Revisited Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War

January 14, 2018

Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press.)

The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.) 

Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband. 

But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: http://forward.com/articles/112887/at-rosh-hashanah-black-eyed-peas-for-good-fortune/#ixzz3OMoliuUG. The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.

Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “if 18th c. Jews traditionally ate beans for Rosh HaShana, it wasn’t for luck. Rosh HaShana is a two-day “yom tov” or holy day, and Jews are not allowed to light fires or cook on holy days. So it was a long-standing tradition to assemble a casserole, usually something like a pot of beans, and set it among the banked coals on the hearth before the holiday starts, so it will slow-cook like a crock pot meal, and still be hot a day or (even two days) later. However I seriously doubt that anyone in the American South learned this from their Jewish neighbors as a “New Year’s” tradition. Rosh HaShana is in September or very early October, and non-Jewish southerners would almost certainly not have understood enough about the holiday to make the connection to their own New Year’s celebrations.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.

Another article in Forward.com, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/142762/for-rosh-hashanah-eat-these-symbolic-sounding-food/#ixzz3ORjEzzpS

Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. Civil War and comes from an old Catholic tradition during Lent. Carlings began to be seen as good luck, period. The history of the Carling Festival and Carling Sunday [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.” 

So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct societies: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!

 

6 previous Responses to Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.

  1. Pat McMillion says:

    Thank you so very much!!! I knew that logically this was a myth but just didn’t have the proof! I hope to meet you some day so I can give you a hug of thanks for all you do!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Thank you, ma’am. Your blog is always a good read. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia (which is a lot further South than it looks on a map), and I have never heard that Sherman story. Is it really that widespread?

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m in Richmond too, and no, it isn’t THAT widespread. Mostly in Georgia, I expect, with that General Sherman angle. I hadn’t heard it myself until a couple readers sent the story to me. One reader said she had heard it as a youngster and she was from Mississippi.

  3. Hanley, Kevin says:

    Actually, Mary, they could very well have referenced silos! Though, as you state, the modern silos as we know wasn’t invented until the 1870’s in Illinois, aboveground silos were known before that. In the 1850’s, in France, they built some of masonry, lined with sheet iron. Prior to that, underground silos, were all the rage, going back to Greek (siros) and Roman (sirus/syrus) times. Both early terms referred to pits for storing grain. Its from those roots that the term “silo” evolved from. Remember the scene in the “Ten Commandments” when Charley Heston a/k/a Moses breaks open the Egyptian priests granary. Those mud brick storage bins were silos. So those southerners may have had underground “silos” on their farms. Civil War texts refer to the Georgian crowd, as with many southern farmers, burying their goods: crops, the good silver, etc., underground to hide them from those da*ned Yankees.

    BTW, no I’m not a silo historian. In the research for info about the Wick and Ford family farms here at Morristwon NHP, I wondered if they may have had such “silos”, and came across a whole bunch of neat stuff about silos (especially an 1880’s British book about the proper storage of their fodders. Those Brits really dug their agriculture! Course, what they did with their mudders we’ll never know. Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

    Kevin Hanley Park Ranger, MORR

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the information, Kevin. I’m afraid my brain leaped directly to tall, cylindrical silos when I read this term. Of course other grain storage facilities have been around for millennia, and I’m sure that’s what the story was referencing.

  4. i know I’m rather late, but the other factor people tend to ignore or just flat out miss is that Sherman had contact with Federal units from Tennessee and Kentucky at least during the battle of Atlanta, so I’m sure that he was well informed about black-eyed peas.

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Revisited Myth # 138: Women in early America didn’t play the violin or flute because they would have to raise their arms, revealing their elbows.

January 7, 2018

Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, England 1835

This well entrenched myth is trickier than I suspected, but when one digs into the details (“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say), it seems there is no evidence to back up the belief that the reason women and girls didn’t play the violin or flute was because they would have to raise their arms and reveal their elbows. This statement has long been made by historic interpreters and volunteer docents at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites and is still found in some CW podcasts.

The idea that elbows were indecent seems to have no historical foundation. Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and an expert on 18th-c. costume, expressed surprise and dismay that this was still being said by CW interpreters. “Almost all gowns of the 18th century typically did cover women’s elbows, because that was the fashionable silhouette. . . I have not seen period sources stating that women’s elbows were considered indecent. In fact, working women did not hesitate to roll their sleeves up when work demanded it. When fashions changed at the very end of the 18th century and early 19th century, most women readily adopted the new short-sleeved styles. Again, I have not found any period sources [such as manuals of manners and deportment] saying that women found the visible elbows to be shocking.”

18th-c female with typical sleeves and exposed elbows

For more information see the article at http://www.history.org/search/google_search_results.cfm where it states, “The concepts of comfort and modesty have always been relative and subject to the influence of fashion and the needs of the occasion. Like us, eighteenth-century people needed clothing for warmth and comfort, but they quickly abandoned those needs if fashion or the occasion dictated. During much of the eighteenth century, women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”

But is it true that women did not play the violin or the flute? John Watson, conservator of instruments and associate curator of musical instruments for Colonial Williamsburg, says that few women played these instruments because, in general, they were not considered ladylike instruments. In Music and Image: Domesticity, ideology and socio-cultural formation in eighteenth-century England, author Richard Leppert contrasts the English guitar (a strongly female-associated instrument) to the violin. He points out that the guitar “was never an instrument of high musical caste…There was no ‘art’ music for the instrument… Men by contrast took up the violin, archetypal instrument of the ‘best’ music from the European Courts” (p.167) Leppert goes on to say (p.168) “There is no ‘natural’ reason why women should not have taken up the violin; indeed, they would have had far more time available to learn how to play it well. That they did not do so was a cultural or ideological matter involving the instrument’s appropriation by men, as the musical enthusiast Hester Lynch Piozzi understood perfectly and so stated in the silence of her diary [1789]: ‘How the Women do shine [in music] of late! . . . Madame Gautherot’s wonderful Execution on the Fiddle; — but say the Critics a Violin is not an Instrument for Ladies to manage, very likely! I remember when they said the same Thing of a Pen.’” [Ouch!]

Colonial Williamsburg’s Research Librarian Juleigh Clark sheds further light on the subject with her discovery of a 1722 London publication by author John Essex, The young ladies conduct: or, rules for education, under several heads; with instructions upon dress, both before and after marriage. It seems there were several instruments that were “unbecoming the Fair Sex.” Essex writes, “The Harpsicord, Spinnet, Lute and Base Violin, are Instruments most agreeable to the Ladies: There are some others that really are unbecoming the Fair Sex; as the Flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike, and would look indecent in a woman’s mouth; and the Flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the Juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d, to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion. Musick is certainly a very great Accomplishment to the Ladies; it refines the Taste, polishes the Mind; and is an Entertainment, without other Views, that preserves them fron the Rust of Idleness, that most pernicious Enemy to Virtue.” Interesting logic, huh? Women need to conserve their saliva for digestive purposes, but men don’t. 

John Watson suggests that it is also worth considering whether the “female” instruments (keyboards and guitar) were considered suitable for women because they were seen as more for accompaniment for the voice and less soloistic.

It isn’t so hard to imagine that some instruments were considered feminine and others masculine. The same is true today–although the instruments have sometimes switched sexes! I interviewed a retired, female violinist who played for the Richmond symphony for decades who told me that over the past 60 years, certain instruments have been played predominantly by one sex or the other. It is mostly men, for example, who play percussion, horns,  double bass, tuba, and saxophone; while women are almost exclusively in possession of the harp. Considerably more women than men play the violin today, she said. A cursory glance at contemporary music shows that it is mostly men who play the guitar nowadays, an instrument considered feminine in colonial times. So the guitar, a female instrument in the 18th century, and the violin, a male instrument, changed sexes in the 20th century! 

Long story short: the violin and flute were among the instruments considered unsuitable for women, but not because of their elbows. 

 

 

Previous comments.

  1. James Meek says:

    As to whether the violin was unsuitable for women in the 1700’s, maybe in America.

    But tell that to Anna Maria from Venice, (1696-1782) for whom Vivaldi wrote numerous violin concertos.

    There’s a wonderful book about this

    http://www.barbaraquick.com/annamaria.html

    and a superb BBC4 video (both visually and musically).

    The full documentary is here:

  2. Jake Pontillo says:

    Another great and informative posting!

  3. Ha! I was hassled by a very entertaining interpreter a year and a half ago at a tavern in CW, and she rebuked me for showing my elbows. I raised my eyebrow but didn’t challenge her. Vindicated in retrospect!

  4. Lisa D says:

    Perhaps at least with instruments that required a certain lung capacity wearing a corset could make it more challenging

  5. Stephen Herchak says:

    Enjoy these very much — just yesterday I was thinking about something I might as well pass along to you now.

    I know you’ve addressed the notion of “sleep tight” and the ropes supporting mattresses but something I often hear also associated with Colonial furnishing and in the Heyward Washington House where I used to volunteer here in Charleston, is the expression “to square a room away” comes from the practice of moving the furniture against the walls and out from the center of the room when not in use.

    Is that the origin of the term, or is “squaring” something just like “tight”, be it sleep tight, sit tight, just hold tight a minute — and so forth?

    Thanks once again for the great posts, Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’ve never heard of that phrase, Stephen, but since furniture was often pushed to the edges of the room when it wasn’t being used, I imagine the origin might have come from that practice.

  6. Deborah Brower says:

    Up until your post I had seen a woman playing fiddle in two other 18th century images. One was Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment and the other was a French print. Thanks for tackling this question.
    Big thank you to James Meek for his comments and link. That documentary is stunning, it gave me chills.

    Mary, thanks many times for keeping this blog going. You add so much to our understanding of myths by providing a forum where the weirdest statements can be put under the microscope.


Revisited Myth # 101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes at Christmas.

December 16, 2017

  I had to find a Christmas myth for this time of year . . . so let’s look at the idea that colonial Americans in general celebrated and decorated for Christmas. First it must be said that many early European-Americans didn’t acknowledge Christmas at all, let alone celebrate or decorate for it. These included the Puritans in New England and various denominations throughout the middle and southern colonies like Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quakers. But for many in the central and southern colonies, Christmas was a holiday season. 

     Let’s go to the biggest decorating myth in American Christmas history–the idea that our colonial forebears decked their homes with fruited wreaths.

     The idea of decorating the doors with rare fresh fruit where it would hang until it rotted or was eaten by squirrels would have horrified every human being in colonial America, no matter how wealthy they were. Fresh fruit was rare to nonexistent during the winter, and if one were fortunate enough to have some imported oranges from the Caribbean or late apples from New England, one ate them.

 This myth originated with the DellaRobbia-style decorating that began in Williamsburg in the 1930s (when the town was being restored with Rockefeller money) as a compromise with its residents. As far as we can tell, colonists did not decorate the outside of their houses at all, but Americans in the 1930s most certainly did, and Williamsburg residents were not happy to be told that authenticity demanded they forego all Christmas decorations. Nor did the Colonial Williamsburg executives relish the thought of blinking colored lights and reindeer glowing from the rooftops of the restored town. It was decided to encourage natural decoration with materials that would have been available to the colonists, such as greenery, dried seed pods, fruit, pinecones, gourds, oyster shells, and so forth. But no matter how often Foundation executives stressed that this was NOT a colonial decorating method but a modern-day compromise, the erroneous impression spread.

So how did colonial Americans decorate for Christmas? (If they decorated at all.) We have documentation for English decorations that can logically be assumed to have transferred to the English colonies, documentation that shows sprigs of holly in tavern and store window panes, clumps of mistletoe hanging from tavern ceilings, vases or greenery with red berries on the mantel at home, garlands around the portraits and stuck to walls, small branches of holly or greens stuck around the kitchen, churches strewn with fresh-scented greenery, and tables set with elaborate fruit pyramids and etageres laden with fruit, nuts, and sweetmeats. No wreaths on doors, no decorated trees. 

 

Previous comments:

  1. Diane Thornton says:

    I totally enjoy all of your posts! This one was especially interesting. So interesting how “traditions” don’t necessarily go back as far as people assume.

  2. janice says:

    thank you for this information. much appreciated.

  3. Deborah Brower says:

    Good food for thought. We have come to picture the celebration of the holidays in a certain way and that’s people want to see. It evokes their vision of the past right or wrong.

    I sing carols during the Christmas season at a historic site and people will ask did they do that then. I have to answer not exactly. The carols like the decorations provide a setting for the visit and without it the site would lose a significant revenue opportunity, not unlike the Grand Illumination at CW. As one of the pervious posts said it is amazing how quickly some thing becomes traditional.

  4. janice says:

    so if they didn’t celebrate christmas, what about other holidays, such as easter and birthdays?

  5. Lynn says:

    I know this is getting away from the myth part, but does anyone have any sources for how those who celebrated might have decorated? Thanks!


Revisited Myth # 137: “Sleep tight” refers to tightening the ropes on a bed.

December 9, 2017

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? 

 

Previous comments

  1. Do you have any other source for this than that “tight” can mean soundly or securely? And how does it relate to “sit tight”? I have never heard “sit tight” nor understand its relation to sitting securely or soundly. Just the sound of it would make me think it was related to “hold your horses” or sit still or be patient. I can vouch that if your ropes on your bed aren’t tight, you don’t sleep well. Just wonder if there is more proof for your reasoning.

    • Mary Miley says:

      No, historians pretty much defer to the OED, although there is some more information from England at http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/sleep%20tight.html

      As for the “sit tight” reference, I probably shouldn’t have thrown that in, but I meant to show that this other use of the word tight did not mean anything to do with ropes, it meant securely, in other words, sit still.

      • Evelyn Noyoga Zak says:

        Interestingly I just was binge watching a bedroom series by Lucy Worsley on History of the Home the Bedroom. and they reference this very phrase tightening the ropes and also don’t let the bed bugs bite using wormwood sprinkled on the straw “mattress”. Could it be our friends across the pond have it wrong? (or right)

      • Mary Miley says:

        I clicked on your link and enjoyed watching the show. A wonderful British series! At around minute 10, the museum docent told Lucy that “Sleep tight” meant tighten the ropes. I believe they are mistaken, and that it sounds so logical that no one bothered to check with the OED on word origin.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      ‘Sit tight’ was a phrase my mother used when we were children to mean ‘sit in this spot and don’t get up until I tell you you can.’

  2. Uh, oh I told that to someone a few days ago. I was told it meant to make sure the ropes were tight when I was on a tour of an historical home years ago. Guess I’d better tell my friend it’s an urban legend! Thanks for this blog. It’s really very interesting!

  3. Stephen Herchak says:

    Hi, Mary– loved the bed post (little pun, there) and while I always took it in the sense you mention (sit tight) when I was growing up I began hearing the tight rope version from docents when I was a volunteer at a Colonial home, so thanks for setting that one straight.

    Speaking of which (sort of), it immediately reminded me of another one I heard having to do with Colonial home furnishings — that the rooms were more multipurpose back then than they are now, furniture would be moved from room to room as needed and when a room was not in use would be pushed back against the walls (leaving the center of the room clear) and it is from that moving of chairs/furniture against the sides of the room after using it is where we get the expression and notion of “squaring a room away”.

    Other than the general notion we carry of four corners indicating order and having “everything covered” (going to the four corners of the earth even when it is not rectangular) no other connection jumps to mind for me so my natural inclination of giving the benefit of a doubt to a plausible story wants to believe this one is so.

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks again so much — hope you have a great weekend.

    Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hi Stephen! Thanks for the comments.
      You are aware, I’m sure, that the pushing-furniture-against-the-walls story is long established as true. But I’ve never heard the expression “squaring a room away,” so I can’t comment on whether or not it stems from this practice. I think looking that up in the OED is unlikely to help . . . what word would you look up? Room? Square? I tried to look the phrase up in my two slang dictionaries, English Through the Ages and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, but nothing resembling “square a room” was there. Even checked Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Then I googled the phrase and came up with no hits. Sorry I can’t help.

  4. Dave E. says:

    Words and sayings from history usually have a practical background to them. Therefor to wish someone to sleep well would possibly refer to the bed set up properly, such as having the ropes properly tightened. A simplified dictionary definition often leaves out the historic and practical reason for the saying or term.


Revisited Myth # 136: Women married very young in “the olden days.”

December 3, 2017

(Thanks to Katie Cannon, assistant curator of education at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, for tackling this myth. I’m sorry I couldn’t reproduce her two charts, but I’ve transposed the information they contained.)

There is a phrase that I always find myself repeating whenever a general statement is made about the past: “It’s more complicated than that.” This is one of those myths that is sort of true… in some times and places… but tends to get overgeneralized. Yes, some women were married as teenagers in early America. However, this was not always true everywhere… or even most of the time!

There are many factors you must consider when talking about typical ages at marriage:

Geographic Location & Economic Situation. Not all times and places are the same. In the early years of New England, 1650-1750, most women married and most around the age of 20-22, with men four or five years older. By contrast, at the same time in Europe (where many of those women or their parents came from) about 10% of the population did not marry at all.(1) In his book From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, Alan Kulikoff makes the argument that marriage age in 18th-century America was directly tied to land availability. The more land is available to start working and providing for a family, the sooner a person (male or female) can marry. Here is what he found: The English and their colonists assumed that men could not marry until they could support a household. This was easier in America where land was plentiful than in England where it was not. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short time save money enough to purchase a Piece of new land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family.”(2) 

Even in America, marriage age fluctuated with availability and cheapness of land, which varied between regions and decades. Here is a chart summarizing Kulikoff’s findings. The numbers indicate average age at first marriage.(3)

England, 1700s; Women: 25-26; Men: 30

New England, early 1600s; Women: Teens; Men: 26

New England, late 1600s; Women: 20; Men: 25

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1600s; Women: 22; Men: 26

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1700s; Women: 23; Men: 26

Rural South Carolina, 1700s; Women: 19; Men: 22

For comparison, here is the U.S. census data showing the median age of marriage for selected years in  the more recent past:(4)

1900 Women: 21.9; Men: 25.9

1950 Women: 20.3; Men: 22.8

1975 Women: 21.1; Men: 23.5

2000 Women: 25.1; Men:  26.8

As you can see, the age at first marriage in the 20th century is not that different from the 17th or 18th, depending on exactly where and when you are talking about. While there is a variety, they are all within the same general range rather than the drastic difference many imagine.

Widows & Widowers: Sadly, disease was much more prevalent and you could do less about it than today. Second marriages and stepchildren were rather common, because both men and women regularly took ill and died before reaching old age. If we look for example at the first ten presidents and their wives, four of the wives had been married previously and one of the presidents married again when his wife died. So, the marriage ages often get skewed when an older person who has lost a spouse remarries. To illustrate this, consider President John Tyler, who married Letitia when they were both 23. When Letita died, John remarried, this time to Julia who was 24… although by that time he was 54. You might look at that second marriage and be delightfully scandalized that a man married a woman who was 30 years younger. But remember, in his first marriage, he and his wife were exactly the same age.

Personal Circumstance People still get married as teenagers in America. And some wait until their 40s… or never. It was the same in early America: not everybody fit into a tidy generalization. 

 

1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in Northern New England 1650-1750, published 1983, page 6.

2 Quoted in Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, page 228.

3 Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, pages 227-229.

4 http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/tabMS-2.pdf


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

November 26, 2017

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.

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

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    Interesting side issue: Honey bees, the type that give honey and wax were NOT native to America and were brought starting in 1622, but they did not spread that fast or far. Indians called them English flies. See:
    http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/agcom/newscolumns/archives/OSL/1999/November/111199OSL.htm
    Wax, therefore, was in short supply, thus tallow candles.. If you want to see how a candle made of tallow works, form the wax you get on cheese around a string and light it. It will burn but most of it will melt and that is why there are large wax collectors on some candlesticks..Gather it up and re form it!

  2. Gerry Barker says:

    There probably were more beef and deer tallow candles than beeswax. Tallow candles were softer and definitely would be aided by the spiral holder. If you are going to try it, however, you have to keep the flame an inch or so above the metal otherwise the heat travels down the spiral and melts the candle. The logistical problem with beeswax is that until modern hive technology, it was hard to get enough wax to light a dwelling for any length of time. A few years ago we found a bee tree. As an experiment we went back in late winter and harvested it. The hive ran about ten feet up inside the trunk. We brought back ten pack baskets of hive. Cooked down we got abut a quart of honey and a dozen candles. It would have been impossible for the average household to rely on candles for lighting. That is why grease lamps (kitchen lamps, cruzies, etc.) were the most common.

  3. Liz says:

    Our local “living history” museum very adamantly touts “courting candles” as part of their tour of several pioneer cabins from the 1850s, mostly because they sell quite a number of them in the gift shop. Romance sells more candle holders than practicality, I suppose, but it still bothers me. They are handsome and perfectly functional without the story attached and would probably sell well without the myth attached.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I believe you are correct, Liz, that the myth sells reproductions in the gift shop. That is the basis for many myths being repeated. At Colonial Williamsburg, product literature and salespeople continue to repeat the myth about the pineapple being a symbol of hospitality–they sell loads of pineapple bookmarks, trivets, door knockers, etc.–even though historians in the Research Department have said this wasn’t true. Money often trumps the truth, I’m afraid.

  4. As a docent/volunteer at the Parks service venue at the Arch in St Louis I have told the romantic story of the Courting candle stick many hundreds of time. Usually use it in conjunction with pioneers and marriage proposals and how they were accomplished back in the Day. I add a little caveat at the end simply because it teaches human interaction principles between married couples.

    The caveat takes the fun little story about the courting candlestick, the prairie diamond horse nail ring, which was used in medieval France, the proper protocol in asking for a mans daughter hand in marriage, and brings interactions between man and woman to life into a powerful realm. Across the board the story is well received. It is fun to watch married couples smile at each other and acknowledge many times the male spouse did go to the wife’s father and ask permission to marry his daughter.

    I do understand these principles of this article, the spiral candle stick holder and the basic reasons to actually hold a soft candle upright. So the question is, as a docent am I to present the facts and only the facts ( Boring?) or am I part entertainer providing a fun and thought provoking experiences? I have nothing to sell and is there conclusive proof the adjustable candle stick was not used as a timer in a courting setting? Have seen the lights come on in many a young persons face especially the young single men when teaching some principles of courtship. I suppose though the courting candle stick story is hardly any worse than a story about buffalo dung/chips being used as fuel to cook the first batch of spicy now called Buffalo chicken/wings. Drummies?

    Part of the beauty of our common history is we have story’s out there which are no doubt fabrications, tall tales, and outright myth’s, Paul Bunyan and babe, the Blue Ox, Calamity Jane, the White Buffalo, Pecos Bill and the Blue Lake Monster to name a few.

    Now a true story about the courting candle stick in our time. Two to three years ago a young mother in her early thirties came past my station in the museum under arch on a Sunday afternoon. What struck me about her was she gasped when she saw my courting spiral candle stick holder which has a beeswax candle, in which my wife and I burned another once, lasting two and one half hours. The woman laughed and said with emphasis, “My parents did this to me”.

    I prefer the fun light hearted approach to romance and so will divine a caveat to use with my Courting Candle stick holder so as not to lead anyone astray.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the insight, Charles. I, myself, would not be comfortable spreading stories I could not document, and in my time as a “hostess” for Colonial Williamsburg, I did not knowingly do so, although I did do so unknowingly! In some cases, if the myth or story has value, I might consider relating it with the explanation that it is a legend or tall tale or undocumented story–whatever seems appropriate. But that’s just my opinion and neither here nor there. At your site, of course, it’s up to your superiors to establish guidelines.

    • Jake Pontillo says:

      I’m opposed to relaying information that one KNOWS to be false or undocumented merely because it is cute or entertaining. That is absolutely 180 degrees away from what a museum or historic site should be doing… if someone wants to relay such information, please preference it with the notice that “there is a cute and entertaining story about this, but it is not true, but I will tell you for your enjoyment.”


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

November 26, 2017

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.

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

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    Interesting side issue: Honey bees, the type that give honey and wax were NOT native to America and were brought starting in 1622, but they did not spread that fast or far. Indians called them English flies. See:
    http://www.agriculture.purdue.edu/agcom/newscolumns/archives/OSL/1999/November/111199OSL.htm
    Wax, therefore, was in short supply, thus tallow candles.. If you want to see how a candle made of tallow works, form the wax you get on cheese around a string and light it. It will burn but most of it will melt and that is why there are large wax collectors on some candlesticks..Gather it up and re form it!

  2. Gerry Barker says:

    There probably were more beef and deer tallow candles than beeswax. Tallow candles were softer and definitely would be aided by the spiral holder. If you are going to try it, however, you have to keep the flame an inch or so above the metal otherwise the heat travels down the spiral and melts the candle. The logistical problem with beeswax is that until modern hive technology, it was hard to get enough wax to light a dwelling for any length of time. A few years ago we found a bee tree. As an experiment we went back in late winter and harvested it. The hive ran about ten feet up inside the trunk. We brought back ten pack baskets of hive. Cooked down we got abut a quart of honey and a dozen candles. It would have been impossible for the average household to rely on candles for lighting. That is why grease lamps (kitchen lamps, cruzies, etc.) were the most common.

  3. Liz says:

    Our local “living history” museum very adamantly touts “courting candles” as part of their tour of several pioneer cabins from the 1850s, mostly because they sell quite a number of them in the gift shop. Romance sells more candle holders than practicality, I suppose, but it still bothers me. They are handsome and perfectly functional without the story attached and would probably sell well without the myth attached.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I believe you are correct, Liz, that the myth sells reproductions in the gift shop. That is the basis for many myths being repeated. At Colonial Williamsburg, product literature and salespeople continue to repeat the myth about the pineapple being a symbol of hospitality–they sell loads of pineapple bookmarks, trivets, door knockers, etc.–even though historians in the Research Department have said this wasn’t true. Money often trumps the truth, I’m afraid.

  4. As a docent/volunteer at the Parks service venue at the Arch in St Louis I have told the romantic story of the Courting candle stick many hundreds of time. Usually use it in conjunction with pioneers and marriage proposals and how they were accomplished back in the Day. I add a little caveat at the end simply because it teaches human interaction principles between married couples.

    The caveat takes the fun little story about the courting candlestick, the prairie diamond horse nail ring, which was used in medieval France, the proper protocol in asking for a mans daughter hand in marriage, and brings interactions between man and woman to life into a powerful realm. Across the board the story is well received. It is fun to watch married couples smile at each other and acknowledge many times the male spouse did go to the wife’s father and ask permission to marry his daughter.

    I do understand these principles of this article, the spiral candle stick holder and the basic reasons to actually hold a soft candle upright. So the question is, as a docent am I to present the facts and only the facts ( Boring?) or am I part entertainer providing a fun and thought provoking experiences? I have nothing to sell and is there conclusive proof the adjustable candle stick was not used as a timer in a courting setting? Have seen the lights come on in many a young persons face especially the young single men when teaching some principles of courtship. I suppose though the courting candle stick story is hardly any worse than a story about buffalo dung/chips being used as fuel to cook the first batch of spicy now called Buffalo chicken/wings. Drummies?

    Part of the beauty of our common history is we have story’s out there which are no doubt fabrications, tall tales, and outright myth’s, Paul Bunyan and babe, the Blue Ox, Calamity Jane, the White Buffalo, Pecos Bill and the Blue Lake Monster to name a few.

    Now a true story about the courting candle stick in our time. Two to three years ago a young mother in her early thirties came past my station in the museum under arch on a Sunday afternoon. What struck me about her was she gasped when she saw my courting spiral candle stick holder which has a beeswax candle, in which my wife and I burned another once, lasting two and one half hours. The woman laughed and said with emphasis, “My parents did this to me”.

    I prefer the fun light hearted approach to romance and so will divine a caveat to use with my Courting Candle stick holder so as not to lead anyone astray.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the insight, Charles. I, myself, would not be comfortable spreading stories I could not document, and in my time as a “hostess” for Colonial Williamsburg, I did not knowingly do so, although I did do so unknowingly! In some cases, if the myth or story has value, I might consider relating it with the explanation that it is a legend or tall tale or undocumented story–whatever seems appropriate. But that’s just my opinion and neither here nor there. At your site, of course, it’s up to your superiors to establish guidelines.

    • Jake Pontillo says:

      I’m opposed to relaying information that one KNOWS to be false or undocumented merely because it is cute or entertaining. That is absolutely 180 degrees away from what a museum or historic site should be doing… if someone wants to relay such information, please preference it with the notice that “there is a cute and entertaining story about this, but it is not true, but I will tell you for your enjoyment.”


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