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Early American Life

Demonstration of living history from 200 years ago is offered at Skirball Center.


As Thanksgiving nears, some of us are already giving thought to things we should be thankful for. At a living history demonstration Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center, your family might discover quite a few things to add to the list you may have come up with.

Most people, for instance, should be grateful that they don't have to chop firewood, draw water from a well and stir lye into lard to make soap--all in order to prepare a meal and wash up. And who misses having to shear sheep, plus card, spin and weave the wool just to have something to wear in a cold draft? Not to mention giving up leg of lamb lest you eat the very source of wool for your cloth.

We're not talking about the ascetic lifestyle of the Pilgrims surviving their first winter in a log hut. We're talking about how a proper Boston lady's household operated in George Washington's day. The Skirball event will be a reenactment of how Abigail Adams, who succeeded Martha Washington as America's first lady, carried on her life until she and her husband John Adams rose in the political world and he became president after Washington's two terms.

Actress Judith Helton will portray Abigail Adams and demonstrate what life was like without the DWP, Edison, Nordstrom and Target.

During a presentation to a school group earlier this week, she described "chores--what children are expected to do every day--include chopping wood, bringing in water pails and working the bellows by the fire to keep it hot while mother cooks."

The Skirball family-oriented event will begin with some first-person reminiscences about life 200 years ago. As Abigail, Helton intends to explain, "it fell to the women to find substitutes--roots and berries--when the men dumped all the recently arrived English tea into Boston harbor. We called our concoction 'Liberty Tea.' "

Homespun cloth was made in homes (thus the name) in defiance of British laws prohibiting American manufacture of cloth for sale. "We were a marketplace for their goods and not supposed to produce our own," she explains. (The Patriots were bootleggers. And proud.)

Helton plans to give the younger members of the audience a chance to weave a little homespun wool cloth pouch. She will also demonstrate how to card and spin wool, make candles and soap, and even children's toys. The audience may be intrigued by the chance to learn from Abigail how to bow and curtsy. "Our dresses and corsets were so tight, we couldn't bow," is her explanation of why women curtsied.

The first lady will also answer any questions that visitors might have. She knew Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other patriots such as Hyam Salomon, who provided much of the funding for Washington's army.

If asked about Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, Abigail would probably say that she met Sally only once, during Jefferson's stint as America's representative in France.


"Everyday Life In Colonial America--A Pre-Thanksgiving Living History Workshop," 2 p.m. Sunday, Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. (at Mulholland Drive), for families with kids 5 and up, $4 per person, advance reservations suggested, (310) 440-4636.

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