Shopping Saturday: My 18th Century Shopping Trip

Last Saturday, after being cooped up for over a week with a bad cold, I was feeling better and decided to treat myself to a little outing at the Kalamazoo Living History Show that someone told me about recently.

This is an annual event held in Kalamazoo, Michigan for historical reenactors, educators, collectors and genealogy/history nerds (like me) who are interested in what life was like in pre-1890 America. The theme this year was the War of 1812.

Since Kalamazoo is only a couple of hours away, the show seemed like a great outing for a sunny and finally snow-free day. I didn’t know what to expect because I’ve never attended a living history event before. So what I found when I got to the Kalamazoo Expo Center surprised me.

The parking lot was jammed, there were thousands of attendees and several hundred vendors selling clothing and accoutrements. And here I was walking around shopping Saturday –

In the 18th century.

And I confess, I took to it like a duck to water. After researching my family history for almost 40 years and finding family who fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, it was inspiring to see people walking around dressed as my ancestors might have been. Like these two young men who were selling military uniforms.


The men in the photo below were military reenactors from the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War – people who actually spend time meticulously recreating the lives soldiers led back then and the battles they fought.

military wear

This is a British uniform – the red is a dead giveaway. I learned that reenactors select their roles and dress as either British or colonial army, Native Americans or the men and women who supported the military throughout the early wars of this country.


The vendor or “sutler” below specializes in making reproduction muskets and rifles.


And every soldier or frontiersman needed a sharp knife or two to get through the rigors of everyday life.


Below is a photo I took of one of the living history vendors who supply ready-made clothing for women. Hanging on the rack are “petticoats” or what we would call skirts these days. The brocade fabric pictured here would have been worn by middle or upper-class women.

The little pouches on top are pockets, which weren’t sewn into garments as they are these days. Women would tie pockets on a band around their waists and they add the petticoat on top. Women’s clothing back in the day was an exercise in many layers.


I was surprised to see several booths where the vendors were selling just animal skins. These would have been added to clothing for warmth or fashioned into hats – some coon-skin and some here that look suspiciously like skunk!


There were vendors, like the one below, who catered to those reenactors and collectors who focus on the history of Native American daily life.

native american booth

What I learned is that many historical reenactors make their own historical outfits which creates a great demand for historically correct fabrics, trim and sewing materials. The vendors below cater to this niche by providing everything from fabric to buttons.



Every man needed a hat – whether it was made from skins or wool felt as these displayed below.


Here are two men shopping for the day as I was – but in period costume.


During the 18th century, women’s clothing didn’t use much in the way of buttons. But ribbon was a trim that was used widely on clothing, hats and even shoes.


Now at this point, you may be wondering if I bought anything at the living history show. In fact, I did.

For a while, I’ve been thinking about putting together a colonial outfit – in part, to wear to some of the meetings for my chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution. And also because, as a genealogist, I’ve been wanting to reach out and experience the history of my ancestors in a different way.

So I went shopping at Turkey Roost, a woman’s historical clothing vendor run by Annie and Verna from Elgin, Illinois. Here’s a picture of their booth where I bought an 18th century short gown (or jacket) and the periwinkle blue matelasse petticoat shown on the mannequin on the right.


My Revolutionary War outfit will be based on what Sarah Craft Cunnabell from 18th century Roxbury, Massachusetts would have worn. She’s my 6th great-grandmother and my avatar for colonial dress. Sarah’s outfit would have included:

  • A jacket
  • Petticoat
  • Chemise
  • Stays
  • Linen cap
  • Straw hat
  • Shoes
  • Apron
  • Fan
  • And we’ll see what else comes up.

As I pull everything together, I’ll share my progress here on Extreme Ancestry. For now, though, I’m just glad I had the chance to experience a shopping Saturday in the 18th century.

Do you have an interest in clothing or memorabilia from another era?

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