Random Oddities that Stumped Me

Here are a few suspicious things readers have reported hearing recently. Not widespread enough to class as myths, in my opinion (and you’ll let me know if I’m mistaken about that), these are still something more than mere errors. Local myths perhaps? I thought they were worth sharing. Please weigh in if you can add something definitive to any of these; I’ve hit a wall. 


Mary Cassatt "The Young Bride" 1875

Mary Cassatt “The Young Bride” 1875

1) From Heidi, a resident of the great state of Utah, “One of my acquaintances works at a local living history park and just told me that a bride’s dowry from the 19th century would consist of 1,000 buttons, a sewing needle and 13 quilts.  I’m no expert, but that seems off to me.  Just one needle?  Why 1000 buttons?  No other clothing?  No kitchen things?  How do you collect 1000 buttons when you’re farming or homesteading in the middle of nowhere?”

No, Heidi, you are very much an expert to have recognized this odd statement and questioned it. I am unaware of any “rules” about what constituted a bride’s dowry. My sense is that a young girl prepared as much as she could for her marriage, and that her dowry, as it was sometimes called, consisted largely of linens. 



2) From Alabama comes this question. “First, I must qualify the source of this as third or fourth hand as it was told to me by a friend who read it in an article in today’s Huntsville Times about Birmingham, Alabama’s most famous madam.  It seems that when she passed, many of the area’s elite sent empty carriages to her funeral as a gesture of respect when propriety wouldn’t allow them to attend in person.  Anyone have any experience with this tradition at the death of a person with a questionable background?”

Rhett Butler aside, I can’t think that any Southern “gentleman” would care to have it known that he was sending his empty carriage, which everyone would have recognized as belonging to him, to a madam’s funeral. I tried to research this in books about funeral customs and found nothing. 



3) Any truth to this one? “The story of “THE BLACK EYED PEA” being considered good luck relates directly back to Sherman ‘s Bloody March to the Sea in late 1864. It was called The Savannah Campaign and was lead by Major General William T. Sherman. The Civil War campaign began on 11/15/64 when Sherman’s troops marched from the captured city of Atlanta, Georgia, and ended at the port of Savannah on12/22/1864. When the smoke cleared, the southerners who had survived the on slaught came out of hiding. They found that the blue belly aggressors that had looted and stolen everything of value and everything you could eat including all livestock, death and destruction were everywhere. While in hiding, few had enough to eat, and starvation was now upon the survivors. There was no international aid, no Red Cross meal trucks. The Northern army had taken everything they could carry and eaten everything they could eat. But they couldn’t take it all. The devastated people of the south found for some unknown reason that Sherman’s blood thirsty troops had left silos full of blackeyed peas. At the time in the north, the lowly black eyed pea was only used to feed stock. The northern troops saw it as the thing of least value. Taking grain for their horses and livestock and other crops to feed themselves, they just couldn’t take everything. So they left the black eyed peas in great quantities assuming it would be of no use to the survivors, since all the livestock it could feed had either been taken or eaten. Southerners awoke to face a new year in this devastation and were facing massive starvation if not for the good luck of having the black eyed peas to eat. From New Years Day 1866 forward, the tradition grew to eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck.”

I tried researching this but came up relatively empty-handed. I strongly doubt it. Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. According to Wikipedia (no citation there either) it was a Jewish practice to eat those, and other good-luck foods, at Rosh Hashana. Since Jews immigrated to the South in the 1700s, it is conceivable that the practice spread from that origin. 


20 Responses to Random Oddities that Stumped Me

  1. Trisha Colvin says:

    I’m from Mississippi and have heard the one about black-eye peas my entire life! Nice “story” though, isn’t it?

    • Robert E. Giles says:

      My family is from Georgia, and that thankfully lived on the order of 35 miles South of any marauding by Sherman’s troops. The practice of eating Black-eyed peas on New Years Day was around when my Mom was a little girl. She was born in December, 1903.
      Bob Giles

  2. We always eat black-eyed peas on New Years Day, for luck and prosperity the coming year. I have no clue why. lol!

  3. Anne Foster says:

    The combination of dowry items is new to me, but the 13 quilts myth is widespread in the quilting community. Gunn and Lasansky in Bits and Pieces: Textile Traditions (1991) trace the first printed mention of the idea to a 1929 book, Old Patchwork Quilts and Women Who Make Them by Ruth E. Finley.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Ah, that’s interesting. Any reason for that number? I can’t imagine any 18th- or 19th-c. house with that many quilts.

      • Anne Foster says:

        I’ve read two possibly interrelated explanations: one is a baker’s dozen with no other reason given, the other is one for each month, plus one known as a “bride’s quilt” that was for the wedding night. Those explanations don’t appear in the portion of the Finley book I was able to see in Google Books, but perhaps appear on another page.

      • Anne Foster says:

        I doubt many homes could accommodate that many quilts even if anyone could make that many in the adolescent years before marriage–where would they store them? My mother is a quilter and I am over-blessed. They are bulky and don’t fit well in any of my Victorian dresser drawers. A trunk might hold a few, but not a dozen. You can put a couple on a bed, but even two layers results in severe slippage every night as the weight tries to push the top layers off the bed. More would just puddle on the floor, not to mention squash you–and that’s cotton batt, wool batt is heavier and bulkier.

  4. janice says:

    13 quilts is a lot of quilts! i find the number unbelievable. all that work hand stitching or knotting them. because of the batting being loose, they had to stitch the tops with small rows between so that the batting wouldn’t shift.

  5. I don’t know if you found this story or not–but Louise Wooster was a real person and did nurse Birmingham residents back to health during a severe cholera epidemic in 1873.

  6. And here’s an article that appeared in The Forward (a Jewish newspaper from New York) about Jewish culinary traditions and black-eyed peas. http://forward.com/articles/112887/at-rosh-hashanah-black-eyed-peas-for-good-fortune/

    Marcie Cohen Ferris, who’s a scholar of Southern Jewish food, would probably be a good person to contact about this one.

  7. Sharon says:

    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.

  8. thehistoricfoodie says:

    I’ve been a historian and writer for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like that pertaining to a dowry. The story of shortages in the South is exaggerated. There were areas where the people were completely destitute, true enough, but there were also areas that were relatively unaffected. There was a published recipe for peas much earlier than the Civil War. I’ve never seen any account of sending an empty carriage to a funeral. I have enjoyed your blog. When I found it I saw that we’ve addressed a few of the same topics.

  9. Southerner married to Englishman says:

    In North East England it is traditional to eat Carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings are a black eyed pea.

    This tradition is older than the US 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 might help with nderstnad ding why southerners eat black eyed peas for good luck at new years.

    BTW my family is southern US and my husband’s is northern English and when we married we both expected black eyed peas on New Years. 🙂

    I had never heard of the Civil War connection.

    • Mary Miley says:

      That’s most interesting. In my opinion, that, plus the Jewish connection, proves the good-luck story didn’t start with the Civil War.

  10. Jennifer says:

    I’ve heard the one about the Birmingham madam in reference to another madam, but I cannot remember in what context. I think it may be a myth because it has been applied to various “madams” throughout history. Oh, did a quick search and came up with a Charleston, SC story, the madam of the Big Brick Club. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2482&dat=20040617&id=S5pIAAAAIBAJ&sjid=TQoNAAAAIBAJ&pg=1295,808785

    I’m thinking this is a myth, as it is being applied to different madams in different cities.

  11. the practise of the gentry sending an empty carriage as a mark of respect to a funeral is reported in The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’s London by Judith Flanders (2012) . If the person was really important the carriage owners would be inside, but generally their coat of arms painted on the carriage let on-lookers know that they were making a gesture of goodwill

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. Any chance you could cite that? I went to google books but it wasn’t available to look up, nor is it at our local library. Does the author say that this practice existed outside London? I’ve never heard of it here in the U.S. And I presume there was no mention of this at madams’ funerals? Maybe this London reference is the source of the American myth?

      • I’ve just read the book and taken it back to the library, so I will have to go and look for it again. The same author has written about leisure and entertainment in an earlier book, which I have also just read so I will have to check that it wasn’t from that. There was a section about funeral practices including the draping of crape and mounting cartouche on buildings, funeral processions and the like, which were all part of street theatre in a way, but a way of signalling to the world (ie poorer people on the streets) how important the upper class were.

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