Early humans probably didn't survive by starting fires the cartoon way, scrubbing a stick between their palms until snap, crackle, poof! It's not that the technique doesn't work; it's just really slow and can leave you with enormous, puffy blisters across your palms. To demonstrate, John Plant, the YouTuber behind the channel Primitive Technologies, flashes his torn-up mitts for the camera, scratching at the yellow sores on his already dirty and calloused hands.
Then he sits on the ground, shoeless and shirtless, and hits a rock with another rock until he bores a hole through the middle. He puts a straight stick snapped from a nearby tree through the hole and twists tree bark into twine, which he wraps around the stick. When he pulls the twine, the drill spins, flung by the momentum of the stone, like a prehistoric flywheel. In 26 painless, unedited seconds, he's got smoke and, with a little blowing, fire. The video has no intro, no words, no music—and over 43 million views.
YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world, and people's curiosity extends beyond what's contemporary. Some people want to know how folks in the Middle Ages brushed their teeth; others want to know how to extract starch from tubers like sweet potatoes and arrowroot or how to restore a coffee percolator, an old radio, or a pair of leather shoes. Some seek knowledge on weaving baskets from willow, bamboo, brambles, or pine needles. Others are just looking for tips on how to sew a butt-enhancing bustle like it's 1903. Equally interesting: blacksmiths, Native American potters and adobe-house builders, fletchers and coopers (that's arrow- and barrel-makers), glaziers making glass from sand, cooks trying a mac and cheese recipe written in 1784.
Some channels do history like a school teacher would: intercutting their talking head with old-timey drawings and diagrams. The best ones live the experience with you. "There's an element of time travel to it," says Bernadette Banner, a YouTuber who studies clothes made during the early medieval through Edwardian periods, before the supremacy of the sewing machine. "It's not the flashy politics or giant battles that are weirdly mythological, it's a hands-on, everyday practice." Banner looks out of time herself, and a bit like a young Mary Poppins. Her ringback tone is classical music. When she makes a Victorian walking skirt or 15th century gown, she has patterns and specialist knowledge courtesy of her time at London's School of Historical Dress, but educated guesswork has to fill in the gaps between reference images and reality. Figuring out what a Medieval seamstress would do is ultimately about figuring out what works.
Experimental history is an actual academic method for learning about daily life in the past. Historical records of legislation, military commanders, and feasts eaten by kings abound, but, depending on the period, descriptions of the lives of women and common people might be relegated to a single line jotted down by a passing monk. Figuring out what they did requires acting out things based on those small descriptions. (If you want to learn how experimental history actually works, I implore you to seek out any BBC show featuring historian Ruth Goodman. My favorite is Secrets of the Castle, in which she manages to keep it real while rocking a wimple and sleeping in a muddy hole on a bed made of rushes.) You may have encountered it at its most kid-friendly in living history museums like Colonial Williamsburg or at its most LARP-y at a historical reenactment. Those experiences are info-taining, but not really the place to learn applicable skills. Yet, many YouTubers come from these more familiar worlds of historic preservation.
Jonathan Townsend has been in the business since 1973, when he was a small child and his father started selling products to historical reenactors. He still runs that business, and started making videos out of necessity. "There are things you can show in 10 seconds on video that you can't explain over the phone no matter what you do," he says. Historic products don't always work the way modern brains expect them to. "We have these shoe buckles no one can figure out," he says. "People would call in frustrated: 'I'm an airline pilot, and I can't work this buckle?!'"
His videos gradually shifted from product how-tos to the old-timey, 18th-century cooking show it is today, but the guiding principle is the same: Some things have to be seen to be understood, or believed. Banner started filming videos in part because her Instagram followers couldn't fathom that it was possible to hand-stitch a gown in hours rather than years. Plant and his Primitive Technology channel have taken an even more radical approach to showing rather than telling by skipping talking altogether. (He seems to be a man of few words. When I asked why he turned his bushcraft hobby into a YouTube channel, he said, "My friends told me to put the videos on YouTube, so I did.") His 9.5 million subscribers do not seem to mind.
If the history of daily life is best understood when it's experienced, the physical world has a problem. "The amount of traffic historic sites like Williamsburg are seeing is half of what it was 20 years ago," Townsend says. He'd rather you went to Williamsburg or Mount Vernon than watch his channel, but understands that experiencing history online is more practical and economical and likely for most. And he doesn't have the gripes most YouTubers have about the competitiveness and the nasty comments.
All of the YouTubers I spoke to think highly of the platform and the people on it. "It's a bit curious. People are always amazed when I tell them I get very few negative comments," Banner says. "But people clicking on educational content on YouTube are there to learn, and open their minds."
As far as I can tell, Banner's experience seems pretty universal. Whether the topic is picking old locks, smelting, or gathering basket willow, history YouTube comments sections are wholesome places, full of follow-up questions and people marveling at how soothing the video is. YouTube seems to even be affording people the opportunity to study history more rigorously. "I just spent the last four days looking over 19th-century domestic magazines," Banner says, "and YouTube is the highest-paying job I’ve ever had in my life."
That said, history does sometimes scrape against modern sensibilities. Townsend sparked scandal two years ago when he uploaded a video of him making an "orange fool," a dessert made of fruit and custard. The video happened to come out on July 3, 2017, which happened to be when President Trump tweeted a video of himself physically attacking CNN, and well, there's the name. "Much credit … for not removing this video or disabling comments," wrote one commenter. "It takes a strong tree to resist the hurricane." Townsend says the controversy has made him more cautious, though he already was. "History is history. I can't change it," he says. "We certainly don't shy away from having African American people on the channel, but most don't want to portray someone who was enslaved. Those are really important stories to tell, but you have to be so careful in telling them, and we live in an age when people can express being offended much more easily."
Still, everyone believes the past has something to teach the present. Even if the materials don't translate to modern life, the techniques might. "Repurposing waste as a resource in ancient methods, like wood ash used as cement, can also be applied to modern problems, like slag from an aluminum factory used in ceramics," Plant says.
Banner pointed out that if more people could make or even care for their garments, it would reduce the environmental and human toll of the textile industry that supports fast, disposable fashion. Watching history unfold as it was lived lets people see its goods and bads in context and compare them to the entangled goods and bads of their own life and time. That's what gives history value.
"What we're really looking at is another culture," Townsend says. "It's just that the culture is back in time."
Luckily, YouTube can make time travelers of us all.
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