Colonial Era Technology, by B.

I have always loved history. A large part of my fascination with history I believe I can thank my parents for. From an early age I was able to visit historical sites and locations that brought these descriptions of great battles, events, and people into a real-world context that made them seem to come alive. Re-enacting and research into the lives of people piggybacked on my history interest and allowed for a much greater insight into what it meant to live or experience certain eras and events. Later on in my life I began branching out into the preparedness community and found a lot of roll-over from some of my reenacting and living-history experiences. I believe that there is a wellspring of useful information and skills available from the re-enacting and historical research community for people interested in preparedness to tap into. In this article I hope to lay out some of my thinking regarding this example and showcase a few examples of skills and information I have managed to pick up from my time in the living-history community.

Pre-Industrial Society

It is often difficult to comprehend the effects industrialization has had on the everyday realities of life the majority of people face. While the technology created has removed some of the urgency that may have existed for peoples of the past, our basic needs remain the same. Whether a person is alive now or living 300 or even 1,000 years ago, the basic needs to stay alive and functional are the same. We all need food year round, a clean source of water, to stay clean and hygienic, and shelter from the elements.

I think one of the most interesting aspects of a post-industrialized world is that we no longer need to utilize materials and resources that are nearby, instead relying on various entities to produce and provide materials that may be shipped from the other side of the globe for our consumption. Everything from architecture to basic hygiene products like soap bars reflects this change and the differences that have occurred. Where previously a local community might produce its own lye and tallow for soap, or harvest its own nearby forest for lumber, now most people’s goods are bought from supermarkets and come from all over the planet.

In the past, people were not so far removed from some of their basic needs and had to deal with them on a fairly regular basis, addressing them using the skills passed on by their parents. Their insight and legacy are available for us to garner from to aid us in our growth in becoming more self-sufficient. Often in the pre-industrial world, people lived on what we might refer to today as a homestead, where many of the food, goods, or processes were worked or created nearby in a somewhat self-sustaining pattern.

When going through a living-history or re-enactment camp, it is often the case that someone will be portraying a specific profession, such as, for example, surgeons, butchers, or tanners. There, individuals often have spent a good deal of time looking into records and texts and even testing out some of the skills they have learned in their attempt to get a better grasp of how such professionals would have lived in their own time. Talking with these re-enactors is often fascinating and is a useful source of information regarding their specific fields; from them, we may be able to garner examples for modern replication. There is a lot to be learned from the lives and examples that were left for us to see.

A quick disclaimer, though: not everything that you get from historical sources is always something we want to emulate. For example, I once enjoyed a two-hour presentation on civil war surgery practices, most of which makes me shudder when considering putting them to use and I would not advise the replication of the techniques or the usage of the tools discussed in this case.


For the average person interested in preparedness I suggest that there are three great resources that may be overlooked where one can gain skills, ideas, methodologies and hopefully a little wisdom and inspiration from past peoples. First would be written sources: journals, almanacs, newspapers and other historical records can be great resources for those looking into the lives of, for example, American frontiersmen, who often kept detailed journals chock-full of information on taming the American wilderness. This first group can be a great resource for people who are interested and willing to read often older English and obsolete vocabulary. However, for those with perhaps less time to go back to the original sources, other works such as biographies, magazines, and history books detailing the lives of people in a certain time and place are also excellent sources from people who have hopefully spent a lot of time going through the first channel of research.

Finally, what I would argue is perhaps the best resource for survivalists and preppers is to go and attend a living history program. Whether it be a short-term re-enactment event or a permanent spot like the Jamestown Settlement or Colonial Williamsburg, these are excellent resources for people to learn from. While there, you will often come across individuals who have spent years researching the lives and activities of people from that particular era and will have often attempted to recreate and live in imitation of them. If attending such events, look for presentations that may be scheduled, such as a presentation on contemporary medicine or cooking, or certain buildings that may be given over to a trade such as carpentry or blacksmithing.

The people portraying the period inside will often have initial presentations to give and are more than willing to answer any questions you can think of. I often ask such things as:

* What did they build their houses out of and where did they acquire these materials?
* How did they deal with personal hygiene?
* How did they deal with waste?
* What did they bring with them when they went travelling or into the backwoods?
* What kind of food did they store to last through winter and how did they make it?

There are endless rabbit holes one can go down learning about the lives led by our predecessors, and re-enactors are generally more than happy to share their experiences. Some of the friendliest people I have met participate in this out of a true love and passion for sharing what they learn about a period and are most often excited when an honest interest is shown in their work.

Some Example Projects

In this section I have included a few practical lessons, skills, or recipes I have gained primarily from living history experiences. I have included some that would lean more towards a survival setting and others that would definitely be more useful in long-term preparedness and sustainability settings. Some of these projects are fairly small and can be done in a day while others may take quite a bit of preparation; these are also not meant to be an end-all-be-all source but a showcase of ideas gained from the re-enactment and living history communities.

Flint Striker: Roman, Medieval, Colonial

I’m probably preaching to the choir here with this one, but a flint striker is one of the most reliable, and oldest, forms of fire starting available. Even the 5000-year-old “Iceman” Otzi was found to be carrying iron pyrite to use with flint to create sparks. Percussion fire starting was used in Europe from the Iron Age onward and only fell out of style in the past 200 years. While those attending this site are probably familiar with fire making, it is nonetheless interesting to take this as a testament to the usefulness of this ol’ “tried and true” method.

Parched Corn

Parched corn, or pinole, as it is known in the Southwestern United States, has a long history and has been a staple food for both European and Native Americans when travelling long distances. It was mentioned as early as the colonial period by Benjamin Franklin, and its virtues were extolled by the outdoorsman legend Horace Kephart. A handful of parched corn followed by some water was known as a solid meal for the traveler that may have at times only brought this food for weeks-long journeys. The fact that it is an incredibly stable food that will last for years makes it one of the most incredible survival foods I have come across. The process to prepare it is fairly simple: starting with a non-popping corn, the kernels are dried and then simply roasted to a nice deep color. The corn is then ground into a fine powder and is ready for use or storage. There are a variety of ways to prepare it, including the previously mentioned handful of corn followed by water, heating it with a bit of water like oatmeal, or simply adding a few pinches into water to create a flavored drink.


Fermentation is one of the oldest preservation techniques known to man, but it has waned in popularity in recent generations as the need for long shelf-life goods has diminished. It seems in recent years there has been an increased interest in some of the techniques involved, as more and more people attempt fermenting at home. I personally became interested in it after reading about the popularity of home cider fermentation in early America.

Before the late 1800s homemade cider was one of the most common beverages in America. Fermentation of apple juices was a straightforward way to preserve the harvest from orchards on homesteads, and allowed for a clean drinking source for the family. Cider can even be used for the creation of vinegars for preserving other goods. I have personally fermented juices, meads, sauerkraut, kvass, and a couple of other interesting drinks and recipes. Fermenting cider is a fun and rewarding project that can easily be done at home, and can yield a variety of results depending on simple factors such as types of juices, time allowed to ferment, and types of yeast.

Clay Brick Making

Many years ago I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia. While there, I spent a few days alongside their re-enactors getting to learn about and experience various professions they showcase. Brick making was a fairly straightforward and interesting skill I was able to pick up and practice for a few days during my time there. Using clay that has been filtered from nearby sources, the clay is softened by walking on it in a similar process to how wine grapes were pressed by foot. This process is nearly nonstop at an operation like Williamsburg that operates on a large scale.

Clay that is soft enough is removed from the batch and covered in a thin amount of sand similarly to how dough will be sprinkled with flour when working with it. It is then placed into a brick mold and formed to the shape and size of the preferred bricks; these proto-bricks are then laid out to dry a while before baking. Baking entails stacking all the shaped clay bricks into a furnace with spacing between each brick. This allows the heat to circulate around each individual brick so each brick can get fired evenly. The furnace is surrounded by already fired bricks and then covered in more clay to trap the heat into the pile, an opening in the top acts as a chimney for the entire furnace. A fire is tended for a few days so the entire thing heats up and then, after the fire dies down, a few days are allowed for the entire furnace to cool down before it is dismantled revealing bricks usable for their construction projects on property.


In the busy, post-industrial world we find ourselves in it is often difficult to comprehend the types of lives our forebears led. Our pre-industrial ancestors often lived in a manner that might be more interesting to those of us who consider preparedness to be an important goal in our lives today. Often functioning in more self-sufficient manners in a homestead or small community function, our ancestors, especially from America’s colonial and pioneering ages, had to deal with the reality of sustaining and surviving often in isolation.

There is much to be gained in terms of inspiration from their lives and experience from their actions even now, so many years later. I believe that re-enactments and living-history events are an excellent resource for preparedness-minded people to learn from. My experience working in and around these events has allowed for not only a greater appreciation for all that my ancestors have done for me, but also ways that lessons from their lives can affect me today. Luckily it is both a fun and fascinating experience for the whole family, that also provides insight into how people lived in their time as well as inspiration for ourselves today.


  1. Masonry making – Back in 1970’s, the CINVA-RAM unit was sold to make soil cement blocks for construction uses. Non electric, small and portable – could be taken to construction site and build units to avoid shipping.

    Mixing cement and local soil (if compatible), you were able to make building blocks for fences – cisterns – shops – barns – etc. Various inserts allowed thinner tile and even lintel blocks to be constructed. Pretty neat unit. Here is an old link to it.

    IF and when the world goes sideways, having a few of these as ‘rentals – barter’ would something worth having. De-constructing existing structures and transporting to where you want them will be difficult if not impossible.

  2. Good article. My preferred method of fire starting is with Chert/flint and steel with char material (punkwood/cloth). I’ve also have made several tonteldoos and they work well also in fire starting. But If I end up somewhere cold, wet and shivering the Bic is quick!

  3. Re: Civil War Surgeries
    Although it would look barbarian, I think in a post-TEOTWAWKI world without all of the high-tech medical devices surgery may resort back to the practices of the 1800’s and early 1900’s.

    I often wonder if today’s surgeons could even perform without all the technology.

    1. The equipment might revert back but the general knowledge of hygiene, sterilization and methods for keeping clean would remain with the general population for at least a generation or two, I should think, which would improve one’s chances of surviving injury, surgery and common diseases as compared to the 1800’s. Even with a loss of a large portion of our medical professionals, most people would be accustomed to washing with soap and water and using alcohol, iodine, peroxide and bleach to disinfect wounds, surfaces, bandages and equipment. That knowledge and those habits alone would put us at least 50 years ahead of the Civil War-era medicine. Plus, considering how many retired military medics are part of the civilian population now, along with EMTs and Paramedics, I hope we will have a higher survival rate than many people are predicting.

  4. B, I want to learn more about surviving life in the mid-1800s. If there are any re-enactment groups for that period, what names might I find them under? Or any web sites or other sources for the mid-1800s?

  5. I recently read “The Adventures of Bigfoot Wallace: The Texas Ranger and Hunter”, supposedly written by a contemporary, John Duval:

    Of particular interest was what the Rangers ate as they roamed the mid 1800’s Central Texas wilds where I now live. They harvested deer and turkey, as well as black bear, which was highly valued for the meat and fat. Other important sources included rhubarb, pecans and wild berries. It was apparent that they ate large quantities of meat whenever available, using smoking and jerking to preserve any excess. Deer hide leather clothing was valued for durability and protection from thorns, brush and rocks. Their armament included multiple black powder pistols (prior to repeating firearms being widely available), a rifle and a large knife. These were very tough and resilient men!

  6. Great article. Despite the trappings of modern life things would return to the 1800’s quickly after a grid failure. It’s one of the reasons we have so much overcrowding and pollution.

    We’ve created an artificial environment. Take away modern medicine, transportation , clean water, food and mother nature will put everything back in balance. She still might with a good old fashioned plague or pandemic.

    When that happens having the skills of our forebears will come handy indeed.

    We have “Plymouth Plantation” here and while it is a “living” colonial settlement the rein-actors staying in character can get tedious. Not sure of how in-depth their knowledge is . Most times it’s just someone that has read allot about the subject and has set up a display.

    While the plantation might look authentic not really sure if you could call it a “working” plantation. More tourist attraction than anything else.

    Then again met a gentleman working as a rein-actor at Ft. Ticonderoga. He did a black powder demonstration and was considered to be one of the top authorities on the subject.

    Guess it just depends on the individual. Again enjoyed the article and gives me motivation to seek out these people for some added knowledge

  7. In regards to parching corn, not all corn varieties parch well. See the excellent book “The Resilient Gardner” where it goes into what varieties work well for parching as well as making flour etc. Hint it’s not the commercial dent varieties that agribusiness sells.

  8. It is a common belief that our civilization would drop back to the 1800’s level. I believe that for a long time, we would be back to hunter/gatherers and living off of the remains of our wrecked world. We do not have the infrastructure or the enough people with the skills discussed here.
    Need a plow? Exactly how are you going to make that? Do you have the hardware for the harness? Going to plow with a horse, a mule or oxen? Do you have any of them or know how to handle them?
    The re-enactors are a great way to start. Living history facilities are around the country and are great to see the skills up close. Lots of sources of information if you look into now.

  9. B. –

    I agree wholeheartedly with you in re: Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement, as well as Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, Cooperstown in NY and even Deerfield Village in Michigan for late 1800’s/early 1900’s. My parents took us to see lots of living history sites when we were young, back in the 1950’s and -60’s, before there were a lot of them around. I am still a huge fan of history and spent 25 years or so participating in Medieval and Rendezvous recreation and re-enactment groups. I learned so much that is now part of my knowledge base for survival and prepping.

    Legend has it that back during the 1970’s or ‘80’s, IIRC, the FBI did a study to see which organizations would be most likely to survive the Zombie Apocalypse or TEOTWAWeKI. The “Survivalists” (think of the militia groups back in the late 1970’s) really didn’t fare too well since they required loaded cartridges, modern gunpowder, canned foods and lots of beer ), the Mountain Man or Rendezvous groups did okay but would end up being dependent upon being able to store and eventually manufacture black powder. The same held true for the Revolutionary War and the Civil War re-enactors, except those groups didn’t study too much in the way of woodscraft, hunting or foraging. They concentrated more on the battlefield and society side of history. The Medievalists came out on top. They were researching and teaching a wide range of what they refer to as the “Arts & Sciences,” they already had educators and “Universities” set up and running on a semi-regular basis, they already had their own governments set up on local, regional (“Kingdom”) and worldwide (“Society”) levels and they were already fielding a standing army larger than most nations in the world, but only used black powder for signaling cannons, not for actual combat, so they were not dependent upon gun powder for much. Combat consisted of heavy armor and weapons (swords, shields, spears), fencing (light armor, foils, epees, sabers, Schlagers), archery (long bows, recurve bows, crossbows, horse bows, fletched wooden arrows), thrown weapons (knives, axes, tomahawks, spears, atl atls) and siege weapons (ballistas, trebuchets, catapults). They had groups organized throughout the US, Canada, Australia, Western Europe and on nearly every US military base in the world and on every US Naval battle group. Pretty impressive when you sit down and write it all out. The organization is still going strong after 50 years. The educational value of the group is outstanding with people who have researched over 1000 years’ worth of arts and sciences from every civilization that was known to Europeans from the fall of Rome to the death of Queen Elizabeth I. That pretty much leaves out the Western Hemisphere, Australia, and the South Pacific Islands but covers the rest of the world. There are people who can teach you how to breed and raise sheep, how to shear them, how to spin the wool into yarn, how to build a loom, how to weave the wool into cloth, how to dye it, how to sew it into clothing, how to make buttons & beads and how to sew embroidery on it. All in all, a very thorough education, and that holds true for nearly every aspect of everyday Medieval life.

    The Rendezvous groups are also full of researchers who can teach you how to survive in the wilderness. They don’t have much of a government or bureaucracy set up but they can be found all over the US and many of them demonstrate skills from the Trapper Era in North America at schools and community centers. Also, their weekend events are often open to the public during the days, letting people who are unfamiliar with the organization come into their encampments and learn about a few decades of American history without having to drive to a tourist destination.

    I recommend that anybody who wants to learn to be self sufficient without electricity look into one of the re-enactment groups and take the kids along. They are family friendly and love passing on their knowledge and skills to anybody who wants to learn. Yes, they are geeky, but in a fun way.

  10. A documentary on early European sites had dried split peas as a major foodstuff,the Hanseatic League was built on salted cod both foods rarely used today but could easily replicated. Brick making is great but a familiarity in masonry is needed to use them. The Foxfire books are a education if not near a reenactment. The areas Renaissance fair has a comic show on medieval medicine. Laugh as the crowd chants”the pus flows then you die”,but is informative of how medicine devolved with religious suppression.

  11. Very interesting article.
    A note about fermentation… cider was apparently a favorite drink in colonial times, and I’ve read somewhere that there were more varieties of apples in existence at that time, many specifically used for cider that don’t exist anymore. Why apple cider? Probably because European wine grapes would not survive in America at the time due to our particular mix of bugs and diseases and climate. ( Even now that’s a problem.)
    Apple Jack: no doubt fermented beverages would become sought after trade items during a SHTF scenario. However, be aware that while freezing cider concentrates the alcohol content up to a maximum of about 45% (the water freezes, but the alcohol doesn’t) it also concentrates the bad alcohol (methyl) which is usually discarded in the “heads” of a heat distillation method.
    Aside from getting a hangover, the methyl alcohol would be slowly poisoning you.

    For those interested in growing grapes for wine, research “hybrid varietals” ( American/French hybrids) and the Norton grape (or Cynthiana).

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