"JUST PULL IT, Christina," says 12-year- old Amy Domingues, an active player in what looks like a scene from "Gone With the Wind."
Over her 20th-century jeans and sweater, Amy is wearing stays -- the 18th-century version of the corset. When her sister Christina, 10, has tied the laces up Amy's back, both girls inspect Amy's image in front of a large mirror. Then Amy practices sitting straight- backed on a chair, bending down to pick up some needlework she may have dropped, getting up to greet her husband -- or the husband of Anne Tallough Saunders, the Virginia aristocrat whose stays she is wearing.
At "Hands on History: An Open House of 18th-Century Activities" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, visitors put themselves in the places -- and laces -- of 18th-century Americans, using mostly reproductions of items representing various locations and social strata.
Alison Haight, 10, and her mother are sampling the lives of less aristocratic 18th-century folk as they construct a piggin, a small wooden pail made of staves and hoops. After several collapses, Alison holds the almost-finished piggin while her mother reads the instructions for the final step: "Remove the clips and move the hoop a little above the stave edges . . ."
Kathleen Thompson, 8, has opened up a trunk belonging to Betsey Saunders, a little girl who lived in Virginia about two hundred years ago. When she was 10 or 11 she moved with her mother and father into a new house, and this was her moving trunk. Kathleen puts on Betsey's "cardinal," a long red wool cape, then pulls out a sampler and a small pouch filled with polished stones.
"Do you have jacks at home?" asks a volunteer. "She used these stones as her jacks. She didn't have the jacks you have because she lived so long ago . . . You pick up one to use in place of your ball and throw it up and try to pick up another stone before it drops."
While Kathleen tries her skill at 18th- century jacks, Marjorie Tucker-Pfeiffer, 4, is playing a game called "From Sheep to Scarf," with her three-year-old brother, Patrick, and their father.
"What sound does a sheep make?" reads their father.
"Ba ba ba," says Patrick, as Marjorie combs some raw wool in a process she learns is called "carding."
Amy Domingues has shed her stays and her aristocratic ways and is putting herself in the place of a Philadelphia craftsman, as she and sister Christina put together a Chippendale chair.
"See, this is the way the chair starts," explains a volunteer. "The important thing is to match up the little slash marks that match the joint."
Maddy Broadstone, 9, equipped with a flashlight and a question sheet, is exploring an actual room from the Seth Story house, moved to the museum from Essex, Massachusetts. She finds sawmarks on the rafters, cow hair in the plaster and wooden pegs used to hold the house together. Do you know anyone who would bump his or her head in this room? asks the question sheet.
"My father would," answers Maddy.
Meanwhile, back in front of the mirror, Phoebe Lamme, 9, is asked how it feels to be laced into stays.
"Awful," she replies. "It hurts."
Mary Ann Williamson, 6, tries on some child-sized stays, then puts her feet on a platform that forces one into the aristocratic stance of the 18th century.
"See, it keeps your back straight," applauds her mother. "Maybe that's what we need when you practice the piano."
Her posture suffers when her brother David, 4, punches her in the stomach, but a volunteer has a cure for this sibling rivalry.
"Look what we have for you," she says, holding out a satin waistcoat. "Wouldn't you just be the young gentleman!"
And he is -- even in his space boots. IN TOUCH WITH HISTORY
Hands on History is part of an exhibit called "After the Revolution: Everyday Life in America, 1780-1800," on the second floor of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. The Hands on History Room is open Tuesday through Sunday from noon to three. Free tickets are available at the door for half-hour sessions. Children must be accompanied by adults, but adults may enter the room unaccompanied.