Revisited Myth #114: You had to have two opposing teeth to join the army in early America, so you could tear off the end of the cartridge.

March 20, 2017

John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg, lays this one to rest. “I have heard many reenactors note the need for two opposing teeth as part of their musket-firing interpretations. Such a requirement isn’t mentioned in any of the drill manuals of the period. I don’t recall seeing anything requiring two opposing teeth in any of the recruitment documents or officers’ guides.”

Perhaps this started as a joke in the reenactment community and was taken seriously by some. Do people at Civil War sites hear this too?

Another (minor) consideration: As far as dental health was concerned, things were not as bad as people are led to believe. There was much less sugar in the diet in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely because sugar was a luxury item and very expensive. Less sugar = fewer cavities = fewer rotten or missing teeth. 

 

Previous Comments:

Melissa Nesbitt says:
May 12, 2013 at 10:29 am (Edit)
That one was a new one to me. It’s so odd what people will believe these days. And along the lines of “everyone” having rotten teeth, I grow tired of the assumption that “everyone was shorter” in those days. I think you may have already addressed that one though.

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Megan says:
May 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm (Edit)
If you haven’t covered the “everyone was shorter” myth, I wish you would! I get tired of people saying that too, and then I have to find a way to nicely tell them they’re wrong without having actual research to back me up…. some people were certainly as tall as we are today!

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Mary Miley says:
May 12, 2013 at 5:06 pm (Edit)
See myths 108 and 8. Also #8 Revisited, when I learned some new information that was intriguing.

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Dudley Toelke says:
May 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm (Edit)
I can assure you that you have to have at least two opposing teeth to tear a cartridge. The paper used for cartridges in the early 19th century was intended for durability to hold the ball and powder and would NOT have been pre-torn. Safety was a matter of accomplishing the mission, even then; the are a lot of sparks flying around when firing in close ranks. Firing commands are quite specific, as far as loading procedure, include “tear cartridge”. Having done so many times, you can not “gum” a cartridge” open. All of that said, it would be good to have primary source documentation for the assertion. I will try to find some.

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Mary Miley says:
May 12, 2013 at 5:08 pm (Edit)
Mr. Hill did not say the cartridges would have been pre-torn, he said theoretically, someone could have “pre-torn” them.

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oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:43 am (Edit)
I have researched the inspection of recruits in the early 19th century and the only orders for oral inspection was for the regimental surgeon. However, having physical experience with tearing cartridges, they could not have been “gummed”. And as to pre-torn cartridges, if the offender would not have been caught by his sergeant, his line buddies would have known and corrected the error; exploding cartridge pouches don’t add to the efficiency of the unit and well being of those in the burst radius of it.

Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 9:04 am (Edit)
There was not one single type of paper used for cartridge-making in the world in the black-powder era. Anything from newsprint paper to the equivalent of bond paper to waxed paper was used, and everything else in between.

I’ve seen original cartridges still extant, found in cartridge pouches. The paper is easily torn. You could even rip paper with your fingers, if you had to.

However, as to whether “Two/four opposing teeth” was a condition to joining the army- any army, remember, anybody who has no teeth at a military age is probably somebody who’s not very healthy to begin with.

This is a lovely reenactor myth, that many of our fellow reenactors have got attached to saying, but until somebody comes forward with credible multiple primary sources from different ears saying “you needed two/four opposing teeth in order to bite open cartridges, to go in the army”, I’m going to chalk this one up to “reenactor logic”. It’s right up there with the three-sided bayonet myths.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
August 9, 2013 at 11:33 am (Edit)
Roger, For some strange reason, your comment isn’t making its way to my blog page. And I want it there–it’s a good bit of information! Would you mind cutting and pasting it and trying again? I can’t imagine what’s wrong . . . Thanks. Mary Miley Theobald Writer and Historian

5 Countryside Court Richmond, VA 23229 (804) 288-2770 http://www.marymileytheobald.com

Blogs: http://www.marymiley.wordpress.com http://www.historymyths.wordpress.com http://www.stuffafterdeath.wordpress.com

Keith says:
May 14, 2013 at 9:09 am (Edit)
I had heard tihis said for the British army during the Nepolianic wars by severeal british historians interviewed for telivision programs. The continental army may not have been so picky. I also know a renactor with no upper front teeth and he manages quite well. Also, a good deal of tooth loose was from scuvy not caries.

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oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:50 am (Edit)
Once again, it depends on the paper he is using for blanks. I’ve even seen a fool that tried to get through a safety inspection with powder rolled in cigarette papers. Easy to tear but a hazard to himself and others.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:26 pm (Edit)
What British historians, and what sources did they mention?

Mom Wendel says:
May 15, 2013 at 9:45 pm (Edit)
There is a certificate of exemption for Rufus Downs of Ramsey, Minnesota, stating he was not eligible to serve or be drafted into the army during the Civil War. The reason for his disqualification was “by reason of not having teeth in his upper jaw.” The certificate is in the Anoka County Historical Society museum.

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Mary Miley says:
May 16, 2013 at 7:48 am (Edit)
Interesting! But does that pertain to cartridges?

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Brian Zawodniak says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
Is that a woman in uniform firing a musket? If so, that is so not historically-accurate unless that unit historically had a woman hide her gender.

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Mary Miley says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm (Edit)
I can’t answer that question because I can’t see the person’s face. However, I will say that Colonial Williamsburg has had to bend to modern employment requirements and allow girls to serve in the Fife and Drum Corps and hire women to work as costumed carriage drivers, so it is possible. In these cases, they are supposed to conceal their hair and wear men’s clothing.

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Will says:
August 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm (Edit)
Women did not serve in the military during these time periods out in the open. When they did see combat, it was in disguise as a man. If they were found out by superiors, they were removed from service. There are about 400 documented cases of women serving in combat in the American Civil War, and there were well over 3 million men serving between both armies. The ratio of women serving to men is very small…..

Brian Zawodniak says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:14 pm (Edit)
Also, pre-tearing a cartridge would have the powder leak out! Using your hands to tear a cartridge takes time away from the whole process of loading thus making one slower. Where is the musket in all of this hand tearing? Gumming your cartridge? Boy….

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Lindsey says:
August 6, 2013 at 9:20 pm (Edit)
Yes, people make this claim at ACW battlefields, often that draft dodgers knocked out their own teeth to be unfit for service. They often add that the “draft board” would just put you in the artillery.

They neglect to remember that the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s Kentucky Brigade (the so-called Orphans) included a man with a “deformed mouth” who could not speak and had no teeth. No was an infantry private.

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Dale Kidd says:
August 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm (Edit)
I can’t speak for the American Army, but this definitely WAS a documented condition of enlistment in the British Army during the Georgian era.

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Mary Miley says:
August 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm (Edit)
Can you cite a source for that? (Without going to a great deal of trouble . . . )

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Marc Schaftenaar says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm (Edit)
People are a bit eager to dismiss this as a “myth”, but the exercise is quite clear: the cartridge is opened by tearing it with the teeth. Any old soldier losing his teeth over time surely would not be kicked out immediately, -nor were woman, after discovery,- but I can’t imagine the old and teethless being accepted as new recruits.

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Marc Schaftenaar says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm (Edit)
Also, saying something like pre-tearing and gumming a cartridge “might be possible” is also not a valid argument.

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Craig Schomp says:
August 8, 2013 at 11:25 am (Edit)
Perhaps you think it is a myth because the search term was wrong? Try “4F”… http://directionsindentistry.net/4f-unfit-for-service-because-of-teeth/

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Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 8:52 am (Edit)
I dunno….an unsourced website on the Internet is not sufficient proof. This isn’t how historical research is supposed to work. It’s a secondary source at best. Anybody can put something on the Internet. Whether it’s true is another matter. It needs either a source from a period document or a picture of an original document confirming this assertion, preferably multiple sources, to give more credence to the assertion. If I passed this in for a grad school class, I’d get an F. Or in this case, “4-F”.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 6:53 pm (Edit)
Hi, Mary, I’ll try it again.

“There was not one single type of paper used for cartridge-making in the world in the black-powder era. Anything from newsprint paper to the equivalent of bond paper to waxed paper was used, and everything else in between.

I’ve seen original cartridges still extant, found in cartridge pouches. The paper is easily torn. You could even rip paper with your fingers, if you had to.

However, as to whether “Two/four opposing teeth” was a condition to joining the army- any army, remember, anybody who has no teeth at a military age is probably somebody who’s not very healthy to begin with.

This is a lovely reenactor myth, that many of our fellow reenactors have got attached to saying, but until somebody comes forward with credible multiple primary sources from different ears saying “you needed two/four opposing teeth in order to bite open cartridges, to go in the army”, I’m going to chalk this one up to “reenactor logic”. It’s right up there with the three-sided bayonet myths.

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Daisiemae says:
December 3, 2015 at 9:55 pm (Edit)
I heard a reenactor today say that people often knocked out their front teeth in order to avoid serving in the army! I simply cannot believe that.

The same reenactor told the old “bite the bullet” myth and he was saying something about being stabbed with a 3-sided bayonet, but I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying. What is the 3-sided bayonet myth?

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Mary Miley says:
December 6, 2015 at 10:35 pm (Edit)
Re: a 3-sided bayonet–such things did exist. I’ve seen them. I’m no expert on historic arms, so I can’t comment further. I don’t know what the myth is.

As for knocking out one’s own teeth to avoid military service, I find that hard to believe if only because so many people had missing teeth. (We don’t see it too often today, what with implants and dentures, but travel to a third-world country and you’ll notice a big difference. When I was in India, for instance, it seemed that almost all adults were missing a tooth or three. In 18th- and 19th-century America, it was probably the same.) If many (or most) adults were missing teeth, I doubt that missing one’s teeth would make one ineligible for the army.

Perhaps a military historian could better respond to this one?

Jake Pontillo says:
August 1, 2016 at 4:07 pm (Edit)
The standard military Bayonet was triangular in cross section. A wound via such a weapon would be difficult to suture. Also It is not absolutely necessary to tear open a cartridge with the teeth. One can be ripped easily with the fingers.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 4, 2016 at 10:07 am (Edit)
As anyone who has ever sewn up wounds can tell you, you just use more stitches. Ever seen somebody who went through a car windshield? They look far worse than an some body with an even-sided wound, and those poor victims get stitched up successfully, too.

The “three-sided bayonet as especially cruel weapon of war” myth seems to have come from the late 1950’s or so, at least as Dave Jurgella recalled it for me years ago, who related that, in the dawn of Civil War reenactment, when reenactors were asked, why does the bayonet have three sides, they had no answer. Not knowing they answer, reenactors guessed at it, so as not to come off looking ignorant of the subject. (But, really, the honest thing to do is say, I don’t know. Get the person’s contact info, research it, and get back to them with whatever info you find. You learn new stuff that way, I find!) The guess got added to by further guesses (AKA reenactor logic), and became holy writ.

The reality is that the three-sided socket bayonet was a compromise between metal used and bending strength. Four sides are too heavy, two sides might snap, but three sides meant the blade might bend but not break, if slammed against a hard object. The flutes along the sides are not “blood gutters”, but fullers that impart bending and twisting strength, such as the inner surfaces of a railroad rail or I-beam do.

Unfortunately, old myths die hard, since reenactors get very attached to them. For instance, the Geneva Convention, which supposedly banned such weapons, had nothing to do with weapons. It was mostly about prisoner exchanges and prisoner treatment in war. The Hague Conventions didn’t ban them, either, since they we long out of service by about thirty years, when the first convention took place. But again, it makes a potent myth that folks like to tell credulous crowds at reenactments who ooh and gasp when they hear these myths.

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oldud says:
August 4, 2016 at 10:42 am (Edit)
The triangle has an excellent strength – weight ratio.


Revisited Myth #113: A deerskin was worth a dollar, hence the origin of the word “buck.”

March 11, 2017

The display claims that when Michigan was a young territory, deer were common and hunting was such a part of life that deer skins or a whole deer were used as money. A deer carcass was worth a dollar and hence the dollar became known for what it was worth–a buck.

A quick trip to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary should straighten this out, or so I thought. That and the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang give the oldest example as 1856, but another source http://www.wordorigins.org, finds examples as early as the 1820s; to wit:

From James Buchanan’s 1824 Sketches of the History, Manners, and Customs of North American Indians:

Each buck-skin one dollar.

From the 1826 Narrative of William Biggs, While He Was a Prisoner With the Kickepoo Indians:

McCauslin then sent for the interpreter, and the indians asked 100 Buckskins for me, in merchandize…the indians then went to the traders houses to receive they pay, they took but seventy bucks worth of merchandize at that time.

From Charles Cist’s 1841 Cincinnati in 1841:

They had sold the Indians whiskey that had frozen in the cask, before they reached their camp; they made an Indian pay for a rifle gun thirty, the Indians say forty, buck-skins, which they value at one dollar each, besides a horse of fifteen pounds price.

From Samuel Prescott Hildreth’s 1848 Pioneer History:

On the frontiers, and especially among the Indians, the value of property was estimated in bucks, instead of dollars or pounds—a buck was valued at one dollar. A copy of the following certificate, recorded in Colonel Morgan’s journal, among several others of the same tenor, is worth preserving:
“I do certify, that I am indebted to the bearer, Captian [sic] Johnny, seven bucks and one doe, for the use of the states, this 12 April 1779.”

From Henry Howe’s 1851 Historical Collections of Ohio:

A muskrat skin was equal to a quarter of a dollar; a racoon skin, a third of a dollar; a doe skin, half a dollar, and a buck skin, “the almighty dollar.”

And finally from James Wickes Taylor’s 1854 History of the State of Ohio: First Period, 1650-1787:

The English said we should buy everything of them, and since we had got saucy, we should give two bucks for a blanket which we used to get for one: we should do as they pleased, and they killed some of our people to make the rest fear them.

The skin of a buck was “legal tender,” in the wilderness, for a dollar.

(Thanks go to Ben Zimmer for this information.)

Joe Mirky pointed out some earlier, 18th-century references:

Conrad Weiser, a German immigrant to England and then to America spent a year as a youth with the Mohawk Indians and learned their language. He became an interpreter and negotiator for the Pennsylvania colony and later one of the founders of Reading and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

He recounts addressing Indians in his journal in 1748:

Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.

and

Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.

So this statement is true. Not a myth.

But I wondered, were deerskins really worth a dollar throughout this time? 

After searching through several books on the subject of the deerskin trade, it became obvious that prices depended on many variables. The size and quality of the skin were obvious factors in its value, but so was the age of the deer, the sex of the deer (buckskins were worth more than doeskins which were worth more than fawn), and the degree of finishing. A dressed buckskin was worth more than a partially dressed one. Prices also varied according to geography and over time. Also, skins were often sold by the pound, not each. In short, the price received for deerskins varied a good deal. 

Prices on the world market declined from the 18th century to the early 19th century, which affected the prices paid to hunters. Here are some details: In the late 17th century in Pennsylvania, a dressed buckskin brought 2 shillings 5 pence. In South Carolina in the early 18th century, dressed skins brought 5 shillings per pound; in North Carolina during that time, a buckskin brought 2 shillings, a doeskin 1 shilling 6 pence. (Hunting for Hides, Lapham, 2005, p. 12) In the 1780s in the southeastern U.S., a pound of dressed skins went for 6 shillings. By the 1790s, the price had dropped by 50% from pre-Revolutionary War years. (Deerskins and Duffels, Braund, 1993, p. 99-100, 178) I found no prices specific to the Michigan Territory, but since the main market was Europe, it seems reasonable to conclude that prices paid were fairly consistent throughout the colonies/states.

 

Earlier Comments:

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
May 4, 2013 at 11:48 pm (Edit)
I Have got to go with the idea of a BUCK. ‘Dollar” as a short form of BUCKSKIN which was a trade item. The online Etymological Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=buck&searchmode=none)
Lists buck
“male deer,” c.1300, earlier “male goat;” from Old English bucca “male goat,” from Proto-Germanic *bukkon (cf. Old Saxon buck, Middle Dutch boc, Dutch bok, Old High German boc, German Bock, Old Norse bokkr), perhaps from a PIE root *bhugo (cf. Avestan buza “buck, goat,” Armenian buc “lamb”), but some speculate that it is from a lost pre-Germanic language. Barnhart says Old English buc “male deer,” listed in some sources, is a “ghost word or scribal error.”

Meaning “dollar” is 1856, American English, perhaps an abbreviation of buckskin, a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days, attested in this sense from 1748

Reply
Marfy Goodspeed says:
May 5, 2013 at 1:49 am (Edit)
Check out this link:
http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/more/202/
Seems like this is not a myth after all.

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oldud says:
May 5, 2013 at 6:57 am (Edit)
I always wondered what created the demand for deer hides in Europe until I read that they were favored by the trade class (i.e. masons, carpenters, wheelrights, etc.). They provided durable, long-lasting breeches used under hard working conditions, similar to wearing today’s jeans. The skins also provided a favorite material for glovers, at a reasonable price. Eventually, the French traders in Louisiana preferred the hides to be unfinished (dried) since the manufacturer wanted to tan them to their specifications rather than receive the hides already brain-tanned.

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Deborah Brower says:
May 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
Then there is “sawbuck”, how does that relate? As Mary said this is a complex question and the simple rules of commerce would effect it. One thing Mary did not bring was the value of currency. Are we talking Spanish dollars, American dollars or something else?

Then there are the various meanings of the word buck. Even the Online Entomology Dictionary has at least three definitions.

The earliest reference at Wordorigins.org is 1824. The others are clustered between 1841 and 1854. Are they influenced by James Buchanan’s book? Where the heck did he get it? I think at best the jury is out without better references.

I get the feeling that this is like many of the myths here. Someone comes up with a simple, appealing thought. It catches on and through repetition takes on the aura of truth.

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Charlie says:
May 15, 2013 at 5:43 pm (Edit)
A sawbuck is an x-shaped brace used when bucking felled timber for logs. This part I know for fact (I’ve used them).

Supposedly, because early ten dollar bills had large roman numeral ten (X) on them, and twenties carried the double-X this led to the names “sawbuck” and “double sawbuck”. I have no idea if this etymology is true, although the bills certainly did have roman numerals on them.

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Charlie says:
May 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm (Edit)
As for shopkeepers taking entire dressed animals in trade, my mother’s father certainly did so in the 1930s in rural Virginia. He’d have been much less successful than he was if he hadn’t allowed the poorer members of his community to barter for finished goods like cloth and gunpowder! He sold the meat, garden truck and live stock he received in trade to the wealthier folks for cash, and everybody involved was better off for it.

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Mary Miley says:
May 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm (Edit)
Well, okay. I’m open to revision!

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Leanne Keefer Bechdel says:
January 31, 2014 at 5:47 pm (Edit)
pretty certain the deer hides were tanned- smoke tanned so they would not be raw and rotting. Current trade rate for Indian tanned (smoked) buck skin is about 100 bucks. Soft- and waterproof and great for making clothing.

Reply
Jake Pontillo says:
June 30, 2015 at 1:55 am (Edit)
Yes indeed,Ms. Bechdel, although $100 for a good smoked brain tanned hide would be a very good price. I think nowadays more in the line of a 135- 150- T
he hides could have been sent out dried as rawhides and the re hydrated and bark tanned in Europe.

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joemirsky says:
June 16, 2015 at 8:55 pm (Edit)
The word “buck” for dollar comes from buckskin, deer hide, that the colonials used to trade with the Indians.

Conrad Weiser, a German immigrant to England and then to America spent a year as a youth with the Mohawk Indians and learned their language. He became an interpreter and negotiator for the Pennsylvania colony and later one of the founders of Reading and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

He recounts addressing Indians in his journal in 1748:

Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.

and

Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.

Copyright © 2015 Joseph Mirsky

Reply

 


Revisited Myth # 112: “Mind Your Ps and Qs” meant watch out for Pints and Quarts.

February 24, 2017

images

There are several myths associated with the phrase “Mind your Ps and Qs.”

One says it was a warning to watch out for cheating bartenders who would short you when you ordered a pint or a quart.

Another says it means to watch your “pieds” (feet) and “queus” (wigs), or watch your behavior from head to toe. Yet another says it comes from the master printer reminding his young typesetters to distinguish between the letter P and the letter Q, which are virtually indistinguishable in lower case.

letterSet

The author of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) notes that of the several explanations he had heard, none were “wholly satisfactory,” but he preferred the interpretation “Be very circumspect in your behaviour” from the French dancing master’s caution to mind your “pieds” and “queues.” I don’t agree.

Personally, I lean toward the printing shop origin. A typesetter in those days had to arrange the type in rows in mirror image, and frankly, looking at a lower case P (p) and a lower case Q (q), which are the backward versions of each other, I can see how that would be very, very easy to confuse. But there is no sure-fire answer to this claim, so you’ll have to decide for yourself.

 

Previous Comments:

Pat Smith says:
April 28, 2013 at 9:11 am (Edit)
I like the print shop one, of course!

Reply
oldud says:
April 28, 2013 at 10:32 am (Edit)
I believe Ockam’s razor would apply to this myth. The explanation with the least stretch would be the print shop.

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Lynn Thornton says:
April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
As a teacher the p and q one makes a great deal of sense – especially in a print shop with a dyslectic typesetter

Reply
Dani Stuckle says:
April 28, 2013 at 11:43 am (Edit)
P’s would be “Please” and Q’s are “Thank You” –just a reminder to mind your manners.

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Chris D. says:
April 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm (Edit)
I’m all for the print shop origin, as it makes the most sense. Somewhat related: I teach classes on both home and industrial sewing machines, and I’ve borrowed this phrase to remind people that different machines require different ways of loading a bobbin. When holding a bobbin with the thread tail dangling it looks like a p or q, depending on which side the tail’s on. It is inserted in the q position for our industrial, and the p position for our home machines (may be different for other folk’s machines though). Mind your Ps & Qs helps them remember that they can’t just pop it in any which way!

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Mary Miley says:
April 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm (Edit)
Very creative!

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Daud Alzayer says:
April 28, 2013 at 11:49 pm (Edit)
The print shop does not make sense because it has nothing to do with manners. Dani offers the best theory if you ask me; simple wordplay seems a lot more plausible than something specific to a single trade, especially when the meaning doesn’t match.

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Henry B. Crawford says:
April 29, 2013 at 9:39 am (Edit)
Most proverbial analogies have little to do with the originating inspiration. It’s the poetic irony that makes the point.

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Henry B. Crawford says:
April 29, 2013 at 9:37 am (Edit)
It’s more likely to mistake p and q on a composing stick than it is to mistake a pint from a quart. I’ll go with the printing analogy as being the most plausible off all.

Reply
Beth says:
April 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm (Edit)
There is a good discussion of the various possible origins of “Ps and Qs” at the awesome “Phrase Finder” website: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/mind-your-ps-and-qs.html

I’m pretty sure I made mention of this site before for “Pop goes the Weasel.” It’s well-researched and fascinating. Everytime I visit, I invariably end up losing an hour or so if I’m not careful 🙂

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Mary Miley says:
April 29, 2013 at 1:10 pm (Edit)
Yes, an excellent site. Thanks for reminding us.

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Keith says:
April 30, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
I had heard that the Ps and Qs were for a tally board at a tavern where the # of pints and quarts were recorded per customer.

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Mike says:
May 21, 2016 at 8:38 pm (Edit)
The French word “queue”, means tail, not wig. It is also used for a line up, or a queue, as for in front of a cinema. In vulgar slang, it is also used for a certain male body part.

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Andrew says:
June 1, 2016 at 5:07 pm (Edit)
Definitely comes from the world of the movable press. Since typesetting was done in mirror image, a p would be a q when typeset and the q a p. No other two letters are so close when reversed and thus they had to mind these two in particular.

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Tina Gubbings says:
August 18, 2016 at 6:37 am (Edit)
b & d ?

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Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:29 am (Edit)
Mind your Bs and Ds???

Curtis Cook says:
February 18, 2017 at 7:27 am (Edit)
Speaking as someone who spent ten weeks as a typesetter (and hopes never to have to do that again), in the font we were using the ‘b’ and ‘d’ WERE the ‘q’ and ‘p’, respectively. We simply rotated the ‘p’ 180 degrees to get a ‘d’ and rotated the ‘q’ when we needed a ‘b’.

I, of course, find the typesetter solution to be the most likely. Trying to keep the ‘p’s and ‘q’s straight was the bane of my existence.

Mary Miley says:
February 18, 2017 at 8:53 am (Edit)
So say all the apprentices at Colonial Williamsburg’s printer’s shop.

Gary Bulthouse says:
October 2, 2016 at 3:30 pm (Edit)
I think it has it’s origin in the math expressions in LOGIC. E.G. In Modus tollens: if P then Q… and all the other logical equations. It makes more sense than any other explanation offered here because it’s saying quite clearly “mind the rules”.

Reply


Revisited Myth # 111: Orange dye was added to American cheese during the Civil War to differentiate between Northern-made cheese and Southern.

February 12, 2017

Pat McMillion of Burritt on the Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama, wrote, “The cheese monger at our local Publix told me today that the only difference between white and yellow American cheese is that dye is added…. ever since the Civil War when dye was added to tell the difference between cheese produced in the north and cheese produced in the south. That really sounded mythical to me, but I haven’t found any substantiation on the web. Is that a myth, legend or truth?”

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Well, Pat, you have stumbled into one of my deepest secrets with this question. I will now have to confess that for three years after I graduated from college, I sold cheese for Kraft Foods in Cleveland, Ohio. (It was a recession, for heaven’s sake, so I was lucky to have a job at all!) Kraft sent me to cheese factories to learn all about processed cheese, white cheese, orange cheese, Cheez Whiz, Velveeta, and every sort of cheese, and I can personally assure you that American cheese (aka processed cheese) was not around during the Civil War.

J. L. Kraft invented American cheese and started producing it in 1915; he got the patent in 1916. It was originally sold in tins and was white. Because it was the middle of World War I, the Army bought up lots and shipped it to our soldiers in Europe, because it didn’t need refrigeration. Yum!!!

Later, I don’t know when exactly, orange color was added, but this old advertisement dates from the Twenties, and it shows that it was orange by then.

Thanks go to Deanna Berkemeier, who sent in documentation of cheese coloring prior to the American Civil War. Cheese makers did sometimes add color (and other things) to their products, for instance, “a yellow tint is given by annatto, marigolds, or carrots.” See more examples below. There is no evidence that this had anything to do with North/South production. 

 

EARLIER COMMENTS:

PMcMillion@aol.com says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:05 am (Edit)
Thank you SO much for this answer. I’ll take it to the cheese monger today!! How fortuitous that you have first hand information. I have been spreading your messages about historic myths ever since I found your site over a year ago. You always get the credit and advertising for your wonderful book when I do a program on historic myths. Now, folks come to me to ask if things are true. Between you and Snopes I can usually burst some pretty egregious myths and urban legends. I will be coming to CW this summer to introduce my grandson to my love of history. I would love to meet you and thank you in person for the excellent research. Hugs, Pat McMillion Burritt on the Mountain Huntsville, Alabama

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Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:10 am (Edit)
Thanks, Pat. Just let me know when you are in Williamsburg and I’ll try to meet you.

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opusanglicanum says:
April 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
orange dye is added to cheap cheese in the uk to make it look more appetising – its meant to immitate the classic red liecester – it also fools the pallete into thinking the cheese tastes cheesier. It’s been around for a long time, since victorian times at least. I grew up knowing that orange cheese was cheap and nasty, so never ate it.

I’ve heard about velveeta, it sounds disgusting

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Greg says:
April 26, 2013 at 1:36 am (Edit)
At the Tillamook cheese factory in Oregon they will tell you that natural cheddar cheese comes out in various shades of white. While this is not related to quality, they started adding orange color so that it would have a consistent color. People thought that the less white batches meant the cheese had gone bad.,

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Deanna Berkemeier says:
April 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm (Edit)
I’ve never heard this myth before, but I think you may have missed the point on this. It’s all in the way you read the question. Perhaps the cheese-monger did indeed mean “American cheese”, however there was a lot of “American” cheese made before the Civil War, because all kinds of Americans made cheese. American of the time referring to as opposed to European imports. Some people did color cheese to make it look richer. I have found many negative references to it, such as (paraphrased) you would not thank the farmer for coloring your milk, so why thank him for coloring your cheese? Many of these references are pre-Civil War, so I think the answer is still no. But is there any correlation to coloring cheese at a greater rate to differentiate between north and south? I’ve never looked into it, but I also doubt it.

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Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:02 pm (Edit)
In all fairness, Velveeta isn’t exactly disgusting, it’s okay when melted in a grilled cheese sandwich or sliced on a hamburger, but I’d not be interested in eating it plain or on a cracker.
We can discuss the meaning of the words “American cheese.” Today it means processed “cheesefood,” a dairy product that is cheese cooked and “processed” so it lasts longer without getting moldy. Good news for soldiers in WWI. Americans made cheese during the Civil War of course, but that isn’t what we’re talking about. I’d be interested in your pre-Civil War primary accounts to coloring cheese, as I can’t imagine why anyone would color their own homemade cheese.

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Deanna Berkemeier says:
April 21, 2013 at 12:35 am (Edit)
I understand that “American cheese” today means a processed cheese food. But my point is that since I have only seen those processed cheesefoods in a grocery store and not being sold by an actual cheese-monger who would naturally scoff at a cheesefood even being considered actual cheese, I wonder if the cheese-monger was actually referring to American made natural cheeses being colored yellow rather than being left white. As opposed to European cheeses which are generally left their natural color.
Again, I am not saying that he is correct in any way regarding north vs south. Nor am I saying that what we call American cheese today was around for the Civil war.
I guess that being a cheesemaker of both modern and historic methods, when I read the question that was originally sent in, I understood the question as being the greater one of white vs. orange of American cheese -not the processed stuff- and it crossed my mind that as much reading as I have done on the subject, I have no idea if coloring cheese was related in any way to anything other than making one person or company’s cheese look “richer” than another’s. Higher fat content (richness) makes cheeses appear more yellowish, sometimes deepening to an orange-ish cast. Definitely not annatto orange, but orange-ish nonetheless. People did color cheese (and butter!) with the juice of carrot scrapings, pot marigold petals, and annatto that they purchased in order to make their product more appealing. It was a marketing ploy.
And I’d be more than happy to share some cheese coloring documentation with you. Being a historic cook and a dairy farmer’s wife, dairy is my thang! 🙂

Mary Miley says:
April 21, 2013 at 9:20 am (Edit)
Thanks Deanna–always good to hear from an expert. Do you know more about coloring cheese during the 1860s? Something that might have given rise to this idea of North vs South? I presume they made more cheese in the North, because of the greater proliferation of small farms and dairying than in the South, which probably imported cheese from the North (as they did so many foods).

opusanglicanum says:
April 23, 2013 at 3:11 am (Edit)
I think disgusting is relative – I seem to have been born a cheese snob, since I could never stomach any kind of processed cheese, specially not that yellow dairy based plastic they put on burgers. When I was a child I’d go round to friends houses and thier parents would offer me processed cheese then look at me like i had two heads when I politely inquired as to whether they had a nice mature cheddar? Its my dad;s fault, he used tot ake me to the wensleydale creamery

Melissa Nesbitt says:
April 20, 2013 at 5:21 pm (Edit)
The “scary” thing to me is that I can keep processed American cheese in the fridge a lot longer than other cheeses. Mary can you divulge the secret about that? 😉 (Preservatives and additives I’m sure, but since you mentioned a patent…) P.S. I worked for an insurance company in their marketing department prior to my launch into my museum career. Whatever it took to pay the student loans, right?

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Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:06 pm (Edit)
Thank you, Melissa, for being so understanding. 🙂 And I can’t divulge any secrets without torture. Of course, eating Cheez Whiz could be considered torture . . .

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Roger Fuller says:
April 20, 2013 at 8:32 pm (Edit)
Here’s probably how it happened: a mainstream Civil War reenactor at a Civil War reenactment got caught by the public eating modern cheese product. Trying to squirm his way out of it, he made up some story about cheese dye. That’s how a lot of these urban legends get started, and with nobody to challenge them, they get told so often, they become “true”.

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Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:07 pm (Edit)
I’m with you, Roger.

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Katherine Louise says:
April 22, 2013 at 2:41 pm (Edit)
One cold and rainy day at Plimoth Plantation, Mrs Standish went across the street to visit Mrs Winslow. We drank tea before the fire and got to talking about favorite childhood treats, like bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. Foolishly, we decided to make some then and there–few 20th century folk were about the village on such a day, surely no one would come in–but of course a visitor arrived and exclaimed, “Oh, I loved bread, butter, and sugar when I was a child–I didn’t know the Pilgrim’s ate it too!” Mrs Winslow and I were mortified and tried to salvage the situation (and our reputations) by saying it was a rare treat–sugar was expensive, came all the way from England, and what a dreadful day it was for travelling. Roger is absolutely right about how these stories get started!

Mary Miley says:
April 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm (Edit)
Absolvo te. 🙂 (Mercy, I’ve done much worse in my day!)

Deanna Berkemeier says:
May 26, 2013 at 9:54 pm (Edit)
I apologize for it taking me a month to get back to you with some of my cheese coloring documentation you asked for. Chalk it up to preparations for my daughter’s upcoming wedding and our site opening for the season. I do not see an email address to send it to you privately and I hate to post it here, but I will try as a reply in hopes your moderation will catch it. The formatting did not stay, but if you read through each paragraph you will find references to coloring or not coloring cheese. Please note the source dates. Looking quickly, I saw nothing in my files that referenced anything related to coloring in the North vs. South at all. You will also find references to “American cheese” below, but as I noted before, American cheese in the 19th century was a natural cheese and in no way related to any processed cheesefood of today.

********************
The following are some of my collected references to coloring cheese in the 19th century: Researched by Deanna Berkemeier

“If it is required to have the cheese of a Gloucester color, take Spanish anatto, rub a lump in a saucer with milk, a little experience will teach the quantity necessary for a cheese ; then mix it with the rest of the milk, when it is set for cheese. One ounce will cover four or five hundred pounds, and it is bought of the apothecaries. It is perfectly innocent, and I thought the cheese coloured with it, was higher flavoured ; this might have been owing to other causes.” Source: The BALANCE, and Columbian repository, Volume 5, For 1806 By Ezra Sampson, George Chittenden, Harry Croswell p. 260-261
********************************

“The practice of coloring cheese and butter, we think, should be discouraged; who would thank a milk man to color his milk?” Source: The New England Farmer, and Horticultural Journal, July 13, 1831, Vol. 9, No. 52, 409.
*************************************

“REPORTS ON CHEESE.

MR. MARVIN’S STATEMENT.
The milk strained in large tubs over night; the cream stirred in milk, and in morning strained in same tub; milk heated to natural heat; add color and rennet; curd broke fine and whey off, and broke fine in hoop with fast bottom, and put in strainer; pressed twelve hours; then taken from hoop, and salt rubbed on the surface; then put in hoop, without strainer, and pressed forty-eight hours; then put on tables, and salt rubbed on surface, and remain in salt six days, for cheese weighing thirty pounds. The crushings are saved, and set and churned, to grease the cheese. The above method is for making one cheese per day.
DANIEL MARVIN.
Cooperstown, January, 1842.”

Page 428
“VARIETIES OF CHEESE.

Cheshire Cheese.—This cheese is famous for its rich quality and fine piquant flavor. It is made of entire new milk, the cream not being taken off. The cheeses are generally of very large size, usually about sixty pounds weight, and some have been made of one, or even two, hundred weight. Each cheese is- usually made of the produce of one day’s milking, from herds of from one to two hundred cows, who feed in rich pastures on some of the finest land in England. Their excellence must be attributed to the goodness of the milk, their size and age, and the skill employed in their manufacture. The color is not entirely natural; but a yellow tint is given by annatto, marigolds, or carrots. It is said, that some increase the richness and mellowness of the cheese by adding beef-suet, or any other wholesome and sweet fat well clarified, which is poured into and mixed with the curd.”

Source: The Farmer’s and Emigrant’s Hand-book: Being a Full and Complete Guide for the Farmer and the Emigrant. Comprising the Clearing of Forest and Prairie Land Gardening—farming Generally—farriery Cookery—and the Prevention and Cure of Diseases. With Copious Hints, Recipes, and Tables.; By Josiah T. Marshall, Author of the Emigrant’s True Guide.
Second Edition, Revised.; Publisher: Appleton, 1845
*****************************

“Previously to commencing the process of making cheese, besides the milk, two materials must be ready for use—the rennet for coagulating the milk, and the substance for colouring the cheese, if the latter is to be employed.
The colouring of cheese is a general custom, but not a necessary operation ; annatto is chiefly employed for this purpose. The usual mode of application, is to dip a piece of the requisite weight in a bowl of milk, and rub it on a smooth stone, until the milk assumes a deep red colour. This infusion without the sediment, which Is separated by standing a little, is to be added to the milk of which cheese is intended to be made, in such quantity as will impart to the whole a bright orange colour. The addition of annatto In no way effects the smell or taste.”

“CHEESE, BRITISH PARMESAN. — Heat the day’s milk to a temperature of from seventy-five to seventy-seven degrees, and after it has settled, put in the rennet. When it has stood for an hour or more, place the coagulated milk on a slow clear fire, and heat it till thecurd separates of itself. When separated, throw in cold water to reduce the temperature, and quickly collect the curd in a cloth, gathering it up at the corners. When drained. Dress it as other cheese. Next day it will be firm enough to turn. Let it dry slowly and gradually, often (at first about every hour) changing the wrapping-cloths. Rub it with a little salt daily, for three weeks, or plunge it in pickle for a few days. The curd for this, or any other cheese, may be coloured with a little saffron, or annatto, by putting a tincture of them, extracted in milk, to the milk when to be curdled.” Source: The dictionary of daily wants By Robert Kemp Philp, 1866
********************************************

“The American cheeses are the Pineapple, which is double the price of ordinary cheese, imitations of English Dairy, American Factory, and California cheese, which is only about half the weight and thickness of Eastern, and instead of being incased in a round wooden box like the Eastern, is handled loose or naked in the wholesale market. None of the American cheeses are classed among strong cheeses. They are good all the year round. The foreign varieties, or equally as good American imitations, may all be had in the larger cities, while excellent, if not the best, American factory cheese is obtainable everywhere. Sage cheese is made by the addition of bruised sage leaves to the curd, which imparts a greenish color and a flavor liked by many. Cream cheese is not properly a cheese, although so called, but is simply cream dried sufficiently to be cut with a knife. Cheese from milk and potatoes is manufactured in Thuringia and Saxony. Cheese may be had in small, round shapes, brickbats, the thin California cheeses, etc., as well as shaped in the ordinary large round hoop, or by the pound therefrom. All cheese, except the foreign skim-milk makes, contains more or less coloring matter, principally annatto, turmeric, or marigold, all perfectly harmless unless they are adulterated.”

“To make a plain family cream cheese, take three half pints milk to one-half pint cream, warm it and put in a little rennet; keep it covered in a warm place till it is curdled ; put the curds into the colander on a cloth to drain about an hour, serve with good plain cream and pounded sugar over it. To color, pound fresh sage leaves in a mortar to obtain the juice, and mix it with the milk while warm after the rennet is put in. Spinach juice is an improvement.”

Source: The new practical housekeeping: A compilation of new, choice and carefully tested recipes; 1890
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Reply
Mary Miley says:
May 27, 2013 at 7:52 am (Edit)
Wow, thanks Deanna. Interesting reading, especially the pre-Civil War references.

Reply
What do you think?

 


Revisited Myth # 110: The insult “Your name is mud” comes from Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Lincoln’s assassin for a broken leg.

February 5, 2017
Dr.Samuel Mudd

Dr.Samuel Mudd

Does the phrase ‘your name is mud’ or ‘your name will be mud’ come from Dr. Samuel Mudd who was known for helping John Wilkes Booth? My colleagues and I have been discussing this and I thought I would ask. Del Taylor, Program Coordinator, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons

Dr. Samuel Mudd was accused of helping John Wilkes Booth prior to Lincoln’s assassination and of treating his broken leg as he fled Washington after killing the president. He was imprisoned and then pardoned many years later. But the phrase has nothing to do with Dr. Mudd.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in December 2007, dates the first written example of the phrase at 1823, more than four decades before Lincoln was assassinated. Moreover, the term appeared in a British book, not an American one. It meant what it appears to mean–that your name is (or will be) dirty as mud if you do such-and-such.

 

 

COMMENTS:

Brian Leehan says:
April 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Edit)
Both make sense, but the 1823 written example clinches it, in terms of origin. I don’t ever recall seeing it written – only spoken. So, I always saw it in my mind’s-eye as “Your name will be Mudd.”

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janice says:
April 15, 2013 at 5:29 pm (Edit)
i have heard this or even read it in books about the death of lincoln. thank you for this info

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LYMHHM says:
May 1, 2013 at 9:04 am (Edit)
But the Dr. Mudd myth is so much more colorful. Thanks to BF Gates, AKA Nicolas Cage, we now have a new generation of misguided souls concerning real history. Thanks for the post,

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Mary Miley says:
May 1, 2013 at 5:55 pm (Edit)
And that’s the problem with most myths–they are memorable or funny or scary or sexy and more interesting, in some cases, than the truth. Oh well . .. .

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M Rob says:
April 21, 2015 at 11:49 pm (Edit)
Phrase and word meaning evolve and become more significant as events dictate. A phrase originally coined in 1823 Britain could very easily have taken on an American flavor following the infamy of Dr. Mudd.

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David says:
December 16, 2015 at 9:56 pm (Edit)
Sometimes there are historical events that redefine what an expression means. So, I completely agree with M Rob.

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PMV says:
October 18, 2016 at 2:09 pm (Edit)
I agree with M Rob and David.

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Revisited Myth #109: Laws allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and that’s where the phrase “rule of thumb” originated.

January 28, 2017

images

There are actually two myths here: 1) that laws allowed men to beat their wives as long as the stick was small, and 2) that this is the origin of the phrase “rule of thumb.”

First par first. In the various American colonies, laws differed from place to place and year to year. In Maryland, at least in the 1600s, beating one’s dependents with a small stick was allowed. Dependents included indentured servants, slaves, children, and wives. “The community expected him [a husband and landowner] to keep good order and the law allowed him to correct any of his charges with physical punishment, provided that any stick used in beating was no thicker than a man’s finger at its thickest end. Beating even his wife was permissible.” Lois Green Carr, “From Servant to Freeholder” Maryland Historical Magazine (Fall 2004), p. 298. Legal reference not cited. No similar references have been found that refer to thumbs and beatings, only to fingers.

Beatings with this size stick could be severe, and several cases appear against masters who beat their slaves or servants excessively, “Whereuppon mr Ouerzee beate him wth some Peare Tree wands or twiggs to the bignes of a mans finger att the biggest end, wch hee held in his hand” and the slave died. (Maryland Provincial Court Proceedings 1658) but I found no mention of wives or children being beaten with sticks, perhaps because none sued in Court. Again, the reference to stick size is a man’s finger, not a thumb.

Now for Part 2) the origins of the phrase “Rule of Thumb.” Our old reliable friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, disputes this claim. The Rule of Thumb, it says, is “a method or procedure derived entirely from practice or experience without any basis in scientific knowledge; a roughly practical method.” The earliest known instance of the term is 1692: “What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art.” More examples from later years follow, but nothing pertaining to beating one’s wife.

In her 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism?, Christina Hoff Sommers spends five entire pages discussing the origins, legal and journalistic, of the phrase, “rule of thumb.” It is too long for me to retype the entire section and the book is not available online to cut and paste, so I can’t post it. You’ll have to read pages 203-207 at your local library if you want more detail. Suffice to say that Sommers’s exhaustive research uncovered no link between the phrase and the law, other than misguided journalists quoting one another in magazine and newspaper articles. Which is how such myths are spread.

In a nutshell, Sommers debunks the oft-repeated statement that rule of thumb laws permitting wife-beating can be found in the famous legal commentaries of William Blackstone (1723-1780), which is the basis of much U.S. common law, and that these laws prevailed in state courts throughout the 19th century. Blackstone does state, “The husband, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction . . . in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children . . . But with us, in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted; and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband.” This conforms to the Maryland law, mentioned above. (Charles II ruled 1660-1685)

“In America,” Sommers says, “there have been laws against wife beating since before the Revolution. By 1870, it was illegal in almost every state, but even before then, wife-beaters were arrested and punished for assault and battery. . . . The Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited wife-beating as early as 1655. The edict states: No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense . . . “

But a couple of careless judges stated in their opinions the erroneous belief that this myth was true, and these men are often quoted as proof. In Mississippi in 1824 and in North Carolina in 1874, judges referred to an “ancient law” by which a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no wider than his thumb. There is no ancient law. None. And even here, neither judge referred to the supposed law as the “rule of thumb.”

Even the much-maligned Wikipedia has got this right. But there are many online sites that cheerfully and wrongly explain the origin of this phrase.

 

COMMENTS:

Cassidy says:
March 23, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
Interesting, but can I ask if English laws were examined and/or why they weren’t? Because what I’ve heard is that the supposed “rule of thumb” is from Sir Francis Buller, called “Judge Thumb“. I mean, I’ve also heard that Buller never actually said anything about sticks as wide as a man’s thumb, but there must be something (perhaps blown out of proportion and exaggerated for comic effect) that sparked Gillray’s cartoon.

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Mary Miley says:
March 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm (Edit)
I surmise from this cartoon that there was some British law about size of sticks, like the one mentioned above in Maryland about finger-size sticks. (And I’d be delighted if you wanted to look into the topic and report back!) But the origins of the phrase, Rule of Thumb, is explained by Oxford English Dictionary (above), and I always bow to their wisdom.

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nunya says:
November 19, 2014 at 4:51 pm (Edit)
https://www.law.umaryland.edu/marshall/usccr/documents/cr12w8410.pdf

And another article from Yale Law would disagree with this article (at least the feminist aspect of it). Just because something is illegal/legal on the books does NOT mean it didn’t happen.

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Lisa Denton says:
August 18, 2016 at 12:16 pm (Edit)
I recently watched some old BBC episodes of what I’d call experimental archaeology/reality show, Tudor Monastery Farm (2013). In the 3rd episode, one of the historians is visiting a miller (flour). The miller mentions rule of thumb. It’s 25m 45 sec into it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLyw6w-UH6U
Has anyone ever heard of this origin? Or is this another misguided historical interpreter? Or is there a difference between British and American usage?

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Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:23 am (Edit)
Frankly, this sounds like a possible origin of the phrase, but I can’t prove it.

Reply


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.

Reply
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

 


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