Yikes! Competition! (Just kidding.) Here’s an interesting history myths website I stumbled across last week. Nicely written and researched, and fun to read! Click here for some American history myths.
One of the earliest myths I wrote about is included in my book, Death by Petticoat: Housewives used the blue/purple paper that wrapped their sugar loaves to make a dye. I had written on this blog that this was a myth. I had researched the subject and spoken to several 18th century dye authorities, none of whom had ever heard such a thing. White sugar loaves were only for the wealthy, and those people had no need to dye their own fabric. So I was confident about declaring it a myth. This is what I originally wrote for publication:
A sweet story, but experts in historic crafts say that no examples of dying yarn or fabric with blue paper are known. Apart from that, it’s downright illogical. Sugar was an expensive, imported luxury—think caviar—that only the wealthy could afford . . . not the sort of people who would be recycling packaging for dying their clothes. And given the amount of blue paper needed to soak before any color seeped into the water, someone would have to eat a mountain of sugar!
It is more likely that wrapping sugarloaves in blue paper, as opposed to white or brown or any other color, was simply a tradition that evolved in the Middle East. Sugar cultivation originated in Asia and spread through the Middle East to Europe. In certain North African and Middle Eastern countries, sugar is still sold today in grocery stores and marketplaces in large conical shapes wrapped in blue paper.
If they couldn’t afford sugar, what did average Americans use for sweeteners? Maple sugar, honey, molasses, or unrefined muscovado sugar. Or more likely, nothing.
Fortunately, thanks to Beth Chamberlain, I learned of my mistake and was able to rewrite the page just weeks before the book was published. Beth pointed me toward an 1835 household management book that mentions dying fabric with blue wrapping paper. While there is no evidence of this practice in early America (the 17th & 18th centuries), Beth noted that Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife of 1835 mentions using “the purple paper which comes on loaf sugar, boiled in cider or vinegar with a small bit of alum, makes a fine purple slate color.” http://books.google.com/books?id=Fq_uAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA39
I immediately went to other mid-19th-century household management books and found another reference, Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s House-Book; a Manual of Domestic Economy (1850) that contained a chapter on domestic dyes and told how to make “a slate color” with “the thick purple paper that comes round sugar-loaves.” No doubt there are other mid-19th-century references.
The question that immediately came to mind: Why then and not earlier? What had changed? Further research revealed a steep drop in the cost of sugar from the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth due to the expansion of Caribbean sugar plantations. The market was flooded with sugar. Prices plunged, bringing white sugar loaves, wrapped in their traditional purplish-blue paper (which had been something only the wealthy few could afford), within reach of most housewives for the first time. Domestic economy books aimed at the middle-class homemaker often pointed out economical ways to do things, and making homemade dyes would have been a useful skill, especially on the expanding frontier where access to stores was limited.
So this myth turns out to be false when heard at early American sites and true for later, nineteenth-century sites. I modified Myth #49 accordingly. Another detail: those websites and museums that mention this myth usually say that the blue paper was used to dye fabric blue, when in actual references, the blue (or purplish-blue) paper resulted in a slate color. And many say that the blue paper was dyed with indigo, but Colonial Williamsburg’s expert on dyes, Max Hamrick, says it was most likely logwood.
As good luck would have it, Beth Chamberlain’s note arrived in the nick of time. A few more days and it would have been too late for me to modify this myth for Death by Petticoat. Readers like Beth are the strength of this blog–it’s given me the chance to preview things and make changes before going into the unforgiving medium of a printed book. I am grateful to all have chimed in with corrections and comments on various myths.
Sara Rivers Cofield heard this during a historic house tour and wondered if it was a myth. (And as part-owner of a Virginia winery www.valleyroadwines.com, I had more than normal interest in the answer.)
Not a myth–this one’s true. Wine was expensive, lots more expensive than beer or cider, because it was imported. Beer, “small beer” (with lower alcoholic content), and cider were everyday beverages for men, women, and children, drunk morning, noon, and night, and often made at home by the woman of the house. Small beer was served at every meal to boys at the College of William and Mary–in fact, the school had it’s own brewery. But wine had to be imported, usually from France, Portugal, the Canary Islands, or Spain.
The price differential shows up best in the colonial regulation of taverns and ordinaries. Many jurisdictions set “The Rates and Prices that every Ordinary keeper in this County may ask, demand, receive, or take for drink, Diet, Lodging, Fodder, Provender or Pasturage.” While these prices differ throughout time and place, there is a clear price gap between beer and cider and the more expensive wines.
For example, in 1743/1744, Lancaster County, Virginia, regulated beverages by the quart. Wines included Canary or French brandy at 5 shillings, Portugal or French wine at 4 shillings, Madeira wine at 2 shillings 3 pence, and Western Island wine (not sure which islands those were–Azores?) at 2 shillings. Meanwhile, a quart of strong beer from Virginia or Pennsylvania cost 6 pence and cider was 3 and 3/4 pence. At 12 pence to a shilling, that made wine eight to ten times as costly as strong beer and twelve to fifteen times as much as cider. Wine was for the gentry; cider and beer for everyone.
A related claim–that people drank beer because they thought water was bad for their health–is also true. This statement is often said with a patronizing smile, implying that people “back then” were so ignorant that they thought drinking water was harmful to their health and alcoholic beverages were not. In truth, people “back then” were pretty savvy. They shunned water because all too often, especially in cities, it wasn’t healthy to drink, because it came from polluted rivers or shallow wells. Alcoholic beverages like beer and cider were far safer.
Looks like the Smithsonian is muscling in on the history myth business! Here’s their terrific post about a vegetable myth that I think you’ll enjoy . . . and it does have a good deal to do with history.
Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit bullets to combat the pain when no anesthesia was available. mmFebruary 4, 2019
Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”
I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here.
With the disfunctional U.S. government in the news so much these past few weeks, I thought I’d boost your spirits with this debunking of commonly held myths about our congressmen and women. As Abraham Lincoln used to say, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”