The Spanish Myth I Encountered in Seville

March 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

March 15, 2015


Photo courtesy of the COlonial Williamsburg Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

March 7, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

Revisited Myth # 40: Most men wore wigs in colonial America.

March 1, 2015


Most men did not wear wigs. Even if they had wanted to, it was a very expensive fashion accessory! Not all those who could afford to wear a wig did so (George Washington, for example). Many preferred to arrange and powder their own hair.

But the myth lives on. In fact, I came across it in a 5th-grade history textbook that I was asked to review for the Virginia Department of Education where it said most men wore wigs. It was one of five myths–and many, many other errors–that I found in the book (which was immediately pulled from classrooms). No wonder these myths refuse to die! 

So how many men wore wigs? Betty Myers, supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s Wigmaker’s Shop wh has studied the craft of wig-making for over thirty-five years, was more precise. “We estimate that only about 5% of the population [in colonial Virginia] wore wigs. Roughly 2% gentry and 3% middling sort. The middling sort were tradesmen and professionals such as lawyers, doctors, merchants, ship captains, and teachers. . . . Females also wore wigs, however, they were from the gentry class, thus referred to as ladies. The majority of the population was just surviving. Putting food on the table was their priority, not fashion.” 

And outside colonial Virginia? Major cities like Boston and Philadelphia would probably have had a slightly higher percentage of men wearing wigs than towns, if we assume that cities had a higher concentration of wealthy and middling sort living in them. But as Englishmen in English colonies, they were all taking fashion cues from London. 

cover_featureContrary to expectation, not all wig-wearers were white. Most runaway slave advertisements describe the clothing that the slave was wearing, and a handful of those mention wigs. (for example, Virginia Gazette Nov. 1772 “. . . a very likely young Virginia born Negro Man named DAVID, of a yellowish Complexion, and about five Feet five Inches high . . . Though his Hair is of the Negro Kind, he keeps it very high and well-combed; but, as he wants to be free, I imagine he will cut it off, and get a Wig to alter and disguise himself . . .”) And house slaves belonging to a royal governor or wealthy man may well have worn wigs. 

Revisited Myth # 39: During the Revolutionary War, people melted down their pewter mugs and plates to make bullets.

February 22, 2015


Since we’re already on the subject of deadly pewter . . . what about pewter bullets?

Bullet molds were intended to make lead bullets, but “in a pinch,” says Colonial Williamsburg gunsmith Richard Sullivan, “you could use pewter even though it would be inferior to lead. But I know of no accounts of such a practice.” Neither did two other Williamsburg gunsmiths I asked. I’ve read a few secondary sources that mention this practice as having occurred during the Revolutionary War, but these have been old publications (like the book on Nathan Hale from 1915), where the statement isn’t documented, or family genealogies, where the author repeats family lore, again, without documentation. It’s easy to repeat stories,  harder to find one that points to proof in the form of a primary source.

With bullets, heavier is better. Pewter would work—heck, aluminum foil would work—but pewter is mostly tin with a small amount of another metal, sometimes lead but not always. Imagine the power of a tin bullet . . . it wouldn’t go as far as a lead one, would lose speed more quickly, and wouldn’t have the energy when it struck. In dire circumstances, melting down one’s pewter plates might have provided ammunition that was better than nothing, but the practice could hardly have been widespread. Even though it might have occurred on rare occasion, the statement makes it sound commonplace, and so should be judged a myth.  

However, one reader of this blog, John Simpson, pointed out some recent research that shows archaeologists have discovered examples of lead-tin alloy musket balls on the site of the Battle of Monmouth (NJ), at Rice’s Fort (PA), and at Fort Motte (SC). At Monmouth, musket balls of “lead hardened with tin” were uncovered. At Fort Motte (1781), Stacey Whitacre’s 2008 MA thesis studied “lead alloy (pewter?)” that are “probable rifle balls.” For those who want to delve further into the subject, Mr. Simpson kindly provided links to the thesis and details of the other finds in his comments below. 



Revisited Myth #38: Colonial Americans suffered from widespread lead poisoning due to the lead in their pewter.

February 15, 2015
Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, gift of Mr./Mrs. Foster McCarl, Jr.

Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, gift of Mr./Mrs. Foster McCarl, Jr.

This is a myth. Sort of.

You probably know that pewter is an alloy. You may also know that it can contain lead, but not always. Pewter is mostly tin; the minority metal can be copper, antimony, brass, zinc, bismuth or lead. A Winterthur Museum study from the 1970s showed that fine quality 18th-century pewter contained no lead, but lower quality pewter often did.

Virtually everyone was exposed to pewter in the form of plates, utensils, and drinking vessels. Even well-to-do folks who could afford sterling and glass on their dining tables were exposed, because pewter was used in their kitchens. Those who couldn’t afford sterling and glass—that is, the vast majority of the population–used pewter on tables and in kitchens.

The noxious effects of lead taken internally were well known in the colonial period, if not well understood. Lead poisoning was recognized back in the days of ancient Rome, when it became obvious that men who worked directly with lead, like miners and plumbers, suffered from its symptoms. All colonial Americans came into daily contact with lead through pewter, lead-glazed pottery, lead crystal, musket balls, lead paint, lead solder, and other sources. Ironically, the richer the person, the more lead he or she consumed, since servants, slaves, and the poor ate with wooden utensils.

Scientists at the Smithsonian did some interesting work analyzing the lead content in colonists’ bones. For comparison purposes, they noted that modern Americans generally have less than 20 parts per million of lead in their bones, and it takes about 50 parts per million before symptoms become noticeable. The bones of one wealthy Virginian who lived in the mid-17th century yielded a whopping 149 ppm. “But,” say Robin Kipps and Sharon Cotner of Colonial Williamsburg’s Apothecary, “there is no way to determine how much of the lead in a body was due to pewter versus all the other sources.” It seems safe to say that pewter contributed to lead poisoning but was not the most significant source of lead.

Did the colonists realize the lead in their pewter played a role in their health problems? Almost certainly not. Kipps and Cotner note that medical texts of the period do not make the connection between lead poisoning and the use of pewter, crystal, and ceramics, so presumably no one else did either.

Pewter gradually faded from use. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, it was replaced by ceramic plates and glass drinking vessels made widely available through the efficiencies of mass production. Many ceramic glazes contained lead.

Don’t worry about using any modern pewter you may own. Modern pewter, used mostly in decorative pieces, is entirely lead free and usually marked as such. Antique pewter is riskier, since there is no easy way to tell if its content includes lead. (I’ve been told that you can buy a lead test kit at hardware stores and that it’s a fairly simple test, but never tried it myself.)

Revisited Myth # 37: Since most people were illiterate, shop signs had to have pictures instead of words.

February 2, 2015
Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

While this may have been true in medieval Europe, the statement does not hold up for colonial America.

Colonial shop signs and inn signs with pictures were no doubt helpful to people who couldn’t read, but they were not used because of mass illiteracy. The overwhelming majority of white colonists were literate. (The overwhelming majority of blacks were not.) Percentages changed over time and vary from colony to colony or state to state, and the principle way to ascertain literacy is by using a signature as evidence, even though it is certain that some people could write their names but not read or write much else, and others could read but not write their names. 

Studies of specific areas give estimates for specific time periods. One study examined legal documents in the second half of the seventeenth century and found that about 60% of the white men and 25% of the white women could read. Another shows that in the Williamsburg area in the middle of the eighteenth century, 94% of white males and 56% of white females could read. In general, the evidence strongly suggests that nearly all property owners and heads of households in Virginia in the late colonial period were literate. In New England, literacy rates were higher than elsewhere because there were more schools and nearly everyone learned to read so that they could read the Bible. There are no reliable estimates of black literacy for the colonial period that I am aware of–please forward anything you might know about! Prior to the Civil War in the mid-nineteenth century, about 10% of blacks could read. After Reconstruction and the efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau, that number had risen to 30%.

Wealth and gender were the strongest predictors of literacy–no surprise there!

Simplifying the studies into one sentence, I would say that around the time of the American Revolution, about two thirds to 90% of white males could read, and about half to two thirds of white women. The pictures-on-the-shop-signs claim is a myth. But putting pictures or symbols on a shop sign was tradition and they certainly are eye-catching, so that probably explains their continued popularity.  

To read more on this topic, see


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