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. (One reader wrote that archaeologists had unearthed one at Rice’s Fort in Washington County, PA, but he/she did not provide any documentation, and I could find nothing online.)

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 must be judged a myth.

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

Revisited Myth # 36: The first American settlers built log cabins.

January 23, 2015


Perhaps Bill Bryson says it best (and most succinctly) in his book, At Home. “They didn’t. They didn’t know how.”

The original European colonists who settled in what became the thirteen American colonies were English. They settled in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early decades of the seventeenth century and later in other colonies. They built the sort of houses they knew from home: wooden frame houses or brick. Wood was plentiful in the colonies. Brick was not difficult to make.

(Even earlier than the English were the Spanish, who settled Florida in the 1500s. They did not build log cabins either.)

The first log cabins came with Scandinavian immigrants to the colony of New Sweden (around Delaware & New Jersey) in 1638. They built traditional Scandinavian-style homes like this one:


Gradually the log cabin caught on with other ethnic groups and became the first house European settlers would build on the woodland frontier. (In the Great Plains region where there were few large trees, sod became the material used for the first house.)

Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.

January 10, 2015


Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press.)

The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.) 

Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband. 

But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.

Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “if 18th c. Jews traditionally ate beans for Rosh HaShana, it wasn’t for luck. Rosh HaShana is a two-day “yom tov” or holy day, and Jews are not allowed to light fires or cook on holy days. So it was a long-standing tradition to assemble a casserole, usually something like a pot of beans, and set it among the banked coals on the hearth before the holiday starts, so it will slow-cook like a crock pot meal, and still be hot a day or (even two days) later. However I seriously doubt that anyone in the American South learned this from their Jewish neighbors as a “New Year’s” tradition. Rosh HaShana is in September or very early October, and non-Jewish southerners would almost certainly not have understood enough about the holiday to make the connection to their own New Year’s celebrations.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.

Another article in, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.

Read more:

Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. Civil War and comes from an old Catholic tradition during Lent. Carlings began to be seen as good luck, period. The history of the Carling Festival and Carling Sunday [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.” 

So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct societies: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!



Christmas . . . is it Merry or Happy?

December 21, 2014

This isn’t an actual myth, but in honor of the holidays, I thought I’d post this bit of research submitted by Kenneth Archbold of Mount Vernon, who reports that people there were debating which greeting–Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas–would have been used during George Washington’s time. 


From what I’ve been able to find out, “Merry Christmas” is indeed what one was more likely to use at the time, if any greeting was used at all. Different sources trace the origin of the phrase back to different dates, but in each case that I’ve seen, they all pre-date the 18th Century. The casual use of the phrase in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” seems to suggest that it was already well-known to the English by the early to mid-19th Century. “Happy Christmas” seems to have originated in the late 19th Century and, in the opinions of some, grew out of the temperance movement in an effort diminish any association of Christmas with the alcohol fueled celebrations of Christmas past (the word “merry” being often associated with drinking, indulgence and raucous celebrations).

If you were to step back in time to 18th-century America, how likely would you have been to hear any greeting at all on Christmas day? As you probably already know, that depended on where exactly you were. If you were in New England, the answer would be none at all since the Puritans had banned the holiday in the mid-17th century, and it wouldn’t be celebrated there again until the early 19th century. The Quakers in Pennsylvania might not have outlawed it, but they didn’t really observe it either. Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, etc. on the other hand celebrated Christmas as we might expect with parties, dances, big dinners, decorating with holly and mistletoe (no Christmas tree, though) and good Christmas cheer. An article on the subject is here:  According to this article, Christmas was celebrated most heartily in the Southern colonies.

So all considered, I think it is appropriate to gladly wish visitors to Mount Vernon and Williamsburg a Merry Christmas.

Revisited Myth #35: Apprenticeships lasted seven years.

December 13, 2014
photo courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

photo courtesy of Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Well . . . sometimes they did, but as a general rule, no.

An examination of surviving contracts reveals that there was no set duration of an apprenticeship in colonial America. Some contracts specify a certain number of years, such as four or six or seven. Others say the apprenticeship will last until the boy reached twenty-one, no matter his age at the start. In the example above, Thomas Callahan was apprenticed for eight years and ten months (line 7). Evidence suggests that family apprenticeships—a man training a son or a younger brother—tended to be shorter than average. Occasionally, even girls were apprenticed.

After the apprenticeship was completed, the young person could work for wages as a journeyman or, if he had the means, set up on his own as a master craftsman. A master was a tradesman who was master of his own shop. A master was not necessarily more skilled than a journeyman; the term indicated that he worked for himself rather than for wages. In some instances, the master of the shop might not even be skilled in that particular trade; he was merely the owner. Brett Walker, shoemaker in Colonial Williamsburg notes, “One of the larger shops in Virginia (Norfolk) had seventeen “seats” (1 “seat,” or bench implies one Journeyman). It was run by a woman, Mary Wilson, who inherited the shop from her late husband; and who, whilst perhaps not having served an apprenticeship herself, had enough knowledge of the business from working alongside her husband to run the shop effectively . . . that is, until the Revolutionaries burned Norfolk on 1 January 1776.”

Some trades, like barbers or bookbinders, required relatively little investment in tools and overhead to set up one’s own shop. Others, like cabinetmakers or goldsmiths, required a good deal of start-up capital, making it difficult for a journeyman to become a master.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,412 other followers

%d bloggers like this: