Revisited Myth # 93: The word “Mayday” comes from the French “M’aidez,” or “Help me!”

July 24, 2016
Marconi, inventor of the radio telegraph

Marconi, inventor of the radio telegraph

Not a myth–this is true! A quick check of the OED shows the origin of this English word is French for “Help me!” The Oxford English Dictionary says it is a phonetic reproduction of the French that has become an international signal of distress. The International Radio Telegraph Convention of 1927 lists 51 Rules, and this is among them. So the word “mayday” was officially born in 1927.

As more than one alert reader pointed out, the French is wrong. “Help me!” in French would be “Aidez-moi!” But then, Marconi was Italian. And if it wasn’t his fault, the International Radio Telegraph Convention was held in Washington, D.C., where French was not exactly a second language. So we’ll overlook the grammar.

For more on grammar, see below. 


Ken says:
August 18, 2012 at 10:38 pm (Edit)
m’aider (to help me) can appear only in the company of a verb: Il faut m’aider (You must help me ). In French, Help me! (as quoted) is Aidez-moi! But, I suppose, Marconi was Italian, not French.

marymiley says:
August 19, 2012 at 8:50 am (Edit)
Good point! You get an A for the grammar quiz!

Edouard Bernard says:
May 1, 2014 at 11:35 pm (Edit)
Strictly speaking, and speaking as someone who is majority French and a French speaker,… not true. “M’aidez” is a perfectly adequate response to danger stimulation. After all… if you were drowning in the middle of a pond, you wouldn’t bother shouting out “You must help me!”… you would simply shout “HELP!”:-)

stanito says:
June 3, 2013 at 9:23 am (Edit)
I had no idea, thanks forsharing this about Mayday😉

danman says:
December 12, 2013 at 8:59 am (Edit)
It means, “come help me”.

gshenaut says:
February 6, 2015 at 11:10 am (Edit)
It’s not m’aideZ that mayday comes from, it’s m’aideR (as in [venez] m’aider). So to some extent, it is after all a myth that it comes from m’aidez.

Thoughts: 5.1.15 | amendezvillamil says:
May 1, 2015 at 5:02 pm (Edit)
[…] Per my coworker Mariel, the word mayday is derived from “m’aidez,” French for help me. Fact. […]

What do you think?

Revisited Myth # 92: An unmarried girl wore her bonnet streamers loose to attract a beau.

July 10, 2016


Thanks to Katie Lange for inquiring about this myth concerning bonnet streamers.

Bonnets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had ties made of ribbon, lace, or fabric (those were called lappets). When they were not tied under the chin, they might hang down the back or get pinned up. During the late nineteenth century, particularly 1865-1870s, long streamers down the back became a popular addition to hats and bonnets. According to the myth, the fluttering of these wispy streamers from the back of a hat were intended to encourage a courtship with a young man. An attracted beau would follow the young lady home and ask the father for permission to court.

Cute myth. No evidence. First of all, seeing an attractive girl and following her home was assuredly NOT the way to impress her parents. Second, these streamers were popular on hats of married women as well.


While I found no documentation for this myth, I did, however, come across a possible origin. During the nineteenth century, these long ribbon streamers were sometimes known as “follow-me-lads,” according to Althea Mackenzie’s HATS AND BONNETS (2006). Perhaps the tongue-in-cheek nickname led to the myth.

I discovered, on a recent trip to Lancaster County, PA, that the Amish in that region have a custom that sounds vaguely related to this one. At 16, a girl will begin to wear a black prayer cap to church, indicating her coming of age. This could also be seen as a subtle notification that she is available for courting, although I was told that few Amish girls marry that young.


Revisited Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.

July 2, 2016

Park Ranger Kevin Hanley wrote: “Outside of the 9 to 5 job, I’m a trustee for a historic Dutch house in Brooklyn. As part of my research into Dutch stuff, I’ve come repeatedly upon a reference to the Dutch use of popcorn. According to the texts, the Dutch didn’t know what to make or do with popcorn. Dutch wives apparently improvised and, supposedly, placed the popcorn in a bowl and added milk. Viola! The first cereal – or so it is claimed. Can you verify or bust this myth?”

This is a tough nut to crack. First, it’s terribly illogical. Pour milk on popcorn and it becomes a soggy glop. (I’ve tried.) Searching for historical underpinnings to this myth yields nothing in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, but see Myth #70–popcorn doesn’t become significant until the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was not something Indians introduced at the Pilgrim’s harvest feast we now call Thanksgiving. 

There is at least one somewhat historical mention of eating popcorn with milk, and it comes in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, page 32-33, a book set in the late 1850s but written in the 1930s. The author mentions that young Almonzo (who would become her husband) liked popcorn and milk. “You can fill a glass to the brim with milk and fill another glass of the same size brim full of popcorn, and then you can put all the popcorn kernel by kernel into the milk and the milk will not run over. You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go into the same place. Then, too, they are good to eat.” Of course, she also repeats the myth about Indians and Pilgrims and popcorn at Thanksgiving, so she is not wholly reliable. Even if we take her words at face value, she isn’t talking about breakfast cereal; she talking about a science experiment that tastes good.


The first packaged, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals were invented in the 1870s and made of oats and wheat. Cereal took a turn for the better in the early years of the twentieth century when the Kellogg brothers accidentally invented wheat flakes and corn flakes. None of these cereal pioneers used popcorn, presumably because it doesn’t work well. That doesn’t mean no one ever ate popcorn with milk, but it doesn’t seem to have been common or popular enough to call it the “first breakfast cereal.” 


12 Responses to Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.
Jean says:
June 30, 2012 at 7:33 am (Edit)
Thanks for pointing out that the Little House series is not reliable as historical fact. We need to keep in mind that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were written decades after the experiences. The books were also heavily edited by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura & Almanzo’s daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, the series is wonderful. There are working historians who trace their start interest in the Little House books!

Keep straightening us out with this blog!


marymiley says:
June 30, 2012 at 8:41 am (Edit)
Thank you, Jean. I’m straightening myself out with this blog too!Lots of things I assumed were true, I’ve found are not, and some things I thought sounded fishy turned out to be true!

As for the Little House books, yes they are WONDERFUL and inspiring, but that doesn’t mean they are historically perfect. The American Girl series is great too, but perhaps not as engaging because it isn’t “real.”

Pamela Toler (@pdtoler) says:
June 30, 2012 at 10:37 am (Edit)
I can’t speak to when popcorn was first used as a breakfast cereal, but I know my grandfather poured milk on left over popcorn and ate it for breakfast.

marymiley says:
June 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm (Edit)
I’m sure it happened on occasion. Popcorn seems traceable back to the mid-19th century. But since there isn’t any evidence for widespread practice of eating it with milk for breakfast, I’d hesitate to call it the first breakfast cereal. It does seem clear that it was not a colonial Dutch practice.

Keith Doms says:
July 4, 2012 at 9:16 am (Edit)
I remember reading about popcorn being used as a breakfast cerial by the Colonests in the World Book Encyclopedia Young Persons set in the the late 1960s.


Sei Paulson says:
May 16, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
Could it possibly have been “parched” corn? A recipe for parched corn is included in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden (originally published as “Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians,” 1917). It’s a little like modern corn nuts, in that the corn poofs out. I imagine in milk it would be a little like corn puffs.

Mary Miley says:
May 17, 2013 at 7:39 am (Edit)
How interesting! That’s a new idea for me, anyway. How does one make parched corn? I always assumed parched corn was just dried corn, but evidently not.

Sei Paulson says:
May 17, 2013 at 6:06 pm (Edit)
You sort of… roast it on a griddle? I don’t know, I’ve always wanted to try it. ^_^

deb mcintyre says:
March 31, 2014 at 11:09 pm (Edit)
We often ate popcorn in milk with a spoon, but as an after supper snack. My grandpas family (who had this tradition) originally came from New York state – just like Almanzo!

pavan inr levels creator says:
July 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm (Edit)
I learned about this in grade school. The Native Americans probably did this. They were geniuses with corn.

Sally says:
July 23, 2015 at 7:59 am (Edit)
My mother ate warm buttered popcorn with milk on it. She acquired this tradition from her father (b abt 1872 in NH). Said it was like Oyster Stew—a salty butter in milk flavor.

Mary Miley says:
July 23, 2015 at 8:12 am (Edit)
Have you ever tried that? Wouldn’t it turn to soggy slop instantly? I tried it once and that’s what happened. Maybe my “recipe” wasn’t the same as your mom’s!


Revisited Myth # 90: Unmarried girls wore their pockets on the outside of their clothing to show off their needlework skills to prospective suitors.

June 26, 2016


Thanks to Rose Linden for submitting this myth–and yes, it is a myth.

I found an MA thesis written in 1994 by Yolanda VandeKrol of the University of Delaware entitled “The Cultural Context of Women’s Pockets” that treats this topic thoroughly. According to Ms. VandeKrol, pockets were common from the end of the 17th century until around 1800, when the neoclassical dress styles (high waists and clingy lines) made wearing interior pockets impossible. Dresses with hoops or bustles more easily accommodated pockets. By the early 1800s, pockets had been replaced by drawstring bags called reticules.

Pockets were defined in 1688 as “little bags set on the inside with a hole or slit on the outside, by which any small thing may be carried about.” They were “not visible for reasons of orderliness, privacy, and crime,” says VandeKrol. “Women did not deliberately display their pockets,” but sometimes they were briefly visible, as these prints show. Interestingly, these prints also show that women of all socio-economic levels wore pockets–even servants and slaves.

Wearing the pocket inside the clothing gave the woman’s outfit a neater appearance. It also allowed women to keep certain private items, like letters, away from prying eyes. But the biggest reason was probably fear of thieves. The cut-purse, like the pickpocket, was aptly named.

Most women made their own pockets and many were decorated with embroidery (usually floral designs) or pieced or sewn from preprinted fabric. Needlework and decorative sewing was an acceptable occupation for women and because “idleness is inexcusable in a woman, and renders her contemptible,” so young girls of all social classes were encouraged to do lots of needlework from the time they were children. Some gave decorated pockets as gifts.

To summarize, unmarried young women did not wear their pockets outside their skirts to show off their needlework or to try to catch a man. (Honestly, can you imagine a young man vetting prospective wives by examining their pockets? I don’t think young men have changed that much in three hundred years . . . I think her face and figure would rank a bit higher than her needlework display.)

Check out these images that show women or girls wearing pockets.



Erin says:
June 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm (Edit)
I always look forward to new posts. Thanks so much for keeping this up! About the end date on hanging pockets, though, the clingy neoclassical styles that led to their demise were long gone by the 1840s (and reticules long in use). See for more.

marymiley says:
June 19, 2012 at 1:02 pm (Edit)
Yes, you are correct. I must have mixed up some dates. I’ll make the change.

Liz says:
June 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm (Edit)
While I agree they were not worn on the outside, the dates are off. The straight styles of the Empire period were worn from the 1790s through the 1820’s and that is the period that reticules were used. Pockets were popular again in the 1840s-1860s when wider skirts and then hoops were worn.

marymiley says:
June 19, 2012 at 1:03 pm (Edit)
Will make that change. Let me know if it needs more work. Thanks.

Dori says:
June 19, 2012 at 12:05 am (Edit)
To add to what Liz pointed out, the pockets of the 1850’s-60’s were sewn into the skirts of the dress, not made as an accessory.

This myth seems almost related to the one I’ve heard about tying one’s apron strings in front or back depending on one’s marital status…which always seems like so much hogwash to me, but hey, I’ve been wrong before!

Anna says:
September 12, 2012 at 11:42 am (Edit)
I’ve just discovered your blog looking for info on pockets. What a great discovery! Thank you. The only thing I can add is that pockets were voluminous even later than the 1860’s. There’s a lovely description in Gwen Raverat’s memoir ‘Period Piece: A Victorian Childhood’ (she was born ca. 1885) in which she laments the loss of proper pockets in women’s clothing and lists what she kept in her pockets ‘always pencils and india-rubbers, and a small sketch book and a very large pocket-knife, besides much string, nails, horse-chestnuts, lumps of sugar, bits of bread and butter a pair of scissors and many other useful objects [She must have been a slightly unusual girl!] Sometimes even a handkerchief and for a year or two I carried around a small book of Rembrandt etchings.’

Mary Miley says:
September 12, 2012 at 11:47 am (Edit)
Wow, that was one helluva pocket Miss Gwen wore!



Revisited Myth #89: Women’s buttons are on their left because women were dressed by maids, who found it easier when the buttons were on their right.

June 19, 2016


. . . and men’s buttons are on their right because they preferred to dress themselves.

Well, not exactly.

First of all, buttons are seldom found on women’s clothing before the nineteenth century. Mens’ clothing, yes, but women used ties, hooks, and other fasteners more often than they used buttons. With most clothing made by the women of the house or, in the case of the wealthy few, by dressmakers and tailors, individual preference prevailed in positioning buttons. There was no standardization in America until the Civil War era when the manufacture of uniforms began on an industrialized scale. That is probably when buttons became more or less standard on the right for men.

Curators who deal with nineteenth-century women’s clothing report that they have seen buttons on both sides. No one is willing to go out on a limb on this topic, but it seems that the button-on-the-left for women’s clothing probably got started in the early twentieth century with the rise of women’s ready-made garments. And since women buying ready-made blouses would not have been among the wealthy few (who continued to use custom dressmakers), the argument about maids is illogical.

Besides, who says wealthy men preferred to dress themselves and wealthy women didn’t? That idea is totally unsupported by fact. What were all those valets, houseslaves, and manservants doing, anyway?


Jane padded says:
June 2, 2012 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
Ive heard that myth and it made since to me.
Elaine says:
June 2, 2012 at 4:43 pm (Edit)
…and another myth…
In an age where every cloth item in a household needed sewing and precise fit was crucial to a garment being considered acceptably “well made”, it was not only the “wealthy few” who made use of dress-makers and tailors. Folks would be more inclined to re-make, repair, and hand on garments to make their clothing dollar go further. Dress-makers offered many services that helped less affluent clients afford professionally made clothing.
Victoria says:
June 12, 2012 at 9:18 pm (Edit)
While I agree with you about left and right buttoning conclusion, I take some issue with your statement, “First of all, buttons are almost never found on women’s clothing before the nineteenth century. Mens’ clothing, yes, but women used ties, hooks, and other fasteners.” Buttons on women’s clothing fell in and out of fashion as the centuries went on and depended more on the time and location than on the genderization of fastenings. The location, material, and number of buttons vary. Cloth, metal, thread wrapped were all used on the front and sleeves of women’s clothing. Many of the choices in buttons were dictated by cost. Cloth buttons are the cheapest whereas threadwrapped and metal buttons are more costly.
A (very!) brief survey* of women’s clothing illustrates this:

14th century (on sleeves)

15th century (again, on sleeves)

16th century (English) (Flemish) (Italian)

17th century (French) (English) (Spanish)

18th century (French) (American)

These are all just visual examples of buttons on women’s clothing. Written records also illustrates buttons being bought and made for women’s clothing before the 19th century.

To sum up: I really❤ buttons!

Thanks for the awesome posts,

(*Side note: One thing I did not include here is examples of women’s hunting and riding outfits. These were usually festooned with buttons, but as they were purposefully based on men’s clothing styles, they were ignored for the sake of argument.)

marymiley says:
June 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm (Edit)
Wow, Victoria, what a great list of illustrations! I understand your point. I didn’t mean to suggest that there were no examples of buttons on women’s clothing in America before the nineteenth century–of course there were buttons on some women’s clothing in the 17th and 18th centuries, but, according to the curators I spoke with, other fasteners were more common. Perhaps I overstated their findings when I wrote that the curators said they “almost never” saw buttons on 17th and 18th-c. women’s clothing. I’ll change the wording to “seldom,” which I think addresses your point and makes the claim more accurate.
Roaring Ort (@red_mercer) says:
September 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm (Edit)
Wasn’t Archduke Ferdinand actually sewn into his suit every day?
Mary Miley says:
September 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm (Edit)
I’ve never heard of such a thing, but at my age, nothing surprises me.

Borden says:
January 28, 2014 at 7:35 am (Edit)
I’m not entirely convinced by the line of reasoning in this “myth”. Working backwards:

1) I disagree that the issue of whether to dress oneself was a matter of preference. One look at a portrait of Elizabeth I shows that her corsetry and dresses were far more elaborate than her father’s, Henry VIII, and would have been almost impossible for her to put on herself. Likewise, what about traditional wedding dresses which button at the back compared to, say, a man’s morning suit in which everything is buttoned at the front?

2) There may be truth that the US Civil War, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, led to the first industrially mass-produced uniforms. However, Europe had already been going to war for centuries and needed their own mass-produced military uniforms. I’m not convinced that the 1860s was the first time that the idea for standardised sewing patterns was developed.

3) Although it may be true that women’s clothes before the 20th century rarely had buttons, the other fastenings still would have needed a decision on whether to close on the right or left. Further, it’s not just buttons subject to the left-v-right convention. Zippers, buckles and wrapping (L over R for men, R over L for women) all follow this distinction, suggesting that the rules transcend, and were likely in effect long before, buttons.

You may very well be correct that the reason for opposite sides for buttoning has no historically functional justification. However, the reasons given don’t seem to defend the argument irrefutably.


Revisited Myth # 87: People bought their tea in bricks, not loose tea leaves.

June 11, 2016


Well, that depends upon which people you’re talking about. Tibetan people, yes. American people, no.

Bricks of tea date from as early as 733 AD, according to a Victoria & Albert publication, Tea: East and West. But that was in China, where bricks of tea were particularly popular in central Asia (Mongolia and Tibet) because they could be carried by porters across the mountains into that region. There, tea bricks were used as a form of currency. “Tea could be bartered against practically anything, and workmen and servants were routinely paid in it.” (p. 60-62) Perhaps this myth got started when people assumed that what they’d heard about the Far East was equally true in the West.

Americans, however, used tea in its loose-leaf form. They stored it in tea chests or canisters at home, sometimes under lock and key, because it was so costly. At stores, it was sometimes sold from canisters like the ones above. It was shipped from China in large chests that were often lead-lined and held about 360 pounds of tightly packed tea. Half-chests and quarter-chests were also shipped.

Boston_Tea_Party_wA corollary to this myth is the one about the Boston Tea Party, a myth you will read in history texts and hear in many historic houses, that the tea thrown into Boston Harbor was brick tea. Not true, say several historians. The tea that was thrown overboard in Boston was loose-leaf, mostly Bohea tea, crated, from China. According to Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party, the men who tossed the tea took care that no one made off with any of it. “One fellow had surreptitiously filled the lining of his coat with loose tea, but he was spotted by the others, stripped of his clothing, and given a severe beating.” According to historians at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, the three ships that were raided that night contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas)–all in loose-leaf form. Bruce Richardson, Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, writes, “Tea bricks were not thrown overboard in Boston harbor. Eye witness accounts talk about the tea being piled like haystacks alongside the three ships, and some men had to rake it into the water (the tide was low that night).”

And by the way, it was stale! The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum historians say: “Certainly, all the teas tossed overboard would disappoint a modern tea drinker because they were way past their prime. The Boston teas were plucked [in China] in 1770 and 1771, transported by ship to London warehouses where they sat for a couple of years, and finally placed aboard ships bound for the colonies in October 1773.” 

This myth about tea bricks keeps surfacing at historic sites and in textbooks, kept alive by sutlers at military re-enactments who want to continue selling the product to the re-enactors. Would someone please kill it?

Thanks to Sara Rivers Cofield for submitting this myth, which she has heard on more than one historic house tours.

COMMENTS from original post:
Five bits of tea trivia that are WRONG! | Tea With Gary…
[…] No it isn’t. As this excellent debunking points out, historians at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum say that the three ships that […]

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Mary Miley In reply to Cindy Hastreiter Robinson.
Thanks for the comment, Cindy. I’ve heard from many re-enactors who say that the sutlers are the ones driving this myth, so they can sell these tea bricks. THey’ve been told that tea bricks are not authentic, but they push them on re-enactors anyway. Maybe you can use yours to explain that it was a Tibetan and Chinese custom not found in America.

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Cindy Hastreiter Robinson
Thank you for clearing up this myth. I had a Civil War reenactor come in to my tea shop looking for a tea brick, so when he comes in again I can steer him in the right direction. I did order a tea brick anyways, to use during my tea presentations along with the information in this post.
Thanks again everyone!

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Mary Miley In reply to Daisiemae.
Hmmmm. Well first, Pettigrew’s book, or any other about British tea customs, would apply to colonial America, which was British. As for tea drinking customs during the mid-19th century, you have me there. What I would do in your position is go to the nearest university library and ask for help from the reference librarian. Books aren’t your only resource; there may be articles in historical journals as well.

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Daisiemae In reply to Mary Miley.
Ther is a picture of 18th century wallpaper in Jane Pettigrew’s book that shows them packing the tea with their feet. Of course, that only proves that this was an accepted idea in the 18th century, not that it actually happened centuries before.

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Daisiemae In reply to Bruce Richardson.
Can you point to any books that could be used to research American tea customs and culture? I am a living historian, and I am developing a program about tea that can be performed from either colonial or civil war perspective (with appropriate period attire, of course!) I want to be certain I am including accurate information in my program.

I have Jane Pettigrew’s A Social History of Tea which is fabulous, but that centers on British tea customs. Are there any sources to study American customs?

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Mary Miley In reply to Carol.
Do you have pictures of any of those? It would be interesting.

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“(Rumor had it that Chinese peasants packed the tea with their bare feet, but this may well be another myth!)”

I actually found paintings from the 1700’s and photos from late 1800’s/early 1900’s that show the workers stomping the loose tea into the lead lined tea chest. Very interesting.

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Mary Miley In reply to Bruce Richardson.
Thank you, Bruce. I look forward to your new edition of The Social History of Tea.

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Bruce Richardson
I am the Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum and am responsible for the tea blogs and videos posted on their site. I am also their consultant for historical tea information from that era.

Tea bricks were not thrown overboard in Boston harbor. Eye witness accounts talk about the tea being piled like haystacks alongside the three ships, and some men had to rake it into the water (the tide was low that night).

Yes, tea bricks were available in China at the time but they were not imported by the East India Company.

Veritas is correct that the event was not called a “tea party” until the next century. I’m not responsible for content other then tea information, but that would be a good bit of news to share in future blogs.

Sorry, Frank, the whole Chinese love affair with brick tea came to an end centuries before the Boston event. It’s really a matter of taste – brick tea is only good when scraped into fresh yak milk, mixed with salt and barley, and then churned into a soupy tea mixture with the consistency of potato soup.

As far as tea bricks in the Civil War – no. If a Civil War soldier had tea in his kit, it was probably Chinese gunpowder green tea.(I also designed the tea sold in the retail shops the National Parks at Gettysburg and Manassas.)

I had this tea brick conversation recently with Jane Pettigrew in London. We are writing the new edition of the National Trust publication The Social History of Tea. We both agree that this myth has hit a brick wall.

Go forth and make good tea!

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Revisited Myth #86: Paul Revere rode through the countryside shouting, “The British Are Coming!”

June 5, 2016



Thanks to guest blogger Ceci Flinn for busting this week’s myth. Ceci recently received her PhD in history and has given tours of Boston for twenty years, so if anyone knows the truth about Paul Revere, it is she!

Standing at a library counter at a university in Canada, I explained what I had been looking for when the e-catalog failed. I gave the person working the front desk increasingly specific information – U.S. History, Early American History, Revolutionary War/War of Independence – until I reached my final description: Paul Revere’s ride. “Oh!” he said, “The British are coming!” When I told the retired history professor I was visiting about this, she said: “That’s all we know about it.” (“We” referring to ordinary Canadians, of course, not herself.) Americans are often the same. It is an amazing example of the strength of historic myth, that this simple phrase could be so prevalent and so . . . wrong.

When Paul Revere, William Dawes, Dr. Samuel Prescott, and others, rode to warn rebel leaders in Lexington and Concord that soldiers were heading their way, looking mainly for the stores of ammunition that were being stockpiled by rebel colonists and an excuse to arrest the leaders, they would never have shouted “The British are coming!” because, simply put, they were all still British. Imagine someone running down a road in Concord, MA today shouting “The Americans are coming!” and you’ve got the idea.
In April of 1775, there was plenty of agitation, and many historians argue that the first shots of the revolution had already been fired in New Hampshire the previous December. But one thing had not yet changed: the colonies were still British. They were still overseen by a faraway king and his parliament, and the composition of the “Declaration of Independence” was over a year in the future. So, what did Revere and his compatriots actually say? In their depositions they stated that they had warned residents “the Regulars are out.” British soldiers, such as those stationed in Boston under General Gage, were referred to as “Regulars,” or colloquially as “Redcoats” or “the King’s men”, or even derogatorily as “Lobsterbacks.” But they were certainly not called “the British.” Nor were colonists yet referred to generally as “Americans,” more often terms like “Yankees” or “provincials” were used.

It is easy to see why the myth came about since in hindsight, we refer to the parties involved in the Revolution that created a new country as “British” and “American” to identify the two sides. The expression was apparently used as early as the 1820s. For example, a man called Elias Phinney published a book in 1825 about the events of April 1775, and in his descriptive text he used the term “British.” Yet looking further to his appendices, where he reprints the depositions of colonists, the text quite clearly says “Regulars.” These depositions are available today on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website. Still, the myth is persistent,and not even the respected historian David McCullough did enough to prevent further perpetuation: in the HBO mini-series dramatizing his book John Adams, a messenger rides up to Adams, working outdoors at his farm, and shouts “The British are marching on Lexington!” Another history “fail”, though admittedly, for clarification’s sake, perhaps an understandable failure.

David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, 1994 (p 56, 109)
Elias Phinney, History of the Battle of Lexington, 1825 (p 15, 33)
Massachusetts Historic Society:
Revere’s deposition:


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