A Day in the Life of a Tryon Palace Volunteer

(The following blog was written by Rachel Metcalf, a marketing and communications intern for Tryon Palace, and Golden Leaf Scholar from UNC-Chapel Hill.)

When it comes to volunteering, I like to think that I’ve sampled a number of different roles. I have helped teach art to first graders, hid hundreds of eggs for a town-wide Easter egg hunt, supervised animal “touch tanks” in an aquarium, and even helped clean the entire Dean Dome at UNC-Chapel Hill after a basketball game, but I can honestly say that my most memorable experience was volunteering in full colonial attire at Tryon Palace.

I’m working as a marketing and communications intern this summer at Tryon Palace, where most of my workdays are spent in the North Carolina History Center writing, editing, and circulating information about upcoming events and exhibits. But on June 1, I was offered a chance to step from behind my desk and experience a day working as a Tryon Palace volunteer. My assignment was to be a historical interpreter, greeting guests and handing out event information during the N.C. Symphony’s free concert on the South Lawn.

Dressing in 18th-Century Clothing

I was sent to the costume shop, located in the Jones House, a few days in advance to be fitted for the proper historical clothing. There, I was briefed on the use and history of the clothing that I would be wearing. The first and undermost layer of clothing I wore consisted of a linen shift, used as an undergarment, and knee-length stockings. At my waist, I tied on my pocket, a U-shaped undergarment with a slit opening—essentially a detached pocket. Although it was an unseen undergarment, the pocket was decorated with colorful floral embroidery and was definitely my favorite part of the entire outfit. The petticoat, a long skirt-like garment, tied over the shift and pocket, and slits on the side of the petticoat made it possible to access the pocket underneath. Next, a neckerchief was fixed over the shoulders and chest for modesty. The bedgown, a thigh-length top worn over the neckerchief, was pinned in place, and a work apron was tied over the bedgown and petticoat.

Finally, the look was completed with a white cap covering my pulled-up hair. Although I had expected the layers of clothing to feel restrictive, I felt perfectly comfortable. I wasn’t weighed down by the fabric, and I could move freely under the voluminous skirt of the petticoat.

With my initial fitting complete, I was ready for work!

Ready for Work

When the day of the concert finally came, I was excited for my 18th-century debut. The weather, sunny and warm, was ideal for an outdoor concert, and when I arrived at the Jones House to dress, I already saw visitors making their way to the South Lawn with folding chairs and picnic baskets in-hand. 

Back in the costume shop, I was helped into my “uniform” for the day. The costume staff did a great job putting together my outfit. The grey floral print of the bedgown paired well with the faded yellow petticoat and the blue-and-white-striped work apron. It was comfortable and looked good; something that can’t be said for other uniforms I’ve worn. After everything was tucked, tied, and pinned into place, I was sent to work. 

Stationed at the Metcalf Street gate, I worked with two other Palace volunteers. Both had experience as historical interpreters prior to their time at Tryon Palace, and they filled me in on facts about historical dress, their own experiences as volunteers, and how they came to volunteer at Tryon Palace. One was a retired arborist, currently volunteering in the Palace gardens, who was drawn to the Palace because of his interest in American history. The second volunteer, also a history buff, had participated in Civil War reenactments before dedicating her volunteer hours to Tryon Palace. Neither were New Bern natives, but they had an appreciation for the Palace that drew them to help preserve and promote the site and local history. 

Soon, my work as a guest greeter and handout distributor was over, and I was free to go enjoy the concert. After I retired my period dress and changed into clothing more suitable for the 21st century, I joined my family on the South Lawn to listen to the N.C. Symphony perform pieces by Aaron Copland, Ludwig van Beethoven, and the Symphony’s own Terry Mizesko. The concert filled the entire South Lawn with music and people; nearly 3,000 adults and children came to enjoy the free performance. From my spot near the back of the lawn, I could clearly hear the hum of the strings and the lighter notes of the wind instruments as the orchestra played through its program. And with the Symphony’s booming finale came another booming … fireworks! Everyone on the South Lawn turned to watch a fireworks display light up the sky over the Trent River. It was an exciting end to a wonderful performance.
My day as a Tryon Palace volunteer was certainly memorable, and I was happy to be a part of such a dedicated volunteer force. In 2013, Tryon Palace had 440 volunteers assisting with daily operations and events, and it welcomes even more to participate this year. I hope to return to my role as a historical interpreter for more occasions, and I encourage others to become involved volunteers, too. 

Whether it’s in the Palace, the gardens, or the gift shops, volunteering at Tryon Palace is a unique personal experience that also helps to support Eastern North Carolina’s local history. If you are interested in becoming a Tryon Palace volunteer, visit www.tryonpalace.org/volunteer or call Laurie Bowles at 252-639-3615.