Stump the Stars!

Yes, YOU are the stars! And I’m stumped. 
Here are two myths heard at museums that came to me via this blog. I’m tapped out. Can anyone help? 
1) This blog reader said a tour guide told them that the “shot glass” was “originally a small glass filled with lead buckshot to be used as a pen-holder. She explained that buckshot kept the ink on the pen nib wet, though I don’t see how it could be more moist than just leaving it in an inkwell. Every heard this one before?”
No. Sounds ridiculous to me but I cannot back that up.
2) The other myth the reader heard “seems like a very generalized assertion to answer a very specific question. I wanted to leave the site where I heard these myths anonymous, but in order to provide context, the link I am attaching here reveals its identity: This building was identified as a Federal government building due to its architectural style–which is also wrong–and its color was explained by the guide as part of a color scheme assigned to different government buildings, in this case, a post office. The buildings were color coded in order to identify them to–you guessed it–illiterate citizens. So the big question with this myth is: have you ever heard of color-coded government buildings? I’d love to know how this notion might have gotten its start and how widespread it may be.
This seems like a variation of Myth #37, about shop signs being pictures because most people “in those days” were illiterate. I feel certain the color-coding statement isn’t true, but I can’t speak to its origins. Anyone? 

7 Responses to Stump the Stars!

  1. lissajuliana says:

    The etymology of “shot glass” is pretty fuzzy and myth-filled. The term seems to have been introduced into American English in the 30s or 40s with the meaning of a small glass for alcohol. But the term shows up in English dictionaries in the late 19th / early 20th century as a synonym for “cloth prover,” or, a magnifying glass to count “shots” of threads in textiles (an item used by weavers). These cloth provers very likely had a shape similar to that of what we now call a shot-glass, although only the lens itself would have been glass, the body would have been a holder for the lens. See picture:

    For the dictionary reference see:

  2. Noah Briggs says:

    If I recall correctly, (and I forgot my source) shot glasses were originally called “shooters”. Where that term comes from I do not recall. (And I’ am man enough to admit when I don’t know something rather than spread myths, hence me following this way cool blog.) 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.

    Myth 2 I have never heard of – applying color coding assumes there is someone or something to explain what the colors mean, which defeats the purpose of having the color coding in the first place. 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. The same weird logic of color coding government buildings can be applied to the myth of the slave quilt codes – this assumes there was a standard key to all the codes and that the key was able to be accessed by only the appropriate people. Codes also imply that information is being deliberately hidden, which runs counter to the government buildings theory – a lot of people need to know what buildings belong to the government (mayor’s office, post office, &c.).

    Raw speculation to the origins of the “hidden message” trend may go back to the bible codes and Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code”, “National Treasure”, and other Hollywood silliness invented by writers too lazy to do real historic research. Seeking out patterns where there are none is a natural, evolutionary behavior to help us with our survival, so it’s not as bad at first. We begin to seek out patterns because it helps us bring a sense of organization and order to our otherwise chaotic lives. But once we let this type of thinking go, we begin to make connections where there are none. Mentioning the “codes” to the site’s visitors implies a lot of mystery and gives us a sense of superiority to the original cast, that we are somehow “smarter” than they are regarding our knowing where and what important buildings are.

  3. Mary Miley says:

    Thank you for your insights, Noah. I particularly appreciate having that illiteracy rate by states from the Civil War era–that’s illuminating. And I couldn’t agree more with your final statement.

  4. Jim says:

    Wow . . . both of those sound pretty far-fetched. My intellectual alarm bells go off any time someone talks about how “people used to . . .” or “back in those days, most people . . .” in such general terms, especially when something doesn’t even really make logical sense.

    I don’t believe the color-coded building thing at all and, unfortunately, all I can offer on shot glasses is another story that I’ve heard . . . that the name came from the barroom practice of drinking the ounce or two in one gulp, and then smacking the glass down on the bar or counter, making a sharp pop that sounded like a shot being fired.

    I thought for sure that this week, we’d be talking about the “first” Thanksgiving . . . 🙂

  5. Deborah Brower says:

    Maybe it’s just me but if you are illiterate why do you csre sbout the post office?

    I heard the table banging version of the shot glass story at Colonial Williamsburg. It seemed reasonable at the time but in retorspect I think it’s one of those things you can never know for sure. As a calligrapher leaving your wet pen nib in a glass full of lead shot would be no different that leaving it on a table. The ink would dry on the nib and most likely ruin it. Even it it kept it moist it would cause the nib to rust. You always clean you pen when you are done.

  6. Carolyn Murphy says:

    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:

    Explore postal history at

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