On July 4th, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed. Thirteen days later, news broke in Exeter, the Revolutionary capital of New Hampshire. The Dunlap Broadside printed the news of that fateful day, and it was later carried from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Exeter, New Hampshire. Which is why Independence Day is traditionally celebrated almost two weeks later in Exeter.
Sabrina Ion, the content and marketing manager of the Exeter Independence Festival, began spoke last Saturday, marking the 31st annual Independence Festival for the town of Exeter. However, this year is looking different from previous commemorations. Normally this festival is one day long, stretched across much of Water Street. However, this year was small, with tents set up between the historic Folsom Tavern and Gibson house, where John Taylor Gibson declared American independence from the British. “Last year was virtual,” said Ion. For twenty-nine years the Independence Festival was held in the same way. But Covid has helped expand the organization’s horizons. There will be virtual content throughout the month of July, and the outdoor festival is three days, July 10th, 17th, and 24th.
Emily Stringham, portraying a lady from the Ladies Association of Revolutionary America at the festival said that she felt drawn to the job of reenactments because of her love of museums from a young age. “I grew up right next to a museum,” she said. So she not only does this work because it’s her job but also because it’s her hobby.
Thor Heinzman, dressed up as Lara from the Ladies Association of Revolutionary America. Lara was importing goods with other women a year before the Declaration of Independence. Thor said his depiction displayed patriotism.
Adams Hodges from Haverhill, New Hampshire, joined as a volunteer this year for the Independence Festival. He represents a seller and was creating an accurate copy of a shot pouch, using a big needle, thicker waxed thread, and palm guard. “The palm helped people to push big needles and waxed thread,” Adams said.
A woman sat under a tent, slowly rocking back and forth in a wooden rocking chair. She wore a blue dress with a white bonnet and apron, glasses perched on her nose. She had a white garment in her hands that she was sewing. This woman, Linda Oakley, was portraying a dressmaker. She said that in the Revolutionary period, dressmakers would either stay at their house to complete their craft or work in someone else’s. There were no shops in which one would go to buy her clothing, so people would go to the house in which she made the clothes to buy them. Dresses were hanging from every corner of the tent, including a long, figured blue dress.
Oakley stated that the dress was from the 1770s to the 1780s, made with calico fabric. “This is an in-between dress,” Oakley went on. Not quite fancy enough for a night out, but too much for daily wear. Another dress, white with blue floral, hung front and center. This dress was a mix of cotton and linen fabrics. Unlike today, cotton was very expensive during the Revolutionary period, and linen was very cheap. Seeing a dress with cotton and a different fabric was not uncommon. This dress was made between 1775 and 1785 and needed to be styled appropriately.
“Women would never wear a t-shirt in public,” said Oakley. “Maybe in the house, but never outside. That would be appalling!” Women would instead wear a panniers, which is basket in French. That would go under the dress or skirt to spread it out widely to the sides. This gave the skirt much volume, but also made it difficult to move. All that fabric also made it harder to do laundry. Oakley pointed out that there were no washing machines in the 18th century. Everything had to be hand washed. Therefore, people would try their hardest not to get their clothes dirty. Handkerchiefs were used to dab sweat off one’s brow, and aprons to cover one’s trousers.
Kevin Wade Mitchell, a professional actor reenacting blackjack and sailor Jack Staines told a different story, a story of freedom. Staines was born a free Black man because of his white mother during the Revolutionary period, and he fell in love with one of Martha Washington’s slaves. In an attempt to free her, he married her. However, she never became free. Instead, slavers attempted to kidnap them. But Staines and his lover escaped, and they got away. Mitchell also explained that working on ships was the one place during those rocky times where Black and white men were treated as equals. He described it as the “best job for the enslaved” and explained that the pay scale and the ability to see the world were the two main factors. They all had equal pay, equal work loads, simple and similar living situations, because all they had was each other and everyone had to survive with one another. Mitchell explained the Jack Staines story is a not very prevalent story in history and described it as a “footnote in history.” Mitchell also explained that, “there is still a lot left unknown about Jack Staines’ story, but it is still an important one to tell.”
“Independence is a very loaded word; both in 1776 and now,” said Emma Scheinmann, program assistant of the American Independence Festival. For people like the character portrayed by Emily Stringham, it meant doing what you love. But for Jack Staines and his wife, it meant struggling for freedom.