Revisited Myth #50: Lee offered his sword to Grant at Appomattox, but Grant refused it.

June 30, 2015


This week’s myth comes to us courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where it was properly debunked. The story reported that Robert E. Lee’s French-made, ceremonial sword had been conserved and was being moved from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, to a newly constructed museum in Appomattox, where it is on display throughout 2015 (the 150th anniversary of the surrender) at the house where the surrender took place (below). The reporter repeated the enduring myth often heard at Civil War sites–that General Lee offered his ceremonial sword to General Ulysses S. Grant and that Grant gallantly refused it–saying that both claims were untrue.

Lee never offered his sword. Grant never requested it. Here are Grant’s own words from his memoirs: “The much talked of surrendering of Lee’s sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance.” Seems it was a widespread myth even back then! 


Revisited Myth #49: Early Americans used the blue wrappers from their sugar cones to dye fabric.

June 15, 2015


A sweet story, but experts in historic crafts say that no actual instances of this practice are known in America’s colonial era. Apart from lack of evidence, it is illogical. Refined sugar was an expensive, imported luxury—think caviar—that only the wealthiest could afford. Not the sort who are scrimping and recycling their wrapping paper or dying their own fabric. (If the family budget couldn’t stretch to include sugar, what did folks back then use for sweeteners? Maple sugar, honey, molasses, or muscovado sugar. Or nothing.)

But lo and behold, several household management books published in the mid-nineteenth century do mention this practice. In one of them, The American Frugal Housewife (1835), author Lydia Childs tells how to make various cheap dyes, including “a fine purple slate color” by boiling sugar wrapping paper in vinegar with alum and boiling it in an iron kettle. In another, Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s Frugal House-Book; a Manual of Domestic Economy (1850), the chapter on domestic dyes tells how to make a slate color by boiling vinegar and alum in an iron kettle with some pieces of “the thick purple paper that comes round sugar-loaves.”

Why then and not earlier? Probably because that’s when sugar became cheap. The expansion of Caribbean sugar plantations flooded the market with sugar and prices dropped, bringing sugarloaves, wrapped in traditional purplish-blue paper, within reach of most housewives. And the average housewife is just the sort who might be interested in learning to dye her own fabric on the cheap. So this myth is false when heard at early American sites and true for later, nineteenth-century sites.

Where did the purplish-blue paper custom, as opposed to white or brown or another color, originate? Probably in the Middle East or North Africa, where sugarcane cultivation originated. In certain North African countries, sugar is still sold that way in grocery stores, as large cones wrapped in blue paper. I saw them in a Moroccan grocery store a few years ago, and also in a market in Jordan.


Revisited Myth # 48: Before there were hospitals, houses had birthing rooms.

June 8, 2015
Victorian era birth

Victorian era birth

In many historic houses, guides used to show visitors the birthing room. Thankfully, one hears this less often today–a myth on its way out!

Until the twentieth century, American women gave birth at home, usually in their own bed in their own bedroom. There was no special “birthing room” reserved for this purpose–even in the largest, wealthiest households–not in the colonial period, not in the Victorian period.

Giving birth was a time of great stress for women because of the many problems that could occur with both baby and mother. Reliable estimates for death of the mother and/or child during childbirth are impossible to come by. Before the first national census in 1790, records were spotty. Only snapshot studies of certain areas at certain times exist to give us an idea of the range. For the colonial period, some historians estimate that one in eight women died in childbirth. (This is NOT saying that one in eight births killed the mother, but that of eight women–each of whom may have been pregnant six, eight, or ten times–one was liable to die in childbirth.) Other reputable sources say one in ten. About half of the babies born died before their fifth birthday. The numbers didn’t begin to improve until doctors and midwives began to understand the importance of washing their hands and sterilizing their instruments.

(Sarah St. Germain contributed this idea bit of information in May 6, 2011, “I recently came across a definition from Noah Webster’s 1806 dictionary which may help clear up part of this myth: Birth: act of coming into life; regeneration; lineage; origin; convenient room; place to lodge in. Perhaps it was an easy jump to “birthing room”? He changed the definition for the 1828 dictionary.”)

Hmmm. Do you suppose Webster was thinking of “berth?”

Revisited Myth # 47: The fainting couch was invented during Victorian times for tightly corseted women to use whenever they felt faint.

May 16, 2015
19th-century tight lacing

19th-century tight lacing

Thanks to Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information at the Geneva Historical Society Geneva, NY, who sent this myth.

A recent study using reenactors showed that wearing corsets laced 3” tighter than natural reduced lung capacity by 2% to 29%. Some wearers felt short of breath but were easily relieved with rest. The conclusion: “Reports of corseted women fainting are likely to have been accurate,” especially during physical activity such as dancing. (See the excellent book, The Corset: A Cultural History, by Valerie Steele, 2003, for more info.)

So now we know that tightly corseted ladies were not faking the fainting spells, at least not all the time. But does it follow that fainting couches were invented and strewn about Victorian houses in case of sudden need?

In a word, no. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of the word daybed is 1594, but the actual object dates much earlier. Paging through the Dictionary of English Furniture turned up many, many examples of antique couches and daybeds—most upholstered or caned—from the 1600s forward, proving that this item of furniture was not a Victorian invention. While the term “fainting couch” seems to date from the Victorian era (sadly, there is no listing of it in the OED), the style existed in ancient Roman, Egyptian, and Greek times. (below top Greek, middle Roman, bottom Egyptian) According to historians at the Smithsonian, reclining furniture like these examples originated in the 7th century BC with the Greeks and spread to the Romans. (see

10 18


Actual Roman daybed found in the ruins of Herculaneum near Pompeii

Actual Roman daybed found in the ruins of Herculaneum near Pompeii

Since the Victorians were fond of reviving historical styles—think Greek Revival, Egyptian Revival, etc.—the adaptation of those early pieces to current use was a fashion statement as much as a useful piece of furniture. As such, they probably would have been found in the most fashionable rooms of the house, like the parlor. 

Revisited Myth # 46: The Good Friday Massacre of 1622

May 9, 2015


On the morning of March 22, 1622, Virginia’s Powhatan Indian alliance executed a well-conceived and coordinated attack on English settlements spread more than fifty miles up and down the James River. Warriors from perhaps a dozen of the thirty-two affiliated tribes—Quiyoughcohannocks, Waraskoyacks, Weanocks, Appomatucks, Arrohatecks, and others—fell on men, women, and children in their homes and in their fields, burning houses and barns, killing livestock, mutilating the bodies of their victims. Planned by the Pamunkey headman Opechancanough, a kinsman of the deceased paramount chieftain Powhatan, the offensive slew about 350 whites, a sixth of the total in the fifteen-year-old colony. From modern Richmond to Hampton Roads, the onslaught devastated Jamestown’s outlying plantations, but it failed in its purpose: stopping the relentless encroachment of the English. The raid is commonly—and erroneously—called the Good Friday Massacre.

More than one historian has suggested that the attacks were timed to coincide with the Christian Holy Week, thinking that the 1622 raid was on Good Friday. Eminent colonist George Thorpe had often conferred with Opechancanough on matters of religion, trying to convert the old chief to Christianity, and presumably would have shared with him the details of Easter and the resurrection. The Powhatans had a predilection for blending irony and warfare (These are Indians who killed colonists for stealing corn by stuffing corn down their throats, for example.) It is suggested that Opechancanough planned the attack for Good Friday to emphasize a rejection of the foreigner’s religion.

Easter, however, does not cooperate with this theory, falling as it does on April 21 in 1622, several weeks after the massacre. So how did the myth begin?

It seems to have been a mix-up with the date of Opechancanough’s second major attack, the one in 1644, which actually did occur near Easter, although this one was not on Good Friday either. This second attack came on the Thursday before Easter, known by Christians as Maundy Thursday. Seems that a careless historian moved the attack of 1644 back one day—to Good Friday—and confused that with the date of the first attack in 1622. According to ethnohistorian Fred Fausz, this mixup “led to the creation of the myth–unforgivably by a clergyman. In 1871 the Rev. Edward D. Neill got his massacres mixed up; thought the 1644 attack occurred on Good Friday, rather than on Maundy Thursday; and then inadvertently reversed the years! A Neill admirer, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, embraced the symbolism of heathens slaying Anglicans on that special day of Christian sacrifice. A careless slip became an enduring myth because both men were popular celebrity authors, more prolific than careful, with Neill restating his error in multiple, repetitious books from 1871-1885, while Tyler did likewise from 1904-1915.”

Memorable and catchy, the mistake persists in textbooks and on Internet sites despite the efforts of historians to correct it.

Fred Fausz, a history professor at the University of St. Louis, wrote more on this topic:

Historians used to be taught to evaluate evidence, to question everything, but that is rarely the case today, as the most enduring old myth about Jamestown reveals. The “Good Friday Fallacy” associated with the 1622 Massacre originated 136 years ago and was still misleading the general public as recently as the May 7 issue of Time magazine and the January 2007 special Jamestown issue of U.S. News & World Report. Good Friday fell on April 19 in both the 1622 and 1644 years of massive Powhatan offensives, and that led to the creation of the myth–unforgivably by a clergyman. In 1871 the Rev. Edward D. Neill got his massacres mixed up; thought the 1644 attack occurred on Good Friday, rather than on Maundy Thursday; and then inadvertently reversed the years! A Neill admirer, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, embraced the symbolism of heathens slaying Anglicans on that special day of Christian sacrifice. A careless slip became an enduring myth because both men were popular celebrity authors, more prolific than careful, with Neill restating his error in multiple, repetitious books from 1871-1885, while Tyler did likewise from 1904-1915.

The indifference paid to or paid by copyeditors and proofreaders is even more telling in the publication industry today, as the Good Friday Fallacy is more widely disseminated than ever before. At least three Oxford University Press books perpetuate that error–including the 25th anniversary edition of T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes’s popular “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676–while notable scholars, such as Breen, John Murrin, and Jill Lepore, keep it alive in their college textbooks. Such errors also live on in cyberspace, where “history viruses” proliferate like all the others. They have “infected” the website, which has an entire section under a prominent heading, “Good Friday Massacre,” as well as the 2005 online book by the National Park Service, A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century.


Myth # 141: Colonial-era bread ovens were constructed outside the fireplace, to one side of the hearth.

May 2, 2015
Above: 18th-c. New England fireplace with rear bread oven; below: Michie Tavern fireplace with right side oven.

Above: 18th-c. New England fireplace with rear bread oven; below: Michie Tavern fireplace with right side oven.

This is more misunderstanding than myth, but Cindy Conte of Michie Tavern, Charlottesville, Virginia (1784), asked me to address the subject, so I will! 

“The 18th-century hearth is one of the most romanticized and iconic images of colonial times,” writes Cindy Conte. “Early depictions feature a woman in colonial garb cooking over a roaring fire. Sadly, this romantic hearth cooking image has been stamped into our mindset as permanently as it has been inked into old history books. At least once every season a tourist will point to the bread oven which is tucked to the side of our fireplace and exclaim, ‘That has to be wrong. A person would get burned baking bread if the oven were placed there.’ Surely, they are thinking of that colonial woman, a roaring fire and possibly a large black kettle. Quite often, we explain that once a fire was good and hot, the coals would be separated into piles (think of burners on a stove) and several dishes could be prepared at once. Bread could be prepared as well. Bread ovens were tucked into the side of hearths, at the back of hearths, close to the hearth, to the right of the hearth, to the left of the hearth and outside.”

Bread ovens (which had doors that are missing in these photos), could be constructed in various places around the fireplace. Why build one inside the fireplace where surely it would be harder to access? Frank Clark, Colonial Williamsburg’s supervisor of Historic Foodways, says the reason is: “It was cheaper. If you put your oven on either side of the fireplace, you must also build a flue to tie it into the main chimney. This takes more bricks and more labor from a mason. If you don’t, your kitchen fills with smoke when you use it. When you build it in the back of the fireplace, it feeds to the main chimney with no flue. It is, however, more difficult to use since you have to keep the hearth fire to the other side so you can access the oven.”

So bread ovens at the back or side of the fireplace are not mistakes. 




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?  


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