Sue McLane was born in a time of poodle skirts, bobby socks and beehive hairdos, but one look at her and you would think she just stepped off the Titanic.
McLane was drawn to the Victorian era’s more simple way of life in the 1980s when she came across a Victorian dress at an antique auction.
• What: Victorian Tea Party
• When: Tuesday, Feb. 18, from 10 a.m.-noon and 1-3 p.m.
• Where: Brookside Museum, 6 Charlton St., Ballston Spa
• How much: $10 (recommended for ages 6-14)
• Info: email: [email protected] brookside museum.org
“I was in the antique’s business and at an auction buying furniture when I bought my first Victorian dress,” she said.
It was the dress that sparked an immersion of Victorian life for her. Not only does McLane’s atire resemble a character from “A Christmas Carol”, but her passion has grown into a desire to teach others about the era also.
The Johnstown woman, known in the Capital District as “The Victorian Lady,” spends her time as a living history presenter showing adults and children all over the area about life in the Victorian era. While dressed in authentic period clothing, she presents a number of programs providing historical information from a woman’s point of view.
“I have been doing programs about what life was like in the 19th century since 1991,” McLane said. “When I started buying and selling the clothing, people started asking me about it and I started doing programs. You can’t talk about the clothing that women wore without thinking about the woman who wore it.”
Originally McLane’s programs were structured around the fashions of the era but have evolved into presentations on varied aspects of Victorian life such as etiquette and afternoon teas.
“I still do fashion programs where I bring my collection of a 100 years of hats and talk about the women who would have worn those hats through these years,” she said.
McLane said she grew up in an era where all she heard about was wars and men’s inventions, and she chose to address this topic in a program called “Infamous Woman.”
“I think it’s important to talk about women and their lives and roles and the women who are not the norm like Victoria Woodhull who was nominated to run for the presidency in 1872. She was one of those radical women.”
One of McLane’s more popular programs is a presentation about the Titanic which evolved when she was asked to provide dresses for the movie, “Titanic.”
“I have dealt with the movies for a long time because of my love of buying and selling clothes. I had about 25 dresses in “Titanic.”
Ask McLane about her thoughts on the blockbuster movie though and she will tell you “it’s Hollywood.”
This is what prompted McLane’s program about the famous ship.
“I bring my trunk filled with things that people would travel with in the 19th century. It just fascinates everybody,” she said.
McLane also shares her love and knowledge with the younger generation. About 10 years ago ,Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa asked McLane if she would be interested in teaching a program for kids during school breaks.
“That’s when I created the tea parties for kids,” she said.
On Tuesday, Feb. 18, McLane will host her two-hour hands-on experience of a Victorian Tea Party for children. She will talk about the history and background of tea parties and Victorian culture.
“It’s certainly very different from adults. I’ve been working at the museum for quite some time, so I’ve gotten better working with the kids over the years, but I have to tell you it’s often times the kids teach me because my generation has a different set of ideals and outlook,” McLane said with a laugh.
McLane said kids return to the program year after year.
“I’m really hands on with the kids. I try not to be the person at the front of the room lecturing. That’s boring for not only children, but adults as well. I try to engage them on their level on history,” she said.
Anne Clothier, Brookside Museum’s director of education, said the tea party is a chance for kids to do something they only read about in books.
“In an era of TVs, computers, and Playstations, it’s a chance to travel back in time. The kids will make snacks and food for their tea party, set the table and learn about the era and how to properly pour tea,” she said.
“I talk to them about what life was like in the 19th century and have the clothing. Some of the kids dress up to come to the tea party and I love it when they do,” McLane said.
McLane said she has the kids dress the table as it would have been in the era.
“They feel so empowered because I’m allowing them to do things that maybe they have not done in their young life,” she said.
Occasionally McLane will run into the kids outside of the program and test them on what they learned.
“They will come right up to me and I will quiz them and they say, ‘oh yes.’ It’s great fun. They are such avid learners,” she said.
McLane doesn’t like to tell the kids that they are learning lessons in manners at the tea, but said, “It’s truly a lesson in manners.”
“The parents will come in and say she is still folding the napkins and still saying please and thank you,” she said.
McLane is saddened to see the manners and etiquette of the Victorian era not around in the world today.
“It’s obvious we are generations apart, but there are many things from the 19th century that are still valid in today’s world and manners is one of them. Everyone gets ahead when they understand that to interact with the world you have to take a step back before you open your mouth,” she said.
McLane said this is what she is trying to keep alive as part of the tea party.
“Give the kids some guidelines of polite behavior so they have something to build on,” she said.
The Victorian Tea Party will be offered at Brookside Museum on Tuesday, Feb. 18 from 10 a.m. to noon and again at 1 to 3 p.m. The program is best suited for children age six to 14. Parents are welcome to stay but are asked to pay the program fee. The cost is $10 per person. Pre-registration is required by Monday, Feb. 17. Register by emailing Anne Clothier at [email protected]