Myth #137: “Sleep tight” referred to tightening the ropes on a bed.

August 15, 2014


Urban legend has it that “sleep tight” referred to tightening up the ropes on the old-fashioned bed, but this is a myth perpetuated by historic house guides and visitors alike. The meaning of “tight” was a little different in the 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of its meanings was “soundly.” Another is “securely.” So “sleep tight” really just meant “Sleep well.”

Think about the expression “sit tight”–it doesn’t have anything to do with tightening the ropes on a chair, does it? 


Revisited Myth #22: Firebacks existed to protect the bricks from heat and to reflect heat into the room.

August 3, 2014




Tom Winslow, Park Ranger/Education Specialist at Morristown National Historical Park, writes, “Another comment visitors often make is that the purpose of the cast-iron fireback in fireplaces was to reflect heat. Yet I have heard some people say that the primary reason was (in the days before firebrick) to protect the bricks in the hearth from damage due to high temperatures. is it one or the other . . . or all of the above?”

Surprise! (To me, at least–I thought protect-the-bricks sounded like a myth.) There are no myths here. Both statements are true.

One purpose of a cast-iron fireback was to absorb the heat and radiate it into the room. It also offered some protection to the bricks behind it.

In his 1927 book, Iron and Brass Implements of the English House, author Seymour Lindsay writes,”The chief drawback to the early wall down-hearth was the destruction of the back wall of the hearth opening caused by the fire. So great was the damage in larger fireplaces, that the back wall had to be refaced from time to time. This difficulty was overcome with the introduction of cast iron, which lead to the production of large thick plates of sufficient strength to resist the heat. These ‘fire plates’ or ‘fire backs’ are still to be found in great variety throughout the country.”

But here’s what clinched it for me: Chambers Cyclopedia (1753) defines a fireback: “a large plate of cast iron, frequently adorned with figures in low relievo, serving not only to preserve the stone work of the chimney back, but also to reflect the heat of the fire forwards.” 


Revisited Myth #21: Armless chairs were designed to accommodate women wearing wide hoop skirts.

July 26, 2014
Queen Mary I

Queen Mary I

Nonsense. Armchairs were a status indicator. According to Ron Hurst, Chief Curator and Vice-President of Collections at Colonial Williamsburg, armchairs were few in number in any given household and were intended for the head of the household or other important people. Most people of average or low status sat on backless benches or stools until the late 17th century. Female heads of state, like Queen Elizabeth I or her half-sister, Queen Mary I (pictured above), are often shown in portraits wearing huge gowns and seated in armchairs. 

Chairs without arms first appeared in the 16th century. Sometime in the 19th century, people began calling them “farthingale chairs,” linking the chair’s purpose with the wide hoops. 

This reminds me of the corner-chairs,were-for-men-with-swords myth (see #10).

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!


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