Revisited Myth #104: Front doors were built extra wide so that a coffin could fit through. These were called coffin doors.

October 16, 2016

Jenna Peterson, the assistant curator and educator at Schenectady County Historical Society, wrote, “I’ve recently started working at a museum, and heard my docents telling visitors about our “coffin door.” According to my docents, who have no idea where the idea came from originally but were told it by another docent who was told by another docent, the door was built as wide as it was so that a coffin could fit through it. Is this a complete myth, or something I’m just not aware of? I’ve not done a tremendous amount of research into historic architecture, but what I have done has made no mention of coffin doors. I’d love to see it validated or busted!”


The easiest thing to do, when confronted by a suspicious statement, is to ask, “What is the documentation for that?” Then you might suggest that, until they can prove the authenticity of the statement, they should leave it out of their tour commentary.

I checked with a couple of my favorite architectural historians on this one, even though I was all but certain a “coffin door” was related to the “coffin corner” myth (see Myth #58: Niches called coffin corners were built into staircases to allow people to carry a casket downstairs and turn the corner.”) Ed Chappell, an architectural historian who is Director of Architectural Research at Colonial Williamsburg, says succinctly, “I think the idea is dreamed up.”

Senior Architectural Historian and author Carl Lounsbury goes into more detail, calling this myth one of those “foolish things that gets passed along.” And he explains why.

“As to wide doors in houses, most were primary entrance doors–either double doors and slightly wider single-leaf doors ranging from around 3 feel 2 inches to about 5 or 5 1/2 feet . . . Their size–height and width were symbolic of their importance as main entrances. However, few doors inside the house were wider than three feet—usually 2 feet 8-10 inches into main rooms, smaller for closets. Now, if the tellers of tales would only think about it, the only place especially wide coffins could go would be through the main doors, which perhaps led into a room, but often into a passage. If the coffins were especially wide, they would not fit through secondary doors leading into parlors where most of the dead were laid out. What little I know about early wooden coffins suggests that they were no wider the width of a person’s shoulders. I am fairly large–my shoulders measure about two feet in width. Add an inch here or there for fitting the body in the box and the inch on each side for the board width and you get a coffin about 2 ½ feet in width at its widest. But the point is, nobody ever designed houses with funereal prospects in mind. They were designed for the ease and comfort of someone entering and leaving a room (upright) and, as noted above, in just proportion to the hierarchical significance of the space being entered: exterior doors, public room doors, secondary room door, and subsidiary space doors. I am not sure why otherwise intelligent people seem to embrace these preposterous notions. I have heard it hundreds of times in descriptions of various features in buildings: like cross and bible doors—Really? on Moses Myers [a Jewish merchant] House in Norfolk? I rarely try to correct them anymore, but simply ignore the blather.”

Boston Gazette 1770 detail showing coffins

Boston Gazette 1770 detail showing coffins

Historic house administrators can’t just ignore the blather (much as they’d like to!), because they have to deal with docents and guides who may be passing along myths like this one. Letting these things slide only gives them credibility.


Previously posted comments:

Hammond-Harwood House says:
January 17, 2013 at 10:14 am (Edit)
I think that one of the reasons myths about coffins remain so prevalent is that they’re a good segue into stories about ghosts, which are always popular.

Melissa says:
January 17, 2013 at 12:41 pm (Edit)
Booyah! LOVE your blog! It’s always so helpful. 🙂

Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:01 pm (Edit)
Thanks for the compliment!

Janet K. Seapker says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:28 pm (Edit)
Wilmington, NC horse-drawn carriage drivers claim that double doors were used to allow women with hoop skirts to get easily through the front door. Carl’s argument could be used to respond to this one too.

Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Horse-drawn carriage drivers are BIG myth spreaders! So are ghost tour conductors and bus tour guides. They are not really in the education business; they are in the entertainment business where anything goes. The sexier, scarier, funnier, or cuter it is, the better.

PJ Curran says:
January 17, 2013 at 3:21 pm (Edit)
Beg your pardon Mary, but as a Tour Guide I take my responsibility for historical accuracy, education, and entertainment very seriously. I have heard but not used the coffin theory. I have also heard but not used the width of women’s dresses as a reason for the wide doorways. This one would probably not stand up either. Obviously women also found it necessary to navigate interior doorways.
PJ Curran
Greater Boston Tour Guide

Mary Miley says:
January 17, 2013 at 3:45 pm (Edit)
That’s terrific. There are certainly many conscientious tour guides out there, but in general, the purpose of carriage ride tours and ghost tours and those city bus tours where you hop on and off and hear the patter between stops is not education but entertainment. Those “guides” aren’t given much training and little supervision; in many cases the script they are handed is little more than a string of jokes and myths. I’m sorry if you thought I was slandering all bus tour guides! Keep up the good work.

Pam says:
January 17, 2013 at 8:29 pm (Edit)
Having trained tour guides for 14 years, followed by training docents and part time staff…nothing succeeds like….not success…but REPEATED myth. (and one of the most popular had to do with the Hammond Harwood House above!!!) The “hand me down” information is constant battle. We used to send new tour guides out with old ones….sure way to perpetuate this kind of stuff. I’m not sure about the segue, Allison…I think it’s that some things are deemed to be “the inside scoop.” But…hey…they were shorter back then, yes?!? They seem to have been narrower, too!!!!!

Pam Williams

Daud Alzayer says:
January 19, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
One of the classic red flags to a history myth is any story that emphasizes the “nasty, brutish and short” vision of the past.

The idea that houses would be designed with coffins in mind is really hinting at a larger narrative- that constant death was a fact of life in (insert any time period here).

PS- I was quite tickled to see the Boston Massacre coffins, since I work at the Boston Massacre site (Old State House)

Robert Hansen says:
January 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm (Edit)
I once owned a house in Bridgewater, CT., bulit in 1812, that had a side door, not the main entrance door, that led directly into the living room. It was wider than the principal entrance door and did not have steps entering into it that would make it useful as a day to day entrance. In addition all the accessory buildings were on the other side of the house. And of course it was referred to as a coffin door. Go figure.

Mary Jean Adams says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:45 am (Edit)
My guess is that someone once said in passing, “I’m so glad we can fit Uncle Charlie’s coffin through the front door!” (or around the bend in the stairs.) Perhaps it happened with several Uncle Charlies. Eventually that got passed on to be the myth that we know today. (Or at least we know it now thanks to your blog!)

Jenna Peterson says:
April 26, 2013 at 12:51 pm (Edit)
Thanks so much for answering my question, sorry I wasn’t able to get you a photo of the doors!

Ginger Mattingly says:
April 12, 2015 at 5:55 pm (Edit)
If you research “casket door” and Victorian house or 1800s there are several stories about it. I don’t know if it is true or not. I have heard of “casket doors,” but never called “coffin” doors. Funerals were held in the home back in the 1800s.

Mary Miley says:
April 12, 2015 at 9:14 pm (Edit)
Casket . . . coffin . . . must be the same thing.

Jennifer Taylor says:
August 21, 2015 at 7:28 am (Edit)
So what if they referred to them as coffin doors? I mean it doesn’t make the home it’s attached to haunted. Many people died at home in olden days. The front door was taken off its henge (very easily removed with a whack at the metal rod between) . I heard this before, even mentioned on HGTV specifically “American Renovation”. Why would you attempt to
Cover up or lessen credit to history? Using a door to carry a coffin doesn’t glamorize a home nor demoralize the people that lived there either. People are people. Often using what they had and “making do” was what this country was built on. You can’t change history or cover it up.

Paul Boat-Kuharic says:
July 31, 2016 at 6:50 pm (Edit)
Just show proof that coffin, or casket, doors are real and the post would be pointless, Jeniffer Taylor. False, baseless history should always be debunked.


Revisited Myth # 103: Civil War soldiers underwent surgery with no anesthesia.

October 1, 2016



The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD, tries to debunk the widespread medical myth that anesthesia did not exist during the Civil War.

Gaseous ether and chloroform were both widely available and their therapeutic impact was well known in both Union and Confederate medical services. (Both had been used since the 1840s.) Major surgery was carried out using these anesthetics if they were available. It is estimated that greater than 90% of all major surgery was carried out with anesthetics. See

But neither ether nor chloroform was available before the 1840s, so Revolutionary War-era medical practices did not include the use of anesthetics.

Other medical misconceptions from the pre-anesthesia era abound. Ben Swenson, a historian and re-enactor who worked at Yorktown, VA, a Revolutionary War site, says visitors often approached him with incorrect assumptions. Something “we heard all the time that was patently false was that they would get soldiers rip roaring drunk before amputating an arm or a leg. There are actually a couple of misconceptions here. First, despite popular belief, they did not just take a hacksaw to peoples’ limbs. It was actually quite an intricate procedure involving skin and muscle knives, muscle retractors, saws, cauterizing irons, etc. And the alcohol thing is Hollywood history. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and they knew that. They would not have wanted their patient to bleed to death. Besides, being drunk doesn’t dull the pain, it only changes your reaction to it. So no alcohol. And no again, they didn’t give someone a bullet to bite on…when someone cuts into you, you scream, and that bullet goes down the gullet. A stick would probably have been used to keep someone from biting his tongue off.”

So the absence of anesthesia is a myth if it’s said to pertain to the Civil War, but true during the Revolutionary War.


Earlier Comments:

janice says:
January 8, 2013 at 4:21 pm (Edit)
well, thank you. yes, the movies have influenced my thinking. i never questioned this. also they make you feel that the conditions of surgery was barbaric. i remember seeing a house in a tour of a civil war battlefield that they indicated was used as a hospital for wounded. i wonder how few really lost limbs, after reading this.

Mary Miley says:
January 8, 2013 at 5:23 pm (Edit)
Soldiers certainly did lose limbs, but the circumstances were not as primitive as the movies would lead us to believe.

azambone says:
January 9, 2013 at 9:21 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
ALZ Comments: Another historical myth that frosts my clock. Like most historical myths, it believes that our ancestors were much, much less intelligent than we.

Carole Kingham says:
November 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm (Edit)
Being a Respiratory Therapist in my real world job, and a Confederate Doctor at events, I love the bite the bullet myth and usually address it when asked…my take is that pre modern age, teeth were not a thing to be taken lightly and without floride in the toothpastes were pretty soft in comparison to a hard lead bullet. A bite down on the bullet would probably lead to cracked and/or broken teeth, which would lead to a scream and probably inhalation of said bullet and fragments of teeth…causing a different form of lead poisoning, lol! And that anesthesia of both types were pretty available during the war.

Daisiemae says:
January 8, 2016 at 9:09 pm (Edit)
I was expounding upon this myth on Facebook when a Friend informed me that her brother-in-law owns a “Civil War bullet with teethmarks on it.”

I said that whatever marks are present on this bullet must have come from something else.

Does anyone have any light to shed on these supposed bullets full of teethmarks?


Revisited Myth # 100: After the 1890 McKinley tariff required imports to show country of origin, dishes from China were marked CHINA, which is why Americans came to call all dishes “china.”

September 25, 2016


Antiques dealer and auctioneer Martin Willis told me that he’d always believed this myth, one that he heard from his father decades ago, a man who was also in the auction business. Then he looked into it and learned it was false. He’s right on the money about that!

The story goes that in 1890, the McKinley Tariff established the requirement that all imports show their country of origin. Porcelain dinnerware was coming mainly from China and was marked accordingly. So far, so good. Here comes the myth in the punchline . . . So that’s why Americans refer to their dishes as “china,” because it said China on the back.

Americans do call plates, cups, and saucers “china” but not because of the McKinley Tariff. Historians find the word “china” in inventories from the 18th century. It became shorthand among early American settlers because much originated in China or was made in England to approximate Chinese wares, not because pieces were stamped CHINA.


Rosedown Plantation SHS says:
December 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Rosedownplantation’s Blog and commented:

Deb says:
December 21, 2012 at 12:13 pm (Edit)
Quite right. No good New Englander would fall for that one, I hope, since the fortunes of Salem and many other towns were founded on their importation of goods from the east including “Canton ware.” In fact there is a town in Massachusetts called Canton. Visit the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for much more….

Mary Miley says:
December 21, 2012 at 12:20 pm (Edit)
No good New Englander, perhaps, but plenty of auctioneers seem to fall for this one.

B.P. says:
June 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm (Edit)
You’ve introduced another myth. Americans do not call all dishes china. They call china china. Dishes that are not made of pocelain and ridiculously overpriced, well… they are called dishes

Mary Miley says:
June 7, 2013 at 2:49 pm (Edit)
I stand by my original generalization. Americans call their dishes china. As in “my everyday china” for earthenware, for example.

Candace says:
March 22, 2015 at 11:52 pm (Edit)
Thank you B. P.
Also, no offense, but this is stupid.

OK, so it’s not called China because it is “stamped China”. But according to your own argument against the myth, most if this type of tableware was produced in and imported from China. Hence, “china”. You even point out that what England produced was an effort to compete in that market by making their own tableware “like” what China was producing. It would be of more interest to know if porcelain table ware “originated” in China. At any rate, table ware that comes from China would be china, same as Champaign is so called because it is a product of Champaign, France. And, no doubt, the first country to produce it at least to gain notoriety fir it. If it is not produced in Champaign, it may be a similar product but it is not called Champaign. It is called sparkling wine. So a product that is similar to the Chinese product but not made in China, is not really china. It is fine porcelain tableware, made elsewhere. Porcelain tableware made in Canton, England would not be true china. Understanding this, it is redundant to say “fine” china. Chinaware, by it’s nature is fine. If someone is of the opinion that the tableware from England is finer, then they should call it “fine porcelain” from England, not china. I’m thinking THAT would be wherein the “myth” lies.
They could call it “england”, but that just sounds weird. And, finer or not, it is a knockoff, a copy if something China, perhaps, is credited for introduce to us.


Revisited Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.

September 14, 2016


It’s a pervasive image, isn’t it? A woman in old-fashioned dress sits by the cozy fire with her spinning wheel, spinning the yarn that she will later weave into “homespun” fabric, which she will later use to sew her family’s clothing. Surely every early American household had a spinning wheel and a loom, right? Most people wore “homespun,” right?

It is true that most women made most of the clothing their families wore, but few actually spun the yarn and fewer wove their own fabric. Why? Because imported fabric was cheaper and better than homespun and could be purchased in stores throughout colonial America and during the early decades of the federal period. In fact, when you examine store inventories from the colonial and early-American period, fabric makes up the bulk of the inventory. While some was exotic and expensive (silks from the Far East, for example, or printed cottons from India), much was cheap. Woolens and linens from England could be purchased for less than it cost to make them in America, which is why people overwhelmingly chose to buy fabrics rather than to weave their own. Even slaves’ and servants’ clothing was usually made from imported fabric.

Colonial Williamsburg’s textile curator Linda Baumgarten writes, “Only in frontier areas was most clothing homespun and homemade – and even there, traders and storekeepers quickly penetrated the backcountry to make imported goods available.” Retired colonial historian Harold Gill recalls that in his many decades of researching household inventories in the Williamsburg area, he never found a single reference to a loom. He did find that many (perhaps “most”) households had a spinning wheel. 

And as one blog reader pointed out, “You neglect to mention the “homespun” movement, a popular protest against the Townshend Acts. Women learned to spin in order to forgo the imported, taxed fabric. In reality, even during the protest, nobody was producing enough fabric to truly replace the imports. And note that they were LEARNING how to spin, as in they hadn’t done it before. Still I think the protest probably contributed to the place that spinning has in the image we have of early America.” Excellent point. 




janice says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:45 am (Edit)
though i loved the part in Laura Ingills Wilder’s book, Farmer Boy, where her husband’s mother would weave wool to make coats for the family. she wove it and then shrank it to make it warmer. i think her loom was in the attic. i like when the women bring their looms, drop spindles and spinning wheels to the fair. i would like to have learned how to do that. didn’t they use their looms for rugs and carpets? those that raised sheep, did they use the wool for other purposes?

Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 9:15 am (Edit)
Laura tells about her life on the frontier where women like Mrs. Wilder had less access to stores, at least for the first few years.

Ginger says:
December 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Mrs. Wilder was in upstate New York, wasn’t she? Was that still considered frontier?

Mary Miley says:
December 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
A quick check shows you are right, they lived in western NY state until Almonzo was 18 and moved to Minnesota in 1875. But remember, Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing fiction. She based her tales on true events but changed details quite a bit.

Erin Blake says:
December 2, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
My great grandmother, a homesteader on the Canadian prairies, used her spinning wheel to make yarn for sweaters, mittens, etc., not for weaving. She was famously baffled when my mother wanted a picture of her spinning: spinning was what you did in the evening, when it was dark and cold, and you were too tired to do anything else but had to do something to keep moving and be useful.

Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm (Edit)
Also, there were differences in who used looms in New England vs. the Mid Atlantic. See Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s books “A Midwife’s Tale” and “The Age of Homespun,” and her article “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” as well as Andrienne Hood’s articles “The Gender Division of Labor in the Production of Textiles in Eighteenth-Century, Rural Pennsylvania.”

In short, in the mid-Atlantic in the late 18th c., labor divisions adhered to the old model of weaving being a male occupation. In New England, women developed an informal system of home-production. A few households had the large and expensive loom, and women exchanged daughters to share the work of the weaving.

In my thesis work on textile production in late 18th-early 19th c. lower New York State, I found that there was indeed a complicated system and division of labor. Mary Guion, a young, unmarried, middle-class woman, wrote about fiber production parties (“frolics”) with her friends, mostly spinning, some carding. She spent days on her horse delivering the processed flax or wool to the dyer, the weaver, and by the early years of the 19th c., the “machine” (the carding factory)

Oh dear, I could go on forever on this subject! It’s so fascinating!

Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm (Edit)
Thank you for adding so much to the subject!

Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm (Edit)
Oh, I should also add that Mary bought imported fabric from the pedlar, ordered fabric and other clothing items from “the cart” (a pedlar or a townsperson who made trips to NYC?) and made trips to NYC herself, where she spent time shopping for fabric with her friends. So, yeah, she definitely didn’t make all her own fabric. It’s impossible to say what percentage, but if I had to make a guess I’d say around 20% of the fabric she used was made locally.

Elizabeth Bertheaud says:
December 3, 2012 at 10:39 am (Edit)
Might I recommend: Jensen, Joan. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. Ms. Jensen discusses how the women of SE PA soon realized their efforts were better spent making cheese and butter to sell than in manufacturing textiles. A great read on many levels.

Alaina Zulli says:
December 3, 2012 at 11:20 pm (Edit)
Elizabeth, thanks for that recommendation. It sounds great, and is now on my Amazon wishlist!

Katie says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:25 am (Edit)
Just to comment about Farmer Boy with Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was Almanzo’s family that was in upstate New York (I visited – Canada’s but miles away), not Laura. Albeit fiction, she usually based all her writings on fact – and most of the “facts” she changed were about her family to make a better story, not about the activities. It is mentioned in the book that Almanzo’s mother making all their fabric was very unusual, especially for their economic status, for the time and region. This region was far from being the frontier and Almanzo’s family was considerably well-off compared to the pioneering Ingalls family. I just wanted to make sure Laura is not discounted because her books are “fiction;” most of them are very factual. From a loyal Little House fan.

Mary Miley says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:34 am (Edit)
As a loyal fan of Laura’s, I would never discount her writing. I discovered her books as a mother and read them to my children. And we loved the TV series too. It was wonderful finding books and TV programs that taught values as well as history.

Ginger says:
December 5, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
Thank you for clarifying this! It’s been many years and I did not recall the statement about it being unusual for her to spin and weave. And while I’m aware that Laura changed things, I also thought it was unlikely for her to insert a made-up detail like that. Thank you.🙂

Rena Lawrence says:
December 4, 2012 at 11:36 am (Edit)
I also recommend “Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production, 1822-1880” by Dr. Paula Mitchell Marks. Very nice treatment of spinning out of necessity (with women often learning from grandmothers or slaves) and the production of penitentiary cloth by prisoners at Huntsville.

Alaina Zulli says:
December 4, 2012 at 10:16 pm (Edit)
sounds like another great book! Thanks, I’m adding it to my to-read list.

Deborah Brower says:
December 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm (Edit)
Great choice of myths!!!!!!
This one really needed to be explored, because there is so much confusion on the subject. Spinning wheels have survived to such a degree that they have become icons. Spinning does not equal fabric it’s only part of the process.

The followups have been very informative. Thanks again it’s like an early Christmas gift.

goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm (Edit)
Wow, this is shockingly incorrect! The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm (Edit)
Excuse me, I’m a little confused. Which part of the post or comments is shockingly incorrect?

goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm (Edit)
The post. People definitely spun their own wool and made their own fabric. Especially during the War of 1812.

Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm (Edit)
Of course some did. Sorry if my post wasn’t clear–it says that the practice was not common, not that it didn’t ever happen. On the frontier where European fabric was not available or during brief periods when shipping was interrupted (like the War of 1812), women had to resort to buying homespun fabric, often made by professional weavers since few women owned expensive (and big!) looms.

Judy Cataldo says:
December 16, 2012 at 11:06 am (Edit)
Boston and surrounding towns are hardly the frontier. There are multiple primary accounts in the newspapers of the 1700s noting locally manufactured textiles. New England had a vibrant textile culture starting in the mid 1600s. Fashion fabrics were imported cheaply from England as with the other colonies but local manufacture was alive and well. It is not correct to paint all colonies with the same broad brush.

QNPoohBear says:
December 22, 2012 at 11:30 pm (Edit)
Right. Cloth was imported in the early colonial period until the mid-17th century when a weaver set up shop in Boston. The first textile mill,Slater Mill, in the United States was built in Rhode Island in 1793. Almost all the old farm house museums in Rhode Island have large weaving looms and spinning wheels. Women spun flax and wool. Check out this link for the story of one family’s looms

Mary Jean Adams says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:52 am (Edit)
Perhaps someone has already brought this up, but how about the notion of homespun as a political statement? My understanding has always been that toward the revolution, as more and more English goods were boycotted and goods from other countries embargoed, wearing homespun became a sign of your allegiance to the cause.

Mary Miley says:
February 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm (Edit)
You are quite correct. there is a marvelous (true) story about the Governor’s Palace ball that took place in Williamsburg, hosted by the last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, where the ladies wore dull-colored, homespun ball gowns. It made quite a statement.

Tracy says:
April 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
It is my understanding that North American women of the 18th century spun yarn mostly for practical knitting, and that most home weaving was limited to toweling, rugs, and sometimes bed linens and underthings like shirts and shifts. And that most homes did not have a loom but did have a spinning wheel.
I do know that pioneer women in the west (Utah) in the 1840’s and 50’s did quite a bit of weaving out of necessity due to their geographical and cultural (Brigham Young’s emphasis on self sustaining industry) isolation.

Mary Miley says:
April 10, 2013 at 1:55 pm (Edit)
For some perspective, I checked with Harold Gill, a highly respected (retired) historian from Colonial Williamsburg who, during his many decades of researching colonial inventories, recalls that he never found a single example of a Williamsburg house with a loom. He recalled that many, perhaps “most” houses had spinning wheels.

Patricia Shandor says:
February 20, 2014 at 1:01 pm (Edit)
I work at a museum in South Carolina that owns dozens of 18th/19th Century locally-made spinning wheels used for various mediums, such as flax, cotton, and wool. And I know of a few 18th/19th Century looms in the area (one still located in its original privately-owned house). We are located in the midlands of South Carolina and near what would have been considered the American frontier until around 1820…at least. Though we certainly did have access to Charleston which was one of, if not THE richest city in Colonial America. So I know there was both weaving and buying going on.
Interestingly, we own locally-made quilts from the 1830s-1850s which include homespun dress fabrics as identified by scholars and also quilts that include Chintzes, imported from England (which were used in South Carolina quilts well into the 1850s). My point is that I would guess that there were more spinners and weavers in the South than in the North. Plus there were more factories and mills up North. So…the abundance of spinning wheels in the antique stores of New England and the Mid-Atlantic region could just be misplaced Southern antiques? LOL. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm (Edit)
I’m sorry but I think your history is inaccurate and based upon a modern viewpoint of industrial production expectations.

Mary Miley says:
July 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
No need to apologize, just explain why you think that and share your evidence.

Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 10:02 pm (Edit)
Colonial Agent J. Bridger in 1719.

Elizabeth Barber’s book, Women’s Work: the first 20,000 years

Documentary on the loom and it’s working status at Mt. Vernon.

Those are just 3 off the top of my head.

There are many books, articles, references..etc that are pre-industrial to give an idea that spinning was not in fact a leisure activity of a woman sitting by the fire. Many homes needed the income from spinning or weaving in order to survive. And many villages/towns/commonwealths had dozens of spinners to feed the local weavers. Spinning often super ceded food storage and preparation in a home. It is not inconceivable to understand that home spinners were essential to their communities. The yarn they produced was beautiful, smooth, lustrous and their cloth was as well. For thousands of years Egypt was renown for their linen and cotton to the point where even modern machinery can not duplicate how fine and even it really was. France was known for silk, Scotland, Ireland and England for wool. These are the fore bearers of Colonial America who brought their trades with them across the pond. And without competition sold their wares back across it at a mighty profit.

Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 10:07 pm (Edit)
I forgot to mention flax…which when spun is called linen. Linen production in Europe during the Colonial period was vast and it traveled across the Atlantic as well. I mentioned Egypt as an example of what ancient spinners and weavers could do on a massive productive scale. Somehow the paragraph didn’t separate France. And that’s not even going into China and their sericulture economy (which also made it across the Atlantic during Colonial times).

Revisited Myth # 98: Curtains that puddled on the floor were a sign of great wealth.

September 3, 2016


Trish Aleshire writes: As a manager of an 1835 historic plantation in Louisiana, I can testify that these myths are very much still alive and being told at historic house museums. They are not told at our plantation, but we get some testy visitors who want to argue the truth behind the myth. Could you please address the topic of overly long drapery that puddle on the floor being a sign of great wealth? Our drapes do this and we are constantly bombarded with visitors telling us this myth.

This is one of those myths that has a little substance to it. Throughout the 19th century (and the 18th, for that matter), lavish use of fabric was an indirect way to show wealth and status, as were fine carriages, sleek horses, liveried servants, jewelry, and a grand house. It’s a bit of a stretch, however, to say that wealthy people were purposefully installing extra-long draperies to advertise their bulging bank accounts.

The puddled style is still popular–I see it in decorating magazines today–but I don’t believe anyone would suggest it means that the homeowners are flaunting their excessive wealth. They like the look and can afford the extra yard of fabric.


Previous Comments:

Margaret Geiss-Mooney – Textile/Costume Conservator says:
November 3, 2012 at 6:23 pm (Edit)
From a textile conservator’s viewpoint, it was good to have the drapes puddle on the floor as ‘puddling’ helps mitigate the effects of gravity. Of course, the floor needs to be clean, dry and not waxed often (possible chemical contamination and damage from too much handling).

Susan Baker says:
November 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm (Edit)
Hi, when I was in Art History and Stage Craft in college this was how it was explained to me: the additional fabric was to act as a draft stop, same as the idea behind using heavy fabric that cut out the wind because it was tighter weave. I think function may have come before fashion, but fashion followed the function.

Carlos Talavera says:
December 3, 2012 at 9:51 am (Edit)
I believe that Susan Baker is correct in that this was devised for the stated purpose of keeping out drafts. A sign of wealth would have been how lavish the fabric was and not necessarily the copious amounts used…Although MORE of a exceptionally fine fabric would be a pretty obvious sign.


Revisited Myth #97: British soldiers wore red coats because they wouldn’t show the blood.

August 28, 2016

Ben Swenson, former history teacher and reenactor, said he often heard the myth that the British wore red because it wouldn’t show blood if they were shot. “Considering that the rest of their uniforms were usually white, this made no sense. . . I seem to recall something about red being the cheapest dye for a country that had a substantial military budget. Not 100% sure on that one.”

Shoot03_r2You’re on the mark, Ben. For more than a century, inexpensive synthetic dyes have been able to create any color on the color wheel, so the world has forgotten the message of power and wealth that intense color once conveyed. People from the past craved bright colors, but only the rich and royal could afford expensive dyes and the fabrics that showed them off. So tight was the link between the aristocracy and color that in many societies, laws restricted strong colors like scarlet or purple to the nobility, just in case some nouveau riche lout was tempted to dress above his station. Renaissance Europeans would have considered today’s dress-for-success colors—black, beige, grey, and other subdued shades—fit only for paupers.

Red and its close cousin purple were the most coveted of colors because they were the most difficult to make and the most expensive. Down the centuries, reds and reddish purples became the acknowledged color of royalty throughout the world. Chinese and Persian rulers preferred red. The togas of Roman senators bore a reddish-purple band. The Catholic Church took red as a symbol of its authority, using a red cross on a white shield as its emblem and dressing its cardinals in scarlet robes. The British were not alone in dressing their military officers in red uniforms. Its rarity and its link to status made good red dye almost priceless.


Max Hamrick, Colonial Williamsburg’s master weaver and dyer, says that both cochineal and madder were used to put the red in Redcoats. The British government supplied their soldiers with uniforms that were dyed with madder because it was cheaper. Officers, who supplied their own uniforms, preferred the brighter red of cochineal for their jackets. Red was the symbol of power and prestige, not some cover up for blood.

Even Wikipedia says, “There is no known basis for the myth that red coats were favoured because they did not show blood stains. Blood does in fact show on red clothing as a black stain.”

My article on cochineal and the color red appeared in an issue of Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine. I found the topic fascinating–hope you will too.



Grace Burrowes says:
October 13, 2012 at 9:30 am (Edit)
I also suspect that once the artillery started firing, and smoke hazed over the battlefields, red was simply VISIBLE, making it less likely a soldier would be killed by friendly fire. Once the hand to hand fighting began, the downside of increased visibility (to the enemy) would have been moot since national affiliation would have been obvious up close.

PJ Curran says:
October 13, 2012 at 10:36 am (Edit)
In a conversation with a young “Redcoat” at Old North Bridge this summer I was informed that the reason for red was to identify the lines when the muskets began to generate smoke, an explanation similar to the previous response.

Caitlin McRae says:
October 17, 2012 at 11:38 am (Edit)
When you say inexpensive synthetic dyes have been available for more than a century, do you mean aniline (sp?) dyes from the turn of the century…? Would love to know more of that kind of history.

Caitlin McRae

Mary Miley says:
October 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm (Edit)
So would I, but I’m afraid I know very little about the chemistry of modern synthetic dyes. The first were created in the mid-1800s and soon crowded out the old plant-based and insect-based dyes that had been used for centuries.

Edward Werner Cook says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm (Edit)
William Henry Perkin discovered Mauve in 1856 in August Von Hofmann’s Laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. After Prince Albert died Hofmann went to Berlin in 1863 where Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter was Crown Princess of Prussia. By the 1877’s dye industry in England was dead and became a German monopoly. At the end of the 19th century it was these same synthetic dye companies who had the skill to make synthetic drugs with the dye firm later known by the name of the founder Fredrick Bayer synthesizing Aspirin in 1897. The rest is, as we say, history. The giant firm I G Farben means “Common Interest in Dye Colors” and was at height the 4th largest company in the world.

You’ve Got Red On You « The BS Historian says:
December 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm (Edit)
[…] from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for […]

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:10 am (Edit)
There is an interesting correlation with the development of chemical dyes, which led to progress in industrial chemistry in general, which caused competitions and conflict between England and Germany and that, among other things,
led to the the tensions that blossomed into WW I – The idea of red not showing blood, may have had some origins in the painting of the deck of the Shipboard surgery in the days of Wooden ships and sail ( or is that a myth , too?!)

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:44 am (Edit)
I’ve read about that relationship between chemical dyes and WWI–fascinating. BUt I’ve not heard that statement about red decks, so don’t know if it is a myth or not. Sounds myth-like . . .

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm (Edit)
I was aboard USS Constitution a few years ago when it was dis-masted in dry-dock having preventative maintenance performed. I inquired of a sailor if they were going to paint the decks red and he said they only did that in the sick bay. I do not know if we can rely on this ( I am tempted to just call the commander of USS Constitution and just ask him!)
Anyway I came up with some info:

“The insides of the gun decks and the scupper ways were painted red so that blood stains should not be so noticeable.”


“In the artillery decks, the bulkwarks and the carriages of the cannons were often painted in red, to dissimulate the presence of the blood during combat.”

“The deck above the holds in the old ships, what would now be called the platform deck, was known as the orlop deck, a contraction of ‘overlap’, a word of Dutch origin meaning ‘that which runs over the hold’. In H.M.S. Victory this deck is painted red; the wounded were taken there to be tended by the ship’s surgeon. On this first deck below the waterline they were safer and their blood was not so noticeable against the red paint of the deck.”

BUT this one is not in agreement.

“Interior bulkheads were often painted red, not to cover up blood and gore during battle (most of which wound up on the deck anyway) but rather for decorative purposes and because red ocher pigment was relatively cheap.”

What do you think?

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm (Edit)
Hmmm. Interesting. I do know this: reddish-brown paint (iron oxide or sometimes called Spanish brown) was cheap and easy to make yourself, like whitewash. Neither is real paint, which was expensive, tricky to make, and rather a trade secret. (Painters made their own concoctions and kept formulas in the family.) If that’s the “red” paint used on the floors, as suggested in the final quotation which mentions red ocher (which is iron oxide), then I side with the final quotation.

Roger W. Fuller says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm (Edit)
Having been personally injured accidentally by a bayonet at a reenactment, in which I bled onto a red British regimental coat I was wearing, I can assure you, red does not cover up blood stains. Blood looks almost black in comparison when on period-dyed red woolen cloth.

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm (Edit)
Yikes! That’s what I call a primary source!

Jan says:
September 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm (Edit)
Actually, what I’ve read suggests that *black* was the most difficult and expensive dye to produce consistently in a way that would not fade or run.

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 27, 2013 at 12:55 pm (Edit)
Well I went and called USS Constitution and the man there just called me back- Mr. Brecher I think it was, and we discussed the painting of the deck red- he said that almost all the decks are natural pine, which are ‘holy stoned ” ( sanded with a piece of sandstone)so they would be the natural pine color, with the bulkheads whitewashed- BUT that the deck of the cock pit, – where the wounded were treated – IS CURRENTLY painted red, BUT he has no historical reference for why this is done, and does not know why it has been done nowadays. I asked if the sailors who are assigned to the ship as guides tell the people that was because the red would not show the blood, and he laughed and said that they do have a training period for the sailors and expected that that was not done.

That is where the thing is now. Unfortunately I am not entirely convinced of whether or not the decks were or were not painted red because of the blood. Until I do more research and stumble upon some CONTEMPORARY source, . I could put forth a theory- which is that since the deck in the cockpit would have blood on it and since the decks were holy stoned pine the blood would soak in and so that deck was painted and since the Spanish brown was cheap the deck was therefore painted that reddish brown.

Jeff Neice says:
September 29, 2013 at 2:26 am (Edit)
the old red barn, milk paint, was very thick and solid. Perhaps, they used something like that to seal and preserve the floors better in the sick bay.

Mary Jean Adams says:
July 21, 2014 at 5:05 pm (Edit)
It reminds me of an old joke about a sea captain who wears red because it doesn’t show the blood. However, when faced with overwhelming odds, he asks his mate to bring him his brown pants.

The joke is funnier when not being told by me.

Zain says:
August 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm (Edit)
Thanks for solving this myth i always wanted to know the truth

RIchard Howe says:
December 10, 2015 at 3:25 pm (Edit)
I was told that the officers had Scarlet uniforms because they were more visible on the battlefield so that the rank and file could see them giving orders. In Europe at the time,it was considered “uncivilized” to shoot the officers! The American Revolution put an end to that!

stephanusmurlinis says:
May 23, 2016 at 10:02 am (Edit)
It was my understanding that the red coat appeared during the English Civil War. While the cavaliers used blue uniforms, the Model Army used red. Is it correct?

picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:32 am (Edit)
Reblogged this on Defense Issues.

Patrice Ayme says:
June 9, 2016 at 2:50 am (Edit)
The Spartans supposedly used red to hide their wounds. Centurions of the Roman army carried spectacular head dress, parallel to their shoulders, above their helmets, to be seen from afar.

Revisited Myth #96: Because trans-Atlantic communication was so slow, the Battle Of New Orleans occurred after the War of 1812 had ended.

August 20, 2016



Thanks go to Ralph Eshelman, a historian who specializes in the War of 1812 and who busts this common myth, below. It’s one we find in many history books. I confess, when I was teaching, I presented this to my students as fact. Sorry kids . . .

This commonly held myth is based on the fact that the American and Great Britain peace commissions agreed to terms of a treaty on December 24, 1814. But the British were fearful of the US Congress failing to agree to the recommendations of their own peace commission such as occurred with the Jay Treaty. So the British demanded that all hostiles would cease only after the treaty had been ratified and exchanged by both countries.

This is very clear in the wordage of the treaty as found in the first sentence of Article 2: “Immediately after the ratifications of this treaty by both parties, as hereinafter mentioned, orders shall be sent to the armies, squadrons, officers, subjects and citizens of the two Powers to cease from all hostilities.”

Great Britain ratified the treaty on December 30. The treaty did not reach Washington City until February 14, 1815 and was not ratified by congress until February 16. The United States and Great Britain exchanged ratifications of the treaty on February 17. At this time the treaty became binding. The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815, forty days before the war was officially over and hostilities were to cease.



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