Revisited Myth # 108: People slept sitting up in bed for health reasons . . . which is why beds were shorter back then.

January 22, 2017

Stuff02_R1

(Refer to Myth #8 about short beds.)

This week, we’ll deal with the sitting up part. This myth (which, I blush to disclose, I remember spreading to museum visitors back in the ’70s), often cites bad air as the reason for the belief that sleeping sitting up was healthier than lying down. Supposedly, bad air was heavier than fresh air, so sleeping with your head elevated kept your nose that much farther above the bad air.

Robin Kipps, supervisor of the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary in Williamsburg and an expert in early American medical issues, spent hours searching through volumes of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century medical books before reporting, “There isn’t any evidence that [they thought] bad air was heavier or that they slept with their heads raised due to bad air. There is evidence that people slept with their heads elevated for medical reasons. If patients had an upper respiratory condition such as asthma or were recovering from a specific type of surgery, it was suggested that they sleep with their head elevated. Note it is not sitting up sleeping, it merely says with head raised.”

Sharon Cotner, senior medical history interpreter at the Apothecary who has studied medical history for thirty years, found published medical information of the period suggested that “under normal conditions, people should sleep on their side, with knees bent and head raised. Not sitting up.”

 

PREVIOUS COMMENTS

Pam says:
March 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm (Edit)
I would love to hear more on this — it makes me wonder how one explains the “sleeping box” (not sure this is a real term, just my description) one can see at a site like Crailo State Historic Site in Renselear, NY (which recreates a 17th-C New Netherland room) The dimensions of this sleeping cubicle would not permit a reclining pose for sleep, and the height of the box suggests that, rather than curling up on its floor, the sleeper would have his/her back against the side of the box.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
March 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm (Edit)
I’m afraid I can’t oblige–I know very little about Dutch customs. I, too, have seen the compartment beds built against the wall, not in the NY museum you mention but on visits to Holland. It was my assumption that this construction was for warmth, to deep out drafts.

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Daud Alzayer says:
March 17, 2013 at 11:57 am (Edit)
The bit about good air and bad air doesn’t sound right to me, but I had thought there was a practice of sleeping propped up for health.

In fact, I even had a particular quote in mind, but going back and reading it realize that I was misunderstanding it. A newspaper described a man found dead in bed and said that, “It was supposed by the easy position which he lay he had no fit but an entire stagnation of the fluids.” Maybe the key here is that he was laying peacefully and therefore had no fit, vs my previous reading which was that his easy position caused the stagnation.

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Bob Giles says:
March 28, 2013 at 10:43 am (Edit)
We visited Thomas Jefferson’s Home in Charlottesville, VA and they discussed this issue. Can’t remember the details, but
Maybe they can add to your presentation.

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Mike Shoop says:
March 5, 2014 at 2:44 pm (Edit)
Stonewall Jackson, who was very health conscious, believed that sitting up in bed to sleep aligned his organs properly and created better overall health. I remember relaying that story as a docent at his Lexington home in the late 70’s, and am fairly certain they still tell it. The researchers there had found evidence that he believed this practice to be beneficial, just as he believed an ice cold bath each morning was also a good health practice.

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Mary Miley says:
March 5, 2014 at 3:01 pm (Edit)
Many people believed the cold bath theory, including George Wythe of Williamsburg. Hot water was widely believed dangerous to your health. The debate usually was between tepid water, cool water, and cold. Brrrr!! And I’ve heard that Jackson also rode his horse with one arm raised above his head for health reasons. Not sure if it’s a myth or not. I’ll touch base with the historian at the Stonewall Jackson House and see what he/she has to say.

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Meg H says:
June 5, 2014 at 5:14 pm (Edit)
I recently watched an episode of “History of the Home” with Lucy Worsley on BBC, and in it, the host sleeps in a rope bed one night. By the morning, the ropes have stretched and she looks as though she is sitting up. She goes so far as to tell the viewer that she is not able to lie flat because both her mattress and the ropes are sagging. Obviously, not everyone slept on beds with rope construction and feather-filled mattresses, but she goes on to explain that the actual mattress material shifts away from the body in the night. This probably would have been the case had the bed support been slats or even a solid piece of wood beneath the mattress. Here is a link to the episode (the segment I’ve cited starts at 13:53): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DIjQTavW6Y

 


Revisited Myth #107: Cooks went barefoot so they could sense where it was hot on the brick hearth in order to avoid burns.

January 14, 2017

 

 

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Thanks to Brian Miller at Historic Odessa in Delaware for submitting this oddball. He says it is often stated in Odessa kitchens that cooks went barefoot for this reason.

I had not heard this one before, nor had Frank Clark, food historian and supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s foodways program, but he said, “I can pretty much tell you from experience that would be impossible. You might not burn your feet on the hot brick, but the heat of the fire on any bare skin is hard to take, especailly when you have to get your feet up next to the fire to get out coals and the like. Plus the chance of stepping on a stray ember is constant. I do it all the time. Sounds like a unsubstantiated myth to me. I think if someone was barefoot, it was only because they had no shoes, not for any advantage in hearth cooking.”

 

COMMENTS”

Keena, Katherine says:
March 9, 2013 at 10:49 am (Edit)
Mary – now this is a new one on me…I cannot help but respond that in Girl Scouting we insist on shoes for everything, especially coking!

Katherine Keena

Program Manager

Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace

Reply
Roger W. Fuller says:
March 10, 2013 at 10:01 am (Edit)
Sounds like somebody (un)wittingly transposed the dubious practice of “firewalking” onto a historical question. The suggestion becomes fact, if it’s told often enough….

Reply
Deborah Brower says:
March 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
It’s official: people will believe anything if they think it cool enough.

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azambone says:
March 12, 2013 at 8:22 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
I think this is one of the most bizarre “just so” stories told in a historic house museum. Most of them are attempts to square the circle, to give some sort of “practical” or “common-sense” explanation for some sort of human behavior that, like a lot of human behavior, defies common-sense. But this is so counter-intuitive that it baffles me, just a little bit. Does that mean I don’t think that someone has spun this story to a group of rapt visitors? No. I can easily believe that they did.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 6:55 pm (Edit)
Somebody was afraid to say, “I don’t know.” You should never be afraid of saying “I don’t know”, if you actually don’t know.

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Gregory Hubbard says:
March 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm (Edit)
This myth is truly bizarre.

I am a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the Other CIA) and an historian. With apologies to The Food Channel’s Barefoot Contessa, I can say with certainty that anyone who works in a kitchen barefoot is crazy. They won’t last 5 minutes.

1713, 1813 or 2013, working barefoot would be extremely dangerous. Not simply coals, as mentioned above, but with spattering grease from pan frying, roasts drippings, splatter and drips from kettles, and this list could go on and on, the tops of your feet would be badly burned as well.

Bare legs or short pants would be equally loony. This myth presumes our forbearers were stupid. Who thinks this stuff up?

Gregory Hubbard
Chatsworth, California

Reply
Mary Miley says:
March 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm (Edit)
Thank you Gregory. To answer your question, “Who thinks this stuff up?” I have no earthly idea, but it never seems to stop. But yes, many people do presume our ancestors were stupid. That’s one reason myths are so enduring–they appeal to our sense of superiority.

Reply


Revisited Myth # 106: They made everything for themselves in the olden days.

January 7, 2017
Ships brought  manufactured goods to the colonies

Ships brought manufactured goods to the colonies

(Also see the related Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.)

This week Katie Cannon has agreed to tackle a myth that has pestered her for years. She has more than a dozen years of experience working in history museums as well as a masters in Museum Studies, and she currently works at Mount Vernon. Katie admits she is especially fond of living history, having never quite grown out of playing dress-up.

This is something you hear all the time, about different places and times in American history. While I will certainly not dispute our ancestors’ ingenuity and skill, and many people did make a variety of objects for their own use, it is simply not true that anybody made everything— or even most things— that they used. Pre-Industrial Americans were part of a global economy and were consumers as well as producers; you can see this in all three centuries of early American history.1

The 1600s

When the first English settlers arrived on American shores, they thought they were landing in an untamed wilderness full of savage beasts and “savage” men. (Not true of course, but that’s a topic for another discussion.) This meant they were totally on their own and had to fend for themselves, right?

Wrong.

While they could not purchase the manufactured goods they were used to on this continent, they eagerly awaited regular ships bringing them European goods: cloth, thread, sugar, salt, furniture, paper, etc. etc. That romantic image of Priscilla Mullens industriously spinning wool while John Alden stumbles through wooing her? A bit difficult since there is no record of fiber processing tools in the colony until the late 1630s (and the two were married over a decade earlier).2

Here is an excerpt from a letter by Edward Winslow, 1621. He is writing to a friend and advising him on what to bring to the new colony:

“…bring good store of clothes and bedding with you. Bring every man a musket or fowling-piece…Bring juice of lemons, and take it fasting; it is of good use. … If you bring anything for comfort in the country, butter or sallet oil, or both is very good. …Bring paper and linseed oil for your windows, with cotton yarn for your lamps.”3

The 1700s

The 18th century saw the birth of the United States of America, land of the free, the brave… and the avid consumers. Prior to the Revolution, this country was heavily dependent on British imports; England even forbade the colonies from producing certain goods themselves, ensuring that they would be England’s customers.4

For political reasons around the time of the Revolution there was a push for “homespun” and other goods produced locally.5 This did not mean that everyone could be self-sustaining, however. Just think of all the tools and knowledge necessary to make every single item in someone’s home! An encyclopedia published in the 18th century shows images of craftsmen and their tools; take a look at what was required to make a single pin, necessary for sewing and fastening clothes:6

Image link: http://artflx.uchicago.edu/images/encyclopedie/V21/plate_21_5_2.jpeg

If you look through probate inventories of the time, even for those in the lowest income brackets, you get the sense of all the many trades (needing years of training and specialized tools) that went into making that inventory. Consider this inventory of Patience Gilbert from 1742; she is listed in the lower wealth category of the York County, Virginia, probate inventories.7

Her list of possessions includes:

3 kettles, 2 frying pans, 1 copper kettle, 1 brass candlestick, and other metal items that would have been made by various smiths
Several items of clothing but no loom or spinning wheel so she at least purchased the fabric if not the finished clothes
Tea that she could not have grown in this climate
A looking glass which she certainly did not make
… and so forth.
You will find similar inventories for other years, wealth categories, and locations.

The 1800s

Ah yes, the self-sufficient pioneers, heading off into the frontier for a fresh start away from any outside assistance! … or not.

Becky Lauterbach, Senior Facilitator at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park whose specialty of over 20 years is early life in 19th century Indiana, says, “they were able to get to a store in Indiana, and it probably wasn’t all that difficult. Fur traders… had been in the area for 200 years. Even the Native Americans had become dependent on manufactured goods. St. Louis, MO was the “Gateway to the West” by the 1830’s. People moving on to the “frontier” could stop there to stock up and could no doubt buy anything they needed (and plenty of things they didn’t). Most settlers never intended to be self-sufficient, but were willing to “rough it” for a while to gain the advantage of being first on the scene.”

She also provides this list of just a few items offered at an Indiana store in 1834-35:

Guns and the gunpowder to fire them
Lead – While balls could be molded easily, you needed the bar lead to start with.
Salt – so necessary for preservation.
Glass
Pottery
Metal items – tools, at least the heads, cooking pots, cooking utensils, horse shoes, nails, …
Paper
Dye stuffs for colors like blue, red, purple
Cotton – not grown in large quantities around here
Why does this matter?

I won’t deny that before the Industrial Revolution all items had to be made by a person, whether it was a person working with hand tools or operating a machine such as a loom. But, no single person was able to make everything they owned, nor did they have to; they could purchase items made locally or shipped from abroad, the same as we do today.

We honor the self-sufficient aspects of our ancestors quite readily; I think we should also recognize them as active consumers of a global marketplace, lest we do a disservice by diminishing the scope of the world they lived in.

Notes

1 I will be focusing on American history starting with European colonization. Pre-European contact also involved extensive trade networks, but this is meant to be a short article, not a doctoral thesis!

2 Jill Hall. “The Truth About Priscilla, Spinning in Early Plymouth Colony,” Spin Off. Winter 2010. Available online at http://www.sail1620.org/history/articles/220-truth-about-priscilla-spinning-in-early-plymouth-colony.html

3 Dwight Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1963), p. 86. Many thanks to Elizabeth Rolando of Plimoth Plantation for providing the quote.

4 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), pp. 84, 159.

5 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), p. 176.

6 The Encyclopedia of Diderot, 1751-1777. Available online at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/

7 York County Probate Inventories, provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s digital library. http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/BrowseProbates.cfm accessed January 19, 2013.

COMMENTS:

7 Responses to Myth #106: They made everything themselves in those days.
Elaine says:
February 24, 2013 at 10:42 am (Edit)
HOORAY!!!!
I’m delighted to have someone else recognize this as a myth and try to tackle busting it.
The most common related myth I encounter is women of the mid-19th century doing all the sewing, including and especially making clothing, for their family members. The historical record just doesn’t support this lovely romanticized notion. Continuance of this myth does a grave disservice to the dress-makers, seamstresses, tailors, seamsters, and ready-made merchants of this era… and especially the dress-makers who, as female business-owners, made great strides in pioneering women taking roles outside of the home as both owners and consumers.

Reply
Iain Sherwood says:
February 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm (Edit)
In every town in the colonies (of any size) there was a blacksmith, a cooper, a tinsmith, a draper (cloth seller), a butcher and tanner, several joiners (carpenter), tilers (roofer), seamstresses, tailors, cordwainers, and other ‘domestic’ trades. On the coast there were plenty of fishermen and. later, whalers (I’m from New England), and there were numerous shipyards along the New England coast building cargo ships to carry lumber and goods up the rivers and along the coast.

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Daud Alzayer says:
March 24, 2013 at 11:46 am (Edit)
Not to mention the large portion of goods that were imported.

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janice says:
February 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Edit)
reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingles Wilder encouraged me to feel that the women did alot of their own work. the mother weaves cloth for making coats.

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Jennifer says:
March 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm (Edit)
Almanzo’s mother was just one out of many people. In upstate New York they had access to a lot. There’s a point where they talk about the fine store bought fabric Mother had used to make Sunday clothes. I had the feeling that what the family made on the farm was because they thought they could do it better and cheaper than buying. Mother’s cloth was known to be water tight and finely woven, but it is only for the boys to wear. They are not yet allowed the fine store bought. Perhaps she made it because it wore well with no holes in knees, etc.

Reply
Jennifer says:
March 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Very nicely put together piece. It is good to remember that the “good ol’ days” are not the ideal we think it is. Early in our history many items were made by and purchased from craftsmen, so our consumer history is very long.

Reply
Elaine says:
March 12, 2013 at 11:30 am (Edit)
Mrs. Almonzo Wilder also denotes how unusual it was for a family of the Wilder’s position and economic standing to have the Housewife weaving cloth.
It was simply a case of Mrs. Wilder, Sr. doing a craft she enjoyed very much… on a small scale.
Consider it similar to a Mother today who bakes cupcakes for children’s school celebrations… for her own and her friends’ children… because she enjoys it, not because her family cannot afford bakery-made ones.

 


Raining Cats and Dogs ?

December 30, 2016
Raining cats, dogs, and pitchforks--what a storm!

Raining cats, dogs, and pitchforks–what a storm!

“Back in the old days, when it rained people would put their cats and dogs up in the rafters so they would not get wet. [Variation: animals would climb up themselves to avoid the weather.] But the roofs often leaked, and the beams would get slippery so the animals fell, and it really was ‘raining cats and dogs’!”
  
There’s no myth here, just a question about the origins of this common saying. The best I can do  is to report that a word search in JSTOR made me think the origin of the phrase may be Irish, as those are the earliest written usages I found. My opinion: this is a nonsensical phrase, like “raining pitchforks,” used to indicate severe rainfall and is not based on anything concrete. 

Myth # 145: It was the custom to bury old shoes in a new building for good luck.

December 17, 2016

 

Susan Smyer wondered about the custom of burying a shoe in the walls or foundation of a house. For good luck? To ward off evil spirits? Is this a myth?

Not a myth. There is ample documentation for this practice at various times and in various cultures. It seems people did and still do put a shoe in the walls or foundation of a building, probably in order to ward off bad luck or bring good luck. According to June Swann, a footwear historian and keeper of the boot and shoe collection at the Northampton Museum in England who began studying concealed shoes in 1957, the practice has been reported in Germany, France, Australia, and the New England states of America. A few examples date from the 15th century, after which the practice appears to have become more common. It peaked in the 19th century and has fallen away since the 1930s. According to Ms. Swann, most of the shoes are well-worn, utilitarian sorts, and nearly half belonged to children. (To read more, click HERE.)

However, Marc Carlson, Librarian of Special Collections at the University of Tulsa who has compiled references of shoe-related superstitions at www.personal.utulsa.edu/%7Emarc-carlson/shoe/RESEARCH/CONCEALED/shoestuff.htm, warned in 2008 about making unwarranted assumptions on this topic: “. . . there is an increasingly common modern assumption that shoe concealments are intended for a superstitious or ritual, so we should look at a wide variety of actual superstitious and ritual practices regarding shoes. My personal position is that we don’t know why these items were concealed in walls way back when, and it’s sloppy to assume that they all were for ritual reasons (which is where this trend is currently heading). Some may well have been, others likely were not. Since the idea was first proposed by June Swann back in the 60s, the idea that they were ritual deposits has certainly influenced the reasons why people are currently depositing shoes, as well as the assumptions about the past.” 

I acknowledge Mr. Carlson’s warning against over-generalizing, but my own view is that most instances of shoes in the wall were prompted by superstition. 

 

 


Huzzah! The mispronunciation of a cheer

December 11, 2016

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Randolph Bragg, who works as a costumed interpreter at Mount Vernon, shares his pet peeve with us this week. “It’s not really a myth, but I wish you’d try to help bust it anyway,” he writes. “I hear this waaaaay too often [at Mount Vernon] and it sets my teeth on edge every time.” What is it? The mis-pronunciation of the colonial era cheer: Huzzah! (Our version of Hooray!)

Here’s what Norman Fuss of the Journal of the American Revolution has to say about the cheer: 

“Go to any Revolutionary War period living history program or reenactment and you hear it again and again. “Huzzah for Great Washington and the Continental Congress!” “Huzzah for good King George and Parliament!” Huzzah this and Huzzah that all day. If our forefathers could come back to one of these events, they would be mightily puzzled. “What is this ”huzzah ?” they might say. “When we cheered, it was Huzzay.” Huzzay? Yes. Not Huzzah.”

How does Norman Fuss know this? His evidence comes from rhymes in poems and songs and is overwhelming. Read his complete article here. And from now on, make sure you say Huzzay! 

 


Myth #144: Fidel Castro and the Baseball Tryouts Myth

December 3, 2016

image

As a young man before the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro tried out for the New York Yankees, almost making the team. 

I believed this! Until I read the debunking on NPR, I thought this was true. Something in the same vein as Hitler having been rejected from art school. An “if only” sort of feeling washes over you as you contemplate the way the world would have gone had Hitler been accepted, or if Castro had made the team.

fidel_castro_baseball

But it’s not true. Adrian Burgos Jr., University of Illinois history professor and author of Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, says it simply didn’t happen. One way he knows that is because the Yankees didn’t scout in Latin America until the 1960s and the Cuban Revolution began in 1953 and ended in early 1959. 

“He didn’t try out for the Yankees,” Burgos tells NPR’s David Greene. It’s possible Castro went to an open tryout held by the Washington Senators in Havana, Burgos says, but he was not “at the level of a talented Cuban ballplayer where the scouts went looking for him.”

Read the entire story here on the NPR site.  


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