Revisited Myth #134: Fried cornmeal bits were thrown to dogs to keep them quiet, hence the name Hush Puppies.

November 12, 2017
Rhonda Florian wrote, “I have a question about hush puppies. I’m sure you have heard the tale that the slaves threw small pieces of cornbread to the dogs to quiet them and that’s how they became known as hush puppies. I also heard that soldiers (not sure which side) threw them to Confederate dogs to quiet them. Since I am doing a great deal of Civil War living history now, I want to be certain that I am not repeating any history myths. I want to do the best job I can, and history myths just don’t cut it with me.”

Rhonda Florian at work

Bless you, Rhonda! You are a museum director’s dream come true. 

Hush puppies are bits of fried corn meal. Many dictionaries will define this but none I could find offered any etymological information. Even the venerable OED is silent on this term. I checked several slang dictionaries — no luck. The best I could find was in the American Heritage Dictionary, which defined the term and then used the words “perhaps from” in relating the story about dogs. 

I believe this is not a myth. I think the playful term has its origin in the practice of tossing scraps to dogs. Its origins are Southern, not because Northerners didn’t throw scraps to their dogs, but because fried cornmeal is a Southern staple, like spoonbread and grits. Whether these cornbread bits were called hush puppies during the Civil War, I do not know. Perhaps someone out there has seen a period reference to them in a letter or diary??? That would go a long way toward easing your conscience about using the term and telling the story. I think that you can tell the supposed origins as long as you cover yourself by using the term “probably” or “perhaps,” as the American Heritage Dictionary did. 

 

Thank heavens! From the title I was afraid you were going to debunk this one!

One teensy quibble: Would it not have been some kind of corn meal mush or batter that is fried, not simply corn meal, which doesn’t hang together very well by itself?

Keep up the good work.

  1. R M Bragg says:

    For whatever it may be worth, the Online Etymological Dictionary gives the date of the first attested use as 1899 here: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?l=h&p=32&allowed_in_frame=0

  2. Mary Miley says:

    Interesting. That would suggest that Rhonda shouldn’t use the term in her Civil War-era presentations.

  3. Mike Henry says:

    In The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms
    by Robert Hendrickson, he cites a similar tale but says it originated with soldiers in World War I instead of the Civil War.

 

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Revisited Myth #133: The British “Vulgar Penny” was a deliberate insult.

November 5, 2017

 

Thanks to Matt Phillips, who researched and wrote this post back in 2014. Matt has worked at Mount Vernon as a living history and historic trades interpreter; he has a Masters Degree in history from George Mason University.  

I recently came across a mid-19th century British penny that was supposedly called a “vulgar penny.” As the story goes, the man who designed the coins during Queen Victoria’s reign was Irish, and he disliked Great Britain. He depicted Britannia on the coin’s reverse holding a trident; the shaft of the trident goes between Britannia’s legs. This was supposedly done as an insult to the hated British. Furthermore, the insult went unnoticed for several years. When officials finally recognized the slight, the coins were considered to be “vulgar” because of the indecently sexualized Britannia, and the design was altered.

The Facts:

William Wyon was the medalist and engraver at the Royal Mint who designed the first generation of copper pennies to bear Queen Victoria’s likeness in the late-1830s.  Contrary to the myth of the embittered Irish minter, Wyon’s family was of German descent, migrating from Cologne to Great Britain in the mid-1700s.  William Wyon was born in Birmingham, England in 1795.  He was appointed second engraver at the Royal Mint in 1816, and would become chief engraver in 1828, a position he held until his death in 1851.  William Wyon produced not only coinage bearing Queen Victoria’s likeness, but also numerous medals to commemorate British military and naval engagements.[1]  Queen Victoria purportedly even told Wyon, “You always represent me favourably,” referencing his depictions of the queen on coinage and medallions.[2]

By the late-1830s pennies bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria were being minted in Great Britain.  These coins depicted the young monarch (the so called “Young Head” depiction) on one side, with Britannia depicted on the reverse.  Britannia’s trident was held at an angle tilting inward toward her upper thigh.[3]  In fact, the posture of Britannia seen on the Victoria coinage was previously utilized on King George IV coinage dating to the 1820s.[4]  The commonality of depicting Britannia in this fashion undermines the myth’s assertion that the pose was considered to be vulgar, offensive, or insulting.  Britannia would be posed in this manner on British coinage throughout much of the nineteenth century. Images of these coins can be found here. 

A second generation of Victoria pennies was designed by William Wyon’s son, Leonard Charles Wyon (born in November 1826 at the Royal Mint in London, where the family lived).[6]  He took over many of the engraving duties of his father, William, after the elder Wyon’s death in 1851.  As a modeler and engraver for the Royal Mint, Leonard Charles Wyon produced both coinage and medals to commemorate events and prominent figures of the British Empire, as his father had done before him.[7]

Including an updated image of Queen Victoria, Leonard Charles Wyon’s bronze “Bun” pennies (so named because of the queen’s depicted hair style) were minted beginning in 1860.  Though these coins featured a new depiction of the monarch on the front, they retained Britannia’s pose from William Wyon’s earlier Victoria penny (that, in turn, was utilized from early-nineteenth century coinage) on the coin’s reverse.  This version of the Victoria penny was minted until 1894.[8]  In addition to designing coinage, Leonard Charles Wyon was responsible for producing most British military and naval medals between 1851 and 1891.[9]

The posturing of Britannia, with trident angled inward toward her upper thigh predated the minting of Victoria pennies, being used on coinage by the early-nineteenth century.[10]  Collectively, the “Young Head” and “Bun” Victoria pennies continued to utilize this depiction of Britannia for over five decades.  There is no record (implicit or explicit) that the way in which Britannia’s trident was depicted was considered to be vulgar, offensive, or insulting to the monarchy or the British state during the early- or mid-nineteenth century.  The evidence strongly contradicts the myth’s allegation that the slight went unnoticed for only a few years before government officials recognized the insult and changed the imagery.  The longevity of use of the Wyons’ depiction of Britannia certainly underlines this point.  It was only with the third generation of “Widow” or “Veiled Head” Victoria pennies in 1895 that Britannia was depicted holding a trident in a more vertical fashion, its shaft terminating nearer her knee than her upper thigh.[11]

Contrary to the myth of the embittered Irish engraver, the German-descended William and Leonard Charles Wyon enjoyed long careers engraving coinage and commemorative medallions for prominent British figures and events at the Royal Mint.  Had either William or Leonard Wyon profaned Great Britain or its monarch with their work, as the myth alleges, they would certainly not have remained in such prominent positions at the mint, nor would they likely have been called upon to create further coinage and commemorative medallions.  Furthermore, the long tenure and prolificacy of both William and Leonard Charles Wyon as prominent engravers and medalists at the Royal Mint indicates that both engravers were well regarded for their skill and quite secure in their posts at the mint.  Indeed, Leonard Charles Wyon was “regarded as the foremost British die-engraver of his time, [though] he lived under the shadow of the greater reputation of his father.”[12]


[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB] article: “Wyon Family”; ODNB articl: “Wyon, William.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/64499/64499?back=,30170

[2]http://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/history/people/artists/william-wyon/index2.html

[3] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[4] This is shown on an 1827 “George IV” penny.  http://www.petitioncrown.com/PENNY_1d.html

[6] ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/30170

[7] ibid.

[8] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[9] http://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person.php?id=msib4_1240311740

[10] http://www.petitioncrown.com/PENNY_1d.html

[11] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[12] ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/30170


President Kennedy on Myths

October 23, 2017

I came across this quotation by John F. Kennedy, and it seemed to me as if he was referring directly to history myths. His words ring very true. Wouldn’t they have made a great blurb on the back cover of my book, Death by Petticoat?

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11, 1962


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. 
 
 

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: 


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