Revisited Myth #11: Early pioneers kept their clothing in chests rather than wardrobes because wardrobes were taxed as an extra room.

April 12, 2014


There we were, touring beautiful Zion National Park in Utah with an energetic park ranger when I heard this blooper. The ranger told us that Utah’s early Mormon pioneers lived in one-room cabins and didn’t have wardrobes for their clothing because wardrobes were taxed as if they were a second room. Shunning taxes and wardrobes, they put their clothing in chests or trunks instead.

Alert readers will recognize this as a variant of the closet tax (Myth #1), but I checked the statement carefully to see if there was even a remote sliver of truth to it, as is sometimes the case with history myths. I searched the early Territorial codes from 1847 to 1888 as well as the current Utah code, which are all online, without finding any mention of the word wardrobe or extra room. Then I posed the question to the Research Center at the Utah State Archives and Utah State History, and Heidi Orchard very kindly replied. 

The Compiled Laws of Utah 1888, she wrote, specifically exempt each family from being taxes on any “Wearing apparel, beds, bedding. stoves, chairs, etc. not exceeding one hundred dollars,” and that would include furniture like wardrobes. I was unlikely that any pioneer living in a one-room house would have owned more than $100 worth of Stuff, so they would have paid no such taxes. A further search of the tax assessment records for Salt Lake County beginning in 1853 did include “household furniture” as a taxable item, and that would include chests and trunks as well as wardrobes. A few years later, though, household furniture was not longer taxable at all.

So yes, for a few years, household furniture worth more than $100 total was taxed in Utah Territory. But not wardrobes per se, and certainly not because they were considered a second room. Ms. Orchard and her colleagues called the ranger’s statement a “recycled fact.” I call it a history myth. You never know when you will stumble across a new one! 

Revisited Myth #10: A corner chair was designed to accommodate a man wearing a sword.

April 6, 2014

     Corner chairs, usually called roundabout chairs in their day, were occasional chairs often used in a corner or at a desk. They were not terribly rare—you can find antique examples at many decorative arts museums and in period houses where they are usually found in bed chambers, sitting rooms, dining rooms, or libraries. They were also called smoking chairs, barber’s chairs, writing chairs, and desk chairs, suggesting that men were the primary user. I found two portraits where the subject is sitting in a roundabout chair, and both are men. (See portrait of George Wyllis owned by the Connecticut Historical Society and the one pictured here of John Bours from the Worcester Art Museum.)


If you come across a roundabout chair with a particularly deep seat rail, it was probably used as a commode chair (AKA night chair, necessary chair, or closestool) with a chamber pot fixed below the removable seat. The deep seat rail hides the chamber pot.


Like so many fashions, roundabout chairs first became popular in England in the early years of the 18th century and spread to the American colonies. Most of these chairs were made during the period from about 1730 to the 1790s, after which their popularity diminished to the point that there are almost none in the Federal style. 

Several reenactors wrote to tell me that it was awkward sitting in a roundabout chair wearing a sword, which I can visualize, I think. The sword point (sheathed, of course) would hit the chair, where it would not do so in a traditional chair. Whatever, it’s irrelevant because men almost never wore swords indoors. During the 18th-c and afterward, the custom was to wear swords for battle or for parade, but not for social events like balls or dinner parties. So the roundabout chair was not invented to deal with this “problem.” 



Revisited Myth #9: A silver item stamped COIN means it was made from melting down silver coins.

March 29, 2014



Occasionally, yes, coins were used as a source for silver: a rare example would be George Washington having a dozen small silver camp cups made from 16 silver dollars. But the word COIN stamped onto silver objects means that the silver was the same proportion as that used for coinage, or 900 parts per thousand as opposed to the higher 925 parts per thousand for the sterling standard. The remaining portion of the alloy was usually copper, to strengthen the otherwise too-soft pure silver. Sterling objects (like teapots or candlesticks) were sometimes melted down by silversmiths so they could make their customers new objects in the current, more fashionable style. These were marked as sterling, the 925 parts per thousand silver content. 

When the American colonies belonged to England, silversmiths of course followed English laws in marking their silver. After independence, standards varied among the various states. In 1837, Congress passed a law that established 900/1000 as the official standard for coin silver.

See Elmer’s spoon up there? And see the word COIN stamped to the left of Elmer’s name? This let people know that the silver content in the spoon was the same as in the coinage, or 900 parts per thousand. Elmer’s spoon–and most other items similarly marked–were almost certainly not made from melted coins.

Revisited Myth #8: Beds were shorter back then because people were shorter.

March 23, 2014
Curator Emily Roberts measures a bed and examines a closet in the Wythe House. 2008 CWJ photo story

Curator Emily Roberts measures a bed and examines a closet in the Wythe House

This persistent myth has been making the rounds for decades.  Often a corollary comes with it: people slept sitting up because of the short beds. The answer is complicated. 

Early American beds were made individually; there was no standard size. Some beds, especially those for children or teens, were  shorter than today’s. Some were longer. Some people may have slept propped up on pillows, just as they do today, but beds were not made shorter because of that.

Visitors to historic houses are often surprised if the tour guide takes a measuring tape to a “short” bed and they find it is as long or longer than today’s standard 75” double bed. In 1981 Colonial Williamsburg curators surveyed the antique beds in the exhibition buildings and found that all of them equaled or exceeded 6’3”, the standard double or single bed length today. Some are as long as 80”, the length of today’s king or queen size. Moral: measure your antique bed first, then you can tell whether it is shorter or longer than modern examples. 

So why do we think the beds are shorter? Because they look shorter. The high bed posts, fabric hangings, canopy, and plouffy mattresses make beds appear shorter in comparison than they are. And these beds are often situated in rooms with very high ceilings and large dimensions, which makes the beds appear small in a big room. 

As for the short people, heights varied in the eighteenth century as much as they do today. But overall, people in the colonial era were not dramatically shorter than today. When Colonial Williamsburg historian Harold Gill compared the average heights of white male soldiers during the Revolutionary War in the 1770s to those serving in the US Army in the 1950s, the difference was only about two-thirds of an  inch. Other similar studies have shown similar results. The Museum of London had a recent exhibit (thank you, Francis Classe, for the info) trying to debunk this same claim. They said that on average, people in medieval times were only 2-3 centimeters shorter than people today. An article in a 2010 issue of the Economist supports this–there is a long article about medieval warfare based on excavations into a mass grave of soldiers killed during the War of the Roses and in the section subtitled “Who are you calling short?” the author says that medieval men averaged 1.71 meters tall, just 4 centimeters shorter than a modern Englishman. 

Interestingly, the average height of colonial American males does seem to have been significantly greater—up to 2 inches—than the average height of European males of the same time (colonial period), a result ascribed to better nutrition and healthier living conditions (fewer crowded cities with killer epidemics and diseases) in the New World than in the Old.

More recent studies have shown that in the past half century, the average height of Americans has, indeed, increased. Comparing soldiers from the American Civil War, who averaged 5′ 7 1/4″, with today’s average for men, 5′ 10 1/2″, shows an increase of over three inches, most of which occurred in the last fifty years. Did beds become larger in the last half century? Well, no, bed lengths didn’t change, but their relative popularity has. Ever since the 1960s, queen-size and king-size beds, with their extra 5 inches in length, have become increasingly popular to the point that the queen is now the bed of choice for most couples. It is rare for a mattress store to sell a plain double bed, something that used to be the standard for married couples. This is due at least as much to the increased weight of Americans as it is to any increase in height. 


Myth # 135: Adjustable “courting candles” were used by fathers as a timer to determine the length of a suitor’s visit.

March 15, 2014


According to legend, courting candles were used by fathers to set a time limit when his daughter’s suitor came courting. He would adjust the candle in the twisted holder and when the candle had burned to the top twist, it was time for the young man to leave. One manufacturer of reproduction candle holders elaborates imaginatively on this myth, “Rich or poor, the courting candle was used by fathers from all economic backgrounds. It taught daughters to respect their parents’ judgment. The candle also taught the suitor to defer to the father’s ability to judge a man . . . the courting candle served as an important boundary line in the family and social fabrics.” Wow! A real necessity in every household! 

But Henry Prebys, curator of domestic life at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Michigan, says the term courting candle is more folklore than fact. The Chicago Tribune debunks this legend nicely in a June 28, 1998 article, so I’ll quote:

Although the candleholder indeed may have been used as a time-keeper for suitors, it was not intentionally made for that purpose. Origin: The candleholder with its spiral shape was popular in Germany before being introduced to the American Colonies by the early Pennsylvania-German settlers. According to Prebys, the appeal of the spiral shape was its practicality. The candle easily could be twisted into the holder. If the candle was soft, the shape of the holder prevented it from falling over. A slide connected to the holder also helped move the candle up or down, thus utilizing as much of the candle as possible. This was important because candles were costly.

Prebys notes that candles were not the preferred source of lighting during the Colonial period because of their cost. Most households used fat lamps, small dishes containing fat or oil and a wick. Fat lamps were more practical and far less costly than candles. Prebys explains that candles were expensive because they required certain skills to make and were labor-intensive and time-consuming.

The article concludes by noting that there are probably more reproduction courting candles today than there were originals made during the colonial era. 

Thank you, Anna Schaad Chappelle, Executive Director of Marble Springs in Tennessee, for forwarding this myth.

Revisited Myth #7: Some pieces of furniture were built with doors that had thirteen panes of glass to represent the original thirteen states of the United States.

March 9, 2014

Chippendale 13 panes

While some objects were designed to represent the thirteen original states, such as the American flag and the dollar bill, glass paned doors like the one above are probably not another example. Some pieces of furniture made in England in the Chinese style do have glass-paned doors with thirteen panes, but they certainly weren’t celebrating America’s independence. The furniture design book of Thomas Chippendale, which was published in England 23 years before the American Revolution, shows case pieces with doors that have thirteen panes of glass, like this one:


It’s a nice story but one totally unsupported by fact.

Revisited Myth #6: Early Americans were so religious that they put HL hinges on their doors, which stood for Holy Lord.

March 2, 2014
Colonial Williamsburg's Master carpenter Garland Wood with a door hinge

Colonial Williamsburg’s Master carpenter Garland Wood with a door hinge

A related myth—that the Holy Lord hinges were intended to protect the house from witches—regularly makes the rounds as well, even in hardware stores! 

HL hinges are a stronger version of simple symmetrical H hinges.  They are useful for supporting the weight of a heavy wooden door.  The key is the extra supporting arm that fastens to the door. This piece can be on top, in which case it would look like an HΓ, or on the bottom, where it resembles at L, or it can be mounted on the other side as the mirror image of these two.  Leaving aside the hard fact that many colonists had little or no interest in religion, no documentation exists for the belief that their hardware had any symbolic value.


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