Revisited Myth # 126: “A boot of ale” derives from the custom of using old boots as drinking vessels.

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.

 

Comments:

  1. Can you tell us about bootlegging, then? It must come from the same origin. I can’t imagine it’s a reference to carrying liquor in the boot of one’s car. I’m reading your novel, so it’s on my mind! Well, actually I’m listening to the audiobook from Audible, but I still call that “reading”.

    • Mary Miley says:

      The word first appeared in the 1850s in Maine and of course it refers to smuggling liquor. But this seemed odd to me because Prohibition didn’t start until almost 70 years later. That is, except in Maine, the first dry state, where it became illegal to manufacture or consume liquor in 1851. Because Maine shares a border with Canada, the law was easily flouted. Ordinary folks wanting to smuggle liquor into the country could hide a couple bottles in their pants legs in Canada and walk into the United States.

    • Andrew says:

      It’s not about the ‘boot’ of a car, but a literal boot, where flasks of whiskey would be hidden and carried across the border. I live in one of the major cities known for it’s role in the prohibition.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Looking at your illustration/example above, you can’t blame anyone for jumping to a conclusion that people were drinking out of their boots! Except for the stitched handle, that example looks very much like an inverted riding boot. Perhaps they were made from the same leather stock, and from a similar pattern.

 


Revisited Myth # 125: The word “bar” comes from the cage or bars that barred people out of the bartender’s space.

July 11, 2017
  1. This statement is part myth, part true. Allow me to dissect.

    I went to the Oxford English Dictionary (the 13-volume 1961 edition at my local library) for this one and perused 3 dense pages of definitions for the word “bar.” It’s not as simple as it sounds. Under nouns, there are 3 main segments: 1) “a piece of any material long in proportion to its thickness or width.” 2) “That which confines, encloses, limits, or obstructs. (a material barrier.” and 3) “a rail or barrier.” The 28th definition under #3 says “in an inn or other place of refreshment”, the word can mean, “A barrier or counter over which drink or food is served out to customers in an inn, hotel, or tavern.” Earliest written usage comes in at 1592. 

    As a verb, the word “to bar” has no references that are specific to a tavern or inn. There is the phrase, “to bar out,” which I know well from the 17th and very early 18th centuries when it referred to students (male, of course) “barring out” the teacher at Christmas to force him to give them time off from classes. This barring out was often very violent, involving guns and hammer & nails, and usually drunk students, but seems to have had no relation to bartending.

    I checked the 1972 OED supplement, which had nothing to offer as regards our query.

    I surmise from this that the word “bar” originally meant the counter or barrier. If a taproom bar in the 17th or 18th centuries had a grill or cage to lower that kept people out when the tender of the bar wasn’t there, that did “bar out” people, but I don’t take that to mean it’s the origin of the word–which is what some docents in taverns tell their guests. I believe the origin of the word is the barrier or counter. 

    I’m not going to the mat on this one, so if you disagree, let’s hear it!

    Joe Greeley says:

    I have access to the online edition of the OED and besides the above mentioned entry I found this:
    11. A transverse piece of wood making fast the head of a wine-cask. (If a cask is lying horizontal, wine is drawn from ‘below the bar,’ when it is more than half empty.)

    1520 R. Whittington Uulgaria 13 b, This wyne drynketh lowe or under the barre, Hoc vinum languescit.

    1576 W. Lambarde Perambulation of Kent 331 All the emptie hogsheads..,and for sixe tunne of wyne, so many as should be dronke under the barre.

    1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues, Empeigner le bout d’vne douve, to pin the barre of a peece of caske.

    There’s also the Bar behind which prisoners on trial stand and might have some connection also in the sense of ‘barrier’. That goes back to 1400.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hmmmm. That is interesting, isn’t it? Still, I don’t think that would supersede the bar as a counter in an inn. Although it could be a secondary, related meaning that bolsters the prinicipal meaning.

  2. Steve says:

    What if it’s the metal bar that inevitably that runs around the outer bottom of the counter. standers at the bar often relax a leg on this bar. so is that why it’s called a bar ?


Revisited Myth # 124: Taverns were brothels.

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.

 

Previous Comments:

  1. Jean says:

    Mary, I am so glad to read this! In the 1860 Federal census, my great-great grandfather s occupation is Tavern Keeping. So far, no one has suggested that he ran a brothel, if that happens I’m prepared!

  2. James “Jake” Pontillo says:

    Are you sure you have the reference from the Oxford correct : correct? I found this at the Online Oxford Etymological Dictionary :

    bar (n.2) Look up bar at Dictionary.com
    “tavern,” 1590s, so called in reference to the bars of the barrier or counter over which drinks or food were served to customers (see bar (n.1)).

    At our Tavern Nites at Queens Farm we have a Bar AND Grill set up- The GRILL is not for grilling anything, it is made of wooden slates and prevents customers from stealing bottles while the barmen are busy elsewhere ( The people who come to our Tavern Nites would not REALLY steal anything, but we still have the barrier set up and we do business thru an opening in the slats.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the warning, Jake, I’ll go back to the OED and have another look. Meanwhile, I scratched that part. I’ll revisit it later, maybe next week, in its own post.

  3. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    That was a great post. It hit me–we still use the word “entertain” today when we mean we’re having dinner guests over as in, “I’m entertaining this evening” which I would think relates to the 18th century meaning.

  4. Cindy Conte says:

    Thanks for the post! J


Revisited Myth # 123: Parents put their babies in trundle beds and pushed them under the upper bed for warmth.

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.

trundle_bed_smaller

“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.
 Previous comments:
James “Jake” Pontillosays:
  1. Amazing how ‘new historical facts’ are constantly being invented! Your site is great at keeping this nonsense in check

  2. …and of course, the parents couldn’t “sleep tight” unless the bed ropes were adjusted properly….(sorry, couldn’t resist…)

  3. Joe Greeley says:

    I think it sounds like a great way to induce severe claustrophobia in your children . . .

  4. It is also good to note that heat rises, so it doesn’t seem likely that putting the baby *under* the parents’ bed would transfer heat to the child anyway.

  5. Two myths people love are one’s that talk about how people in the past were so pious and simple and ones that talk about how barbaric and backward they were.

    I’d file this one under column B

  6. Is it a myth that folks in the 19th C and earlier used the phrase “sleep tight?” If so, please enlighten us with a post on that topic.


Revisited Myth #122: Blue Laws are named for the color paper they were printed on.

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. 


Revisited Myth #120: Using X for “kiss” comes from illiterate people signing a document and kissing their signature.

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.


Myth #146: In early America, firefighters wouldn’t put out a house fire unless the building bore a fire insurance plaque.

May 13, 2017

Legend in Charleston, SC, and other cities says that a fire company would not put out a house fire unless there was a marker on the building proving that fire insurance had been paid. This is a myth.

I want to acknowledge Stephen Herchak, president of the Charleston Tour Association (a group representing over one hundred tour guides), and Dr. Nic Butler, archivist and historian for the Charleston County Public Library system for their research on this subject. Everyone who looked into this topic found the legend highly improbable. According to Herchak: “This never made sense to me, given the great threat a burning structure poses to the rest of the city, and as you’re probably most likely aware, here in Charleston there were numerous disastrous fires (the Great Fire of 1740, as does all other Charleston fires, pales in comparison to the fire of 1861, but, nonetheless, it destroyed more than 300 buildings and bankrupted the first fire insurance company in America, established here more than a dozen years before the one organized by Franklin, who’s widely and erroneously given credit — there’s another myth buster topic for you — for organizing the first fire insurance company in America).” 

Dr. Nic Butler concurs.In my extensive research on a wide variety of topics in early Charleston history, examining primary source materials like old newspapers, colonial and post-colonial government records, and the like, I have not found any description or reference to the purpose of these plaques or marks or markers, whatever you call them. The idea that a fire-fighting company would NOT extinguish fires on buildings without markers simply defies logic. In a densely-built urban environment like Charleston or any other town, every fire, large or small, endangered the safety of the entire community. The notion of NOT fighting a blaze simply because the house was not insured is so utterly irresponsible that it could not have been tolerated.

“As early as 1785, the City of Charleston had a fire ordnance that levied a substantial fine on anyone who refused or neglected to assist in the fighting of any fire, or who impeded the fighting of a fire. The city’s fire ordinance was updated and revised over the years, but the mandate for citizens to assist in the fighting of all fires remained constant. A perusal of the fire reports in the newspapers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Charleston shows that fire companies and citizens in general responded consistently and promptly to battle any blaze, whether it was at the home of a rich family or of an enslaved family. Every fire endangered the lives and property of everyone.”

Fire mark, Smithsonian Museum of American History

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History has fire marks in its collection, including the one pictured above, and museum literature says nothing about firefighters allowing unmarked buildings to burn down. “Beginning in the 1750s, some American insurance companies issued metal fire marks to policyholders to signify that their property was insured against fire damage. The fire marks bore the name and/or symbol of the insurer, and some included the customer’s policy number. The company or agent would then affix the mark to the policyholder’s home or business. For owners the mark served as proof of insurance and a deterrent against arson. For insurance companies the mark served as a form of advertising, and alerted volunteer firefighters that the property was insured. [my italics] The Charleston Fire Insurance Company of Charleston, South Carolina issued this fire mark in the early 19th century. The oval mark is made of iron, and consists of an inner image of intact buildings on the left, and buildings engulfed in flames on the right. A figure of Athena guards the intact buildings from the fire, and has a shield by her feet emblazoned with a Palmetto tree. There is a text above the intact building that reads, “RESTORED.” The outer rim bears the text “CHARLESTON FIRE INSURANCE COMPy.” The Charleston Fire Insurance Company operated from 1811 until 1896.”

Herchak also interviewed Henry Lowdnes, owner of C. T. Lowdnes Insurance agency and the fifth generation at an agency founded by his family in 1850, who agreed that “due to the huge threat posed by a spreading fire, it’s absolutely false that firefighters would have stood around and let a building in an urban setting burn because it didn’t bear an insurance marker.” Lowndes did provide some new information about rewards, however. “Rewards to fire fighting companies — volunteer or professionals of insurance companies — were common, both from city government for arriving first and from insurance companies for saving insured structures. In an urban setting where fires often are not limited to a single structure and entire streets or neighborhoods burned down, upon arriving at the scene of this type of blaze threatening multiple structures — which are firefighters going to first combat fire or protect — one that pays a reward or one that doesn’t? . . . But this is most likely never going to be backed by any sort of documentation other than the chance finding of a stray line in a newspaper of the time or the discovery of a personal letter mentioning and discoursing on it.”

So where does the myth originate? Could the existence of rewards in Charleston have led to the idea that firefighters might prefer an insured building over another, which could have led to the conclusion that they allowed uninsured buildings to burn? Perhaps. Or, as Dr. Butler points out, there was a practice in England which might have led to such a conclusion. In England, some fire insurance companies apparently did create their own fire-fighting units, and so fire insurance markers might have a special meaning to them. But the case is different here. The city of Charleston never had a fire-fighting company associated with any fire insurance company.” 

Dr. Butler continues, “In his book Charleston Is Burning: Two Centuries of Fire and Flames (History Press, 2009), Daniel Crooks concludes that the fire insurance markers were merely a form of advertising. In the event of fire damage, an insurance marker on a house that was later rebuilt or restored was a visible sign that the insurance company had fulfilled its pledge to protect the owner’s investment. I had several conversations with Mr. Crooks (who has a small collection of historic fire insurance markers) about this topic while he was researching for his book, and I support his conclusion that the markers–at least in Charleston–were merely a form of advertising.” 


%d bloggers like this: