Revisited Myth #53: Kitchens were separated from the main house in colonial days because of the fear of fire.

July 18, 2015
Williamsburg kitchen with outdoor bake oven attached to chimney

Williamsburg kitchen with outdoor bake oven attached to chimney


As the story goes, kitchens burned down a lot and it was easier to rebuild your kitchen than your whole house. While fear of fire may have influenced some people, if it were the main reason for building separate kitchens, how come only the people living in southern colonies feared fire? Separate kitchens were not a common feature in northern colonies; they were very common in the south.

Actual reasons have more to do with the heat and odors from the kitchen fire, which in the south would not have been welcome most months of the year. Early on, many southern houses had basement kitchens. Hugh Jones, a mathematics teacher at the College of William and Mary noted in 1724 in his book, The Present State of Virginia, that planters often kept their “kitchen apart from the dwelling house, because of the smell of victuals, offensive in hot weather.” Another reason was the desire to segregate kitchen slaves from the family’s main living space. Cooks and other kitchen slaves often lived above the kitchen and worked there all day.


Revisited Myth #52: Ice cream was invented by (blank) in (blank).

July 12, 2015


There are more myths about the origins of ice cream than flavors at Baskin-Robbins.

Credit has been bestowed upon many—all undeserving. Some sources say the ancient Romans invented ice cream, others that Marco Polo brought the discovery back to Italy from China, and many agree that Catherine de Medici introduced the French to ice cream when she married the future King Henri II. Not to be outdone by Europeans, some Americans have claimed ice cream was first made by Martha Washington, or brought to this country from France by Thomas Jefferson, or invented by Dolley Madison while at the White House. There is no documentation for any of these claims. Robert Brantley, a Colonial Williamsburg journeyman who has spent countless hours researching the topic, says, “These stories were created during the 19th century by ice cream sellers who were looking for a marketing angle.”

Each story does contain a kernel of truth. The Romans did mix snow or chipped ice with various flavorings, but that makes Slurpees, not ice cream. Most historians agree that Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century, and that the Chinese were probably the first to invent an iced dairy product, but if the wily Venetian ever saw or tasted such a memorable food, he makes no mention of it in his journals. And Catherine de Medici of Florence, Italy, did marry the future king of France in 1533, but that was before Italian cooks had learned to artificially freeze liquids and over a century and a half before the earliest known French ice cream recipe. (Not to mention that she didn’t bring any Italian cooks with her when she moved to France.)

Ice cream probably originated in China, but very little reliable research has been done on the subject. As early as the 7th century, a frozen milk product is described in a Chinese document. Another description, this one poetic, survives from the 12th century. If those two bits of evidence leave historians skeptical, there is a more reliable mention of ice cream being served at the Mogul court in the 14th century.

Knowledge of ice cream could have spread overland along the Silk Road routes from China through the Middle East and into Italy, but it seems more likely that what spread west was the knowledge of how to freeze things by the seemingly magical combination of ice and salt. The “endothermic effect” of this mixture draws heat from the adjacent liquid, allowing people to freeze liquids and, incidentally, to make ice cream.

Ice cream’s European debut probably took place in Italy, probably in Naples, probably in the latter part of the 17th-century. It spread through the royal houses of Europe. Early English sources mention a 1671 feast of King Charles II where “one plate of Ice Cream” was served and a 1688 banquet to celebrate the birth of the son of James II.

Ice cream began to appear in the American colonies during the first half of the eighteenth century. The first recorded instance of ice cream being served in America occurred in Maryland in 1744 when Governor Thomas Bladen included it on his dessert table. It was May, and the shock of having something frozen to eat in a warm month astonished the guests. One of them, William Black of Virginia, wrote of it in a letter, which survives today. Black mentions “a Dessert no less curious: Among the Rarities of which it was Compos’d, was some fine Ice Cream which, with the Strawberries and Milk, eat most Deliciously.”

Historians know of at least two royal governors who served ice cream at the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg. A fierce hailstorm in July of 1758 gave Governor Francis Fauquier the chance to make ice cream in the summer. The hail was so large it broke every window on the north side of the palace, and when it was collected—doubtlessly not by the governor himself—“he cooled his wine, and froze cream, with some of them the next day.” It was Fauquier’s first year in Williamsburg and his first exposure to the peculiar violence of American weather. Ten years later, his successor, Lord Botetourt, arrived in Williamsburg where he served as governor until his untimely death in 1770. The inventory of Botetourt’s belongings taken after his death included many pewter ice molds which would have been used to form ice cream into pretty shapes.

So a few wealthy Americans were eating ice cream long before Thomas Jefferson went to France in 1784 as American ambassador to the French court. Although Jefferson did not introduce ice cream to America, he did encounter it in Paris, and he enjoyed it enough to jot down a recipe that calls for “2. bottles of good cream. 6. yolks of eggs. 1/2 lb. sugar” to be flavored with vanilla and frozen in a “sabottiere.” A 1796 inventory lists “2 freising molds” in the kitchen, so his servants were making ice cream at least that early. When he was president, Jefferson had an ice house built for the President’s House—what we today call the White House—and on Independence Day in 1806, hired a servant to turn the ice cream maker. For many, this was their introduction to ice cream, hence the belief that Jefferson brought the dish to America.

Martha Washington did not invent ice cream any more than Jefferson or Dolley Madison, but she served it at Mount Vernon on many occasions. The Washingtons acquired a “cream machine for ice” in 1784, the same year George directed his estate manager to build an ice house on his estate.

For more information, see, Harvest of the Cold Months by Elizabeth David, and, or watch a video about making ice cream the colonial way at

Revisited Myth #51: Wearing tinted eyeglasses meant the wearer had syphilis.

July 5, 2015

gentleman w_glasses retouched

Come on, do you really think that if that nice young man in the portrait had syphilis, he would advertise the fact with tinted eyeglasses? 

Tinted eyeglasses are not new. In the eighteenth century, some people wore blue, green, amber, and amethyst lenses to protect their eyes from the sun’s glare. They did not indicate a medical problem.

Medical books of the time make no mention of colored lenses in treating syphilis. In Treatise of the Venereal Disease (1789), the author notes correctly that syphilis could cause eye inflammation but offers no specific treatment. In his Observations Concerning the Prevention and Cure of the Venereal Disease (1796), William Buchan recommends blistering plasters applied to the temples or behind the ears to reduce some of the symptoms. No primary reference to the connection between colored lenses and syphilis has been found.


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. 


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