Revisited Myth #20: Nails were so expensive, people used them in their front doors to show off their wealth.

July 20, 2014
Colonial Williamsburg's Master carpenter Garland Wood with a door hinge

Colonial Williamsburg’s Master carpenter Garland Wood 

What is it about doors that attracts so many myths? If it’s not the Holy Lord hinges (see Myth #6) or the Cross-and-Bible panel door (see Myth #14), it’s nailing up your front door to show off your wealth.

According to Ken Schwarz, Colonial Williamsburg’s master blacksmith, the truth is the exact opposite of this myth. Setting aside the fact that nails were not that expensive (see Myth #19), it was the shoddy, cheapest doors that had the most nails. Well-made, more expensive doors show no nails at all.

Myth # 136: Women married very young in “the olden days.”

July 6, 2014


(Thanks to Katie Cannon, assistant curator of education at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, for tackling this myth. I’m sorry I couldn’t reproduce her two charts, but I’ve transposed the information they contained.)

There is a phrase that I always find myself repeating whenever a general statement is made about the past: “It’s more complicated than that.” This is one of those myths that is sort of true… in some times and places… but tends to get overgeneralized. Yes, some women were married as teenagers in early America. However, this was not always true everywhere… or even most of the time!

There are many factors you must consider when talking about typical ages at marriage:

Geographic Location & Economic Situation. Not all times and places are the same. In the early years of New England, 1650-1750, most women married and most around the age of 20-22, with men four or five years older. By contrast, at the same time in Europe (where many of those women or their parents came from) about 10% of the population did not marry at all.(1) In his book From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, Alan Kulikoff makes the argument that marriage age in 18th-century America was directly tied to land availability. The more land is available to start working and providing for a family, the sooner a person (male or female) can marry. Here is what he found: The English and their colonists assumed that men could not marry until they could support a household. This was easier in America where land was plentiful than in England where it was not. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short time save money enough to purchase a Piece of new land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family.”(2) 

Even in America, marriage age fluctuated with availability and cheapness of land, which varied between regions and decades. Here is a chart summarizing Kulikoff’s findings. The numbers indicate average age at first marriage.(3)

England, 1700s; Women: 25-26; Men: 30

New England, early 1600s; Women: Teens; Men: 26

New England, late 1600s; Women: 20; Men: 25

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1600s; Women: 22; Men: 26

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1700s; Women: 23; Men: 26

Rural South Carolina, 1700s; Women: 19; Men: 22

For comparison, here is the U.S. census data showing the median age of marriage for selected years in  the more recent past:(4)

1900 Women: 21.9; Men: 25.9

1950 Women: 20.3; Men: 22.8

1975 Women: 21.1; Men: 23.5

2000 Women: 25.1; Men:  26.8

As you can see, the age at first marriage in the 20th century is not that different from the 17th or 18th, depending on exactly where and when you are talking about. While there is a variety, they are all within the same general range rather than the drastic difference many imagine.

Widows & Widowers: Sadly, disease was much more prevalent and you could do less about it than today. Second marriages and stepchildren were rather common, because both men and women regularly took ill and died before reaching old age. If we look for example at the first ten presidents and their wives, four of the wives had been married previously and one of the presidents married again when his wife died. So, the marriage ages often get skewed when an older person who has lost a spouse remarries. To illustrate this, consider President John Tyler, who married Letitia when they were both 23. When Letita died, John remarried, this time to Julia who was 24… although by that time he was 54. You might look at that second marriage and be delightfully scandalized that a man married a woman who was 30 years younger. But remember, in his first marriage, he and his wife were exactly the same age.

Personal Circumstance People still get married as teenagers in America. And some wait until their 40s… or never. It was the same in early America: not everybody fit into a tidy generalization. 


1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in Northern New England 1650-1750, published 1983, page 6.

2 Quoted in Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, page 228.

3 Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, pages 227-229.


Revisited Myth #19: Iron nails were so valuable that people burned down buildings just to get the nails.

July 3, 2014



Here’s a good illustration of how a myth gets started. Ken Schwarz, Colonial Williamsburg’s blacksmith since 1982 and the master blacksmith since 2003, says he hears this one every time they make handwrought nails at the Anderson Forge. It’s not true, yet there is a nugget of fact if you dig deep enough . . .

. . . back to a single Virginia law in the 1640s that forbade the burning of buildings for the nails. However, Ken explains that during the earliest years of the colonial period—the first few decades of the 1600s—buildings were constructed in a very slipshod manner, with wood touching the ground. They were meant to be temporary, because the earliest settlers hadn’t planned to “settle” at all–they were here in the New World to make a quick fortune and go home. So they built shoddy buildings that quickly rotted. Therefore, it was an occasional thrifty practice to get rid of these shacks by burning them, but then, why not sift through the ashes for the nails? Ken says the nails weren’t all that valuable, but why waste them?


The law aimed to stop Englishmen from deserting their plantations and from burning the buildings as they left (and taking the nails with them) by giving them the estimated number of nails. Here, read it yourself.

And it is further enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, That it shall not be lawfull for any person so deserting his plantation as afore said to burne any necessary houseing that are scituated therevpon, but shall receive so many nailes as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended bout the building thereof for full satisfaction, reservinge to the King all such rent as did accrew by vertue of the former grants or planting of the same from the expiration of the first seaven years.

Perfectly clear, right?

Okay, the translation: in essence, it says, if you’re going to desert your plantation (which you are leasing from the king, you don’t own the land), don’t burn the worthless buildings for the nails before you leave; we’ll give you as many nails as two men estimate are in the building, but you won’t get any of your rent back from the king.

Ken Schwarz says that this practice didn’t last long. Slipshod building techniques soon gave way to sounder architecture. No one would ever have burned a decent building for its nails. 

It’s also relevant to note that there were blacksmiths among the earliest settlers to Jamestown and archaeologists have uncovered nails and nail-making tools from the early years. So nails were not unduly rare or expensive; nor were they something to waste.

Schwarz says “Some legends persist because they appeal to the masses. This seems to be one of those appealing legends.”



Revisited Myth #18: Panes of window glass in old buildings are visibly thicker at the bottom, proving that glass is a viscous liquid that has “flowed” over time.

June 22, 2014

Thank you, Tom Winslow,
 a Park Ranger/Education Specialist 
at Morristown National Historical Park in New Jersey who submitted this myth, one he hears frequently and tries to debunk whenever he can. The glass flow myth is hard to kill off, as Tom can attest.

Antique glass was made by hand. Craftsmen tried to make each plate of glass evenly flat, but there was often visible variation in the thickness. One early technique involved spinning molten glass to create a round, flat plate. The edges could turn out thicker than the middle. The cooled plate was then cut to fit a windowpane. If one edge was thicker, the installer generally placed that edge down for stability. If you look closely at a piece of antique window glass, you may see an arc, not to mention bubbles or other imperfections, all of which are evidence of hand craftsmanship.

Debunkers make the argument that if glass really did flow visibly over time, we would see more flow in ancient Egyptian glass than we do in, say, colonial American glass. But this is not the case. In 1998, a Brazilian physicist, Dr. Edgar D. Zanotto, wrote an article in the American Journal of Physics relating to the false notion that observations of thick glass on old windows meant that glass is a liquid. He tried to calculate the time required for glass to actually flow and found that at 777° F the glass would move a visible amount in 800 years; yet at room temperature, it would take longer than the age of the universe.

But I’m a historian, not a scientist, so if you really want the technical details, jump into one of these reputable websites:, or

Even Wikipedia is trying to squelch this myth!

Revisited Myth #17: The most stylish shoes were made of dogskin, hence the expression “puttin’ on the dog.”

June 6, 2014



Master book and shoemaker Al Saguto wearing shoes he copied from a circa-1606 pair made in England

Master book and shoemaker Al Saguto wearing shoes he copied from a circa-1606 pair made in England

Sticking with the shoe topic for another week, let’s bust this one about dog leather. Colonial Williamsburg’s master shoemaker, Al Saguto, hears this all too often, and each time he does, he explains that dog skin was not used to make shoes or boots in early America. (That isn’t to say that it never happens–I have read something about dogs slaughtered for their skins in present-day Thailand, but we’re dealing with American museums and American history myths here. The only American I can think of who was interested in dog skin is Disney’s Cruella de Vil, and my daughter informs me that she was really British.)

So what is the origin of the phrase “puttin’ on the dog?” Evidently the expression got started in the middle of the 19th century and it means “to show off.” Similar phrases were “putting on the ritz” or “cut a swell.” The earliest known use of the phrase was in 1871, in a book, Four Years at Yale, by L.H. Bagg, who says it was popular college slang meaning “make a flashy display or cut a swell.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang also dates the phrase to the mid-19th century U.S. and defines it as “to show off, to put on airs.”


Revisited Myth #16: In “the olden days,” shoes were made straight, not as rights or lefts, so they could be rotated as we rotate tires and would wear evenly.

May 31, 2014

The Hunter Millinery Shop interiors.  Shot for 2007 CWJ photo essay on Trades.

Some history myths are statements that were true at one time but not true at another. Sometimes part of the myth is true, part is false. Docents and tour guides need to be alert to the context. A good example is the statement above about shoes. Just when are “the olden days?”

According to Al Saguto, master shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg and one of America’s experts on historical shoemaking, there is some truth to this myth, depending upon your time frame.

“About Shakespeare’s day,” he says, “the wooden forms that the shoes were made on went from being left and right to being straight as an economy, so you only needed one to make the pair of shoes . . . and about 1800, they started to go crooked again. So, for a period of about 200 years, most of the shoes were made on straight forms, but left and right shoes are back in style before the 19th century.”

Al says that even straight-made shoes will quickly conform to the wearer’s feet and turn a little right or left, however shoes were not rotated for the purpose of wearing evenly.

Revisited Myth #15: A double staircase was designed to separate men from women so that men would not catch a glimpse of a woman’s ankles as she climbed the stairs.

May 24, 2014

Seems that anywhere you have a double staircase, this myth pops up. Not long ago, I heard it said at Virginia’s Governor’s Mansion (at 201 years of age, the oldest occupied governor’s house in the fifty states), where there are two staircases in the center of the house, one opposite the other. In this instance, however, the docent correctly pointed out that the story was, indeed, a myth. In truth, the two staircases were meant to separate the slaves and servants from the family. Many large historic houses have two or more staircases; the nicer one, usually in the front hall, was meant for the family and guests, the smaller, narrower, and usually steeper one for servants. 

Another sort of double staircase is the mirror image kind that is seen on very grand mansions and palaces, like France’s Fontainebleau, below. This was built in the early 1600s, long before the Victorian era when ankle gazing was frowned upon. Decorative double staircases like these were designed for aesthetic reasons, to impress. As, indeed, they do!


And here is another example: West Virginia’s Governors Mansion, built in 1925, at a time when hemlines reached the knee, and no one was concerned about naked ankles. Double staircases were never intended to separate men from women. 



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