Sam Cooke's hit song from the 1960s, “Wonderful World,” is known far and wide for its opening line: “Don't know much about history.” Teenagers then (and now) are too eager to get on with the future to pay much attention — even if they are blessed with gifted teachers — to the allure of history.
But it is not uncommon for professionals who reach a certain stage in life to acquire an eagerness to learn more about the past. History, they find, can be an enriching and enjoyable pastime. If you are among those who have discovered the joys of history or are just interested in a different way to escape the stress of your daily grind, here are some ways to have a historically good time:
Civil War reenacting has taken on some epic proportions. It's estimated some 40,000 active Civil War reenactors rotate through “mega events” that draw 10,000 to 20,000 participants at a time. Other eras, including the Revolutionary War and World War II, have their dedicated emulators as well, though none outshines the zeal of the Civil War devotees.
Reenactors come from all walks of life and approach their hobby with seriousness. In general, they relish the opportunity to immerse themselves in a different time and to educate others about the era and people they work to represent authentically.
Those interested in such serious role-play need to be prepared for the associated costs. A typical Civil War reenactor, for example, spends thousands of dollars assembling accurate reproductions of the gear and clothing required to participate in most major events. Of course, prices vary based on quality of goods and accuracy of reproductions (some sample figures accompany the photo on the next page).
The next big Civil War event is slated for July 4-6, marking the 140th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Organizers expect 20,000 reenactors and 75,000 to 100,000 spectators.
Collecting historical documents, memorabilia and ephemera is also gaining in popularity, thanks to eBay-style auctions that streamline the process of finding and hammering out a price for the collectibles.
One of today's hottest collectible categories is World War II, and as members of “The Greatest Generation” pass on, discoveries of items from that conflict are made every day in old chests and attics across the country. As heirs seek to learn about (or profit from) their parents' memorabilia, much of this stuff ends up online. Indeed, collections of WWII items are likely to grow dramatically in value over the course of the next 10 years.
Joe Bageant, senior editor of Military History magazine (owned by Primedia, which also publishes Registered Rep.) puts forth the following guidelines for negotiating, buying and selling historical items online:
Know your area of collecting. And know it before you buy.
Focus only on items you really love. This gives you the energy, excitement and insight into building your collection.
Don't expect bargains in heavy-demand specialties. The Civil War, for instance. (Also beware of fakes.)
Specialize. This enables you to have a more thorough collection around a more identifiable theme.
Build a set of search strings for the type of item you wish to collect. This will save lots of time.
Always contact the seller before making your purchasing bid. Like all things Internet, the occasional kooks and frauds plague eBay. But it's still worth the effort.
If collecting or reenactment aren't your bag, perhaps traveling is. In fact, it's an excellent way to learn history. Based on the resurgent interest in World War II (touched off, no doubt, by the successes of Saving Private Ryan and the Band of Brothers miniseries) a number of touring companies are offering guided trips to European battlefields.
One, offered by Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours (in partnership with World War II magazine, another Primedia publication), takes groups to the settingsdepicted in the Band of Brothers miniseries and in the late historian's book about the exploits of the 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Christopher Anderson, editor of World War II, leads the tour.
“This tour follows the 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne from their training in Toccoa, Ga., to their staging in England, across the Channel to Normandy — in an authentic C-47 — to the Bulge and on to Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden,” says Anderson. “It's an awesome and emotional experience to stand with a veteran, in the very same foxhole they fought from nearly 60 years ago, and have them tell you about their actions, thoughts and feelings.”
A 14-day Band of Brothers Tour, kicking off Sept. 12, costs $6,300 per person.
Roger L. Vance is editorial director of the Leesburg, Va.-based Primedia History Group, the world's largest publisher of history-related magazines. TheHistoryNet.com.
What: Gettysburg Reenactment
Where: Gettysburg, Pa.
When: July 4-6
What: Band of Brothers tour
Where: Toccoa, Ga., Aldbourne, Portsmouth, St. Mere Eglise, Brecourt Manor, Utah Beach, Culoville, Carentan, Eindhoven, Arnhem, Bastogne, Foy, Rachamps, Haguenau, Berchtesgaden, Zell am See.
When: September 12-26
Details: stephenambrosetours.com or call 888-903-3329