a.k.a. Molly Pitcher, the woman who assisted her husband’s artillery crew at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse) and a World War II defense worker.
Portraying these characters is part serendipity, part personality match, and part economic viability. In the case of Mary Hays McCauley, the Monmouth County Archives contacted me because they were looking for someone to portray her for an exhibit opening, and the other character was born from an impromptu participation at a World War II reenactment. The late Lee Jennings, historian for Delaware State Parks, who I’d known from training staff in first-person interpretation at several Delaware historic sites, suggested that I work up a program on that topic because there was a need for it on the interpretation circuit.
You have a variety of approaches that can be tailored to the needs of individual groups. Can you do child-friendly shows as well as shows aimed at a more scholarly audience?
Yes. The child-friendly versions of programs often include interactive components and topics that are relevant to a child’s perspective. As Molly Pitcher, I teach the children how a cannon was loaded and fired, pass items around for examination, discuss the chores that young camp followers tackled, and often dress one of the students in 18th-century clothing.
When discussing tea, I will focus more on historical children’s participation in taking tea, and in manners and etiquette. I’ll highlight pieces of a children’s tea set, and offer children an opportunity to experiment with the various ways of holding an 18th-century reproduction teacup and saucer, and/or roleplay a social visit, at which they are served tea. I have also worked with teachers to host an 18th-century tea with their students, so that the children learn firsthand how to use the chinaware.
Some of your program selections (other than Revolutionary Tea) involve character presentations. How do people react to you when you're in character? Do they address you as the character, or do you make it clear that you're only interpreting?
My approach to character interpretation is what I would consider “low threat.” My characters always treat visitors and audiences like old friends. As a result, they tend to feel at ease with me – and I don’t draw and quarter people for comments about modern things or asking if they can take a photo. It is my goal for people to enjoy interacting with a character in ways that are the most meaningful for themselves.
When possible, I offer -- as part of my program -- a “follow-up” segment where I revert to myself, provide a commentary on the later life of the character, and welcome questions that cannot be adequately answered while in character. Often, people like to ask about the mechanics of first-person or where to find period clothing, in addition to questions about the character’s later life.
What are some of the common misconceptions people have about the role of tea, which you'll be focusing on in Odessa?
When most people think about historical tea, they envision the traditions of the Victorian era through the early 20th century – times when tea was accompanied by scones and finger sandwiches and plenty of food. They are often surprised to learn that when people drank tea in the afternoon in the 18th century, it was enjoyed after the main meal of the day. The focus was on the beverage, not the food – and the most popular accompaniment, if any, was bread and butter.
Although “afternoon tea” and “high tea” are customs that occurred after the American Revolution, the topic of “high tea” is often introduced by someone in the audience. There is quite a bit of confusion about the term “high tea.” In the U.S., people often refer to a fancy afternoon tea as “high tea,” assuming that “high” means “fancy.” However, traditionally, in Britain (and other Commonwealth countries), “high tea” was a working-class meal with substantial food taken after the workday. In the afternoon, the working class was, after all, working!
The mid-afternoon affair was one of delicate finger sandwiches and scones, enjoyed by those with the leisure to do so. It was simply called “afternoon tea.” (A few finger sandwiches would not have been very satisfactory fare after a day in the factory or the coal mine.)
Tea was much more than a beverage in colonial times -- kind of a political flashpoint?
Yes. Tea was a social lubricant, a ritual, a symbol of status, an important economic commodity, and a source of tax revenue. Ultimately, it was the tax issue that caused the controversy over its consumption at various times. Much personal wealth was tied up in the accoutrements with which it was served and enjoyed. The focus of “Revolutionary Tea” is as much about why people abandoned their tea as it is about the social and material customs of the day.
Why are students sometimes disinterested in history, and what can teachers do to make it more engaging?
I do think that students – and adults for that matter -- are most interested in subjects that hold relevance for them. For instance, when discussing and demonstrating the social history of tea to young people, I include anecdotes, images, and objects highlighting children taking tea. Everything has a history – from our nation to our families to the gadgets we use and the food we eat. A good story is interesting – and what is history but an interpretation of stories, facts, and other evidence of our world up to this moment?
If I think back to the inspiring teachers in my past, they made history engaging without dumbing it down. They used tactics that allowed us to place ourselves in the roles of people of the past – and they themselves took great pleasure in relating history to us.
In addition to relevance, the inclusion of concrete items, such as artifacts, reproductions, and images appeal to all ages. The “stuff” we use and admire is of inherent interest to many and provides many angles of analysis. Take a teacup and saucer, for example. It can be examined for its artistry and construction and also for its social role. Who owned it? Who used it? How does it function? What do its size, shape, and other features say about it? How would one grasp it? How did it change over time? Was it expensive? Was it practical or decorative? What beverages did it hold?
Do you feel that you're bringing audiences closer to their own history with your presentations? What do you hope that people take away with them after you perform?
Even though the main focus of my presentation is about tea in the 18th century, audience memories of family tea customs, or tea drinking on trips abroad, or visits to tea plantations are always welcome. In my program on World War II defense workers, an entire segment of the program solicits personal and family stories from the audience.Stacy Roth will present “Revolutionary Tea” from 2 to 4 p.m. in the Collins Sharp House (Second and High streets, Odessa) on Sept. 28 from 2 to 4 p.m. Reservations are required and space is limited. Tickets are $30. Visit www.historyonthehoof.com. Keith Adams, a collector and expert on ceramics and colonial furniture, will present a program on Sept. 24 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Bank Building meeting room (Second and Main streets, Odessa) focusing on the collection of 18th-century tea wares and decorative arts installed in the Wilson Warner House in Odessa. Visit www.historicodessa.org for more information.