Revisited Myth #132: A shot glass was originally a small glass filled with lead buckshot to use as a pen holder.

October 15, 2017
A tour guide wrote in to ask about the origins of “shot glass.” She’d heard it said that the phrase referred to its use as a pen holder. Filled with buckshot, it would keep the ink on the pen nib wet. I couldn’t determine it’s validity, so I threw it out to the universe, so to speak, and the universe answered. Sort of. 
 
     Blog reader Noah Briggs pointed out, “As for using them as pen holders, this is total baloney. After being used, quill and steel nib pens were wiped clean with a pen wiper and laid on a rack horizontally, because leaving them vertically in an ink pot (or the mythical “buckshot” in a shot glass) will bend and damage the tip, thus disrupting the flow of ink down the crevice and onto the tip and thus onto the paper. If you need to keep your ink wet, you dipped your pen into the inkwell. After all, that was its function.” 
 
     And thanks to Deborah Brower, a calligrapher, who adds, “Leaving your wet pen nib in a glass full of lead shot would be no different than leaving it on a table. The ink would dry on the nib and most likely ruin it. Even if it kept it moist, it would cause the nib to rust. You always clean you pen when you are done.”
 
     The statement is a myth. 
 
     So what is the origin of the term?  The word “shot” (according to Webster’s Merriam Dictionary) means “A small measure or serving (as one ounce) of undiluted liquor or other beverage [vodka shot], [a shot of expresso].” A glass for a shot of liquor, or shot glass, is merely that. 
 
 
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Revisited Myth #131: Government buildings were color coded in order to identify them for illiterate Americans.

September 23, 2017

The subtext to this one is, ” . . . because so many (or most) Americans were illiterate back then.” For that, scroll way back down to Myth #37 about shop signs. And thanks to Noah Briggs who adds, “This myth proceeds on the bizarre assumption that the American literacy rate was worse “back then” than it is today. In reality, the US had a very good literacy rate, as demonstrated in this article here. http://www.raggedsoldier.com/literacy.htm” That links to an interesting study of literacy during the Civil War era.

For the main portion of this myth, my thanks go to Carolyn Murphy who delivered the coup de grace. “In order to get the ultimate answer about color-coded post offices, I checked with the Jennifer M. Lynch, Postal Historian at US Post Service Headquarters, Washington, DC. She said: ‘I have never heard of color-coded government buildings. In the 1800s, most buildings that housed Post Offices were owned by the postmaster–not the government. There were no regulations regarding exterior paint.’ That seems to answer that question. For any further Postal information, go to http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history.” 

 

Revisited Myth # 129: Punched patterns on tin lanterns varied by family so people could tell who was moving about outside at night.

September 16, 2017

First, the practical. Experiments revealed that it would be impossible to discern a particular pattern of tin lanterns at any distance. S. West reports “I just now performed an experiment with index cards, a hole punch, and a flashlight. In a dark room, if you can see the difference in the patterns – as the dots shine on the walls. However, outside, on the streets the light pattern would not be clear. Also, the more intricate the patterns, the more difficult it would be to tell them apart when looking at the lantern lit up from across the street.” E. Duval writes, “I’m dubious of the tin lantern theory. I work at Conner Prairie, a living history museum in Indiana where we frequently use these lanterns at night. Candles really don’t give off enough light to make the pattern punched into the lantern distinguishable from far distances. By the time you got close enough to see the pattern, you’d also be able to see the person’s face.”

Sarah Uthoff checked with her contacts and reports: Kitty Hillman Latané, a historic tinsmith, wrote, “I’d never heard the ‘family pattern’ thing about tin punching, though plaids and knit patterns have a tradition of family patterns. Here’s what Shay Lelegren, a historical tinsmith at Hot Dip Tin, told me. ‘That story being told in Nauvoo had made its way to Utah and I was asked about it many times in my Tinshop in Salt Lake. There is no documentary evidence to it. None of the museum pieces in the Utah Pioneer museums have patterns. In fact original punched tin lanterns I looked at have more holes than repros. Some have 90% of the body punched. I believe the story was invented by the gift shop industry. . . . In both sites they are volunteers serving a 2-year mission and they are telling the stories they have been taught by the generations before. The Nauvoo Tin shop was set up the late 1970 and has never been a working shop (only narrated) . . .  The tinware on display is all repro.'”

Another wrinkle: how would the “family pattern” continue into the next generation? Which son or daughter’s family would “inherit” the family pattern? And Mormon families are so big and interconnected, it would become impossibly confusing. 

I think we can judge the “family pattern” tin lantern a myth. Thanks to all the blog readers who helped with observations and information! 

 


Why is Nobody Smiling?

September 3, 2017

A rainy day at the beach yesterday sent me to Norfolk, Virginia’s excellent Chrysler Museum of Art. I was particularly impressed by the labels on many of the works of art. They were very helpful in directing attention to certain features or posing thoughtful questions–or answering the question that is likely in the visitor’s head. This one made me think of the Myth 127: People didn’t smile in pictures because of the long exposure time required.  The myth speaks to photographs but makes the point that photographic portraits followed the traditions of painted portraits. Here’s what the Chrysler label said: 


Revisited Myth #128: A “chin protector” strip sewn across the edge of a quilt to protect against the oils of grandpa’s beard, and this is evidence of a very old quilt.

August 27, 2017

General agreement from blog readers says that it doesn’t take a beard to create stains on the top edge of a quilt. Hands and faces can do damage easily, which is why a bed properly made folds the top sheet over the blanket or quilt–sheets being frequently laundered and blankets/quilts not so much. After reading the following comments by experts, we can safely conclude that most of this statement is fact, just not the part about the strip being useful in dating the quilt.

Barbara Brackman, quilt historian: “Several years I wrote this about the topic. See below. And I’ve attached a picture of a comforter from about 1910 with a pink feedsack chin protector from about 1940. [above]
Chin or Beard Protectors: Some of the most functional quilts and comforters, those used as everyday blankets, have an extra piece of fabric covering one edge. We call these cuffs “Chin Protectors” or “Beard Protectors”.  The women who remember sleeping under them tell us the cuff was added to the edge of the quilt that was pulled up under a man’s scratchy chin to protect the patchwork from wear, sort of like a celluloid collar extending the life of a shirt. The chin protector could be replaced when it frayed. To be fair to men, we must point out that people of either gender can wear out a quilt’s surface by pulling at it every night. A better name for these unquilted additions might be “hand protector.”

Observation indicates that the extra border, a cuff covering both the top and backing of the quilt, is most often made of a fabric produced after 1900. The housekeeper might have added a chin protector to an 1880’s quilt, but it usually looks like that extra piece was stitched in place in the 20th century.  Chin protectors, like sleeves for hanging, are often a later addition that is of little use in dating the quilt.”

 The International Quilt Museum posted this response from their curator on their Facebook page:
“Sarah asked if we had any comments on the quilt myth mentioned in the second half of the post. Here’s what one of our curators had to say: A “beard guard” or “whisker guard” is something seen on quilts somewhat regularly. It was a way to help keep the area at the top of a quilt clean. It protected the quilt from oils – whether from a beard or from hands. They were used at various times in history, so it isn’t a clue to a particular date, period or region.”

Revisited Myth # 127: People didn’t smile in pictures because of the long exposure times required.

August 16, 2017

Martha Katz-Hymen at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation wrote about this belief. It is true, but it isn’t the whole story.

It is true that people rarely smiled in old photographs because it is harder to hold a smile than a relaxed face, and photographs were not a quick “click” in the early years. But that is only one reason. The other is cultural.

“But an article by Nicholas Jeeves, recently published in the Public Domain Review, suggests that, when folks frowned, they did so for reasons as economic, social and historical as they were technological. Mark Twain thought as much. In one of his letters, collected by Jeeves, he wrote:

A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.

Twain wasn’t the only believer in the idiocy of the style. Look back at painted portraiture — the tradition photography inherited — and you’ll rarely see a grinning subject. This is, in fact, Jeeves’s subject. “By the 17th century in Europe,“ he writes, “it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.’

Read the whole article: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/why-didn-t-people-smile-in-old-portraits/279880/?google_editors_picks=true

And read Nicholas Jeeves entire article, below. Jeeves is an artist, writer and lecturer at Cambridge School of Art. One excerpt: “A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable.” http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/09/18/the-serious-and-the-smirk-the-smile-in-portraiture/

 

Previous comments:

  1. Brian Leehan says:

    Looking forward to reading the linked article. I have always heard it was the “formality” of poses in portrait paintings that influenced poses people struck in early photographs (as is mentioned in this posting). Never thought about the issue of long exposure times for photographs – which makes a lot of sense, too. Of course, sitting for a portrait to be painted of you involves a LOT more “exposure time” than an early photograph, so perhaps it’s all inter-related. I’ve also heard that people were reluctant to smile because of the state of most people’s teeth in the 19th century. I think I can recall one or two photographs I’ve seen, total, of a group of soldiers in the field during the Civil War where one or two are smiling – usually with a closed mouth. I think one of those was with a soldier smiling and showing teeth, but he was in a larger group and is was hard to discern the state of his teeth. I just recall being surprised to see a photo from that period where someone was smiling broadly enough to show teeth.

  2. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    I discuss this on my tours frequently. Glad to know I’m getting it right. I often wonder what future generations will think of us from the 20th/21st centuries who not only smile but do all sorts of goofy poses.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Or no teeth.

      • therealguyfaux says:

        Candid photos of Queen Victoria, taken late in life, once short exposures had become possible, show her to have had a Terry-Thomas/David Letterman gap. (Of course, these were family photos– back then, nobody would have “paparazzi’d” the Queen!) At least in her case, SHE may have wanted to play down her dental condition in her photos, at any rate; But I’m sure maintaining the “stern visage of Vic” would have been advised to her, in any event, as looking more “regal.” (Remember, this is a somewhat prematurely-matronly thirtyish woman we are talking about, in the earliest photos of her.)

  3. Curtis Cook says:

    This reminds me of a recent comedy movie “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (spoiler alert: there aren’t a million ways depicted in the film, but it feels like they go through forty or so).

    In one scene the male and female protagonists are passing along a midway at a county fair and see a travelling photographer. The woman says she heard a rumor that some guy down in Texas had actually managed to hold a smile long enough for it to show up on film. They agree that the very idea is ridiculous, but at the end of the film the guy gives her a copy of the rumored photo… and it really does look unnatural.


Revisited Myth # 126: “A boot of ale” derives from the custom of using old boots as drinking vessels.

July 22, 2017

The myth says that the expression “a boot of ale” comes from the custom of cutting off the top of old boots and using them as serving containers. (How the top of an old boot transformed into a vessel is unclear–to me, at least.) 

As most of you who work at or visit colonial-era museums know, the American colonists drank out of leather vessels called jacks or blackjacks. These were lined with pitch to make them waterproof and are very sturdy. Decades ago, my stores in Colonial Williamsburg sold reproductions, and I believe they still do. These large leather jugs and mugs made such an impression on the French visitors to England in the 17th century that they reported that Englishmen drank out of their boots! A funny story, not meant to be taken literally. (Waterer’s Leather in Life, Art, and Industry, 1946, London) 

Why use leather to make a drinking vessel? It’s an English tradition. In medieval England, there was little glass manufacture, so aside from wood, pottery, or tin, what are you going to use to make a mug or goblet? (Yes, gold and silver, but those are for the nobles, not taverns or average folks, so let’s not go there.) Leather worked very well. Still does. But not boots.

 

Comments:

  1. Can you tell us about bootlegging, then? It must come from the same origin. I can’t imagine it’s a reference to carrying liquor in the boot of one’s car. I’m reading your novel, so it’s on my mind! Well, actually I’m listening to the audiobook from Audible, but I still call that “reading”.

    • Mary Miley says:

      The word first appeared in the 1850s in Maine and of course it refers to smuggling liquor. But this seemed odd to me because Prohibition didn’t start until almost 70 years later. That is, except in Maine, the first dry state, where it became illegal to manufacture or consume liquor in 1851. Because Maine shares a border with Canada, the law was easily flouted. Ordinary folks wanting to smuggle liquor into the country could hide a couple bottles in their pants legs in Canada and walk into the United States.

    • Andrew says:

      It’s not about the ‘boot’ of a car, but a literal boot, where flasks of whiskey would be hidden and carried across the border. I live in one of the major cities known for it’s role in the prohibition.

  2. Cynthia says:

    Looking at your illustration/example above, you can’t blame anyone for jumping to a conclusion that people were drinking out of their boots! Except for the stitched handle, that example looks very much like an inverted riding boot. Perhaps they were made from the same leather stock, and from a similar pattern.

 


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