amc turn

Vexatious Vexillology

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Talk about mixed messages: One of Hollywood’s most vexing — and most easily avoidable — vexillology anachronisms has shown up again in the TURN universe.

The “King’s Colours,” adopted 1707.
The “Union Jack,” adopted 1801.






As you can see by the dates posted above, the flag pictured at left is the only British standard that’s appropriate to use for any sort of recreation of the American Revolution.  Information on the Union Jack is fairly easy to come by, but for those who prefer more authoritative sources, you can check out this BBC News article, or this page from the British Monarchy’s official website.

We’ve already pointed out the appearance of the 19th century Union Jack in the cover of the TURN: Origins online comic, along with some other Hollywood examples. (There sure are a lot of them!) Early in TURN’s premiere episode, however, as the camera pans across a scene of occupied Setauket, the most prominently featured British flag flying is the correct one for the late 18th century. It’s the visual focal point in a striking scene:

TURNscreencap - kings colors

A very encouraging sign!  (Especially if you’re a loyalist.)  However, the eagle-eyed viewer might have spotted a couple of curious inconsistencies elsewhere in the pilot episode.  Fast-forward to the dockside scene in Brooklyn Harbor:

TURN01 - Brooklyn Harbor flag(circled)

I spy not one, but two 19th century flags — though they are admittedly easy to miss in this epic and visually busy spectacle.  Granted, this particular anachronism is a small detail that is (like little Thomas’ baby couture) not hugely integral to the larger storyline of TURN.  But I’m a bit surprised by the internal inconsistency regarding — to paraphrase Major Hewlett — the British “beacon of authority.”  Since the footage of the King’s Colours in Setauket was used during the promotions leading up to the premiere, I wasn’t expecting to see Union Jacks appear anywhere in the show footage.  That said, the harbor scene above didn’t surprise me as much as the theme song, after taking a second look at it:

Obviously the theme song is a heavily stylized artistic rendering, but would it have been that difficult to include the correct British flag? What do you think, readers — does the Union Jack in the theme song get a free pass because of artistic license? (For the record, I’m a big fan of the “two-sided flag” concept — just one of many very clever visual transformations that take place in the opening theme.)

For many historians keeping an eye on TURN, including myself, it’s difficult to resist falling into the tempting trap of focusing on details that aren’t major enough to impact the show’s main storyline.  In general, we’ll focus on historical topics of greater consequence here — but the anachronistic Union Jack is admittedly a bit of a pet peeve.  It’s almost ubiquitous in historical Hollywood productions, despite an abundance of easily-obtainable and widely known information. However, there ARE bigger and better things to be said for what we’ve seen in the show so far — including the debut of an ancient (and very cool) form of spycraft.  We’ll be discussing that soon, along with what might be considered a shocking exposé of the REAL state of Abraham Woodhull’s family in 1776. So stay tuned!


Little “Sprout” Woodhull’s curious clothing

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While I’m working on a longer post concerning the convoluted chronology of TURN’s pilot episode, I thought I’d write a short post concerning a (literally) tiny realm of 18th century material culture seen in the show thus far: babies!

TURNpremiere - sprout1
Abraham Woodhull and his young son in the pilot episode of TURN. Click to view larger image.

Little Thomas Woodhull, whom Abraham fondly calls “Sprout,” steals the spotlight at the beginning and end of the TURN pilot episode. (His very appearance is a bit of a chronological anomaly, but we’ll discuss that later.) Abraham mentions that his son is “almost a year old” as he eggs him on to start walking on his own. Adorable outfit he’s wearing, right? Breeches and a linen shirt, like the little colonial man he is! Except what he should be wearing at that tender age is… a gown.

Yes, a gown, as in “a dress.” Sometimes boys even wore stays, too.

For the first few years of a child’s life in the late 18th century, regardless of gender, he or she would wear a gown, a loose-fitting garment that could be tied, pinned, or buttoned shut. Once they were several years old, boys and girls would then make the transition to outfits that were miniature versions of men’s and women’s adult clothing. For boys, this was often a celebrated childhood milestone. Linda Baumgarten of Colonial Williamsburg writes:

“The time when a little boy went from skirts to pants, which was called, ‘breeching,’ occurred anytime from age three to seven and was symbolic of his first step toward becoming a ‘little man.'”

"Portrait of Two Children" attributed to Joseph Badger (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, 57.100.15). Young boys and girls in paintings like these were often distinguished by the objects and toys they were holding. The child on the left is a boy with a pet squirrel.
“Portrait of Two Children” attributed to Joseph Badger (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, 57.100.15). Young boys and girls in paintings like these were often distinguished by the objects and toys they were holding. The child on the left, for example, is a boy with his pet squirrel.

So yes, if you were to time-travel back to the era of the American Revolution, you might very well see a young six-year-old boy wearing stays and a gown.  In fact, in 1790, Benjamin Tallmadge’s own son was wearing them at the tender age of three.  For more information, I highly recommend reading Linda Baumgarten’s primer on colonial children’s clothing (the source of the above quote).  And if you weren’t sure what I was talking about when I mentioned ‘stays’ earlier, don’t forget to check out Baumgartner’s very helpful glossary of clothing terms, too. Additionally, you can browse through a slideshow of primary source images concerning children and babies over at the 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center.

TURNpremiere - sprout3So little Thomas “Sprout” Woodhull appears to be quite the little hipster baby — wearing breeches before they were cool. (He’s not even a year old and he’s already turning Setauket into the Brooklyn of the 18th century!)

In this case, I could understand the rationale behind “breeching” little Thomas several years early in TURN.  A little boy wearing a feminine gown would be confusing and strange to the average 21st-century viewer, and distracting enough to detract from the main storyline.  (Don’t believe me? Look at the above painting and take a guess as to how much airtime would be needed to explain that boy’s outfit to a modern-day viewer.)  Still, the fact is that little hipster Sprout’s outfit IS several years ahead of his time, according to the historical record.  I know — not exactly a hugely significant issue in the greater storyline of TURN (and definitely not as big of a sartorial gaffe as, say, the bizarre garb that the Queen’s Rangers are wearing), but I thought readers might enjoy a small and  pleasant domestic diversion while I finish making sense of the premiere episode’s Swiss-cheese timeline.  And don’t worry — we’ll be discussing plenty of military details here on the blog soon enough.

Also, if you haven’t seen the preview for next Sunday’s episode yet, you can view it here. And don’t forget to join the fun over at TURN to a Historian’s Facebook Page and tumblr account.  More on the way soon!



Watch the TURN premiere online for free!

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Missed the premiere of TURN last night?  Did your DVR malfunction, or do you not even have cable in the first place?  Ne desperandum!  You can now watch the pilot episode for FREE on Amazon Instant Video! Even the HD version is available for free. Spread the word!

amazon episode 1
The pilot episode is available FREE in either standard res or hi-def formats.

No proof of cable subscription required!  All you need is a free Amazon account. Make sure all of your reclusive history-buff friends who have sworn off cable TV (yes, we all have them) see this link so they can get caught up. Now anyone with internet access can join the conversation!

First episode: First Impressions

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pilot final scene

The premiere of TURN is now in the history books! But how much did it actually differ from the history books?  There’s definitely lots to process from tonight’s super-sized 90-minute pilot.  Initial thoughts are below, but since I have an insurmountable affinity for checking historical sources, it’ll be tomorrow (at the earliest) before I’m able to post anything properly analytical.  Overall, I think the premiere was a success — AMC is known for its intricate character-driven drama and TURN fits that mold extremely well.  Any more than that — well, I’m going to sleep on it first, though my half-eaten bag of jellybeans is a pretty fitting indicator of how glued to the screen I was. 😉

cardano grille

The Good: Heavy emphasis on divided loyalties, tension between neighbors, and civilian resentment toward British occupation — all of which muddle the “black and white” myth of the American Revolution, which is a very good thing.  I enjoyed the panoramas of Setauket as a small, agricultural, coastal cluster of colonial buildings. Loved seeing the first hint of spycraft — a Cardano Grille, pictured left. (More on that in a later post.)

The Bad: The Queen’s Rangers take first place in this category.  Material culture issues (ranging from clothing to beards to architecture) ranged from passable and fairly innocuous to cringe-worthy. What bothered me more, however, were the really major chronology issues. Most of the events depicted in this episode didn’t occur until late 1777, 1778, or even 1779.  The Culper Ring wasn’t even formed until 1778, and John Andre doesn’t enter the picture until 1779.  So why pick 1776 as the date for the pilot episode?

The Complicated: While the Revolutionary War was a messy affair, and brutal atrocities were committed by both sides, I’m not sure the uber-violent scenes (and especially the revenge-driven bloodlust) shown here were historically appropriate, and got the impression they were there simply to give the show a more “edgy” feel.  The 18th century was an heavily honor-bound culture; “waterboarding”-like torture is definitely out of place here.  The whole “Bluecoats” vs “Redcoats” dynamic is a out of place for this time period, but I understand why the showrunners chose to portray the opposing armies that way — American uniforms were a confusing mess across the board in 1776.

Oh, and remind me not to enter the stock market anytime soon: My Nathan Hale prediction was a total bust!  I’m actually very disappointed.  If this episode was really supposed to take place in 1776, there were plenty of opportunities to bring up Hale — especially, for example, when Tallmadge was berating his officer about the need to invest money and effort into obtaining proper intelligence.


So what are YOUR thoughts on the pilot episode of TURN?  If you’re a history buff, were you satisfied? Or mortified?  If you’re a new viewer with no special background in history (which is perfectly okay, thank you very much!), did the show hold your interest?  Don’t be shy — your comments will help determine the topics that get covered first in this blog!  (All right, if you’re a LITTLE shy you can always submit an anonymous question or comment via the Ask Page.)



Last-minute Premiere Prep

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T-minus 4 hours and counting until the premiere of TURN on AMC!  (Alas, my little countdown widget in the sidebar appears to have crashed.)

AMC is soliciting shots of people’s “Premiere parties” on social media, using the hashtags #turn, #turnAMC, #AMCturn, and #PledgeDefiance, so I thought I’d hop on the bandwagon with the following pic:


Real-time shot of my living room floor, after nudging various books and bags of candy closer together with my foot.  I know — Starburst Jellybeans are a completely inaccurate 18th century snack, but I’m going to need 21st century fuel for the 21st century task of watching TV, taking old-fashioned paper notes (okay, call me old-fashioned), and syncing a second or third screen in order to try and keep up with tweets and Facebook posts in real time. (Phew.)

For all of you who are second-screen savvy, AMC is pushing its “TURN Story Sync” experience here — though I might be stretched in too many directions at once to enjoy Story Sync myself.  If you try it, let me know what you think!

The books and pamphlets seen in this picture run the gamut from excellent to problematic to downright cringeworthy.  Most of them will eventually be reviewed here in the blog, and the best will end up on the Reading List found on the Resources page of this website.  Why do I even bother holding onto “cringeworthy” history books?  Well, to be fair, without training and a lot of practice, it can be hard to differentiate a “bad” history book from a good one — it requires extensive analysis of citations, bibliographies, and lots of other technical stuff.  Consultants for TV shows like “TURN” might grab any old spy-related book off the shelf and, without fully realizing they’re holding an problematic book in their hands, use it as justification for what might end up being a historically inaccurate portrayal.

Anyway, I hope you’re all comfortably situated for tonight’s premiere.  Since it’s a full 90 minutes, it might take a while for me to gather my initial thoughts into a blog post, but I hope to have something substantial by Monday evening.  There will definitely be PLENTY to talk about!  In the meantime, don’t forget to join the conversation on Twitter (@spycurious) or Facebook and take advantage of tonight’s pretty awesome #PledgeDefiance hashtag.  Enjoy the show!