Revisited Myth #65: Early American colonists thought potatoes were poisonous.

November 28, 2015


You say tomato, I say to-mah-to; you say potato, I say po-tah-to! The poisonous potato myth runs along the same lines as the poisonous tomato myth—somewhat true in the 1500s, but by the time the English were colonizing the North American coast, the fear had gone.

When the potato first came to Europe in 1562, it was variously thought to cause leprosy, to be associated with devil, to be an aphrodisiac, to protect against rheumatism, and to be poisonous. Quite a list of side effects, huh? (Propitious Esculent: The Potato in World History, John Reader, 2008, an excellent book, by the way.) How did this last myth get started? According to legend, Sir Walter Raleigh (or Sir Francis Drake, depending upon your legend) ate the poisonous potato berries, not realizing that the edible part is the part that grows underground, and got sick. He demanded the plant be destroyed. In burning the plant, the servant inadvertently cooked the underground potato, tasted it, and found it delicious. But the tale is impossible, since Raleigh never visited a potato-producing region in his life. Drake did, (western coast of South America in 1578) but he never mentioned eating or even seeing a potato in his journals.

One part of that myth rings true—the potato does contain a natural toxin called solanine that exists in the leaves, the stem, and green spots on the skin. It is certainly possible that someone, not Raleigh but some European, ate the wrong part and got sick. Others spurned it because it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible or because it resembled a leper’s deformed fingers and toes.

By the 1700s, potatoes had become part of the European diet for three main reasons. One, it is so nutritious that people can survive on nothing but potatoes (not happily, maybe, but it is supposed to be possible). Two, because potatoes grow underground, they can be left there until needed. That kept them safe from foraging armies in an era when Europe was engulfed in war. For peasants, potatoes acted as a food bank account, protecting them from starvation in times when other crops failed or were looted. And three, the plant grows well in the northern European climate.

By the 1560s, the potato was in Spain; by 1610 it had reached English Bermuda from England, and by 1620, it was in Virginia. By the middle 1600s, the potato was well established in northern Europe, Ireland, England, and Scotland.

Revisited Myth # 64: Early Americans thought tomatoes were poisonous.

November 22, 2015


Tomatoes were an important component in the great Columbian Exchange (the introduction of Old World animals and plants to the New World, and vice versa). Imagine the Italians without tomatoes! But Europe had no such fruit until the fifteen hundreds, when Spanish explorers discovered the tomato, a native of South America first cultivated in Central America, and brought it home. A myth has grown up that European colonizers thought the tomato was poisonous. This is an exaggeration. The truth is that some Englishmen believed this in the 1600s and early 1700s.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to notice the tomato in Mexico in the 1500s. “Tomatl” is an Aztec word. It spread to Spain and Portugal, then to Italy through Naples, which was then a Spanish city, and later to France from Naples. The Italians called them “pomi d’oro,” or golden apples, which suggests that the first tomatoes were yellow ones. (Remember that the next time you see pasta pomodoro on the menu.)

In 1597, John Gerard, a rather unreliable British barber/surgeon and naturalist, published a book, Herball, or General Historie of Plants, in which he stated that the tomato was poisonous, even while acknowledging that French and Italians ate the thing. Presumably they weren’t quite human. This statement, according to Jim Gay of Historic Foodways at Colonial Williamsburg, “set the stage for the negative view of tomatoes in the British and American diet that was to last for the next two centuries.” Negative doesn’t necessarily mean deathly poisonous—obviously the English knew that other people ate them and survived. To them, presumably, “poisonous” could also mean “makes you sick.” According to Andrew F. Smith in his 1994 book, The Tomato in America (which I meant to just skim but it was so interesting, I couldn’t stop reading), the tomato was eaten in soups in England in the 1750s and is mentioned in the famous English cookbook of 1758 by Hannah Glasse. By the 1780s, tomato sauce was widely used in England.

What about America? By the early 1700s, most Americans were quite aware that tomatoes were edible, and they ate them with pleasure. The Carolinians and Floridians had them first, from the Spanish colonies in Florida or the French Huguenots who immigrated to Carolina, or from immigrants, black and white, from the Caribbean—no one is quite sure. The earliest American recipe occurs in 1770 in South Carolina.

So, did Thomas Jefferson introduce the tomato to America? Nope. That’s an other myth. Probably Jewish merchants introduced the fruit, probably because they were widely engaged in trans-Atlantic trade and because most were of Spanish or Portuguese descent and so were familiar with tomatoes from the 1500s. Jefferson only enters into the story because he wrote that a Jewish friend, Dr. John DeSequeyra, introduced the tomato to Virginia sometime after his arrival in Williamsburg in 1745. This seems to be true. No one at the time seemed alarmed by its poisonous properties. Tomatoes finally worked their way north to the northern colonies/states late in the 18th century.

There is a terrific short story by Richard M. Gordon called “The Murder of George Washington” that was published in the Ellery Queen magazine in 1959. I read it in the Sixties—can’t remember how or where—but I remember it well. It’s about a Loyalist cook who decides to kill General Washington and makes a recipe with tomatoes in it. He serves the general and then gets the heck out of camp, because he doesn’t want to be nearby when Washington dies. It’s a well-written story, with one flaw—I don’t believe that any American colonists considered tomatoes poisonous in the late 18th century.

So, yes, in the 1600s, some Englishmen in England and in the American colonies thought the tomato was poisonous. By the 1700s, they knew better. Contemporary Italians, Portuguese, French, and Spanish never labored under any such illusions. According to Andrew Smith, only three of the 12,000 references to tomatoes that he found between 1544 and 1860 mentioned poisonous tomatoes: one was a reprint of an out-of-date British medical book, one was a facetious comment in a newspaper that ridiculed the idea, and the other was Jefferson’s grandson who said that his granddad told him that in his youth, some people thought it was poisonous.

Revisited Myth # 63: It cost the average worker a year’s wages just to buy a suit of clothes.

November 14, 2015


In an effort to show how expensive clothing was in early America, it is occasionally said that a journeyman (a man who worked for wages, from the French for day: journée) had to spend an entire year’s wages to buy one suit of clothes. Well, maybe if he had an audience with the king . . .

Clothing was expensive and even the well-to-do owned only a few outfits. Gentry women often re-made their dresses by sending them out to be dyed and then attaching different trimmings. The “middling sort” may have had only two or three changes of clothing; the poor may have had only what was on their backs. But just like today, clothing was available, new and used, at a very wide range of prices. William Carlin, a tailor in colonial Alexandria who made clothes for field hands as well as the planter elite, charged £3-5 for an ordinary wool suit and £15 for a silk brocade suit. Meanwhile, a journeyman’s wages around the time of the American Revolution averaged £30-35 per year, about half of which went toward housing. 




Submitted on 2012/07/20 at 9:12 pm
Hi, where did you get your sources for this debunking? Thanks!


This subject has been thoroughly examined by historians at Colonial Williamsburg and I used their information that has been knocking around for years, notably in the “Interpreter” (an in-house CW publication published from 1980-2009) of August 1992 and Summer 2003, available at the CW Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg. There is a little information about William Carlin here:
Submitted on 2011/11/04 at 11:32 am | In reply to marymiley.
Oh YES, Please!!
We are still fighting the myth of “women made all the clothing for their families” into the 20th century. They forget (or don’t know) about the various services beyond “making a dress from draping to trimmings” that the average dress-maker would offer. They’re surprised to hear that America had a second-hand clothing market system and that clothing could be had through charity, estate sales, debtor sales, group of friends forming an exchange, garments left behind by customers of dress-makers and tailors.
The subject is much more complex than “women made clothing for their families at home.”

Submitted on 2011/09/23 at 8:40 am | In reply to Jamie.
Sounds like a good myth to add to my list for future debunking. Thanks.

Submitted on 2011/09/04 at 8:54 pm
Thanks for this. We are fighting an uphill battle about the “myth of homespun,” that every colonial wife did all the preparation of wool or flax, spinning, weaving, and sewing of all of her family’s clothes, regardless of class, time period, geographic location, etc etc etc.


Revisited Myth # 62: Everyone was killed at the Alamo.

November 1, 2015


“Remember the Alamo!” became a famous battle cry.

We may remember the Alamo, but we don’t remember who died there. The battle of 1836 was a victory for the Mexican army under General Santa Anna, whose soldiers killed all the Texans who fought against them. But many other men, women, and children in the fort were spared. Historians argue about the exact number—was So-and-so still there or had he left before the final battle?—but it seems that two or three African-American male slaves were spared as were many wives and children of the defenders. And yet, I read a couple of years ago in a textbook intended for Virginia fifth-graders that “everyone at the Alamo perished,” so I’m afraid the myth is still running rampant. 

The official Alamo website tries to correct this: “It is true that nearly all of the Texans under arms inside the fort were killed in the March 6, 1836, attack. However, nearly twenty women and children, who experienced the twelve days of siege leading to the final assault, were spared and allowed to return to their homes. The survivors also included Joe, the slave of William B. Travis. The best-known Alamo survivor, Susanna Dickinson, was sent to Gonzales by Santa Anna with a warning to the Texans that the same fate awaited them if they continued their revolt.”

Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson

Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson

Revisited Myth #61: Back then, people bathed once a year.

October 26, 2015


Other versions of this myth include: “Brides carried bouquets of flowers to cover up their body odor,” and “People bathed twice a year, in May and October.” All nonsense.

Personal habits are notoriously difficult to document—when was the last time you noted in your diary that you took a shower? If the verb “to bathe” means to sit in a large tub of hot water and wash, then Myth #61 might be considered true. Almost no one bathed that way until the 20th century when the miracle of indoor plumbing brought gallons of hot water directly into a tub with no more effort than it took to turn a tap. Before that, hot water required too much labor to allow even the upper classes with servants or slaves to fill up a tub every day and soak in it–although some did, as evidenced by large tubs like the one above. Men could bath in rivers and lakes as part of their swimming recreation; women seldom did. Bathing in warm mineral springs and seaside resorts began to spread in the early 19th century, at first for the wealthy, but later for middle classes as well.

Just like today, habits varied. Some people washed daily and others did not. Some washed hands and face daily; others took sponge baths daily. Inventories and photographs commonly show a wash stand in bed chambers. People washed as they stood or sat in a small tin tub with a few inches of water or stood on a floorcloth beside the wash basin. And there are some written references to bathing. In the eighteenth century, William Byrd II wrote in his book, HISTORY OF THE DIVIDING LINE (1741), that he was relieved to bathe after several days in the wilderness. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia was writing about soldiers but his recommendations could have applied to any American when he said that they should “wash his hands and face at least once every day, and his whole body twice or three times a week, especially in the summer.”

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people visited public baths in towns and cities. Even a city as small as Richmond, Virginia, had one in 1832 and possibly earlier. There were several public baths in Richmond in operation until the last closed in 1950. John Zehmer of the Historic Richmond Foundation wrote in his new book, THE CHURCH HILL OLD & HISTORIC DISTRICTS, that the Branch baths served 60,000 bathers a year. “The cost [in the early 1900s] was five cents for adults and three cents for children. The bath was popular with judges, doctors, lawyers, and all classes of people because it was so much better than what was available at home. The development of indoor plumbing led to the closing of the public baths . . .”

Primitive “shower baths” came into play in the middle of the 19th century for the well-to-do to install in their homes. Virginia’s governor installed one of these in the basement of the executive mansion in the 1840s. This newspaper advertisement dates from 1847. 

shower bath 5

Still, most early Americans took sponge baths, standing beside their washstand with its pitcher and bowl of water or in a small tin tub with a few inches of warm water, usually in their bedchamber. Servants or slaves, if one were wealthy enough to have them, brought buckets of water from the pump, heated it in kettles on the stove, and lugged it up the stairs to the shallow tub. Otherwise you did the chore yourself. Ladies often preferred to put the tub by a fireplace. Some people bathed in the kitchen, nearer the stove—less privacy but less carrying. Many who were willing to wash their bodies while standing in a basin were unwilling or unable to immerse themselves fully in a large tub.

Interestingly, bathing and washing didn’t necessarily include the use of soap, at least not until the 19th century. Kathleen Brown writes in her book Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, p. 244, that the association of bathing with soap began in the 1830s, representing “a new fastidiousness about body odor that increased the labor required to achieve decency.”

One thing’s for sure, people washed their hair less often than we do today. A women would have had to spend half her daylight hours sitting by the fire or in the sun to dry her long tresses. Hair styles reflected this reality. Until the 1920s when American women began cutting their hair short for the first time, most braided, knotted, or twisted up their long hair and wore it under a cap or bonnet. The invention of the electric hair dryer allowed a greater variety of styles.

In the 1870s, the discovery of germs helped boost the idea of cleanliness in Europe and America. Modern indoor bathrooms with a sink, tub, and toilet in one room, gained popularity from the 1920s on. But even then, by 1940 (just before World War II), only half of American homes had this sort of modern bathroom.

Accuracy might best be served by saying that, while people bathed less frequently than most do today, they did not necessarily wash less frequently.

Death by Petticoat: And now a word from our sponsor . . .

October 11, 2015

DeathByPetticoat_09.28It was three and a half years ago that Death by Petticoat was published by Colonial Williamsburg in partnership with Andrews-McMeel Publishers. Since then, to our surprise, it’s sold thousands of copies at bookstores all over the country. However, as a former manager of historic stores for Colonial Williamsburg, my favorite place to see it is on the shelves of museum shops, national park stores, and historic house gift shops. This is where it fits best, in my opinion–where it can make money for museum nonprofits. If you have a connection to any of those institutions, I would appreciate it if you would suggest that your shop consider carrying Death by Petticoat. It’s great retail ($12.95) makes it an impulse item, and it’s lovely color photographs on every page add to its appeal. Wholesalers can click above where it says To Order the Book for wholesale information. 

Of course, Death by Petticoat is available at bookstores and online at for those who want a copy. Click here. The myths featured in the book are shorter versions of the ones you read here on the blog, so they lack cites and quotations and much of the detail that appeal more to historians and museum professionals than to the general public. 

In the past three years, I’ve done 36 presentations at various museums, conferences, bookstores, libraries, teacher conferences, and history groups in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, and, of course, Virginia. The next one will be Thursday, November 5 in western Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Ligonier Valley Historical Society. Tea at 5:00; illustrated lecture at 7:00. I hope anyone in the vicinity will check out the details at their website:

That’s my once-a-year advertisement. Now back to our regularly scheduled program . . . 

Revisited Myth # 60: Women ate arsenic to lighten their complexions.

October 3, 2015



This isn’t a myth, but it is probably exaggerated.

Unlike today when everyone wants a tan, women in previous centuries thought pale was prettier. Pale skin was a status symbol, since it showed that the woman did not have to labor outside in the fields like the peasants. There is some evidence that women ate arsenic to lighten their skin, or at least to minimize blemishes. But according to 18th-century apothecary specialist Robin Kipps, arsenic actually darkens the skin, so anyone trying this should have noticed that and abandoned the effort.

Evidence comes in the form of the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalogue that offered arsenic wafers for men and women. It was more for clearing up skin than for whitening, but I mention it nonetheless.  arsenic_wafers

Every lady a possible buyer of this celebrated complexion preparation and beautifier. Regular size, also large size boxes, can be sold constantly at a very good profit.

PERFECTLY HARMLESS when used in accordance with our directions, it possesses the “Wizard’s Touch” in producing, preserving and enhancing beauty of form and person in male and female by surely developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, shapely contour of form, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin, where by nature the reverse exists.
THE GREAT TROUBLE HITHERTO has been how to make this beautifying principle safely available and at the same time avoid what is detrimental and injurious. Arsenical solutions have utterly failed, and until a recent discovery by a French physician and chemist, the internal administration of arsenic has been attended with more or less danger as well as disappointing results. In the direction for which they are intended their effect is simply magical, the most astounding transformation in personal appearance being brought about by their daily use. Even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion, marred by freckles and other disfigurements, slowly changes into an unrivaled purity of texture, free from any spot or blemish whatever; the pinched features become agreeable, the form angular gradually transforms itself into the perfection of womanly grace and beauty. Used by men the favorable results are the same. All danger is averted in these complexion wafers, prepared by our experienced chemist, and the remedy taken in the manner directed on each box is absolutely innocuous, while the peculiar virtues of the remedy remain unimpaired and intact. Taken as directed the wafers will be found a positive, safe and magical specific for all sorts of skin troubles, unsightliness and imperfections, being in reality the only beautifier of the complexion, skin and form known. Guaranteed a sure cure for freckles, moth, blackheads, pimples, vulgar redness, rough, yellow or muddy skin, and other facial disfigurements are permanently removed and a deliciously clear complexion and round up of angular forms assured.

LADIES, YOU CAN BE BEAUTIFUL. No matter who you are, what your disfigurements may be, you can make yourself as handsome as any lady in the land by the use of our French Arsenic Wafers. We recommend ordering one dozen large boxes and then carefully follow our directions.

No. 8R99 Our price, per dozen boxes, $3.30; per box of 50 treatments… 35¢
No. 8R100 Our price, per dozen boxes, $6.00; per box of 100 treatments, 67¢
If by mail, postage extra, per box, small, 3 cents; large, 3 cents.

Some women did something else that was just as bad as arsenic. Since the early 1500s, some upper class European women (think Queen Elizabeth I and her ladies-in-waiting) used a skin lightener called ceruse. Made with white lead, ceruse was also used in making paint. This probably caused damage, perhaps even death, if the woman applied it to her face often enough. It was still available in France in the middle 1700s, but I’ve seen no evidence that American women used it. 



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,595 other followers

%d bloggers like this: