Public History: Old Sturbridge Village

(I was traveling in southern New England last week, this is the first in a short series of posts about some historical excursions there.)

Old Sturbridge Village is an outdoor living history museum in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Dedicated to representing New England Village life of the 1790s to the 1830s, the village is a New England institution. OSV (as they frequently abbreviate it) was founded in the 1930s. Unlike Colonial Williamsburg or Arrow Rock or similar outdoor museums, OSV does not preserve an actual town. The village is rather a recreation of a "typical" (and perhaps romanticized) country town of the era. The 40+ buildings are mostly historic structures gathered from across the region and transplanted to the site. A few are modern reconstructions.

The interpretive staff at OSV wear period costumes but are not in character--that is, they do not pretend to be persons from that time period, as many interpreters do at Colonial Williamsburg. I found this a relief--I think the play acting at CW can get in the way of the historical interpretation and creates a barrier between the interpreters and the visitors.
I don't have time here for a long critique and analysis of how history is presented at OSV. (Though perhaps that would make a good article.) Suffice it to say that the presentation is excellent, if tending to the idyllic. This is the New England village of Currier and Ives prints. It is wonderfully scenic, and true in its way. And to their credit some of the interpreters and signs did try to emphasize that life was hard in that era. Overall, however, the impression of the place is that people in the 1790s lived simple, happy wholesome lives. The children at OSV seem to have played more than worked, the houses are bright and airy rather than sooty and stinky, and the chamber pots are freshly scrubbed. In particular there is very little interpretation of the crushing rural poverty of many families in that era, such as is discussed in Alan Taylor's Liberty Men and Great Proprietors.

And yet, what else are the Great Proprietors of Old Sturbridge Village to do? Though non-profit, the organization needs ticket revenue to stay afloat. Adding some muddy, grim little huts to visit and having the interpreters pee in the chamber pots each morning is hardly an option. All of the living history sites are like this: lacking in the dark, stink, poverty and early death of authentic history.

Quibbles aside, OSV is a magnificent place to spend a early summer day and learn about early American history. It is rightly one of the top historic destinations in New England, every bit as important to visit as Boston's Freedom Trail.

Here are some more pictures from our visit: