Developing Your First Person Impression

Developing Your First Person Impression




 Copyright - May not be reproduced without permission from:  Victoria Rumble  

First person delivery is a method of speaking with spectators and other re-enactors as if you are the person and living during the 19th century.  You discuss situations which involve you in the present tense as opposed to discussing the life of someone who lived during the times in third person.  Conversing in first person requires practice and its success depends on several factors the most important of which is how well you've researched your subject and the various aspects of his or her life.  Since spectators sometimes aren't prepared for such a delivery it can be helpful to have another interpreter on hand to set the stage for you and to answer questions so that you don't have to step outside your first person character.

A perfect knowledge of the character is not mandatory when you first begin to portray the character.  You should feel more comfortable with it as you continue to research the character and add to your general knowledge base.  A first person impression is like clothing and other aspects of living history - it is progressive and if you are good at it, you will continue to improve as you go along.  Don't be discouraged if your first attempts fall short of your expectations. The success of first person delivery can also depend on the setting.  Walking about a historical home in the character of the owner or a family member can be relatively comfortable for the living historian who has researched the home and the family who lived there.  Diaries, census records, land deeds, marriage records, obituaries, and other such documents will help you piece together the fabric of the family's life.  You may become so familiar with them you feel quite comfortable discussing situations which faced them.  In such a situation the setting itself helps spectators to get in the mindset of having this person speak to them eliminating confusion about what is taking place.

On the other hand first person delivery in a large re-enactment setting can be more difficult because spectators have no preconceived idea of who you are or what you're doing, and may not understand the theory of a first person delivery.  Unless done well it could be quite confusing to them.  This might be a situation in which a staged presentation might be better understood by the spectators.  Perhaps a recreation of the Lincoln Douglas debates, a Temperance rally, or a Ladies Sewing Circle in which spectators may view the activities taking place and the conversation associated with such a setting might be more effective than an impromptu exchange in camp.

A first person character may be a well known historical figure, an ancestor, or a compilation of several different people from the period.  It might be totally fictional but based on numerous historical accounts.  A general character may allow for more adaptability of setting and conditions at hand.  Research is the key in either situation to a successful interaction with spectators.  Portraying a well known person from  history may bring you in contact with a spectator who knows as much about your character as you do in which case it could put you in a compromising situation if you aren't fully prepared.  Such portrayals may bring you in contact with a descendant of the person you portray in which case you should be prepared for your portrayal to be judged by the spectator's personal knowledge.  This should not intimidate anyone from doing such a portrayal, however, it should encourage thorough research.

A first person scenario may be a recreation of an actual event from history or it may be a generalization based upon extensive research.  An example of this might be a group of soldiers sitting around camp conversing, perhaps preparing an evening meal.  Dialogue would be based on a thorough understanding of the activities in that particular area, the unit's participation, and what you imagine men would have discussed in that given situation.  Cemetery dramas in which "ghosts" discuss with spectators a significant event in their life are an excellent setting for first person portrayals.  Guides are able to relate to participants that actors are going to portray certain individuals and thus allow the "ghosts" themselves to give their presentation in beautiful first person delivery.  A soldier might tell how he died in battle, or a woman might tell of the grief she suffered at the loss of a husband or child and the hardships she endured.  Your character should be able to converse with a knowledge of general conditions of the period, hardships endured in a particular area, etc.  Socioeconomic and political factors effecting the lives of your character are of prime importance.

Developing a persona for yourself early on can be of immense assistance to you in choosing a wardrobe and other items used in your portrayal.  A rural Southern woman for example would dress far more plainly than a woman portraying the wife of a politician or prominent businessman.  A specialized impression such as that of a minister or nun would carry with it guidelines for clothing and should be adhered to as closely as possible.  Clothing should fit the persona you choose for yourself to make your portrayal more believable.  A rural working class couple would not attend a ball in the height of fashion, nor would a wealthy couple attend a social function in everyday clothing.  

The difference between camping wearing clothing from another era and being a participating living historian is a thorough knowledge of the era and the ability to relate it to spectators.  Research is the key and you should be able to adapt your character if your research reveals information you did not know previously.  If you portray someone who died at age 25, for example, as you age too much to give a believable portrayal of the character at that age consider assuming the identity of the character's parent.  The information will be the same, you will just be delivering it in a slightly different manner.

Researching diaries, books, census records, and other documents will give you a basic understanding of what occupations and crafts were being pursued in the 19th century.  A living historian should have a purpose for being and pursue it - people who lived during the 1860's did far more than just sit around and so should you.  

Find an occupation or craft and use it to transform yourself into a character from the past.  Taking a 21st century interest and molding it to fit a 19th century standard can be the key to developing your first person impression.  For example:  a woman who is an avid knitter might do some research into period knitting patterns and knit socks for the soldiers as part of her impression, or a man who is a knowledgeable gardener might use that knowledge to grow heirloom vegetables, display these in camp, and be able to discuss period agricultural methods.  

A first person persona doesn't evolve overnight, but you can expand it as you research and learn more.  Have fun with it and add to it as you go along.  

The following list is given as a research guide for use in developing a first person impression.  These are not the only factors influencing your character's life, but they are a good place to start.  As you continue your research you may well make discoveries which will allow you to add to your knowledge base.  Adaptability is the key so be prepared to remold your character as needed to reflect the information you discover along the way.  


1.  Your name  
2.  Your Date of Birth
3.  Your Place of Birth
4.  Your parents' names
5.  Your parents' places of birth
6.  Your siblings
7.  Your siblings' history - are they living or deceased, older or younger, married or single, do they have children, are there any distinguishing events which had an effect upon their lives?  Do you have brothers in the war?


1.  Your place of residence  
2.  Be able to relate what conditions are like in the area where you reside
3.  Know the history of your town or city, county, and state
a.  When was the town founded?
b.  Who were some of its earliest settlers?
c.  What are the economic conditions of your area?
d.  What industry or trades were present?
e.  What are the political ties of your area?
f.  How did your area participate during the war - Union, Confederate, or both?
g.  Were there outstanding events in your area your
character would be aware of?  
4.  Who are the prominent citizens in the area you call home?
5.  Know the socioeconomic conditions for your area.  Was it primarily industrial or agricultural?  What industry was in existence, what crops were grown?


1.  How well educated are you?  
2.  How well educated were your parents and siblings?
3.  What are your interests?
 This might include an occupation, domestic arts, etc.  
4.  How well traveled is your character?  Wealth will determine this to some extent.
 5.  Are you married?  If so be prepared to discuss your spouse using these guidelines to establish his/her persona  
6.  Do you have children?  Live or deceased?  If the latter, how did they die?
7.  Health.  Were there medical conditions which plagued your character?  If so, research into the condition and its treatment during the 1860's would be of immense help in portraying this.


1.  Are you a religious person?  If you intend to use this as part of your impression research the early origins of the church and its leaders.  
2.  Do some research and determine whether your religious faith was established in the area of residence.  If not, perhaps you attended a different church because it was all that was available to you
3.  You might have a basic understanding of early religious leaders of your faith or those present in the area you call home.
4.  If religion is an important part of your impression you might be familiar with churches and cemeteries which were present in your area during the time in question.  Many of these may no longer be in existence.


Your speech patterns, clothing, and activities would be somewhat predetermined by the persona you have chosen for yourself.  Speech patterns for rural families would not be the same as those from larger cities, and dialect would be different North and South.  The more prominent a family was the more attention they might have paid to the social graces and the more research you might want to put into the etiquette of the period.

1.  Be aware enough of etiquette of the day to make your character believable.  
2.  Dancing - if you enjoy this activity learn as many period dances as you can, perhaps be able to discuss their origins
3.  Dining habits - this would be somewhat determined by one's station in life
4.  Conversation - rural families' conversation might have centered more around the basics of crops, needed clothing, the availability of food, illnesses, etc., whereas a wealthier person might be more enlightened and able to discuss recent news, friends' activities and travels, etc.
5.  Arts - This might also be determined by one's station in life.  A wealthier woman might have had time to do fancy embroidery while a rural woman might have been more concerned with basic clothing for her family.
6.  Literature - again somewhat determined by one's station in life.  A wealthier family might have more access to current literature - either American or English.  They might have a large collection of books and be able to add to it as others are published.  A family of less social standing might rely on newspapers or the Bible for its reading material.
7.  Music.  If you possess a talent look for a period instrument and music and use it to present the music of the period.  You should do enough research to know the origins of the music and how it was received.  Rural families might not have been familiar with newly released pieces.


How did your character find financial support?  A woman might have relied on her husband's income prior to the war, but have had to support herself after he enlisted.  Women often had to manage farms and find ways to feed their families - especially in the South.  Soldiers had lives before they enlisted and the survivors returned to these occupations when the hostilities were over.  

1.  Choose an occupation for your character either based on an existing interest, or a desire to know more about a certain craft of the period.  A man might have been a farmer, merchant, physician, store keeper, banker, etc. while a woman might have pursued a living as a seamstress, midwife, herbalist, etc.  Be aware women often pursued occupations not previously open to them prior to the war.  
2.  Be familiar with terminology associated with a certain occupation or craft, know how to use necessary tools, and consider collecting enough of them to display or demonstrate.


Be aware that conditions were vastly different in the South than in the North.

Blockades prevented Southern families from obtaining luxuries and often even basic necessities they had known prior to the war.  Southern families who had been wealthy prior to the war often soon found themselves reduced in circumstances and this situation worsened as the war progressed.  Your impression might reflect these changes - prewar dresses might have given way to homespun and lavish meals might now consist of very coarse fare.  You might reminisce about the carefree prewar days and family members or friends who have died in battle.  A study of Southern diaries will give you an understanding of these changes and how Southern women dealt with them. The same may be said for Northern women - mourning itself knew no regional boundaries.  

Women both North and South did what they could to provide for their troops.  Southern ladies often worked in the form of Ladies Aid Societies while Northern women might have worked under the guise of the U. S. Sanitary Commission.  Be aware of regional differences and use these in your impression.  

  • Past Into Present:  Effective Techniques for First Person Historical Interpretation.  Roth, Stacy F.  University of NC Press.  1998.  ISBN:  0-8078-2407-0
  • The Employments of Women:  A Cyclopedia of Women's Work.  Penny, Virginia.  1863.  Reprint:  Mrs. Martin's Mercantile, 4566 Oakhurst Dr., Sylvania, OH  43560  








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