Classy Voyeurism

By Julia Pierce | Oct 22, 2020

It was 17 years ago this week that I rejoined the 21st century after nearly five months of living in the year 1628. Some people spend their summers relaxing at the beach or traveling though Europe. I spent the summer of 2003 milking goats and wearing a corset for a TV show.

Reality television saw an explosion of global popularity in the early 2000s with the successes of shows like Big Brother and Survivor. It was around that same time that PBS (Thirteen/WNET in New York) and Wall to Wall Television (in the United Kingdom) joined forces to toss their hats into the arena. Within the span of a couple years, the venture quickly turned out hit programs like 1900’s House, 1940’s House, Frontier House (the first of the series to be filmed in the U.S.) and Manor House.

Audiences (including myself) gobbled up these fantastical “hands-on-history” shows, which critics lovingly referred to as “classy voyeurism.” Nobody in bathing suits; no million-dollar prize; just the drama of watching modern people try to hack it in olden times. And it was indeed a magical formula. PBS’s ratings skyrocketed, and the Emmy nominations rolled in.

So, when I saw an advertisement on PBS’s website in early 2003 seeking participants for a new program that would jump back in time 375 years, I thought, “Let’s do this!”

With great gusto, I filled out the application, recorded a VHS video of myself talking about why I wanted to be on the show, and submitted a picture of myself in a bathing suit (because I was 24 years old, and that is the sort of ridiculous thing you do when someone asks for a photo). This was followed by a couple of months of phone interviews, visits from producers and a trip to New York City for a psych evaluation. Once it was established that I was thoroughly charming and not at all crazy, they offered me a spot in the cast of Colonial House.

And just like that, I was off to Hollywood . . . and what I really mean is Boston. Our cast of greenhorns was assembled, popped onto a bus, and shipped off to nearby Plimoth Plantation for a whirlwind crash course in all things 17th century. We had to learn the food ways, world views, and even the dance moves that people coming to a new colony from England would have known. We had to learn how to breed, kill, and process chickens; care for sheep, pigs, and goats; plant corn and navigate the strange herbs and vegetables of a colonial garden; darn socks; process wood with ye olde hand tools; sing 17th century hymns; and sail a shallop. We had 10 days of training.

The adrenaline and novelty of what we were doing helped us cope with the ludicrous volume of information we were asked to absorb. At this point, we still didn’t know what our “roles” would be or where the colony was located. All would be revealed a couple days later on board a tall ship sailing from Bar Harbor to Machiasport.

Spoiler alert, I was given the role of an indentured servant — lowest rung on the ladder. Huzzah!

After a day or so anchored offshore waiting for the tide to make it possible to row to shore, we finally stepped foot in the New World. So, what happens when you isolate a bunch of strangers, with widely disparate backgrounds, from all corners of the country (and toss in a few Britain folks for comic relief)?

First, you stir the pot by taking away the rights and roles (and caffeine and alcohol) that everyone is accustomed to. Then you add the shock of adjusting to life without electricity and plumbing. Put everyone in uncomfortable clothing with little more than pea soup to eat, and you have television gold!

Guess what we argued about? This might look familiar: religion, women’s rights, gay rights, penal codes, distribution of wealth and power, socialism, and individual freedoms. We didn’t argue about gun rights because PBS didn’t give us any guns (we had to hunt with bows and arrows or by trapping). Did racial injustice come up? You bet it did!

The production company periodically introduced interactions with members of the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Wampanoag nations. While it was relatively easy for most of the cast to get a sense of the physical difficulties that the early settlers endured, it was impossible for us to relate to the 17th century perspective that the British had toward the indigenous population. We knew the tragedy of how the story ended, and none of us were comfortable pretending that we didn’t. We mostly just spent a lot of time trying to listen and hoped that the production company would figure out a fair way to represent the native perspective.

I won’t give away the plot details (you’ll need to watch the series), but I will tell you what my takeaways were. Regardless of all the turmoil and disputes, I have never felt a stronger sense of community than I did during my time on the colony. Driven by a shared necessity for survival and motivated by the desire to succeed, we managed to surmount our differences. Over and over, we came together to support and comfort our neighbors in dark times. More often than not, we laughed and shared life stories over food. Through every challenge thrown at us, we grew past our barriers, bound together, and rose to the occasion.

So, I know that it is possible. That knowledge gives me hope for where we are today. The Colonial House experience was supposed to give us a taste of the struggles that our forefathers weathered while building a new nation. What it taught me is that we all have a role to play, and that nothing worthwhile can be built unless we first find community.

Julia Pierce is the Programs Coordinator for the Camden Public Library. She lives in Camden with her husband and their rowdy twin sons.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Catharine S. Baker | Oct 23, 2020 11:00

One of the things I loved about this particular series was its portrayal of the gritty reality of early colonial life -- cold, dark and hungry, a lot.  Also that it was in Washington Co., where I lived, and homesteaded/ dirt farmed, without plumbing or heat other than woodstoves, in the 1970's.  I still consider Washington Co. the "real" Downeast, the land Time forgot, but where Maine's Native peoples still live in their ancestral homelands (or rather, a fraction of those).  I hope Camden Library patrons understand what an asset they have in Julia Pierce.

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