You can't live in the past, even in a period-accurate frock

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Friday, June 21, 2024

You can't live in the past, even in a period-accurate frock
Abbie and Casey Samson, and their daughter Payton, on one of the storage aisles at Samson Historical, their 18th-century re-enactment clothing and goods business in Lebanon, Ind., April 16, 2024. The couple’s three-story business, which doubles as a pseudo-museum on the town’s downtown square, has 10 full-time employees and works with about 40 artisans to manufacture its own merchandise. (Kaiti Sullivan/The New York Times)

by Scott Cacciola

LEBANON, IND.- In 2012, not long after he decided to dedicate his professional life to 18th-century wares, Casey Samson spent a weekend at a colonial-era fair in Bardstown, Kentucky, selling leather mugs out of a tent.

On his first night there, Samson sat alone by a crackling campfire, smelled the wood smoke and felt as if he had been transported to a different time. He knew then, he said, that he had made the right choice.

Today, Samson and his wife, Abbie, own and operate Samson Historical, a three-story business that doubles as a pseudo-museum on the downtown square in Lebanon, Indiana, about 30 miles northwest of Indianapolis.

On a recent morning, Casey Samson, 32, walked into a small warehouse tucked behind the retail space and waxed poetic about the shop’s “great wall of waistcoats.” But there was more: “These are original sugar dippers.” And: “One of Abbie’s passions is clay pipes.” And: “All right, so: gun flints.”

There were breeches and bonnets, frocks and cloaks, candles and lanterns, hip kidneys (for extra support) and bum rolls (for that perfect silhouette). And while Samson Historical has 10 full-time employees and manufactures its own merchandise, it also works with about 40 artisans from trades that are teetering on the edge of extinction: blacksmiths, woodworkers, glass blowers, horners. A fifth-generation pipe maker from Germany hand-crafts the store’s pipes.

“A lot of what we do,” Samson said, “is trying to help keep these things alive.”

In addition to feeding the sartorial appetites of colonial-era reenactors, Samson Historical finds itself at the nexus of growing interests in “history bounding,” a trend that incorporates period fashions into everyday wear, and “cottagecore,” which celebrates the supposed simplicity of pastoral life. The twin concepts blossomed during the tedium of the pandemic.

“There’s definitely an interest in homesteading and the old-fashioned ways,” said Justine Teresa Dorn, an early 19th-century reenactor who, in October 2020, launched her own YouTube channel, Early American, which has more than 1.2 million subscribers.

Dorn, 30, who owns a number of garments from Samson Historical, including dresses and bodices, said: “It just makes you feel so much more put together than modern clothes do. I honestly think a lot of women are sick of wearing jeans, sweatpants and T-shirts all the time.”

The Samsons spend parts of the year on the road with their 30-foot, company-branded trailer, visiting festivals and reenactments with their 8-year-old daughter, Payton, a home-schooled second grader with freckles and an exhaustive mind for trivia.

“Did you know that George Washington’s teeth weren’t wooden? They were hippo!” Payton said of the president’s dentures, which were made from, among other things, hippo tusks. “I’m a big George Washington fan, and I’m also a big Alexander Hamilton fan. If you ask me to sing the whole —”

“Please don’t,” her mother said.

For Payton’s 8th birthday, her parents told her that they were taking her to Chicago so that they could visit a museum. They surprised her instead with tickets to “Hamilton,” the award-winning musical, along with a bespoke birthday gown that the staff at Samson Historical had fashioned after Eliza Hamilton’s gown in the show. The entire family dressed in period clothing for the performance.

“My gown didn’t have buttons on it, though,” Payton said, “because that’s not historically correct.”

While the popularity of “Hamilton” and the presence of a seemingly unlimited number of period dramas in film and on television have helped expose the masses to colonial-era history and style, another event on the near horizon could boost interest even more: the United States’ semiquincentennial in 2026, the 250th anniversary of American independence.

The Samsons sensed more excitement than usual about a year and a half ago at the 245th anniversary of the Battle of Brandywine outside Philadelphia.

“Everything,” Casey Samson said, “is gearing up already.”

Finding Their Path

For Casey Samson, a professional obsession with another era runs in the family. In the late 1970s, his father and grandfather produced leather mugs — a popular item in the 16th and 17th centuries — which they sold at events like the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon, a fall festival at Fort Ouiatenon, a former fur-trading outpost in Lafayette, Indiana.

Growing up, Samson would tag along, and said the experiences filled him with a passion for history. He cited the release of “The Patriot,” the 2000 film that stars Mel Gibson as a former soldier drawn back into service in the Revolutionary War, as another formative moment. Samson recalled watching it at a drive-in movie theater.

“My dad actually preferred the French and Indian War,” he said.

Abbie Samson, 31, recalled camping and visiting historic homes with her family when she was young, but it was not until she started dating Casey Samson when they were in high school that she was exposed to reenactment festivals. “I found I really enjoyed it,” she said.

In 2012, Casey Samson, who was then a firefighter and emergency medical technician, decided that he wanted to turn his family’s part-time business into a full-time pursuit. A few years later, Abbie Samson left her corporate job so that she could work with her husband.

Like many businesses, Samson Historical struggled in the early parts of the pandemic. Casey Samson said he and his wife had big plans for 2020. By February of that year, they were preparing to mail 30,000 copies of their new catalog, which they had spent about $40,000 to produce. They also were loading their trailer full of merchandise for a trip to Michigan for the Kalamazoo Living History Show.

A few days before they were set to depart, however, the show was canceled because of the pandemic. Thousands of copies of the Samsons’ new catalog collected dust for two months before they were delivered.

And shoes. So many unsold pairs of shoes.

“That was the same year we launched all of our women’s shoes,” Casey Samson said.

It got grim in a hurry for the Samsons. Sales were so poor, they reduced their staff to a rotation with people working every other day. They spent long hours working on jigsaw puzzles and fretting about their future.

“We were this close to losing everything,” Casey Samson said.

Facing a dire situation, the Samsons reluctantly started a GoFundMe campaign. (“Our community really stepped up,” Casey Samson said.) They also secured loans worth about $25,000 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

But perhaps most important, at a time when many people were stuck at home in front of their computers, Samson Historical went online in a big way. The Samsons revamped their website to maximize search traffic, and new customers — many of whom discovered hobbies such as history bounding during the pandemic — arrived, at least virtually, in big numbers.

Casey Samson acknowledged the strange interplay at work. A business rooted in the 18th century was now thriving because of modern technology. And after nearly destroying their business, the COVID shutdown wound up playing an unexpected role in ensuring its future.

Samson Historical leaned into the times. “We started writing blogs about survivalists and how to go out into the woods, because that’s what people were doing,” Casey Samson said.

Since 2020, he said, sales have increased by about 30% annually. Last year, Samson Historical started a children’s clothing line. Payton helped with quality control.

“She tested a lot of the shoes,” Casey Samson said.

Details Matter

On a recent afternoon, Kris Byers, 36, and two colleagues — Isabella Campins, 25, and Molly Scherrer, 21 — were stitching garments on the second floor of the shop. As Byers glanced at her to-do list, which included a customized petticoat, she recalled wading into the world of historical clothing as a teenager, when she helped a friend who was working as a vendor at the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon.

It turned out to be Byers’ gateway into a kaleidoscopic world of linen caps, silk stockings and half-boned stays. She joined Samson Historical as a seamstress in 2021 after seeing a job posting.

“My husband basically said, ‘If you don’t go over there and talk to Abbie, I’m going to go over there and talk to her for you,’” Byers said. “So we came in to get our kids fitted for shoes, and I asked for an application. It just kind of went from there.”

Samson Historical might be rooted in the past, but it is always evolving, Casey Samson said. You can always do more research, he said, “to find the next big thing we didn’t know existed — or improve it.”

Take the woolen frock coat, a longtime staple of the men’s collection with its buttonless cuffs and scalloped pocket flaps. Yet Casey Samson was convinced that they could enhance the design to make it more accurate. They based an updated version on a pair of surviving garments, one from the 1780s that is a part of a private collection in Rhode Island and another from the 1770s that has been preserved by the Connecticut Museum of Culture and History.

“So, we said, ‘Let’s reconstruct it,’” he said. “Now, you look at it and go, ‘OK, that’s 18th century.”

Sometimes, their research leads them down novel paths. Not long ago, when Abbie Samson was interested in learning more about 18th-century shoehorns, she reached out to Dr. Forest Tennant, a former mayor of West Covina, California, and the self-described “docent” of the Tennant Shoehorn Museum, which has a collection of more than 3,000 of the devices. After hearing from Abbie Samson, Tennant sent her his book, “The Art and History of Shoehorns.”

“Making those kinds of connections is invaluable,” Abbie Samson said. “If you ask questions, people want to talk about what they know. Especially when not many people want to know about your shoehorns.”

The details matter, Abbie Samson said. One might assume, for example, that the walls in their retail space are merely gray and white. But there is more to the story, because there always is more to the story at Samson Historical. The paint colors are reproductions of those that were used in Colonial Williamsburg.

“Our whole house is about to be remodeled using these colors,” Abbie Samson said.

The details also matter with their catalog, a 162-page smorgasbord of “18th-century clothing, accessories, accouterments and living history supplies.”

In their own small way, Casey Samson said, they want the catalog — and, of course, the clothes they produce — to address popular misconceptions. Among them: that everyone, back in the day, dressed like the cast of “Gone With the Wind,” the Civil War-era film.

Much of this country’s history, of course, is fraught with atrocities committed against Black people and Native Americans, an issue that has occasionally ensnared the reenactment community. (As Dorn, of Early American YouTube fame, put it: “Revolutionary War reenactors don’t let friends do Civil War reenactments.”) With that in mind, Abbie Samson said it was important that the catalog reflect “a variety of social stations,” and that they highlight diversity among their models.

With some exceptions: The children they use are largely from reenactor families because the kids from those families are more comfortable in the older style clothes.

In contrast, the Samsons seem more than at home with garments of the distant past. But asked if he ever felt as if he had been born in the wrong era, Casey Samson was adamant.

“No,” he said. “I have a passion for the 18th century, and I could talk about it for days. But I also really like technology — and indoor plumbing. I also think that if you were born in that era, you would just yearn for something even earlier.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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