Revisited Myth #24: Ceiling medallions were placed above chandeliers to keep the soot from showing.

August 30, 2014

A reader wrote: “While on vacation my husband and I visited a circa 1880s stick style home. The docent pointed to the ceiling medallions and said they were there to keep the soot from candliers or gasoliers from showing. Ever heard that one? I would have let it go except someone staying in the B&B we were at said the same thing.”


Ceiling medallions were popular decorative elements in 19th-century middle and upper class homes. According to G. C. Winkler and R. W. Moss in Victorian Interior Decoration 1830-1900, they could be made of wood, plaster, plaster of Paris, or paper mâché, with paper mâché the most common. Styles were usually based on a single flower, a circle of acanthus leaves, or a molded, plain disk like this one: 


They were popular during the 1830s through the 1890s. According to period advertisements, the ceiling medallions that were meant for the center of the ceiling above hanging light fixtures were sometimes called “centers.”

I found nothing to indicate that centers were placed there to shield the ceiling from soot. It’s illogical. After all, if the candles or gas fixtures are giving off excessive soot, the medallions would get just as dirty as the ceiling and be even harder to clean or paint over than bare ceiling would be, so they don’t shield anything. I did read in contemporary literature that you could clean these centers with bread, which takes off the dirt but not the finish, a trick I first heard in Italy when the owner of an old castle we were renting, Montalto (you’ve got to see this place:, told us the only thing that would clean her smoke-damaged frescoes was white Tuscan bread, crusts removed.

One unidentified reader of this blog made a sensible comment, “Pretty sure ceiling medallions of old were used for the same reason they are today: when you hand something heavy from the ceiling you have to cut an obnoxious hole in the ceiling and hang it from a joist. A ceiling medallion is much nicer to look at. That’s the sole reason they exist today, and I’m guessing, but the function probably is no different today than back then.” 

Oh–the B&B folks probably repeated what they had heard at the local historic house . . . which is exactly how these myths keep spreading.

Revisited Myth #23: Prudish Victorians “dressed” their naked furniture legs with fabric.

August 23, 2014


Cover these legs? I don't think so . . .

Cover these legs? I don’t think so . . .


Yikes, a naked table leg!

The idea that 19th-century Americans were such prudes they even covered the legs of their furniture with little skirts seems to have originated with Capt. Frederick Marryat’s Diary in America of 1839. Marryat, an Englishman, wrote a satire of his American tour. He wrote of the American propensity to use the word “limb” in place of “leg,” (although he says the English do it to, but not as scrupulously). Then he says he visited a boarding school for young ladies in New York state where he saw a “square piano-forte with four limbs . . . the mistress of the establishment . . . had dressed all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!”

Prosperous farmhouse parlor, 1900

Prosperous farmhouse parlor, 1900

Whether Marryat is exaggerating or not is subject to speculation–he is certainly poking fun at the Americans–but I can attest that, after having paged through a dozen books showing old, black-and-white photos of Victorian interiors, I saw not one example of a table, piano, or any other piece of furniture with skirts around its individual legs. (Please submit period photos if you know of any.) I did see floor-length skirts on round tables, like the one shown above in the left side of the room (click on the photo and it gets larger), but heck, I have a table like that in my own house. There may well have been some who decorated with little skirts on piano legs or table legs, but it seems not to have been common. Those who chose to decorate like that were indulging in the Victorian era love of fabrics, opulence, and excessive ornamentation, not covering up naked legs.

Lavish draperies and fabrics—fringe, tassels, lace, and such—were part of the conspicuous consumption of the Victorian era. The surfaces of pianos and tables were often draped with shawls or other textiles, as seen on the center table above. Sometimes the purpose was to disguise a plain table made of a lesser wood. As Catherine Beecher, the Martha Stewart of her day, and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe recommended in their 1869 book, American Woman’s Home: Take a “cheap pine table, such as you may buy for four or five dollars any day,” cover it with a piece of green fabric trimmed with a handsome border, and “you will be astonished to see how handsome an object this table makes under its green drapery.” Nothing about hiding naked table legs.

Besides, what was the point of all those ornate tables with heavily carved legs if they were not meant to be seen and admired?

streetcar_sm2It is true that in everyday language, the word “leg” was considered coarse by some (not all). Marryat mentions this in his 1839 book. I remember my grandfather saying that, as a boy, his mother would gently correct him if he ever said “leg.” The polite word was “limb.” (This was in 1900 in Washington, D.C.) A contemporary turn-of-the-century story tells of a self-conscious young lady who refuses to step up into a streetcar because she sees a group of young men loitering on the corner, waiting to catch a glimpse of her ankle. Most women did not obsess about such things.

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.


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