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.


Revisited Myth #25: “Pop Goes the Weasel” is a cobbler’s work song.

September 7, 2014

Deborah Bower writes: “On to the myth and I think this is a tough one. The song “Pop goes the Weasel”. How old is it and does it refer to a wool winder, a hatter’s tool, or a tailors tool? I’ve had this discussion with balladeers in the tavern and they are in two camps, those who’d love to see it proven as an older tune and those who are convinced it’s 19th century. Nobody seems sure as to what exactly the weasel is, although most think it’s the wool winder. I’m confused because the words to the song talk about a cobbler’s bench. Do cobblers have a tool called a weasel? Is it a cobbler’s work song?”

Antique Yarn Winder or Yarn Weasel

Antique Yarn Winder or Yarn Weasel

There are many versions to the song, “Pop Goes the Weasel,” all of which end with that refrain. “All around the mulberry bush” is one first line; “All around the cobbler’s bench” is another; and there are more that shall remain nameless here.

First I consulted with my expert, Al Saguto, Colonial Williamsburg’s master shoemaker who was kind enough to spend some research time on this question. I learned that shoemakers and cobblers were originally different trades. Shoemakers were the skilled artisans who made shoes, and cobblers were the shoe repair men. It was a grave insult to call a shoemaker a cobbler, in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary gives a secondary definition of cobbler as a person who works clumsily, so it was a general insult as well. Think of the phrase “to cobble something together.” 

From around 1600 to 1800, skilled shoemakers used workbenches in their trade. Poorer cobblers did not have such nice furniture; they used a three-legged stool. That changed around the middle of the 19th century when the two trades merged (Why? The introduction of manufactured shoes left the shoemaker with less work and forced him to lower himself to repair work.) The words “cobbler’s bench,” Saguto says, suggests that this version of the song could not have come about before the middle of the 1800s, when cobblers became synonymous with shoemakers and might have used a bench. Proving that we are on the right track, 1850 is also the earliest documented existence of the song.

So, did cobblers (or shoemakers) have a tool called a weasel? Saguto said no, and a check of the OED provided no evidence to the contrary. I then contacted the late Jay Gaynor, Director of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg and a former curator of mechanical arts who had a passion for antique tools. Gaynor had heard of a weasel, in fact, he owned two. It is a yarn winder, often called a yarn weasel. Gaynor explained how the thing worked, winding and measuring yarn and making a distinct POP! as it registered a certain number of yards. When you examine the rest of the rhyme, “A penny for a spool of thread, A penny for a needle,” the words would seem to fit in with the yarn and thread subject.

another yarn weasel

another yarn weasel

What doesn’t fit is the cobbler’s bench. For that matter, neither does the mulberry bush or the monkey. Mulberry bushes were common in England and America, and figure in other children’s songs (“Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush”). The OED offers numerous definitions of the word “monkey,” but none that relate to spinning, weaving, yarn, sewing, or weasels.

So, where does this leave us? Clearly, this is not a song that a cobbler sang while working at his bench. A weasel is not a cobbler’s tool, it is a spinning tool used to measure and wind yarn. “Pop goes the weasel” refers to the clicking sound that the counter makes. The earliest known appearance of the song is around 1850 in Britain, so it probably isn’t very old. A few years later, it had made it to America where the lyrics changed: “All around the cobbler’s house,” or “All around the chicken coop,” or “All around the mulberry bush,” and our favorite, “All around the cobbler’s bench.”

another one

another one

A reasonable conclusion would be that the song is part nonsense with a strong link to the spinning craft. If you still haven’t read enough about “Pop! Goes the Weasel,” check out this web site: For more about the British versions and the Cockney version, see

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).

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