Colonial Williamsburg offers vivid sensory experiences: the beauty of a garden; the smell of a cooking fire; the sound of carriage wheels crunching on shells; the taste of fresh gingerbread cookies from the Raleigh Tavern Bakery. But there’s plenty to touch, too: objects to hold, examine, and manipulate. Work to be done.
Hands-on opportunities abound in the Historic Area, especially for kids. To help plan your next visit, here are just some of the opportunities to play that you can expect to find. (This is, of course, a very incomplete list. And not everything on this list will be possible to do every day.)
But first off, one new special event bears a special mention. On select Wednesdays, you can join the “Great Colonial Boat Race” in the stream behind the Printers and Bookbinders. Each child will get to “select” a boat from our fleet of about 15 to enter in the race. These boats were constructed by the Coopers and the Joiners, with the sails crafted by the Weavers. We expect to have more trades participate throughout the summer.
Not only do kids get to race the boats, they’ll also learn a little bit about why our waterways were so important in the colonial capital. And the winner will get a special certificate. This event takes place from 2-4 and is weather permitting. After all, nobody wants any vessels getting washed away on stormy seas!
Now, on to other hands-on activities in the neighborhood…
The following list corresponds to our map of the Revolutionary City, which divides the Historic Area into three zones: Courthouse, Palace, and Capitol. (Great Hopes Plantation is outside those zones). The zones are simply a tool to help you find your way more easily—download a pdf here or pick up a map on site. Then—choose your own adventure! While these are specifically geared for our younger guests, everyone is welcome to join in the fun.
Great Hopes Plantation
If you take the walking path into the Historic Area form the Visitor Center, don’t miss Great Hopes Plantation, where you can take a little time to show the kids that farm life isn’t just cute animals. Put ‘em to work drawing water from the well, picking seeds from the cotton, examining plants for tobacco worms, or—yep!—pulling weeds.
And while you’re there, the Carpenters sure could use some help splitting wood into pieces for shingles and clapboards. Sometime they could use an extra hand for cross cut or pit sawing.
The express shuttle from the Visitor Center will drop you near the Magazine, which is where we begin our walk through the Courthouse Zone.
The Weavers will having you picking the seeds out of the cotton, just for starters. Who can be the quickest?
Visit the Shoemakers to examine 18th-century style shoes up close. Compare the quality and weight to your own shoe. Use your senses of sight, smell, and touch to guess what animal they came from. Hold leather scraps, waxed thread, boar bristles, and wood pegs in your hand—what do you suppose they’re used for?
There are lots of opportunities to help out with the Colonial Gardeners. Depending on when you catch them, you might find yourself drawing water from the well, watering, planting seeds, harvesting veggies, or even picking pests off plants.
The Joiners have an abundance of sharp tools, but there are still hands-on opportunities you can try beyond picking up a heavy piece of resinous heart pine or inhaling the fragrance of freshly-chopped wood. Learn what it is means to push a plane or chop a mortise—and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to actually do it.
Learn how candles are made as you touch Sprigs of bayberry, pieces of honeycomb and beeswax, tallow, and, of course, wicks at the Candlemaker. Maybe you’ll even get to dip a candle yourself. Windy or inclement weather is the candlemaker’s nemesis, so look for this on more pleasant days.
At the Geddy Foundry, ask to pump the bellows that push air into the fire. Feel the heft of finished and unfinished castings, or break up used sand molds. If it gets too warm inside, pull up a bench outside and try your hand at filing, sanding, or burnishing a pewter spoon.
You’ll never look at a box the same way after rolling a cask during your visit to the Coopers. Compare the ease of rolling a barrel to picking up buckets of water—with a yoke!
The Printer will show you some of the tools of his trade. Occasionally there is time for guests to take a turn behind the mighty press and make their own printing, say, of the Declaration of Independence.
At the Public Armoury, feel the cold weight of iron ore, raw smelted iron, iron bar, and blister steel bar. Feel the satisfying click as you work a key into an 18th-century style lock.
Don’t forget to visit the Military Artificers in the small building behind the Armoury. They work with lots of leather, which you’re always free to touch. Youngsters are invited to try on military equipment like cartridge pouches and soldiers’ knapsacks. Try out one of the artificer’s tools, like stamps or dividers. If the timing is right, you might even get to try your hand at stitching. And the shop floor is always in need of sweeping!
At the Armoury Kitchen help the Foodways folks move some firewood into place as they keep the day’s cooking fire burning.
The Wheelwrights love to have helping hands. Get to work boring holes, burning holes from round to square, paint making, and painting. (If they’re painting, they’ll provide a shirt-like smock to protect your clothing.) Older kids sometimes get to assist with mounting tires on wheels.
The Brickyard offers the opportunity to work the clay barefoot. Be prepared to have sticky feet! Then check out the Level and Plumb program, and help to build a brick wall.
Feel how various woodworking joints fit together, and see if you can guess how the joints end up being used to make furniture at the Cabinetmaker. Try to find the secret hiding places in the tall mahogany desk-and-bookcase. And don’t forget to take home some shavings from one of the hand planes used in the shop.
In the same building, go ahead and make some music on a spinet harpsichord. The harpsichord maker promises not to complain—unless you try Chopsticks!
Visitors to the Tailors’ Shop are encouraged to pick up and examine a broad range of garments for men and boys, as well as stays and riding habits for women and girls. The diversity of materials used in the period is evident in the fine smooth silk satin of a waistcoat, the cool crisp linen on a summer suit, the sturdy cotton fustian of a slave’s trousers, or the springy baleen of a pair of stays. By handling garments, guests can feel the weight, texture, and structure. Some are available to be tried on, usually under the supervision of a tailor to help select garments that will fit.
At the Silversmiths, feel how malleable the metal is, and help do some polishing with powdered pumice or Water of Ayr stone.
Washing your hair is one thing. Do you suppose washing a wig is the same? Find out by helping out at the Wigmaker.
At the Apothecary, you can pick up and examine reproduction bandages and splints, or some of the ingredients that would have been mixed to create medicinal concoctions.
The Gunsmith has a hunting rifle that guests are invited to handle, along with many examples of the pieces of a firearm. Compare a rough-forged gun barrel with one that has been filed smooth. Pick up a bullet mold and bullet as you learn how 18th-century Americans cast their own bullets.
No matter where you are in town, you can walk through a door, enter a different world, and touch history. What are you most looking forward to?
GUEST BLOGGER: SHARI MONACO
Shari is the Administrative Specialist for Historic Trades & Skills department and Supervisor of the Floating Trades Interpreters. She moved to Williamsburg from Kansas City, MO, in 1993, to work for CW. After working in Ticket Sales and as a Visitor’s Aide, she landed her dream job of a Character Interpreter. Among the women she portrayed were Jean Moncure Wood, the wife of Frederick County Burgess James Wood, and Elizabeth Ruth, Companion and Lady’s Maid to Lady Dunmore. Shari was also a member of the CW Dance Ensemble and greatly enjoyed dancing at the Palace Balls.
After leaving CW in 2004 to work in the Healthcare field, she returned in 2014, and is thrilled to be working with the wonderful men and women of Historic Trades.
Shari holds a B.A. in History from Kansas State University and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Her husband, Michael, has recently retired from CW, after a distinguished career as Harpsichordist for the Governor’s Musick. Michael also interpreted the character of Peter Pelham in a solo evening concert at the Capitol, which was a Visitor’s favorite for over fifteen years.