August 16, 2017
Martha Katz-Hymen at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation wrote about this belief. It is true, but it isn’t the whole story.
It is true that people rarely smiled in old photographs because it is harder to hold a smile than a relaxed face, and photographs were not a quick “click” in the early years. But that is only one reason. The other is cultural.
“But an article by Nicholas Jeeves, recently published in the Public Domain Review, suggests that, when folks frowned, they did so for reasons as economic, social and historical as they were technological. Mark Twain thought as much. In one of his letters, collected by Jeeves, he wrote:
A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.
Twain wasn’t the only believer in the idiocy of the style. Look back at painted portraiture — the tradition photography inherited — and you’ll rarely see a grinning subject. This is, in fact, Jeeves’s subject. “By the 17th century in Europe,“ he writes, “it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.’
Read the whole article: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/why-didn-t-people-smile-in-old-portraits/279880/?google_editors_picks=true
And read Nicholas Jeeves entire article, below. Jeeves is an artist, writer and lecturer at Cambridge School of Art. One excerpt: “A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable.” http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/09/18/the-serious-and-the-smirk-the-smile-in-portraiture/
July 22, 2017
The myth says that the expression “a boot of ale” comes from the custom of cutting off the top of old boots and using them as serving containers. (How the top of an old boot transformed into a vessel is unclear–to me, at least.)
As most of you who work at or visit colonial-era museums know, the American colonists drank out of leather vessels called jacks or blackjacks. These were lined with pitch to make them waterproof and are very sturdy. Decades ago, my stores in Colonial Williamsburg sold reproductions, and I believe they still do. These large leather jugs and mugs made such an impression on the French visitors to England in the 17th century that they reported that Englishmen drank out of their boots! A funny story, not meant to be taken literally. (Waterer’s Leather in Life, Art, and Industry, 1946, London)
Why use leather to make a drinking vessel? It’s an English tradition. In medieval England, there was little glass manufacture, so aside from wood, pottery, or tin, what are you going to use to make a mug or goblet? (Yes, gold and silver, but those are for the nobles, not taverns or average folks, so let’s not go there.) Leather worked very well. Still does. But not boots.
July 2, 2017
Cindy Conte, Curator of Historic Michie Tavern, Virginia, wrote, “On a recent episode of Pawn Stars a person was selling an 18th-century tavern license. The context of the letter included the word “entertainment,” and both the buyer and seller came to the immediate conclusion that this letter referred to an 18th-century brothel. As you know, in the 18th century the word entertainment referred to “maintenance or provision; the term covered eating, drinking, and lodging.” “Entertainment” was the catchword of tavern keeping. The majority of public house proprietors were licensed to keep an ordinary for the “Entertainment of travelers and Strangers,” and their house signs were embellished with the motto. Tavern owners advertised genteel or “good entertainment” at their houses. The Moravian supervisors of the Salem, NC tavern even agreed in 1800 that “the word Tavern must be removed from the sign and the word Entertainment substituted.” (Kym S. Rice, “Early American Taverns: For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers”.)
Yes, Cindy, I’ve often heard docents at taverns slyly intimate that their building was really a brothel. The myth here concerns the titillating implication that all or many early American taverns were really brothels. While there may have been some genuine examples in early America (sometimes termed “disorderly houses”), they were certainly the exception. Outside large cities like London and colonial seaports like New York and Philadelphia, genuine brothels were rare, not because people were more virtuous back then but because the population wasn’t large enough. Read Harold Gill’s article on the topic as it existed in Williamsburg, VA at http://history.org/Foundation/journal/Autumn01/Demimonde.cfm?showSite=mobile.
June 18, 2017
Thanks to Eric Olsen, Park Ranger and Historian at Morristown National Historic Park, for this one. Seems new myths are always popping up! Let’s nip this one in the bud.
“I’ve got a new myth for you that I never heard before last week. I was talking with one of our new volunteers after she had completed a tour of Washington’s Headquarters [Ford Mansion, Morristown NHP] and she was excited because she learned something new from one of our visitors.
The visitor told her that parents placed their babies in trundle beds and then pushed the bed underneath the adult bed with the baby still in the trundle bed! The reason for this behavior was that the heat from the adults sleeping in the large bed about the trundle bed would help keep the baby warm.
At this point I explained the whole concept of Old House Tour myths and plugged your book at the same time. I pointed out that parents did indeed put babies in trundle beds but not underneath another bed. By having the baby in a trundle bed next to the parent’s bed, a mother could easily reach her baby for nursing in the middle of the night. If a mother placed her baby in bed with the parents, to make it easier to reach the child when nursing time came, there was always the possibility that the sleeping parents might roll over on the baby. So it was safer to put the baby in a separate trundle bed.
I also suggested that if a baby was placed under the parents bed the baby would probably get a lot of dust leaking out from the mattress above. Also depending on how tight the ropes were on the parents bed, there might not have been much room for the baby.”
Thank you, Eric. The lesson here is always beware of what you hear from visitors and from other guides. Don’t repeat it before you’ve checked it out first.
James “Jake” Pontillosays:
June 4, 2017
This myth states that the origin of the term “blue laws,” (statues regulating work, commerce, and activities on Sundays) comes from the color of the paper on which they were printed. Or the color of the book’s binding.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term “blue laws” originated in 1781 in A General History of Connecticut where the author, Rev. Samuel Peters, refers to outlandish Connecticut laws of the 17th century, most of which he made up. Some think he may have made up the phrase “blue laws” as well; the Oxford English Dictionary does not provide an earlier use. It does, however, give an earlier meaning of the word “blue”– it meant indecent or rigidly moral, as seen in bluestocking (a woman with literary or intellectual proclivities) or bluenose (person who advocates a rigorous moral code).
On another note, I am unaware of blue writing paper in colonial days–I am unaware of any color other than white or near white–although I have seen blue covers on books of that period.
May 22, 2017
The myth says that the use of using X to mean “kiss” began in the Middle Ages, when most people were unable to read or write. Documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous.
Sounds like a myth, but it’s true. Using a cross as a signature has been common since the Middle Ages. The X is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ and it was used as an abbreviation for that word–hence Xmas for Christmas. To kiss your mark indicated a sworn signature, like swearing an oath.
So why does O mean hugs? I couldn’t find a thing about that, but I believe O came much more recently as the logical accompaniment to X because of its association in “noughts and crosses” or Tic-tac-toe, the ancient game that uses Xs and Os.