Myth # 140: A woman would use a diamond to etch her name/date on window glass to see if the stone was genuine.

April 24, 2015


window at The Old Manse in Concord, MA

window at The Old Manse in Concord, MA

“I am a museum interpreter at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia. We have a couple of window panes that have names, dates, and even a branch with leaves etched in them – all from the 19th century. Is it true that ladies would test their diamonds or other gems to see if they were real or glass by doing such etchings?”

You may have heard that a real diamond will scratch glass and an imitation one won’t. If only it were that easy! Many high quality imitation diamonds made in recent decades are harder than glass, so even fakes will scratch glass. Don’t rely on this myth to determine whether your own diamond-looking piece of jewelry is genuine or not. Take it to a reputable, local jewelry, one who has been in business for many years, and he or she will tell you at no cost whether it is genuine or not. They will not appraise it at no cost–for that you need an experienced CGA or Certified Gemologist Appraiser who has the training to judge your jewelry value it.

The idea that the ability to scratch glass proves a diamond’s genuine-ness is clearly a myth today. But what about in earlier times?

Well, it was closer to the truth in the past, when imitation diamonds were made of something called “paste.” Not the sort of paste you used in kindergarten to glue lace to your Valentine, this word meant a type of glass with a high lead content that was used to make imitation stones. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Romans were the first to make this sort of imitation stone. For all you chemists, here’s the lowdown: 

“Before 1940 most imitation gems were made from glass with a high lead content. Such glasses were called paste because the components of the mixture were mixed wet to ensure a thorough and even distribution. Colourless paste is commonly formulated from 300 parts of silica (silicon dioxide, SiO2), 470 of red lead (a lead oxide, Pb3O4), 163 of potassium carbonate (K2CO3), 22 of borax (a sodium borate, Na2B4O7·10H2O), and 1 of white arsenic (arsenic oxide, As2O3). Pigments may be added to give the paste any desired colour: chromium compounds for red or green, cobalt for blue, gold for red, iron for yellow to green, manganese for purple, and selenium for red.”

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean it was true in the past–other clear stones that look like diamonds can scratch glass. Quartz, for instance. I think it likely that people who scratched on window glass were indulging in some playful or sentimental graffiti rather than testing their diamonds.

Some window glass in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion had two little girls’ names etched in it–these were youngsters who lived in the mansion when their father was governor in the 1840s. (Sadly, that pane went missing during the 1999 renovations.) Many old houses have windows with initials, names, dates, or even sketches that were scratched in the glass. My theory is that most of them were done by girls or young women having fun, but I can’t prove that. 

Does anyone else work at places where someone etched something into the window glass?  

Revisited Myth # 45: The Dutch bought Manhattan for $24 worth of beads.

April 12, 2015


Only one period document mentions anything about the purchase of Manhattan. This letter states that the island was purchased from the Indians for 60 guilders worth of trade goods, which would consist of things like axes, iron kettles, and wool clothing. No reason beads couldn’t have been included, but nothing tells us exactly what the mix was. Indians were notoriously shrewd traders and would not have been fooled by worthless trinkets. 

The original letter is in the archives of the Netherlands. It was written by a merchant, Pieter Schagen, to the directors of the West India Company (owners of New Netherlands) and is dated 5 November 1626. He mentions that the settlers “have bought the island of Manhattes from the savages for a value of 60 guilders.” That’s it. It doesn’t say who purchased the island or from whom they purchased it, although many historians believe it was the local Lenape tribe.

Where the $24 comes from, I have no idea. For what it’s worth, I checked a couple of currency conversion websites and learned the approximate value of 60 guilders is over $1,000 in today’s money. Some speculate that a 19th-century historian calculated how much a Dutch guilder was worth in his day, and the amount came to $24 U.S. dollars–and that number was never updated to reflect 20th- or 21st-century values. Could be.  

A little more is known of the purchase of Staten Island a few years later. That sale was also made for 60 guilders worth of goods (must have been the going price for New World islands!), and for this, the Indians took fabric, axes, hoes, awls, kettles, Jews’ harps, and beads. It is likely the goods exchanged for Manhattan were similar. 

Historians point out that North American Indians had a concept of land ownership different from that of the Europeans. The Indians regarded land, like air and water, as something you could use but not own or sell. It has been suggested that the Indians may have thought they were sharing or receiving gifts, not selling. 

Here is the letter, followed by a transcript in English:


Recep.7 November 1626
 High and Mighty Lords, 
Yesterday the ship the Arms of Amsterdam
 arrived here. It sailed from New Netherland out
 of the River Mauritius on the 23d of September.
They report that our people are in good spirit
 and live in peace. The women also have borne
 some children there. They have purchased the 
Island Manhattes from the savages for the value
 of 60 guilders. It is 11.000 morgens in size
 [about 22.000 acres]. They had all their grain 
sowed by the middle of May, and reaped by the
 middle of August They sent samples of these
 summer grains: wheat, rye, barleey, oats, 
buckwheat, canary seed, beans and flax. The 
cargo of the aforesaid ship is:
7264 Beaver skins
 178 ½ Otter skins 
675 Otter skins 
48 Mink skins 
36 Lynx skins 
33 Minks 
34 Weasel skins
Many oak timbers and nut wood. Herewith,
 High and Mighty Lords, be commended to the
 mercy of the Almighty,
Your High and Mightinesses’ obedient
P. Schagen

Revisited Myth # 44: The position of a horse’s legs on an equestrian statue tells the fate of the rider.

April 6, 2015


This persistent myth claims that there is a code in the positioning of the horses legs in equestrian statues telling the fate of the rider. Supposedly, if one hoof is raised, the rider was wounded in battle. It two hooves are raised, he died in battle. If all four hooves are on the ground, he survived the battle/war. It isn’t true, but what makes it so amusing is that the myth persists, even though anyone can look around at the statues and see that there is no relationship to the “code.” Snopes has the best lengthy rebuttal at, but I’ll summarize here.

In Washington, D.C., the American city with more statues than any other, one third of the equestrian statues follow the code. Seeing as how there are three possibilities, it seems that chance is hard at work. In Gettysburg, another location full of statues, most of the horses actually do follow the code, but not all. (General Longstreet wasn’t wounded in that battle but his horse has one leg raised.)

General Andrew Jackson, who did not die at the Battle of New Orleans but lived to become president.

General Andrew Jackson, who did not die at the Battle of New Orleans but lived to become president.

How did this myth get started? My opinion is that it started at Gettysburg where most of the statues actually do conform, if coincidentally, to the “code.” If you were to look at three or four statues and find the pattern held true, you might conclude all the rest did too. And we are all suckers for any sort of “secret code,” so that naturally sticks in our minds.

The myth lives on in another format in Richmond, Virginia, along Monument Avenue where Confederate heroes are said to face north if they died in the war and south if they lived through it. Generals Lee and Jackson do fit the formula, but the others (Stuart, Davis, and Maury) face east, which means . . . exactly what? (Actually, if you confined the statement to Confederate generals, leaving out Davis and Maury, and used the direction that their horses faced rather than their riders, the myth would hold true for those three instances, but that’s getting a bit elaborate.)

The equestrian statues code seems to be an American manifestation of the English effigies-of-knights code, which is at least as old as the nineteenth century. Supposedly, the position of the legs of the knights on their tombs indicates whether or not they went on Crusade. An English historian of the 1920s tried to debunk this by pointing out many examples where this was clearly wrong. We can all feel his pain as he wrote in 1923, “Surely it is time that the imaginary connection between cross-legged effigies and the Crusades should be exploded, and yet how rampant is that fiction in certain places, and how constantly it has to be contradicted!” No rest for the weary historian . . . 

Revisited Myth # 43: “Flip your wig” is an 18th-century expression referring to a dangerously low bow.

March 28, 2015





Speaking of wigs–and we were speaking of wigs in Myths #40 and #42–that famous phrase, “Don’t flip your wig” doesn’t seem to have been an eighteenth-century expression at all. Supposedly, it referred to bowing so low to one’s superior that one’s wig flipped off, but instead, the phrase seems to be a bit of twentieth-century American slang meaning “to go crazy.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the acknowledged authority on word origin, the first known use of the term occurred in 1952.

The Spanish Myth I Encountered in Seville

March 22, 2015

170px-Estatua_de_Pedro_I_el_Cruel_(M.A.N.)_01I had the good fortune to spend last week in Seville, Spain, with a group of graduate students from the University of Richmond. Early in the week, we had a walking tour of the historic city center, conducted by a knowledgable professor. I took the opportunity to ask him about something I’d heard forty years ago when I took Spanish in college, something I suspected was a myth. 

The reason Castilian Spanish speakers lisp is because, hundreds of years ago, a beloved king lisped, so everyone at court copied him. 

Not true, said our guide. There was a Spanish king who lisped, hence the association. Pedro the Cruel (probably not beloved, with a name like that, huh?) lived from 1334-1369. But the linguistic feature that sounds lisp-ish to our ears came after his death. And it’s not really a lisp–they say S in some words, just not in all. Certain Ss and Zs turn into THs, like the city of Cadiz, which, when I went there on a bus one day, was everywhere pronounced Cadith. 

It’s not an American myth, so I didn’t give it a number, but it’s interesting that everywhere one goes, pervasive myths are lurking. 

Revisited Myth # 42: Wigs were baked in loaves of bread to set the hair.

March 15, 2015


Photo courtesy of the COlonial Williamsburg Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Someone forwarded me this myth in one of those infernal lists of “Now You Know the Truth” collections that are mostly rubbish. It said:

Wealthy men could afford good wigs made from wool. They couldn’t wash the wigs, so to clean them they would carve out a loaf of bread, put the wig in the shell, and bake it for 30 minutes. The heat would make the wig big and fluffy, hence the term ‘big wig…’

This sounded so absurd that I was positive it was a myth. And it is, technically speaking. But when I dug into the subject, I found an element of truth that demonstrates precisely how this myth got started.

Turning real hair into a wig required many steps: take fresh hanks of hair, roll them onto porcelain curlers, and tie up with string. After making eight or nine of these packets, as they were called, the wigmaker would boil them for a while, then dry them using an oven in place of a hair dryer. For customers who wanted a frizzy style wig, the wigmaker had an extra step to complete. He would need to wrap the dried packets in cheesecloth and take them to a baker, where they would be encased in a sort of flour paste and baked again.

“Not all hair was baked again,” explains Betty Myers, supervisor of the Wig Shop and a national authority on the subject of wigs, “just the hair that was being prepared for the frizz look.” Frizzy wig styles appealed especially to the clergy and barristers, as well as to other fashionable people of England and France during the middle and late eighteenth century. Others might prefer wigs with a rolled curl, which could be accomplished with curling irons.

In his 1767 book, Art of the Wigmaker, Mon. de Garsault describes the process of baking hair that was wound on curlers, but never a whole wig. After boiling and drying the hair curlers, he instructs the reader to arrange them in “several layers one on top of the other, the whole is given the form of a loaf. Tie the package with string, and take it to the Ginger-bread Maker or the Baker, who having received it surrounds it with a paste of rye flour, puts it in a moderate oven and cooks it. The ‘loaf’ being cooked, and sent back to you whilst hot, break it open and remove all the ‘sets’. . .”

By calling the bunch of curlers a “loaf” and by mentioning a paste of rye flour and a bakery oven, it seems Monsieur Garsault inadvertently started the idea of cooking wigs inside loaves of bread.

To summarize: While wigs were not baked inside loaves of bread, bunches of curls were heated in ovens to dry and frizz them. To protect the hair during the baking process, these curls were encased in a flour paste.


Revisited Myth #41: Stairs were sometimes built with one riser noticeably shorter than the rest, to trip up burglars.

March 7, 2015


It makes a great scene, doesn’t it? In the dead of night, a thief breaks quietly into the house. Sneaking up the stairs, he comes down hard on one foot when one of the stair risers is unexpectedly shorter than the rest. Thud! The noise wakes the household and the thief is caught!

Many historic houses have uneven risers in their staircases. The myth of the burglar alarm staircase has been related by docents throughout the country, including . . . I blush to disclose . . . me. Well, geez, I heard it from one of the older tour guides back in the late ’70s and it sounded believable to someone young and inexperienced . . .

The scene of my crime was the back staircase in the 1718 portion of Williamsburg’s Peyton Randolph House house. The staircase has seventeen steps, with the top riser significantly shorter than the rest. A lot of old houses have similarly uneven risers. If this is a myth–and it is–what explains the uneven risers?

Garland Wood, Colonial Williamsburg’s master carpenter, says it better than I; “Building stairs is hard! It’s not natural or intuitive. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century stair building books [yes, people wrote entire books about how to build a staircase] show mathematically precise ways to use modern framing square to lay out the stringers and make the cutouts for the treads and risers. Stairs were laid out so precisely that some were build in workshops offsite and then brought in and installed. But that’s not the way stairs were built in Williamsburg in the colonial era. Most stairs in the Historic Area were built from the bottom up, one riser and tread at a time. Invariably, error creeps in as more treads are installed which leads to the final riser being a little tall or short. What is the carpenter supposed to do? Tear it all down and start over, or simply leave the last set of treads and risers a little out of whack?”

Without the mathematical aides, modern framing squares, and stair building treatises of later years, it took an unusually skilled (or lucky) carpenter to build a stair onsite that comes out perfectly. The average carpenter could build a stair that got you up and down, but not with perfectly aligned treads and risers. Uneven risers could also have been caused by inferior workmanship during subsequent repairs, or by the house settling over time. They were never intentional.


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