When we were having lunch at the King’s Arms Tavern in Williamsburg over the weekend, I was struck by a couple of things, which I mentioned in Saturday’s post and wanted to explore a little more here.
When was the last time the power went out at your house? Do you remember how inconvenient it was, and how many times you instinctively tried to flip on light switches before you remembered that the power was out? Did it feel darker inside, even in the daytime? Did you notice how quiet it got, indoors and out: no humming of the refrigerator or swish-swish of the washing machine; no A/C units buzzing like a hive of angry wasps outside, or music bee-bopping over the iPod dock inside. Did it all feel a little eerie?
This darker, quieter scene would have been normal for the colonial Americans who lived in Williamsburg—they would have most likely been freaked out by all the strange noises of modern life (shrieking sirens, anyone?). When you walk inside any of the old buildings in Williamsburg, you’ll notice that it is pretty dim inside. These historic buildings all have lots of huge windows—many more than modern houses are built with today, in fact—but there’s only so much light that ever comes in, leaving the rest of the place kind of dark. Adding to this, many of the colonial buildings (those built by the wealthy, anyway) sport dark wood paneling (I don’t know if they used walnut, cherry, or oak, maybe all three) and it’s really gorgeous. Having wood paneling on your walls was the 18th century version of having granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances in your kitchen! The wood paneling definitely soaks up light, though, leaving the rooms a little gloomy.
As an aside (and with Halloween coming up), I think ghosts and haunted houses pretty much went out with Edison—too bad! Maybe modern ghosts are unemployed, finding it too hard to scare people anymore (what with all the glaring electric lights these days). Also, there’s so much truly terrifying stuff in the world today (terrorists, mass shooters, ravaging wildfires, Stephen King novels, horror films) that today’s ghosts face stiff competition. Perhaps we modern folks are just immune to a good scare, having been scared to death daily by the media. Telling ghost stories used to be a major form of entertainment…now we watch TV…just not the same.
Anyway, to solve their lighting problem, the colonists used beeswax and tallow candles, as well as any light that came from the wood-burning fireplace (the cozy smell of wood smoke still fills the air in Williamsburg). Now, we all know what happens when fire and wood-frame (and often, wood-shingled) houses meet up: nothing good at all. House fires were extremely common back in the day, as you can imagine, and without modern firefighting methods the places burned to the ground with predictable monotony. (One more reason to take cookies to your local fire station!) An example of this is the Governor’s Palace, which burned down in December 1781 and lay in ruins for over 100 years, until historic preservationists luckily began restoration efforts in the 1920s.
The interiors of the houses in Williamsburg are also very, very quiet, save for the noise of tourists (like me) tramping through. There was no iPod playlist for your day-to-day life in Williamsburg, unless you counted the echoing clip-clop, clip-clop of horses’ hooves as they passed by on cobblestone streets, accompanied by the thwack-thwack of steel-rimmed carriage (or cart) wheels as they bumped along, the carriages bearing the wealthy, the carts bearing goods, supplies, and the rest of us. Or the creaks and pops of your house, settling in on its foundation (wait—was that a ghostly footstep in the attic?). Or the tune of a fiddle, playing a popular melody like Over the Hills and Far Away. You don’t see them quite as much today in Colonial Williamsburg, but there would also have been chickens (and other farm animals) all over the place, filling the streets and yards with their respective animal voices.
All in all, perhaps we can conclude that the sights and sounds in a colonial Williamsburg home were more human. Don’t get me wrong—I am deeply grateful for electricity, which powers my ability to write without a quill pen and inkwell. And it’s great living in an era where my house will (probably) not burn down, even if it did catch on fire, thanks to our local fire department. However. There’s something to be said for candlelight, and for having some silence (I love using taper candles at dinner instead of overhead lighting: the best I’ve found are from Big Dipper Waxworks out of Seattle). For days not filled to the brim with electronic janglings, and with the cheeping noises from our multiple smart devices demanding our immediate attention. No wonder we all have short attention spans and feel chronically tired these days, what with all the noise and distractions of modern life! (For more on this topic, please check out this cool article on noise pollution.)