Those of us who love history often joke about being born in the wrong century. Sometimes we even go to lengths of “reenacting” history by making historical costumes and attending historical events such as Renaissance faires, the Society for Creative Anachronism, English Regency dance balls, American Civil War reenacted battles, etc. There are historical educational venues we can visit or even work at such as Colonial Williamsburg or Kentwell Hall and immerse ourselves in history.
But what if you really were plopped right into the past and had to relive it 24/7? What if you were given only a set amount of strictly historically accurate goods / clothing / food / sanitation, and told to use that to live in the style of a specific historical era for a months-long duration? How would you fare?
That’s the conceit of a series of reality TV shows produced in the UK and US that experimented with “time travel” of a sort. Modern people signed up to participate and act as their ancestors would have, with little or no help, and all the while filmed for broadcast TV. Obviously, as with any reality show, there was more entertainment than actual history going on, and participants were not chosen for their deep historical knowledge. But then, even if they had been experts, I rather doubt that the results in any of these shows would have been radically different. The past — even 75 years ago — is awfully different than today, and it’s a simple fact that we all take for granted the conveniences of modern life. I feel like that, more than a deeper history lesson, is the true moral of these shows.
Still, it’s fascinating to watch how people of different backgrounds work out problems and come to solutions using earlier technology. It does make you wonder how you would manage in the same situation, as opposed to the more comfortable, shorter-duration living history events we’re used to.
Chronologically by historical era, here are some of the historical reality TV series I’ve watched (note that I’m using the U.S. names for these shows; some of them were broadcast under different names in the U.K.). I know there are more of these shows about other eras that were filmed in America, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Switzerland — chime in with your faves below!
Colonial House (2004)
Set in 1628, Colonial Maine, U.S.
This is my favorite of these historical reality TV series because the participants attempted to create an entire American settlement from the 1600s. It was ambitious and unique in scale. Individuals were assigned roles ranging from “indentured servant” to “pastor and family” and everything in between, reflecting a fairly historically accurate spread of who could have been found in a small party settling the New England coast. The series explored religious conflict, gender issues, food scarcity, contact with Native Americans, and so much more — it felt like a microcosm of the problems of United States, past and present. Costume-wise, it’s not shiny in the least, but the series (like all them) starts out basically accurate, and, in this case, the participants mostly stuck to wearing their historical kit, so the look of the period was maintained.
Frontier House (2002)
Set in 1883 in the Montana Territory, U.S.
This historical reality TV series wins at having the most annoying participants — while also having some of the sweetest and kindest. They didn’t really even out, at least not on screen. I know, I know, TV editing always makes someone evil and someone an angel, but the Clune family were pretty easy to paint as spoiled brats, especially after all the modern things they sneaked into the show (cheaters!). Also, the Clune family failed in the costume department because the females (both mom and the two daughters) hated and all but refused to wear the historical costumes provided to them. They ditched their corsets, and they ran around in chemises and petticoats as if they were tank tops and shorts (until the weather turned cooler). At least they put their historical clothes on properly for Nate and his fiancee’s wedding. That was a wonderful storyline where he had arrived in the show by himself and built his house, with help from his father and other settlers, before his bride arrived mid-show. Which, of course, often happened out on the frontier where men would get things started up before their wives and families headed out West.
1900s House (1999)
Set in 1900, Charlton, South-East London, U.K.
This was the very first of all these “house” reality series to be filmed, and it’s the inspiration for subsequent variations. They’ve all hewed to the same essential formula: Take a group of modern people and plunk them down in a living situation of a past era, require them to live 24/7 in that time period, film it all, and see how the people deal with the differences. In this initial outing, the Bowler family lived for three months in a late-Victorian home in a London borough. While this house looks so similar to a modern one, the thing the bedevils this family the most is the washing up. Getting hot water, using period soap, washing laundry and kitchen gear, and even basic bathing, it all takes endless hours of the day. The mother of the family also must adapt 21st-century concepts like vegetarianism and feminism to a late-Victorian mode of living.
Manor House (2002)
Set in 1905-1914, U.K.
Six participants were selected to be the titled family, and 15 more were their servants, for this upstairs/downstairs historical reality TV series. The setting was a the Georgian-style estate of the 4th Baron Palmer, called Manderston, in the Scottish borders. If you romanticize Downton Abbey and think “oh Anna and Daisy don’t have it too bad!” — give this show a watch! There’s a constant churn of scullery maids quitting because the work sucks, and the chef takes matters into his own hands and complains to the lady of the house about the general poor treatment of the staff. Meanwhile, the upstairs family swans about taking advantage of their hoity-toity position, and thinking they don’t want to return to the modern world. This series is a revelation about the hardships behind our favorite historical costume fantasies. Life was sweet for those to the manor born, but only because of the back-breaking labor of the people beneath them.
What’s your favorite historical reality TV series? One of these or another one?
I admit that I REALLY enjoy watching these. Have you seen the 1940s House? It is probably my favorite. A small family lives out the years of WWII amidst rationing, blackouts, etc. One of the things I love most about it is it’s true history lesson of women making do. During the requisite “checking in a few months later” section, the young mother of the two boys discusses how going through such an experience really gave her a confidence in herself that she had always lacked. How true this must have been for so many women and how, in fact, this contributed to feminist movements.
That was a good series too! Didn’t they raise rabbits in the backyard in the 1940s House — & then couldn’t bear to kill them for food, as was intended?
Those series piss me off as much as I love them. They’re almost a good hate-watch for the way the participants absolutely cannot even history.
I’m torn between “Regency House Party” and “Frontier House” as my faves. RHP because that’s basically what would happen if you plunked us and our friends into that situation, and FH because I love the younger couple who were so sweet and capable and utterly fucking p0wned those asshole Clunes. Especially with their lovely handmade Christmas gifts. So classy!
Shit, I just realized you left off RHP! Does this mean I get to leave a snotty comment about how you left off the best House series of them all, now? Pretty please? ;)
Of course! And then I point out how I said “I know there are more of these shows about other eras” above! It’s a win-win!
I was obssessed with Frontier House back in the day. I was positively moony over Nate and his green/hazel eyes.
I kinda resented how they tries to frame Karen Green has this harridan/villain of the piece, when alll I could see is that she was just efficient and no-nonsense. I wonder how much of the strife between her and Adriene Clune was maufactured?
I also kinda really liked Adriene Clune. I loved her lilty accent, and her expressions about her immigrant experience were really heartfelt. Gordon Clune, however was a huge tool.
There is a website out there that updates us on how they have been living after the show – Not so shockingly, Nate and Kristen have three adorable happy kids, the Clunes have divorced, but their children are all outrageously good looking young adults,
Not exactly a house, but Pioneer Quest: A Year in the Real West was one filmed in Manitoba (Canada). A young couple and an older couple. The older couple had a harder time keeping true to the time period. The young couple were so admirable and determined :)
I thought that was the same as “Frontier House”… Whoops! But yes, THIS is the series I was thinking of when I commented above about the younger couple being total class acts. The older couple just whined constantly and basically made life miserable for everyone.
I second the love of Pioneer Quest, and the similar ones about Outport Newfoundland and the Red River. Also 1940s House.
I watched one episode of Frontier Quest, saw the lipgloss, and ran.
A similar type of series is the “Farm” series which I much prefer because it’s all about proper history and experimental archaeology – no drama – because the participants are archaeologists and historians and know full well what they are getting into.
I didn’t write about the “Farm” series bec. they specifically weren’t about everyday people — it’s a very different experience & makes for a different show.
Sounds interesting — can you give us a bit more of a title, or a link?
I think she’s referring to the British series that includes “Tudor Farm” among others (I only really paid semi-attention to TF, since it featured some academics and reenactors I know).
Frontier House was the worst. Between some of the participants’ idiocy and whining and the PC elements, it was BS. The problem with these shows is that they choose some really clueless people and then stick them in situations where they melt down or are otherwise dysfunctional for sheer entertainment value. In reality, either you dealt with the situation or where in a world of hurt or dead.
I loved how they tap danced around things like hunting and firearms use, not like it really was back then.
If you haven’t seen it, you should watch “Regency House Party”. It is basically a case study in how these shows can go so epically sideways when the cast is left to their own devices. It seemed like the producers had far less involvement in orchestrating the “reality” in RHP, so there’s some really wacky things that end up going down. My favorite storyline was the Darcy-esque guy who ends up falling madly in love with the spinster governess of one of the “eligible” young ladies, who is like 20 years older than him. Everyone was losing their minds over it, including the producers. SO GOOD.
Yes and no — I don’t think the goal is to choose totally stupid people, but to choose very average modern people (you can say that’s the same thing, but it’s a matter of opinion!). Starting with 1900 House, it’s very clear that the shows are about modern people trying to adapt to history, not historical experts showing off their stuff! That will, of course, create drama but it points out the distinct differences between how we live today & how we used to live — which most people don’t understand & is usually glossed over in historical fiction.
I loved Regency House Party and 1800 House, and Edwardian Manor House was pretty good too. I haven’t seen any of the others, but I do recommend The Supersizers. . . Go! starring Sue Perkin (of Great British Bakeoff fame) and Giles Coran. They basically immerse themselves in a different British era for a week — Regency, Elizabethan, 1940s, 1970s, etc. (I think they also did Romans). They’re very funny and you learn a lot about the food and culture of that era, particularly the diet. The clothes are pretty cool too.
I forgot to add, The Supersizers Go! isn’t on DVD but you can catch all the episodes on Youtube. They’re really worth watching (and if you haven’t seen The Great British Bakeoff (aka Great British Baking Show in the U.S.), stop what you’re doing and watch it RIGHT NOW. It’s brilliant.
The Clune’s! From the beginning – Mrs. C crying that she couldn’t take her lipstick to her being convinced her husband’s weight loss (from soft 20th Century business guy to hard manual laborer on a strictly limited diet) that they had to call in the physician. But, I also thought it was great to show that their kids, particularly the young son, could be trusted to do things they wouldn’t have considered letting him do in their normal life. And at the end when they were floating around their pool and admitting they were never bored on the frontier. And I loved the young couple who got married. I didn’t know about Colonial House, will have to see if I can get the series, if it’s not all on You Tube.
Frankly, I rather enjoyed some of these shows about modern people struggling to adjust to the practices and mores of past societies. But what I found most annoying about these series are some of the viewers who had expected these participants to adjust with ease. Many of these viewers seemed to demand that the participants take part in these “social experiments” without any complaints. And I found these demands rather ridiculous and a bit unnatural. As was earlier pointed out, these participants were human beings used to modern society, not historians.
I do think we overestimate how well any modern person would adjust — even if you’ve studied a historical era, to live 24/7 without modern plumbing, cooking, clothing, home comforts, etc., for three months straight? Not to mention being with only a small group of ppl & being filmed. It’s a tough project. Even the experts who did the British “Farm” series said it was physically challenging (& they knew what they were doing).
Dude, 10 days at Golden Beltane (a recent SCA event that Trystan and I went to, for those playing along at home) and I reached my limit. And we had port-a-potties, shower trucks, and spotty internet connection. Much as I’d love to do a project like this, I think I’d collapse into a gibbering heap after the first two days. Granted, I’d probably rally, but it’s definitely NOT EASY to go cold turkey on the modern world, so I do cut the participants of these shows a little slack.
That said, there’s also a point where people are just being jackasses because they think they’re entitled to having everything come easy.
I am a rough and tumble flower of the East Kingdom and I go to Pennsic War(a 17 day medieval style SCA camping event) every year. I can turn off the eletronics and not miss them. However, after 4 days I am willing to trade carnal favors for 2 hours with a private bathroom, hot water, a hand washing sink, and flushing toilet.
I loved these shows so much! I first watched the Frontier House when I was in high school, and having been absolutely obsessed with the Oregon Trail and pioneer lifestyles as a child I couldn’t get enough. You have no idea how excited I am to see that some of them are available on Youtube!
Heh, reminds me of the old Oregon Trail game — “you have died of dysentery!” halfway through.
I liked the Coal House (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w231h4VP6D8) and The Coal House at war (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGMGtn2omBk).
They’re set in the coal-mining area in Wales, in the 1920s and 1940s respectively. Being a coalminer and his family was hard in the 1920s but the series is nicely done, the families chosen for the test a good lot and I liked that there were no annoying reality tv gimmicks such as “who’s going to loose this time”.
Oh, you missed the worst House/family of all! Texas Ranch House and the main family of Bill and Lisa Cooke, their 3 daughters, Maura the girl of all work who wants to be a ranch hand, and 8 ranch hands. The parents were so rude and clueless, all the girls, including Maura were lazy, and the ranch hands were misogynistic and egotistical. By the last episode I actively wanted to smack everyone on the ranch for wasting food and resources, letting the place get filthy and over run by flies, and just general meanness.
That was the worst of the lot and the people were just plain ignorant and stupid. They wouldn’t have lasted a day if it had been for real.
I enjoyed the ones that I saw — wasn’t interested in the frontier ones. I wanted to smack the women in the 1900 House. They were so obsessed with their hair! As a reenactor, I have washed my hair with lye soap and rinsed it with vinegar many times and I couldn’t deal with the drama. What did they think shampoo was made of?
On another note, I have friends who have worked at historic Jamestown (an early 17th century site) for decades and have many of the skills needed for these programs. They really wanted to try out for Colonial House because they thought that having a couple of “ringers” there might be fun. I was all for it.
Regency House Party all the way!!!!
Apart from it, and although I was fascinated by 1900 House as the first one, I prefer the “farm” and pharmacy series/shows. I love being able to actually learn something from them without it being *totally* over-sensationalized and I do love me some legit experimental archaeology. But I may try to check out the Canadian shows, like a good Canadian should.
I also vaguely recall seeing in passing a UK-based celtic village show. But I’m not sure if it was peopled by historians/re-enactors or regular folk.
I seem to recall there was a Viking themed farm series… Could be that. They tried to tie it in with the “Vikings” tv show when it first came out, and I remember a bunch of my Norse reenactor friends being all pissed off because everything was WrongTM.
Great write-up! I get chills just thinking of these shows, because I would gladly take an LOA from work to participate in anything like this. It would be a chance of a lifetime to be immersed in another time period like that.
And as another poster mentioned, the end of Frontier House, seeing the Clune daughters ruminate about modern vs. frontier experience really stuck with me. They seemed mentally conflicted and looked sad/lost, as they were surrounded by luxury. You could see that their minds had been opened but could not fully articulate….I had always hoped they were changed for the better from their experience.
Excellent list – my favorite one that’s not mentioned was “the family” series which followed 3 families from the 1900s to the 1960s, where they changed eras each week. Very interesting to watch the shifts in class culture.
There was a series in the 70s where by people lived in the Iron Age – living in the past I think it was called. Less a reality show and more an academic experiment
Imagine not a highlight in turns of historical frocks
Well there goes my weekend! I’ll just be watching ALL THE VIDEOS!
You really hit the nail right on the head regarding Manor House. The upstairs family really, very quickly, came to believe that they were Just Better. If the wife/mother (Anna?), seemed like a nice person, she definitely fell under the illusion. Her son was a nightmare toff, and probably was in real life any way. I do remember the one episode that showed the aunt/sister (who was also a doctor IRL) not responding well to the strictures that were placed on her as an unmarried spinster in that setting.
The downstairs people! Oh, how I loved them. I loved the Housekeeper, I thought one of the footmen was insanely hot, I lived for the enjoyable tirades of the irascible of the French chef, and of course Kenny the bootblack/errand boy should get his own show.
I loved the French chef! He was such a fun character in his own right. Remember the buffet he produced for the Empire Day (?) celebration?
And I distinctly remember the poor spinster aunt wrestling with the confines of her position — that was very educational. And I think she ended up leaving before the end of the show.
I remember reading in some novel a line imparted by the heroine (an awesome starship commander from an advanced egalitarian “enlightened utopia” who ends marrying a military commander and high ranking aristocrat on what best could be described as “Prussia in SPAAAAAAAAACE” ) who finds herself mildly disgusted at herself for how easily she has become accustomed to the aristocratic lifestyle – Democrats have no problem acclimating to an aristocratic system *as long as they get to be the aristocrats*.
That always reminded by of Dr. Sister – yes, by the standards of the setting, she is certainly better treated by the servants, but since she wasn’t married, she wasn’t given all the perquisites of her sister – the lady of the house. Little things not being afforded breakfast in bed, and having to serve her own morning meals from salvers….
There is also an Australian series called Outback House in which the participants attempted to run a mid-19th century sheep station.
I got down to the final round of interviews for Outback House and was rejected because I would “cope too easily “. Not dramatic tellie, apparently…
Thank you for writing this back in the day. Recently, I’ve been pouring through the Welsh historical living series. My favorite has been 1900 Island but I’m now onto Snowdonia 1890 and it is pretty fabulous. If you have any obscure ones like these that you liked, I’d love to know what they were.