Revisited Myth # 31: Spices were used to mask the flavor and odors of rotting food.

October 25, 2014

Francis C. writes: Please do post something about food myths – the one regarding medieval people heavily spicing their food to hide the fact that it was rotten is still around!


My pleasure, Francis. This is a myth that targets people of many era from medieval Europe to early America. But never mind my words–here is author Bill Bryson, trying to debunk this myth in his book, At Home: “The only people who could afford most spices were the ones least likely to have bad meat, and anyway spices were too valuable to be used as a mask. . . people used them carefully and sparingly, and not as a sort of flavorsome cover-up.”

Because they came from so far away–the aptly named Spice Islands, aka the East Indies–spices were very expensive and, for many centuries, only for the richest Westerners. Not the sort of people who ate rotten meat.

Frank Clark, supervisor of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, and his staff hear this a lot from visitors to the historic kitchens. “I usually start by saying that, in general, the meat in those days was far fresher than ours,” he explains. “Then I explain that meat and spice were two of the most expensive foods available, and because of that, the wealthy often combined them as a way of showing off. I tell them that, although some spices do have some microbial properties that slow the rotting process, no spice can make tainted meat safe to eat.”


Revisited Myth # 30: Mirrors were usually made of two or more pieces to avoid the tax levied on large pieces.

October 18, 2014


The dreaded mirror tax, like the closet tax, the second story tax, and other mythological excise taxes never existed. The reason large mirrors were made in two or more pieces was because it was extremely difficult to manufacture large, flat pieces of glass, and even harder to transport them without breaking, and therefore they were much more expensive.

parliament ny assemb actThe legend may have its origin in the Townshend Revenue Acts of 1767 (left), which mandated duties on certain imported items coming from England to the American colonies, including glass. “For every hundred weight avoirdupois of crown, plate, flint, and white glass, four shillings and eight pence,” it reads. The term “plate glass” refers to a thin, polished glass containing few impurities that was used for both mirrors and large windows.

But after vigorous protest, Parliament repealed the Townshend duties in 1770 (famously, all except the one on tea), so any duties on glass were short-lived and never collected. There was no excise tax in the thirteen colonies on mirrors.

A New Record for Myths?

October 13, 2014


Rhonda Florian recently visited a historic house in eastern Pennsylvania and reported that she heard SEVEN history myths on one tour. Surely that’s a record! Rhonda reports:

“These are the ones I heard, but some of them had a little twist to them that I’d never heard before:

1. Most women died of infection from burns acquired while cooking.
2. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater–the line of bathing from head of the house downward to the baby.
3. Petticoat mirrors…I went over and checked to see if I could see my feet in the mirror. NOT POSSIBLE!
4. Heads painted onto generic bodies.
5. Melting wax makeup so they used fire screens to prevent that (but he was actually using a beautiful painted hand fan in a room supposedly designed for Civil War years)
6. Low chairs were used to prevent the women’s skirts from flipping up and they didn’t have arms because the arms would have “shredded” the skirts (this was also in the Civil War room. Apparently, he’s never worn a period correct cage. It doesn’t flip, and I’ve sat in my armed office chair to check my computer. Needless to say, it did not shred my dress.)

But number 7 was one that I had never heard before and in my opinion was the most outrageous claim of all. This colonial style house had the front and back door opposite each other with a hall connecting them. He said there were two purposes for this configuration. First of all, for air flow to get a breeze in the summer time. Secondly, so that they could bring the horse into the house! He said that they would load the wood onto the horse, bring the horse in through the front door, unload the horse, and then take the horse out the back door. He said there were scuff marks on the floor from the horse.

Of course, I looked for the “scuff marks.” There was nothing more than normal wear and tear from human shoes. Nothing at all resembling a hoof print from a horse shoe.”

I’ll decided to leave the name of the house out of this blog post because I don’t want to humiliate anyone. I know they are doing their best. Shall I send them a copy of my book, or would that be too rude? 

Revisited Myth # 29: In the colonial era, women secluded themselves indoors during pregnancy.

October 5, 2014
Hogarth print showing pregnant woman

Hogarth print showing pregnant woman

This persistent falsehood is also trotted out for women in the nineteenth century, the “Victorian” era, but there is little evidence to support the claim in either century. 

Poor and middle class women simply could not afford to remain sequestered away indoors for months on end—for crying out loud, they had too much work to do—and wealthy women, who theoretically could have done so, did not want to. Linda Baumgarten, Curator of Textiles at Colonial Williamsburg, points out in her book What Clothes Reveal (2002) that not only did colonial-era women venture outside their homes during pregnancy, they enjoyed active social lives, dining with friends, attending religious services and cultural events, and going about their daily business. Letters and diaries of the period provide ample evidence.


Revisited Myth #28: Women had ribs surgically removed to make their waists smaller.

September 28, 2014
18th-century tight lacing

18th-century tight lacing

The idea that women had two or more ribs surgically removed to make their midsections more compressible has been a corset myth for many years. I first came across it in 2006 at a DAR exhibit titled “Myth or Truth” that tried to debunk many often heard history myths. Their exhibit guide said, “Some early American myths prove to be so lasting that they even repeat themselves in the context of contemporary society. Marvel at the tiny waist of a 19th-century corset and your guide may tell you ‘some women had their lowest ribs removed surgically to achieve the fashionably thin waist.’ It may almost sound believable to you because you “heard Cher did it!”

Well, Cher didn’t do it, and neither did women in early America.

19th-century tight lacing

Chief Curator and Acting Director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology Valerie Steele is the author of many books on fashion, including The Corset: A Cultural History, published in 2001 by Yale University Press. In it, she firmly dismisses the removable ribs myth.

“There is no evidence at all that this practice ever existed in reality. After years of research, neither Lynn Kutsche nor I found any nineteenth-century medical article about this procedure. . . . historians sometimes claim that rib removal occurred , but without providing evidence . . . ” She goes on to point out that such an operation could not have been performed without putting the patient at serious risk of dying. Chest surgery was extremely high-risk, anesthesia was unavailable until the middle of the 19th century, and even after that, not well understood and therefore risky. “It would have been very difficult for a woman to find a physician willing to undertake such a hazardous procedure for cosmetic purposes. Histories of plastic surgery do not mention rib removal.” As author Bill Bryson bluntly states in his new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, “19th-century surgical techniques simply were not up to it.”

Rumors of movie stars having their lower ribs removed still circulate. Although it is theoretically possible today to perform such an operation, “no one,” according to Dr. John Sherman of Cornell University’s medical school, “has owned up to performing such a procedure.” The persistent rumor that Cher had her ribs removed probably originated with the fact that she has had many other sorts of plastic surgery, and she has a small waist.









Revisited Myth #27: Tables with mirrors underneath were called “petticoat mirrors” because their purpose was to allow women to make sure their petticoats weren’t showing.

September 21, 2014


The correct name for tables with mirrors like these are “pier tables” because they were intended for the space between two windows, called a pier. Usually a mirror was fixed below the table, sometimes above it. The purpose was both decorative and to reflect the light around the room, not to check petticoats.

Katherine Keena, interim director at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah, wrote, “I think the origin (or one origin) of this myth is confusion about the word pier vs peer. We have a large pier mirror, and years ago I discovered some people thought it was a peer mirror for peering into!”

The Clermont State Historic Site in New York has an excellent website that deals with this myth, so I won’t steal their thunder by repeating their story about what happened when someone actually tried to check her petticoat. Others, including the folks at the DAR Museum in Washington, have tried the same experiment with similar results.


Revisited Myth #26: Hoe cakes took their name from slaves using hoes to cook their cornmeal in the field.

September 14, 2014



A reader who volunteers at a historical site writes, “A common statement made by docents is that the cornmeal cakes eaten by slaves are called hoecakes because slaves used their hoes as baking implements when they were out in the fields working. This, however, implies that fires were kept burning in the tobacco fields in order for this cooking to take place. Clarify, please.”

I clarified this back in 2010, saying that this was the actual origin of the term “hoe cake.” That turned out to be a mistake, one that Rod Cofield, director of Historic London Town, MD, pointed out. I revised the post then, and will summarize here.

First, a hoe cake is cornbread fried in fat and cooked over a fire. (That doesn’t mean fires were kept burning in the fields, however.) Fields were often located far from the slave quarters and rather than trudge back for the noon meal, it must often have been easier to build a small fire at the edge of a field, cook some cornbread, and find a piece of shade to rest and eat. Hoes were flat iron tools and could easily double as a griddle.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term hoe cake first appears in printed form in 1745. Washington Irving mentions hoe cakes at least twice in his satirical History of New-York (1809): Philip Vickers Fithian mentions it in his journals from the 1770s; and British soldier in the 1770s refers to cornbread: “Negroes bake it on hoes that they work with.” WIth that evidence, I thought I was on solid ground in saying that this was the origin of the term. Nope. 

But like the word “sad” in sadirons, the word “hoe” has another, older meaning. It is an obsolete word for griddle or peel, like this one:


The word “hoe cake” came not from the practice of cooking cornbread on agricultural hoes (which clearly did happen), but from griddle hoes. As Mr. Cofield states, “From a naming standpoint, the term hoe used for a cooking implement as early as the 1670s strongly suggests that when colonists baked a mixture of Indian corn (or wheat) and liquid on a peel or griddle, this food item became known as a hoe cake. The name stuck even when a hoe cake was cooked in a skillet or pan.”

Yes, enslaved laborers (and white laborers too, no doubt) did cook cornmeal on agricultural hoes, but that isn’t the origin of the word hoe cake.

With Rod’s permission, I’m directing you to his impeccably researched and documented article, “How the Hoe Cake (Most Likely) Got Its Name.” It was published in 2008 in Food History News. It even has illustrations! It’s long, but it’s worth every minute. If I sound impressed, it’s because I am.



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