Revisited Myth #14: To ward off witches, early Americans hung doors with Bible and cross symbolism.

 

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According to this myth, the bottom two panels of a six-panel wooden door were designed to represent an open Bible, and the middle stile and rail were meant to form a cross. This story is trotted out to show how pious our ancestors were. Or how laughably superstitious they were to think this would ward off witches.

Remember Myth #6 about the Holy Lord hinges? Same thing here. Both are based on the erroneous belief that all early Americans were very religious and highly superstitious. The truth is, some were and some weren’t. But no one at the time thought of his door as Christian symbolism. The six-panel design is just one of many wooden door styles that was popular back then and still is today.

When I asked Colonial Williamsburg Senior Architectural Historian and author Carl Lounsbury to comment on this myth, he said, “I am not sure why otherwise intelligent people seem to embrace these preposterous notions. I have heard it hundreds of times in descriptions of various features in buildings . . . Cross and bible doors—-Really? On the Moses Myers [a Jewish merchant] House in Norfolk?”

20 Responses to Revisited Myth #14: To ward off witches, early Americans hung doors with Bible and cross symbolism.

  1. JoNell says:

    While I highly doubt there is truth in this ‘myth’, this article hardly debunks it. Simply saying, “Nope. it ain’t so” is NOT a debunking of anything. It’s just another opinion.
    How about research it and tell us WHO designed it and/or WHY the door design came into being

    • Mary Miley says:

      I often rely on nationally known experts to debunk certain myths. Colonial Williamsburg’s Carl Lounsbury has spent his entire career in the field of colonial American architecture. It is not I who is saying “it ain’t so,” it is one of the country’s foremost architectural historians. I’m comfortable with that. You may not be–that’s fine–but there is no evidence to the contrary. Carl cites evidence, as in the case of the Moses Myers door, against the myth.

      • sushiking58 says:

        I have to agree with the original poster. Although I agree that this is a myth, you’re still relying on anecdotal evidence, which is proof for you, but hearsay for us. It would be nice to be able to link to something from Carl Lounsbury giving his argument against this myth.

      • Mary Miley says:

        Okay, I asked Carl about this again. His response:
        You are right in saying it is hard to find negative evidence concerning these myths. That’s just it, a myth can’t be tracked down or verified. Suffice it to say, that after forty years of work in the field and in thousands of colonial-period records, I have never come across any reference to these kinds of doors other than as six-panel doors. Why pick out six-panel doors? What about four or better yet, five-panel doors? Same construction with stiles and rails. Touro Synagogue in Newport does not have six-panel doors but it does have eight panel ones—same form, etc. I think that this curious myth as well as many others arose in the early twentieth century when imaginations outstretched research.

        And for those who don’t know Carl Lounsbury, here’s his brief bio:

        Research Interests
        Early American Architecture; British Architectural History, 1550-1850
        Background
        Member of the Architectural Research Department at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation since 1982. Responsible for long term research projects including public buildings, 17th and 18th century theaters, building craftsmen, 17th-century rowhouses, churches and meeting houses. Consultant in design and architectural research for museums and historical societies and state agencies. Recent designs include 17th century church for Jamestown Settlement; report on rowhouses for Jamestown Rediscovery; courtroom fittings for Prince William County, Va.; jail investigations for Currituck Co., NC Historic Society; and investigation of several houses for the Historic Charleston Foundation. In addition to research, Dr. Lounsbury has taught at University of Mary Washington; Virginia Commonwealth University, and the University of Virginia. He is currently co-ordinator of the NIAHD program at Colonial Williamsburg and a lecturer in the History Department. Publications include: Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building, 1990; An Illustrated Glossary of Early Southern Architecture and Landscape, 1994; From Statehouse to Courthouse: An Architectural History of South Carolina’s Colonial Capitol and Charleston County Courthouse, 2001; and The Courthouses of Early Virginia: An Architectural History.

      • sushiking58 says:

        That’s a pretty good reply and I am satisfied that’s as close to a refutation as is possible. I debunk a lot of silly memes on Facebook so I appreciate your thoroughness. Most times people simply don’t care about the truth or just get upset and unfriend me when I post a fact check, but I still want to know.😉

      • Mary Miley says:

        I understand completely, and agree with you.

  2. Jeanne says:

    I prefer to see God in everything- makes my life happy! Carry on….🙂

  3. Got any actual evidence to “debunk” the “myth?” Like an actual origin of the design?

  4. Mike Jones says:

    Fine Woodworking refers to the six panel door as a Christian Door back in 1988, As does The Cape vol 2-3 in 1967. American Architecture: An Illustrated Encyclopedia 1998 also calls the six panel door a Christian Door. As well as Mirror to America: A History of New London, New Hampshire, 1900-1950 published 1952.
    This was just a quick search. I’m sure if I had Lexus Nexus or was inclined to search the Gutenberg Project, I’d find earlier examples of this nickname.
    Carl may be a historian, but maybe he isn’t the last word on history.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for your comments, Mike. Yes, the 1998 encyclopedia defines the term, but that doesn’t mean the editors believed the door was designed by religious colonists to ward off witches or mimic a Bible. “Christian door: The paneled front door of an early colonial New England house in which the stiles and rails form a pattern suggestive of a cross; the two bottom panels are usually vaguely suggestive of an open book that some colonists interpreted as representing a bible. Also called cross-and-bible door.” (I should point out that the editors are mistaken about it being an early colonial New England door–these were found in late colonial and nineteenth-century houses in southern and middle colonies and states as well.) The 1952 book mentions the myth too (that the doors were believed to ward off witches). I could not easily locate on google books your other references, but referring to the paneled door as a cross-and-bible, Christian, or witches’ door in the twentieth century only shows that the myth is widespread. People repeat the myths they’ve heard from others without wondering (or caring) whether there is any supporting evidence. Now if you find any primary documents to support Myth 14, I know several architectural historians who would be interested.

  5. I agree that this is just a myth, I’ve always thought that the name probably came after but quotes like “I am not sure why otherwise intelligent people seem to embrace these preposterous notions. I have heard it hundreds of times in descriptions of various features in buildings . . . Cross and bible doors—-Really? On the Moses Myers [a Jewish merchant] House in Norfolk?” Is not an honest refutation. I usually take condescending quotes as evidence that the expert is hiding something, it’s a common tactic used by people who want you to believe something but they know they don’t have a leg to stand on.

    Just because a Jewish merchant had one on his house doesn’t disprove anything he may have just thought it was a regular door or he may have known and not cared what it was called. Your other quote from him along with his bio doesn’t prove anything either: “Suffice it to say, that after forty years of work in the field and in thousands of colonial-period records,I have never come across any reference to these kinds of doors other than as six-panel doors.” Has he came across every reference there is? If not then he can’t say either way, only give his opinion, if he has that doesn’t prove anything either. He can’t use the fact that they made other doors with different numbers of panels either, trying to use that as an argument doesn’t even make sense.

    I’ve seen many instances where archaeologists with incredible bio’s have denied the existence of whole cities or ancient peoples with all kinds of condescending quotes only to have been proven wrong later.

    Although I believe the name of the door came later, there were religious early Americans and it is not out of line to think that a door maker would have intentionally put a cross in the door, I could easily believe that. I don’t believe it was to ward off witches but that is not entirely out of the realm of possibility either. I know of people today who do things to their door or doorway and there cars to ward off evil or bad luck so it would be easy to believe that people back then would do the same.

    I don’t think this myth has been “busted,” if this were the tv show Mythbusters, they would have to go with “plausible” but probably not true.

  6. J says:

    Seems like the evidence points to the door in fact being designed to use Christian symbolism (people offered references), while there is nothing refuting it.

    You seem to say, “a lot of things are said to be Christian because people think our ancestors used a lot of Christian symbolism”. Not only is that not evidence to refute the “myth”, it is inaccurate in general.

    There obviously was a lot of Christian symbolism in use in society of the time.

    When we see the shells, crosses, pelicans, and all the other symbolism that was used in architecture, and the common use of names of saints and christian references in the mottoes or emblems of colleges and schools and other institutions, we can see that society did use a lot of Christian symbolism in every day life.

    Anyway, the point is that in many if not most cases popular understanding of certain things are correct but there are sometimes errors and myths. This seems to not be a myth. But I enjoy the other posts! And I thank the people that also responded. Cheers!

  7. Fact or opinion it still holds merit to the faithful!

  8. acarhj says:

    That door appears to be “Shaker” style at least with the panels not being raised. Raised panels would be more expensive as you have to bevel all the edges of a thicker piece of wood. Now, the difference in size of panels on the top are also a bit functional. Instead of panels you can have small pains of glass. That would not reduce the insulation of the door in the dead of winter too greatly and could easily be covered up by a small curtain. The center bar is almost certainly wider to allow for the larger locking mechanism to be installed. The wide strip would add a certain amount of structural integrity.

    The old door on my mother’s house had raised panels in a 2X2 pattern and it actually had 4 small windows across the top. The center bar was only as wide as the rest of the bars because it has a modern door knob and is a modern manufactured door.

    My 2 cents. YMMV😉

  9. Rhonda Cady says:

    How does anyone really know if they thought this or not?? Maybe yes maybe no…

    • Mary Miley says:

      Historians, curators, architectural historians and others who study the past can know what people from previous eras thought by examining primary records, such as letters, diaries, journals, invoices, sermons, newspaper advertisements, editorials, minutes from meetings, pamphlets, government records, art, and such, as well as material culture (“stuff”) like buildings and architectural elements. When a society is pre-literate, things get tougher and archaeologists play a bigger role.

  10. buffalobeard says:

    Basically, a solid door would way a “ton”. it would also be prone to warping. to make a 6 panel or 4 panel door where the panels are held in place loosely by the frame allows for the swelling and shrinking of the wood. You can also use lighter hinges to mount the door. plus, it looks cooler than a solid door!

  11. Michelle Sterling says:

    Suddenly everyone’s an expert on doors lol! I’ve never heard of this before but great conversation !

  12. Miriam Boland says:

    Interesting! I had never heard of this theory until today, as I am reading about Holyrood Castle in Scotland where the doors are constructed in this fashion. They call it cross-and-book here. But not to do with witches, just a reminder of god’s word as you pass from one room to another. The castle having been an Abbey first. Is there another, less symbolic reason for this structure? Thanks!

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