Sunday, April 4, 2010

Colonial Williamsburg - A Key to My Southern Understanding

I was born and raised in the Midwest – a place where one’s social standing wasn’t determined by the car they drove and where being frugal was as virtuous as sitting in the back church pew on Sunday morning.  Imagine my confusion, then, when I moved to an upscale neighborhood in the suburban south.  A place where affluence was as apparent as fuzz on a peach, where tennis was a right of leisure, and where acrylic nails grew faster than kudzu along the highway. 

Suddenly, my house didn’t seem big enough, my hair didn’t seem blonde enough, and my nails, well, let’s just say that, given 30 minutes and $15, I would choose a car wash over a manicure any day.

So what caused this social difference?  Was it a product of the booming economy, or was it something deeper?  Was it “new money” out to prove itself, or was it genteel history being passed down to yet another generation?  Maybe a little bit of both.   It was during a visit to Colonial Williamsburg that I gained some understanding.

Walking through Colonial Williamsburg, I could not help but be impressed by the outward quality of life that existed here in the 1700’s!  Beautiful, spacious homes lined the streets for blocks.   High-skilled craftsman worked amazing detail in what I had always viewed as primitive times.  

As I entered a seamstress’ shop, I became even more amazed.  

Beautiful hand-made gowns were displayed.  “These were so last season,” the seamstress said.  The gowns on display had been brought in for alteration.  Despite the fact that women lived with no indoor plumbing and that large animals still roamed the streets, colonial fashions changed up to four times a year! 

Women would bring their dresses in for new lace trim, new bodice fabric or a new sleeve design!  Clothing made the woman (and the gentleman) and one might spend the equivalent of 20 days pay on a semi-formal dress.   No wonder Betsy Ross maintained a lifetime business as a seamstress!

Now, let’s talk about silver – another southern thing.  I’m not saying that simple girls like myself don’t appreciate silver, I just didn’t happen to know anyone  (prior to moving south) that had actually registered for solid silver pieces when they got married.  No wedding guest that I knew would actually spend $300 on one fork, knife and spoon. (A snowblower, maybe, but not silverware!)  Shortly after we moved to the south, my southern neighbor gave me all her silver to keep while she went out of town and had her hardwood floors refinished.  Another mom from school told me how her bridal registry contained the same silver as her mother’s, so she could continue the pattern.  (My mother was happy to get a matching set of stainless!)   Silversmiths in Colonial Williamsburg kept busy making silver tea sets, silver cups and silver spoons.  In colonial times, one silver spoon cost about three days' pay.  Investing in a silver spoon was actually considered a wise thing to do.   It was a liquid investment.  If you needed money, just sell your spoon back to the silversmith!  It was worth its weight in silver.  Maybe all was not vanity.

A visit to Colonial Williamsburg sharpened my appreciation for southern culture.  As with my southern friends, it taught me the value of taking some time to elevate my surroundings, not in the name of vanity, but for the sake of daily living.  Having lived in the south, have I achieved the status of southern charm?  Probably not.  But I have learned that it’s OK to take the time to try to make life a little bit better.  As for the acrylic nails?  I’ll still take the car wash.

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