How are Myths Perpetuated?

I can give a partial answer to this question by telling you about two events that occurred last week.

On a September weekend in Alexandria, Virginia, my husband and I joined a walking tour of the Old Town. The tour was led by a man I assumed to be a volunteer. Within the first hour, he had repeated three myths: that childbirth was the leading cause of death among women (Myth #2), that all the rocks in the streets came from ballast (Myth #54), and that the kitchen was separated from the main house because they burned down all the time (Myth #53). There may have been more to come, but after an hour had passed and we hadn’t managed to move farther than half a block, we concluded that we could accomplish more walking by ourselves. We slipped away.  

More alarming was the 5th grade textbook that I was asked to review last fall by Virginia’s Department of Education. Maybe you remember this subject in the newspapers at that time–a history professor at William and Mary had noticed in her daughter’s 4th grade textbook a number of serious errors about the Civil War, including such things as the incorrect number of states in the Confederacy and the large number of black soldiers fighting with Stonewall Jackson. Oooops. So the state decided to look more closely into the publisher’s 5th grade textbook as well, and I was the person who reviewed it. What I found was appalling. Not mere differences of opinion, which happens among historians, or shades of emphasis, but factual errors, such as Queen Elizabeth sent settlers to found Jamestown in 1607 (quite a feat since she died in 1603) and Cyrus McCormick’s young grandson was there on the day the reaper was tested (Cyrus McCormick was 22 when he tested his reaper–no grandchildren yet!). Spelling mistakes, such as  Mississipi, Washinton, Lousiana Purchase, Lousianna Purchase, governement, developement, ammendment, seccession, neccesary, weathy,  seperate, and astronmer. Grammatical errors, such as “Each country believed that their culture was superior to the others.”  Faulty maps: No, the battle of Vicksburg did not take place in Virginia, and Forts Duquesne and Necessity (misspelled Neccesity) were not in Ohio.  Not to mention punctuation, repetition, and wrongly numbered pages. Adding insult to injury, the book repeated many myths, including some of our favorites from this blog, such as  “Wigmakers made those all-important head toppers, since it was the style in the 1700s for most men to wear wigs” (Myth # 40).  “Very few people in colonial America could read . . .” (Myth #37). “Continental soldiers, some shooting bullets made from their own melted-down pewter spoons and plates, captured 6,000 Hessian and British soldiers . . .”  (Myth #39). “Every single American died [at the Alamo], but the Mexicans lost the fight a few weeks later . . .” (Myth #62). At the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, “a military band played a song called The World Turned Upside Down.”  (I haven’t gotten to that one yet.)

I’m pleased to say that I had the chance to see the revised textbook a few weeks ago and all but two of the mistakes I had found were corrected. (I presume they’ll handle those on the next go-round. ) And the publisher pledged to replace all the mistake-filled books, so all’s well that ends well.  Here’s a link to the newspaper announcement that the books have been approved.

Does anyone else have personal examples of how myths are spread?


15 Responses to How are Myths Perpetuated?

  1. Undine says:

    I find Wikipedia rather frightening. I have seen so much complete nonsense posted there, and, because it’s ostensibly an online “encylopedia,” everyone accepts it all without question. I’ve noticed that even after people who have some knowledge in a particular field find mistakes in their particular area of expertise, they assume *other* Wiki articles are still correct.

    And there seems little you can do about it. A while back, I tried correcting some particularly egregious fallacies I found in some Wiki posts dealing with Poe, and sure enough, five minutes later the person who originally posted them came along and changed them back. This kept going on until I just gave up.

    At times, the Internet really is like one of those tour guides you describe writ large.

  2. Nicole says:

    I work at a historical site, and it always amazes me how many myths I hear on a regular basis. Sometimes from employees, many outside tour groups, and guests who feel they know enough to inform others. I once heard someone say (after discussing how unclean the Colonial people were) that Benjamin Franklin stood outside, completely naked, in the wind to get clean rather than bathe.
    And to correct these things takes far more evidence than it took to convince them of it. I came across a good amount of evidence that a widely believed historical “fact” was hugely blown out of proportion, if not completely false. Presenting this online as a question to be explored caused a lot of backlash, but no one could provide any evidence as to this fact being true! It just was because it always has been.

    • marymiley says:

      I have heard about his “air baths,” but this was something he did indoors. Or so I’ve understood. Anyone have any hard facts on this topic?

  3. Roger Fuller says:

    Some presenters such as docents and tour guides like to entertain and get positive feedback (including tips…) when their audience have been, well…entertained. Fact has little to do with it, and might even stand in the way of remuneration. Nothing like a good story to keep customers happy.

    Also, in an uncertain world of shifting truths and beliefs, some people like to hear somebody, who seems authoritative, confirm cherished beliefs they’ve been taught since childhood, even when there’s little historical basis for these notions. Spiritual junk – er, comfort food, as it were.

    I work with and train interpreters. The main thing I impart to them is: don’t lie to the public. Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but please give me your contact info, and I will do my best to find an answer for you”

  4. Deborah Brower says:

    I think the main way these stories get spread is by docents/tour guides. Speaking as a docent I know the basis of what I do is the ability to tell an engaging story. Sticking to the facts is not easy for everyone and it’s understandable how myths call like a siren song for anyone looking to “jazz up” their delivery. Most historic sites do not have the funding or resources to spend a lot of time training docents, many are just happy to have a warm body there to lead a tour. In some cases the scripts may be 30 years old. Not everyone is willing or able to double check the information.

    Re-enactors love to tell these stories too. Just yesterday I was at an event where a women was telling people next to me that women wore caps to hide their dirty hair, in the 18th and early 19th century women didn’t wash their hair for fear of getting a cold. She finished talking about the lace on her bonnet by saying one of the reasons lace was expensive because people went blind making it.

    What is really hard to forgive or understand are those who willfully spread stories that they have been told are not true. Sometimes there are economic interests, a historic site in Northern Virginia sells “mortgage buttons” in their gift shop. Sometimes there’s a personal agenda. I took one of the weirdest tours I’ve been on several years ago at the Peyton Randolph House. It was all going fine until we got to the kitchen and the guide started telling siliceous stories about all the gross things our fore fathers ate. He managed to segue into telling our group that McDonalds uses the jelly in eyeballs as a binder for ground beef patties.

    I think one of the biggest problems is how or if you want to deal people when faced with these statements.

  5. marymiley says:

    D. Brower wrote, “I think one of the biggest problems is how or if you want to deal people when faced with these statements.”

    Now THERE’S an issue! If I hear myths on a tour, I generally figure it’s hopeless and ignore it. Cowardly, I guess, but what’s the alternative? Correct someone and you look like a busybody know-it-all. And why should the person believe what some stranger says?

  6. Daud Alzayer says:

    I too work at a historic site, and I face the same struggles trying to get my tour guides to stop picking up myths. The fact is that even though my guides are not allowed to accept tips,they still wan’t to put on a good show for their audience and when they hear something really “amusing” they gobble it up.

    It’s interesting to watch the way that certain of these myths even grow back like weeds after a while with new employees coming in and hearing the old myth from somewhere.

    I agree with many others that I’m often perplexed as to what to do when I hear someone spreading false information (if they’re not one of my employees).

  7. Dori says:

    I think they get spread by word of mouth. Historians, living history volunteers, reenactors, museum tourguides, whether volunteer or professional, all have their own little set of folk tales, which seem to get perpetuated…and I have to say as a volunteer living history interpreter I’ve been guilty myself. Thank goodness for this forum to have set me straight a few times!

    • marymiley says:

      We’ve all been guilty of repeating these myths . . . I blush when I recall the days when my tour of the Peyton Randolph House in Williamsburg included an explanation of the “burglar alarm staircase” with one riser shorter than the rest. Geez, how could I have believed that one? But I did.

  8. Roger Fuller says:

    It’s therefore important that interpreters found their talks and general roving interpretation with solid, documented sources, complete with footnotes and bibliography, well before they are let loose on the public. They should have their work vetted by a knowledgeable supervisor. They should also be monitored for “interpretainment creep”, whereby well-meaning interpreters grab ideas, words, etc., from other interpreters without attribution or fact-checking, since it sounds good and pleases audiences. Just because they other guy says it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s so! Or, better, “I may be wrong, but I can show you my sources.” 😉

  9. Liz says:

    I work at a historic site, and I can tell you most myths are spread by tour guides at historic sites. Too many people are more concerned abotu telling a funny story that they ignore the the fact that they are lying. OF course guests love the lies and will argue that while the lie is ridiculous (my favorite being that in Victorian America if you saw a girl’s ankle you had to marry her) they would rather believe it than the truth.

  10. Vickie Hist says:

    The Internet’s ability to spread “information” to many in short order and to “forward” at a click of the mouse is a “viral” tool. For example, the following just hit my in box!

    Us older people need to learn something new every day… Just to keep the grey matter tuned up.

    Where did “Piss Poor” come from? Interesting History. They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot and then once it was full it was taken and sold to the tannery …
    If you had to do this to survive, you were “Piss Poor”. But worse than that were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot… They “didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were the lowest of the low.

    The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn’t just how you like it, think about how things used to be.

    Here are some facts about the 1500s. Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June. However, since they were starting to smell, Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

    Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, Then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children, last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the Bath water!”

    Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals(mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof. Hence the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs…” There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.

    The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, “Dirt poor.” The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery In the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a threshold. (Getting quite an education, aren’t you?)

    In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.

    Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers In the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme: “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old”.

    Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.

    Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

    Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

    Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom; “of holding a wake”.

    England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive!
    So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the
    graveyard shift). To listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, “saved by the bell” or was “considered a dead ringer”. And that’s the truth.

    Now, whoever said History was boring!!! So get out there and educate someone!

    • marymiley says:

      Yes, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received this stupid bit of fluff in my e-mail box! I consider most of these too ridiculous to debunk in my blog, figuring no one who reads my blog could possibly take these seriously, but maybe I should reconsider . . .

      • Katie Cannon says:

        I was interpreting at an eighteenth-century house when a woman came in and started giving her friend a “tour” of the house… spewing historic myths right and left. It included the “baby with the bathwater” one, and the practice of putting dogs and cats in the rafters when it rained, but then they would slip, leading to the saying “raining cats and dogs.” And she was serious. I had to turn my face away so they would not see my expression. (I really want to see a dog climbing on roof rafters.)

    • Curtis Cook says:

      Most of these strike me as the sort of thing that might be found in a “Devil’s Dictionary”, the most famous of which was a collection of spoofs or satires authored by Ambrose Bierce. He came up with fake origins of literally hundreds of everyday objects and phrases, and he claimed to be always surprised when readers (or people who heard the stories secondhand) believed them.

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