J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 14, 2022

The Legacy of Sharon Ann Burnston

This weekend I heard the sad news that Sharon Ann Burnston had died.

Sharon was a mainstay of the New England Revolutionary reenacting community, enthusiastic about living history, scholarly rigor, and what other people were researching. Even when her health limited her mobility, she was a presence at major events.

Sharon had degrees in anthropology and experience on archeological digs. Her most eye-catching academic work was “Babies in the Well: An Insight into Deviant Behavior in 18th Century Philadelphia,” published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1982 and later in the volume In Remembrance: Archaeology and Death, edited by David Poirier and Nicholas Bellantoni. 

Starting with collections in Pennsylvania, Sharon studied colonial clothing and made herself an expert on what people wore and how to recreate those garments. Her book Fitting and Proper: 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society is a small book with a big influence.

Sally Queen Associates shares one sample of Sharon’s clothing research, an analysis of a quilted petticoat. On her website are similar articles, such as her discussion of a gown that came down from Deborah Sampson.

Several museums drew on Sharon’s expertise in clothing and other textiles. So did theatrical productions, and even Hollywood entertainment, not always concerned about historical accuracy; she designed the civilian garments Barry Bostwick wore in playing George Washington in two 1980s miniseries. After moving to New England she helped to develop guidelines for women’s and children’s clothing at reenactments, sharing patterns and advice and leading by example.

A native of Brooklyn, Sharon was proud of her Jewish heritage. That faith inspired her interest in social justice, her concern about prejudices, and the colonial seders she organized.

Sharon Burnston’s family has announced that people may make donations in her name to the Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation, the non-profit living history museum and farm in the Delaware Valley where she volunteered and worked for many years.

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