Revisited Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.

September 14, 2016


It’s a pervasive image, isn’t it? A woman in old-fashioned dress sits by the cozy fire with her spinning wheel, spinning the yarn that she will later weave into “homespun” fabric, which she will later use to sew her family’s clothing. Surely every early American household had a spinning wheel and a loom, right? Most people wore “homespun,” right?

It is true that most women made most of the clothing their families wore, but few actually spun the yarn and fewer wove their own fabric. Why? Because imported fabric was cheaper and better than homespun and could be purchased in stores throughout colonial America and during the early decades of the federal period. In fact, when you examine store inventories from the colonial and early-American period, fabric makes up the bulk of the inventory. While some was exotic and expensive (silks from the Far East, for example, or printed cottons from India), much was cheap. Woolens and linens from England could be purchased for less than it cost to make them in America, which is why people overwhelmingly chose to buy fabrics rather than to weave their own. Even slaves’ and servants’ clothing was usually made from imported fabric.

Colonial Williamsburg’s textile curator Linda Baumgarten writes, “Only in frontier areas was most clothing homespun and homemade – and even there, traders and storekeepers quickly penetrated the backcountry to make imported goods available.” Retired colonial historian Harold Gill recalls that in his many decades of researching household inventories in the Williamsburg area, he never found a single reference to a loom. He did find that many (perhaps “most”) households had a spinning wheel. 

And as one blog reader pointed out, “You neglect to mention the “homespun” movement, a popular protest against the Townshend Acts. Women learned to spin in order to forgo the imported, taxed fabric. In reality, even during the protest, nobody was producing enough fabric to truly replace the imports. And note that they were LEARNING how to spin, as in they hadn’t done it before. Still I think the protest probably contributed to the place that spinning has in the image we have of early America.” Excellent point. 




janice says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:45 am (Edit)
though i loved the part in Laura Ingills Wilder’s book, Farmer Boy, where her husband’s mother would weave wool to make coats for the family. she wove it and then shrank it to make it warmer. i think her loom was in the attic. i like when the women bring their looms, drop spindles and spinning wheels to the fair. i would like to have learned how to do that. didn’t they use their looms for rugs and carpets? those that raised sheep, did they use the wool for other purposes?

Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 9:15 am (Edit)
Laura tells about her life on the frontier where women like Mrs. Wilder had less access to stores, at least for the first few years.

Ginger says:
December 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Mrs. Wilder was in upstate New York, wasn’t she? Was that still considered frontier?

Mary Miley says:
December 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
A quick check shows you are right, they lived in western NY state until Almonzo was 18 and moved to Minnesota in 1875. But remember, Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing fiction. She based her tales on true events but changed details quite a bit.

Erin Blake says:
December 2, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
My great grandmother, a homesteader on the Canadian prairies, used her spinning wheel to make yarn for sweaters, mittens, etc., not for weaving. She was famously baffled when my mother wanted a picture of her spinning: spinning was what you did in the evening, when it was dark and cold, and you were too tired to do anything else but had to do something to keep moving and be useful.

Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm (Edit)
Also, there were differences in who used looms in New England vs. the Mid Atlantic. See Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s books “A Midwife’s Tale” and “The Age of Homespun,” and her article “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” as well as Andrienne Hood’s articles “The Gender Division of Labor in the Production of Textiles in Eighteenth-Century, Rural Pennsylvania.”

In short, in the mid-Atlantic in the late 18th c., labor divisions adhered to the old model of weaving being a male occupation. In New England, women developed an informal system of home-production. A few households had the large and expensive loom, and women exchanged daughters to share the work of the weaving.

In my thesis work on textile production in late 18th-early 19th c. lower New York State, I found that there was indeed a complicated system and division of labor. Mary Guion, a young, unmarried, middle-class woman, wrote about fiber production parties (“frolics”) with her friends, mostly spinning, some carding. She spent days on her horse delivering the processed flax or wool to the dyer, the weaver, and by the early years of the 19th c., the “machine” (the carding factory)

Oh dear, I could go on forever on this subject! It’s so fascinating!

Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm (Edit)
Thank you for adding so much to the subject!

Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm (Edit)
Oh, I should also add that Mary bought imported fabric from the pedlar, ordered fabric and other clothing items from “the cart” (a pedlar or a townsperson who made trips to NYC?) and made trips to NYC herself, where she spent time shopping for fabric with her friends. So, yeah, she definitely didn’t make all her own fabric. It’s impossible to say what percentage, but if I had to make a guess I’d say around 20% of the fabric she used was made locally.

Elizabeth Bertheaud says:
December 3, 2012 at 10:39 am (Edit)
Might I recommend: Jensen, Joan. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. Ms. Jensen discusses how the women of SE PA soon realized their efforts were better spent making cheese and butter to sell than in manufacturing textiles. A great read on many levels.

Alaina Zulli says:
December 3, 2012 at 11:20 pm (Edit)
Elizabeth, thanks for that recommendation. It sounds great, and is now on my Amazon wishlist!

Katie says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:25 am (Edit)
Just to comment about Farmer Boy with Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was Almanzo’s family that was in upstate New York (I visited – Canada’s but miles away), not Laura. Albeit fiction, she usually based all her writings on fact – and most of the “facts” she changed were about her family to make a better story, not about the activities. It is mentioned in the book that Almanzo’s mother making all their fabric was very unusual, especially for their economic status, for the time and region. This region was far from being the frontier and Almanzo’s family was considerably well-off compared to the pioneering Ingalls family. I just wanted to make sure Laura is not discounted because her books are “fiction;” most of them are very factual. From a loyal Little House fan.

Mary Miley says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:34 am (Edit)
As a loyal fan of Laura’s, I would never discount her writing. I discovered her books as a mother and read them to my children. And we loved the TV series too. It was wonderful finding books and TV programs that taught values as well as history.

Ginger says:
December 5, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
Thank you for clarifying this! It’s been many years and I did not recall the statement about it being unusual for her to spin and weave. And while I’m aware that Laura changed things, I also thought it was unlikely for her to insert a made-up detail like that. Thank you.🙂

Rena Lawrence says:
December 4, 2012 at 11:36 am (Edit)
I also recommend “Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production, 1822-1880” by Dr. Paula Mitchell Marks. Very nice treatment of spinning out of necessity (with women often learning from grandmothers or slaves) and the production of penitentiary cloth by prisoners at Huntsville.

Alaina Zulli says:
December 4, 2012 at 10:16 pm (Edit)
sounds like another great book! Thanks, I’m adding it to my to-read list.

Deborah Brower says:
December 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm (Edit)
Great choice of myths!!!!!!
This one really needed to be explored, because there is so much confusion on the subject. Spinning wheels have survived to such a degree that they have become icons. Spinning does not equal fabric it’s only part of the process.

The followups have been very informative. Thanks again it’s like an early Christmas gift.

goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm (Edit)
Wow, this is shockingly incorrect! The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm (Edit)
Excuse me, I’m a little confused. Which part of the post or comments is shockingly incorrect?

goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm (Edit)
The post. People definitely spun their own wool and made their own fabric. Especially during the War of 1812.

Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm (Edit)
Of course some did. Sorry if my post wasn’t clear–it says that the practice was not common, not that it didn’t ever happen. On the frontier where European fabric was not available or during brief periods when shipping was interrupted (like the War of 1812), women had to resort to buying homespun fabric, often made by professional weavers since few women owned expensive (and big!) looms.

Judy Cataldo says:
December 16, 2012 at 11:06 am (Edit)
Boston and surrounding towns are hardly the frontier. There are multiple primary accounts in the newspapers of the 1700s noting locally manufactured textiles. New England had a vibrant textile culture starting in the mid 1600s. Fashion fabrics were imported cheaply from England as with the other colonies but local manufacture was alive and well. It is not correct to paint all colonies with the same broad brush.

QNPoohBear says:
December 22, 2012 at 11:30 pm (Edit)
Right. Cloth was imported in the early colonial period until the mid-17th century when a weaver set up shop in Boston. The first textile mill,Slater Mill, in the United States was built in Rhode Island in 1793. Almost all the old farm house museums in Rhode Island have large weaving looms and spinning wheels. Women spun flax and wool. Check out this link for the story of one family’s looms

Mary Jean Adams says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:52 am (Edit)
Perhaps someone has already brought this up, but how about the notion of homespun as a political statement? My understanding has always been that toward the revolution, as more and more English goods were boycotted and goods from other countries embargoed, wearing homespun became a sign of your allegiance to the cause.

Mary Miley says:
February 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm (Edit)
You are quite correct. there is a marvelous (true) story about the Governor’s Palace ball that took place in Williamsburg, hosted by the last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, where the ladies wore dull-colored, homespun ball gowns. It made quite a statement.

Tracy says:
April 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
It is my understanding that North American women of the 18th century spun yarn mostly for practical knitting, and that most home weaving was limited to toweling, rugs, and sometimes bed linens and underthings like shirts and shifts. And that most homes did not have a loom but did have a spinning wheel.
I do know that pioneer women in the west (Utah) in the 1840’s and 50’s did quite a bit of weaving out of necessity due to their geographical and cultural (Brigham Young’s emphasis on self sustaining industry) isolation.

Mary Miley says:
April 10, 2013 at 1:55 pm (Edit)
For some perspective, I checked with Harold Gill, a highly respected (retired) historian from Colonial Williamsburg who, during his many decades of researching colonial inventories, recalls that he never found a single example of a Williamsburg house with a loom. He recalled that many, perhaps “most” houses had spinning wheels.

Patricia Shandor says:
February 20, 2014 at 1:01 pm (Edit)
I work at a museum in South Carolina that owns dozens of 18th/19th Century locally-made spinning wheels used for various mediums, such as flax, cotton, and wool. And I know of a few 18th/19th Century looms in the area (one still located in its original privately-owned house). We are located in the midlands of South Carolina and near what would have been considered the American frontier until around 1820…at least. Though we certainly did have access to Charleston which was one of, if not THE richest city in Colonial America. So I know there was both weaving and buying going on.
Interestingly, we own locally-made quilts from the 1830s-1850s which include homespun dress fabrics as identified by scholars and also quilts that include Chintzes, imported from England (which were used in South Carolina quilts well into the 1850s). My point is that I would guess that there were more spinners and weavers in the South than in the North. Plus there were more factories and mills up North. So…the abundance of spinning wheels in the antique stores of New England and the Mid-Atlantic region could just be misplaced Southern antiques? LOL. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm (Edit)
I’m sorry but I think your history is inaccurate and based upon a modern viewpoint of industrial production expectations.

Mary Miley says:
July 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
No need to apologize, just explain why you think that and share your evidence.

Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 10:02 pm (Edit)
Colonial Agent J. Bridger in 1719.

Elizabeth Barber’s book, Women’s Work: the first 20,000 years

Documentary on the loom and it’s working status at Mt. Vernon.

Those are just 3 off the top of my head.

There are many books, articles, references..etc that are pre-industrial to give an idea that spinning was not in fact a leisure activity of a woman sitting by the fire. Many homes needed the income from spinning or weaving in order to survive. And many villages/towns/commonwealths had dozens of spinners to feed the local weavers. Spinning often super ceded food storage and preparation in a home. It is not inconceivable to understand that home spinners were essential to their communities. The yarn they produced was beautiful, smooth, lustrous and their cloth was as well. For thousands of years Egypt was renown for their linen and cotton to the point where even modern machinery can not duplicate how fine and even it really was. France was known for silk, Scotland, Ireland and England for wool. These are the fore bearers of Colonial America who brought their trades with them across the pond. And without competition sold their wares back across it at a mighty profit.

Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 10:07 pm (Edit)
I forgot to mention flax…which when spun is called linen. Linen production in Europe during the Colonial period was vast and it traveled across the Atlantic as well. I mentioned Egypt as an example of what ancient spinners and weavers could do on a massive productive scale. Somehow the paragraph didn’t separate France. And that’s not even going into China and their sericulture economy (which also made it across the Atlantic during Colonial times).

Revisited Myth # 98: Curtains that puddled on the floor were a sign of great wealth.

September 3, 2016


Trish Aleshire writes: As a manager of an 1835 historic plantation in Louisiana, I can testify that these myths are very much still alive and being told at historic house museums. They are not told at our plantation, but we get some testy visitors who want to argue the truth behind the myth. Could you please address the topic of overly long drapery that puddle on the floor being a sign of great wealth? Our drapes do this and we are constantly bombarded with visitors telling us this myth.

This is one of those myths that has a little substance to it. Throughout the 19th century (and the 18th, for that matter), lavish use of fabric was an indirect way to show wealth and status, as were fine carriages, sleek horses, liveried servants, jewelry, and a grand house. It’s a bit of a stretch, however, to say that wealthy people were purposefully installing extra-long draperies to advertise their bulging bank accounts.

The puddled style is still popular–I see it in decorating magazines today–but I don’t believe anyone would suggest it means that the homeowners are flaunting their excessive wealth. They like the look and can afford the extra yard of fabric.


Previous Comments:

Margaret Geiss-Mooney – Textile/Costume Conservator says:
November 3, 2012 at 6:23 pm (Edit)
From a textile conservator’s viewpoint, it was good to have the drapes puddle on the floor as ‘puddling’ helps mitigate the effects of gravity. Of course, the floor needs to be clean, dry and not waxed often (possible chemical contamination and damage from too much handling).

Susan Baker says:
November 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm (Edit)
Hi, when I was in Art History and Stage Craft in college this was how it was explained to me: the additional fabric was to act as a draft stop, same as the idea behind using heavy fabric that cut out the wind because it was tighter weave. I think function may have come before fashion, but fashion followed the function.

Carlos Talavera says:
December 3, 2012 at 9:51 am (Edit)
I believe that Susan Baker is correct in that this was devised for the stated purpose of keeping out drafts. A sign of wealth would have been how lavish the fabric was and not necessarily the copious amounts used…Although MORE of a exceptionally fine fabric would be a pretty obvious sign.


Revisited Myth #97: British soldiers wore red coats because they wouldn’t show the blood.

August 28, 2016

Ben Swenson, former history teacher and reenactor, said he often heard the myth that the British wore red because it wouldn’t show blood if they were shot. “Considering that the rest of their uniforms were usually white, this made no sense. . . I seem to recall something about red being the cheapest dye for a country that had a substantial military budget. Not 100% sure on that one.”

Shoot03_r2You’re on the mark, Ben. For more than a century, inexpensive synthetic dyes have been able to create any color on the color wheel, so the world has forgotten the message of power and wealth that intense color once conveyed. People from the past craved bright colors, but only the rich and royal could afford expensive dyes and the fabrics that showed them off. So tight was the link between the aristocracy and color that in many societies, laws restricted strong colors like scarlet or purple to the nobility, just in case some nouveau riche lout was tempted to dress above his station. Renaissance Europeans would have considered today’s dress-for-success colors—black, beige, grey, and other subdued shades—fit only for paupers.

Red and its close cousin purple were the most coveted of colors because they were the most difficult to make and the most expensive. Down the centuries, reds and reddish purples became the acknowledged color of royalty throughout the world. Chinese and Persian rulers preferred red. The togas of Roman senators bore a reddish-purple band. The Catholic Church took red as a symbol of its authority, using a red cross on a white shield as its emblem and dressing its cardinals in scarlet robes. The British were not alone in dressing their military officers in red uniforms. Its rarity and its link to status made good red dye almost priceless.


Max Hamrick, Colonial Williamsburg’s master weaver and dyer, says that both cochineal and madder were used to put the red in Redcoats. The British government supplied their soldiers with uniforms that were dyed with madder because it was cheaper. Officers, who supplied their own uniforms, preferred the brighter red of cochineal for their jackets. Red was the symbol of power and prestige, not some cover up for blood.

Even Wikipedia says, “There is no known basis for the myth that red coats were favoured because they did not show blood stains. Blood does in fact show on red clothing as a black stain.”

My article on cochineal and the color red appeared in an issue of Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine. I found the topic fascinating–hope you will too.



Grace Burrowes says:
October 13, 2012 at 9:30 am (Edit)
I also suspect that once the artillery started firing, and smoke hazed over the battlefields, red was simply VISIBLE, making it less likely a soldier would be killed by friendly fire. Once the hand to hand fighting began, the downside of increased visibility (to the enemy) would have been moot since national affiliation would have been obvious up close.

PJ Curran says:
October 13, 2012 at 10:36 am (Edit)
In a conversation with a young “Redcoat” at Old North Bridge this summer I was informed that the reason for red was to identify the lines when the muskets began to generate smoke, an explanation similar to the previous response.

Caitlin McRae says:
October 17, 2012 at 11:38 am (Edit)
When you say inexpensive synthetic dyes have been available for more than a century, do you mean aniline (sp?) dyes from the turn of the century…? Would love to know more of that kind of history.

Caitlin McRae

Mary Miley says:
October 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm (Edit)
So would I, but I’m afraid I know very little about the chemistry of modern synthetic dyes. The first were created in the mid-1800s and soon crowded out the old plant-based and insect-based dyes that had been used for centuries.

Edward Werner Cook says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm (Edit)
William Henry Perkin discovered Mauve in 1856 in August Von Hofmann’s Laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. After Prince Albert died Hofmann went to Berlin in 1863 where Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter was Crown Princess of Prussia. By the 1877’s dye industry in England was dead and became a German monopoly. At the end of the 19th century it was these same synthetic dye companies who had the skill to make synthetic drugs with the dye firm later known by the name of the founder Fredrick Bayer synthesizing Aspirin in 1897. The rest is, as we say, history. The giant firm I G Farben means “Common Interest in Dye Colors” and was at height the 4th largest company in the world.

You’ve Got Red On You « The BS Historian says:
December 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm (Edit)
[…] from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for […]

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:10 am (Edit)
There is an interesting correlation with the development of chemical dyes, which led to progress in industrial chemistry in general, which caused competitions and conflict between England and Germany and that, among other things,
led to the the tensions that blossomed into WW I – The idea of red not showing blood, may have had some origins in the painting of the deck of the Shipboard surgery in the days of Wooden ships and sail ( or is that a myth , too?!)

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:44 am (Edit)
I’ve read about that relationship between chemical dyes and WWI–fascinating. BUt I’ve not heard that statement about red decks, so don’t know if it is a myth or not. Sounds myth-like . . .

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm (Edit)
I was aboard USS Constitution a few years ago when it was dis-masted in dry-dock having preventative maintenance performed. I inquired of a sailor if they were going to paint the decks red and he said they only did that in the sick bay. I do not know if we can rely on this ( I am tempted to just call the commander of USS Constitution and just ask him!)
Anyway I came up with some info:

“The insides of the gun decks and the scupper ways were painted red so that blood stains should not be so noticeable.”


“In the artillery decks, the bulkwarks and the carriages of the cannons were often painted in red, to dissimulate the presence of the blood during combat.”

“The deck above the holds in the old ships, what would now be called the platform deck, was known as the orlop deck, a contraction of ‘overlap’, a word of Dutch origin meaning ‘that which runs over the hold’. In H.M.S. Victory this deck is painted red; the wounded were taken there to be tended by the ship’s surgeon. On this first deck below the waterline they were safer and their blood was not so noticeable against the red paint of the deck.”

BUT this one is not in agreement.

“Interior bulkheads were often painted red, not to cover up blood and gore during battle (most of which wound up on the deck anyway) but rather for decorative purposes and because red ocher pigment was relatively cheap.”

What do you think?

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm (Edit)
Hmmm. Interesting. I do know this: reddish-brown paint (iron oxide or sometimes called Spanish brown) was cheap and easy to make yourself, like whitewash. Neither is real paint, which was expensive, tricky to make, and rather a trade secret. (Painters made their own concoctions and kept formulas in the family.) If that’s the “red” paint used on the floors, as suggested in the final quotation which mentions red ocher (which is iron oxide), then I side with the final quotation.

Roger W. Fuller says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm (Edit)
Having been personally injured accidentally by a bayonet at a reenactment, in which I bled onto a red British regimental coat I was wearing, I can assure you, red does not cover up blood stains. Blood looks almost black in comparison when on period-dyed red woolen cloth.

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm (Edit)
Yikes! That’s what I call a primary source!

Jan says:
September 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm (Edit)
Actually, what I’ve read suggests that *black* was the most difficult and expensive dye to produce consistently in a way that would not fade or run.

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 27, 2013 at 12:55 pm (Edit)
Well I went and called USS Constitution and the man there just called me back- Mr. Brecher I think it was, and we discussed the painting of the deck red- he said that almost all the decks are natural pine, which are ‘holy stoned ” ( sanded with a piece of sandstone)so they would be the natural pine color, with the bulkheads whitewashed- BUT that the deck of the cock pit, – where the wounded were treated – IS CURRENTLY painted red, BUT he has no historical reference for why this is done, and does not know why it has been done nowadays. I asked if the sailors who are assigned to the ship as guides tell the people that was because the red would not show the blood, and he laughed and said that they do have a training period for the sailors and expected that that was not done.

That is where the thing is now. Unfortunately I am not entirely convinced of whether or not the decks were or were not painted red because of the blood. Until I do more research and stumble upon some CONTEMPORARY source, . I could put forth a theory- which is that since the deck in the cockpit would have blood on it and since the decks were holy stoned pine the blood would soak in and so that deck was painted and since the Spanish brown was cheap the deck was therefore painted that reddish brown.

Jeff Neice says:
September 29, 2013 at 2:26 am (Edit)
the old red barn, milk paint, was very thick and solid. Perhaps, they used something like that to seal and preserve the floors better in the sick bay.

Mary Jean Adams says:
July 21, 2014 at 5:05 pm (Edit)
It reminds me of an old joke about a sea captain who wears red because it doesn’t show the blood. However, when faced with overwhelming odds, he asks his mate to bring him his brown pants.

The joke is funnier when not being told by me.

Zain says:
August 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm (Edit)
Thanks for solving this myth i always wanted to know the truth

RIchard Howe says:
December 10, 2015 at 3:25 pm (Edit)
I was told that the officers had Scarlet uniforms because they were more visible on the battlefield so that the rank and file could see them giving orders. In Europe at the time,it was considered “uncivilized” to shoot the officers! The American Revolution put an end to that!

stephanusmurlinis says:
May 23, 2016 at 10:02 am (Edit)
It was my understanding that the red coat appeared during the English Civil War. While the cavaliers used blue uniforms, the Model Army used red. Is it correct?

picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:32 am (Edit)
Reblogged this on Defense Issues.

Patrice Ayme says:
June 9, 2016 at 2:50 am (Edit)
The Spartans supposedly used red to hide their wounds. Centurions of the Roman army carried spectacular head dress, parallel to their shoulders, above their helmets, to be seen from afar.

Revisited Myth #96: Because trans-Atlantic communication was so slow, the Battle Of New Orleans occurred after the War of 1812 had ended.

August 20, 2016



Thanks go to Ralph Eshelman, a historian who specializes in the War of 1812 and who busts this common myth, below. It’s one we find in many history books. I confess, when I was teaching, I presented this to my students as fact. Sorry kids . . .

This commonly held myth is based on the fact that the American and Great Britain peace commissions agreed to terms of a treaty on December 24, 1814. But the British were fearful of the US Congress failing to agree to the recommendations of their own peace commission such as occurred with the Jay Treaty. So the British demanded that all hostiles would cease only after the treaty had been ratified and exchanged by both countries.

This is very clear in the wordage of the treaty as found in the first sentence of Article 2: “Immediately after the ratifications of this treaty by both parties, as hereinafter mentioned, orders shall be sent to the armies, squadrons, officers, subjects and citizens of the two Powers to cease from all hostilities.”

Great Britain ratified the treaty on December 30. The treaty did not reach Washington City until February 14, 1815 and was not ratified by congress until February 16. The United States and Great Britain exchanged ratifications of the treaty on February 17. At this time the treaty became binding. The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815, forty days before the war was officially over and hostilities were to cease.



Revisited Myth # 95: They’re called “sadirons” because ironing was such a hated chore that any woman would be sad to iron.

August 7, 2016


A reader wrote: “Does anyone know the reason that irons were called “sad irons” in the 19th century? I’ve heard that ironing was a sad business and any woman who ironed would be sad.”

The dictionaries should be enough to debunk this myth. The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s give the word’s origins. The sadiron (today it is one word) is one type of iron. There are many others, developed for special uses, like goffering irons that pressed ruffles or specially shaped irons for sleeves. The OED says that the sadiron is a smoothing iron, solid and flat, as opposed to a box iron that is hollow and meant to hold coals (so it didn’t need to be heated and reheated on the stove). It says that the word sad once meant heavy or compact. Webster’s defines sadiron as a flatiron pointed at both ends and having a removable handle, and dates the term to 1738.

Evidently an American woman named Mrs. Potts invented a removable wooden handle in 1871 that made it easier to iron–it didn’t burn your hand (women used rags or potholders but still, those things must have been dangerously hot!), and you could put one sadiron on the stove to heat while you moved the handle to the hot one.


ore iron history, from Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections at the White River Valley Museum:

In the first century BC, the Chinese became the first to apply heat in the process of pressing cloth, using long-handled metal pans filled with charcoal. Heated irons did not appear in the West until the 17th century. Since that time, a wide variety of irons have been developed in the attempt to find a solution to the problem of how to heat an iron efficiently — and protect both the user and the cloth against burns.

The sadiron — whose name derives from the Old English word “sald,” meaning solid — first appeared in the 17th century. The basic sadiron is a shaped piece of metal, with a polished base and attached metal handle. These irons were heated in front of an open fire or on a stove. The undesirable aspect of this, however, was that it heated the handle as well, so they had to be held with a potholder or thick glove. Sadirons were heavy, usually ranging from 5 to 9 pounds, and the weight contributed as much as the heat to the pressing process.

The first significant improvement of the sadiron was achieved by Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa. In 1870, Mrs. Potts was granted a patent for a sadiron pointed at both ends, making it handy to iron in both directions. The following year, Mrs. Potts endeared herself to housewives when she patented a sadiron with a detachable handle, thus allowing the iron to be heated without also heating the handle. These sadirons were sold in sets of 3, with a single handle.

One of the major drawbacks to all sadirons, however, was that they cooled off fairly rapidly, thus it was always necessary to have several irons so that one could always be re-heating. One solution to this problem was the “self-heating” irons.

The simplest of these was the charcoal iron, whose hollow interior could be filled with smoldering coals. In addition to being rather smoky, it was difficult to get a sufficient draft to keep the coals burning. For this reason, they were equipped with high, spout-like openings, so that the coals could be fanned by inserting a bellows, or by swinging the iron back and forth vigorously. In the late 1800s, other types of slef-heating irons were developed that used gasoline and alcohol as fuel, which was stored in small metal tanks at the back of the iron. The major drawback to these was the smell, and the tendency for them to “pop-off” suddenly when escaping fumes ignited, which not only frightened, but also singed the user.

The first electric iron was patented in 1882, but was far from an instant success, as most households lacked electricity — and those that did had power only at night to run lights. In addition, these early electric models were difficult to regulate. None had thermostats until the late 1920s.

So, as sad as many of us are to spend time ironing, that it not the origin of the word.

Revisited Myth # 94: Hair receivers were dressing table accessories meant for gathering hair with which to make hair art.

July 30, 2016


Thanks go to Ashley Rogers who sent this question: “I work in a historic home where I wrangle a corps of 30 volunteers, and keeping their wandering myths in line is a full-time job. I’ve gone through your site, and to my knowledge, I haven’t found anything about hair receivers. This is a contentious collection piece in my museum, because just like at most historic homes, many of my docents tell visitors that hair receivers were for gathering hair with which to make hair art. Bunk, I say! And here’s why: the hair that came off of a brush would be too tangled and broken to make fine hair art with. Also, hair art is so often associated with Victorian mourning practices that very often these pieces were made from locks from the deceased. Where do you weigh in on this issue? I’d love to see it covered, if the mid-to-late Victorian Era is not too far past your preferred time period.”

You’ve answered your own question so nicely, Ashley, that I consider this a “guest blog.” I can only add to your conclusion something that I located in the library, a book you may have seen: THE ART OF HAIR WORK (1989), which reprints Mark Campbell’s 1875 book plus excerpts from Godey’s Lady’s Magazine. These pages show how to make numerous braid patterns and jewelry, specifically rings, necklaces, and bracelets, from hair. But all the hair is to be purchased from suppliers or, less commonly, cut from the head of a loved one, living or deceased. A nice thick, long strand is required, not broken, short, single strands collected from from a brush or comb. Those could not be gathered into a hank of hair suitable for jewelry-making.

So what happened to the hair in hair receivers? This tangled mess of hair could be saved until there was enough to stuff in a tiny pillow for use as a pin cushion or into a hairnet to make a ratt, a ball of hair that could add height or fullness to one’s hairdo. “While some say that hair saved in receivers was also used for hair jewelry, love tokens, and mourning mementos, Lori Verge, curator of the Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, states those items required straight, not tangled hair. She believes that women used cut hair (rather than combed out hair) for those purposes. Ms. Verge also reports that her grandmother used a hair receiver as late as the 1950s.” ( Also see (the official Victorian Hairwork Society website) for an article by Susan and Jim Harran for Antique Week, Dec. 1997.


Melissa Nesbitt says:
August 25, 2012 at 9:49 am (Edit)
I’m glad to see an answer to this. We also have hair receivers in our historic house museum. I’ve never been told they were used for making hair art but rather the ratts as you said. But I’m glad to know how hair art was made as I had not researched that before. Speaking of hair, we have in our collection a long blonde braid that is a false hair piece though made from human hair. It’s interesting to me that hair pieces are not a “new” thing at all.🙂

Eric Koontz says:
December 7, 2012 at 10:59 am (Edit)
Hair Receivers were used to make a hair Switch or as you say hair piece.

Cassidy says:
August 25, 2012 at 10:12 am (Edit)
Ever since I started looking into hair jewelry for an exhibition I worked on, I’ve noticed that people really, really like the idea of it as personal mementoes. Nearly every piece of hair jewelry I’ve come across with a provenance has a story about it being someone or other’s hair and they made it themselves, etc. I guess it’s more interesting than “this bracelet was bought in a store” or “this watch chain was made with hair from a supplier”.

Kathy Bundy says:
August 25, 2012 at 11:38 am (Edit)
Thank you for using the word “hank”, as in hank of hair. Also thanks for the correct spelling of ratt. Details make all the difference.

As a sentimental mom, I have saved hanks of hair I harvested from my children when they were nearly grown, my son’s is a braid of about 12″ long. Don’t know if I’ll make jewelry, but it’s sure to freak somebody out after I’m gone. We won’t even talk about baby teeth.

Erin says:
August 25, 2012 at 3:03 pm (Edit)
This is the first time I’ve ever heard of a hair receiver! What a great idea. I wish I’d had one on my dresser when I had long hair. Question for you and Kathy: what’s the spelling history of rat/ratt? The OED only gives the former spelling, and all seven example sentences (from 1863 to 1996) use the word with only one “t” (also, the OED says it’s a “U.S.” term rather than “chiefly U.S.” — so what are hair pads called in the UK? Canadians also say “rat[t]”.

marymiley says:
August 27, 2012 at 1:15 pm (Edit)
Sorry, Erin, I can’t answer that question about spelling. I can only say that in almost every instance when you see the word in print, it is spelled both ways, like “ratt (also rat)” or vice versa. Since the more scholarly-looking places seemed to prefer the double T, I used that one. Also it makes for less confusion. I wondered if this term had anything to do with the phrase “rat’s nest,” something my grandmother would say back in the ’50s when my hair was all tangled, but I haven’t seen any solid connection.

Mary Miley says:
August 30, 2012 at 8:06 am (Edit)
Now I’m getting ads from China in my email box, trying to sell me human hair!

Gemma says:
September 1, 2012 at 4:51 pm (Edit)
Erin: I’ve never noticed this before (and will definitely use in the future) but to the right of the definition of many words in the OED is a link “thesaurus”. For rat it suggests: roll (1532), cushion (1774), toque (1817) and system. Each links straight to the relevant definition of the word with quotations.

Mary Miley says:
September 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm (Edit)
You must be talking about the online version of the OED, which I have never seen. I just use the huge, multi-volume set at the library. That feature sounds wonderful. I wish I had access to it.

Carlos Talavera says:
December 3, 2012 at 10:13 am (Edit)
As a costume designer having done some research for period dress/styles; Ratts were used to roll the hair into pretty elaborate styles during the late Victorian and into the Edwardian period (think of the Gibson Girl illustrations with the hair almost twice as wide as the face). Not every woman was blessed with a ridiculously full head of perfectly setting hair. I am not sure if they did offer “rolls” of hair for sale that you could use (much later they were made of nylon mesh over a wire frame) but what better than your own hair that matched your color perfectly?

Sarah Kirton says:
October 7, 2013 at 8:09 pm (Edit)
My grandmothers both hung the wads of collected hair outdoors for the birds (and probably the squirrels) to use in their nests, starting in early spring to a bit after mid-summer. They both used hair receivers.

Mary Miley says:
October 8, 2013 at 8:43 am (Edit)
Hi, Sarah. My grandmother did that too. Only she would gather the hair from her hairbrush and put it on a tree near her bird bath and feeders. She could call the birds and they would come. It always amazed me to watch. Thanks for the nice memory!


Revisited Myth # 93: The word “Mayday” comes from the French “M’aidez,” or “Help me!”

July 24, 2016
Marconi, inventor of the radio telegraph

Marconi, inventor of the radio telegraph

Not a myth–this is true! A quick check of the OED shows the origin of this English word is French for “Help me!” The Oxford English Dictionary says it is a phonetic reproduction of the French that has become an international signal of distress. The International Radio Telegraph Convention of 1927 lists 51 Rules, and this is among them. So the word “mayday” was officially born in 1927.

As more than one alert reader pointed out, the French is wrong. “Help me!” in French would be “Aidez-moi!” But then, Marconi was Italian. And if it wasn’t his fault, the International Radio Telegraph Convention was held in Washington, D.C., where French was not exactly a second language. So we’ll overlook the grammar.

For more on grammar, see below. 


Ken says:
August 18, 2012 at 10:38 pm (Edit)
m’aider (to help me) can appear only in the company of a verb: Il faut m’aider (You must help me ). In French, Help me! (as quoted) is Aidez-moi! But, I suppose, Marconi was Italian, not French.

marymiley says:
August 19, 2012 at 8:50 am (Edit)
Good point! You get an A for the grammar quiz!

Edouard Bernard says:
May 1, 2014 at 11:35 pm (Edit)
Strictly speaking, and speaking as someone who is majority French and a French speaker,… not true. “M’aidez” is a perfectly adequate response to danger stimulation. After all… if you were drowning in the middle of a pond, you wouldn’t bother shouting out “You must help me!”… you would simply shout “HELP!”:-)

stanito says:
June 3, 2013 at 9:23 am (Edit)
I had no idea, thanks forsharing this about Mayday😉

danman says:
December 12, 2013 at 8:59 am (Edit)
It means, “come help me”.

gshenaut says:
February 6, 2015 at 11:10 am (Edit)
It’s not m’aideZ that mayday comes from, it’s m’aideR (as in [venez] m’aider). So to some extent, it is after all a myth that it comes from m’aidez.

Thoughts: 5.1.15 | amendezvillamil says:
May 1, 2015 at 5:02 pm (Edit)
[…] Per my coworker Mariel, the word mayday is derived from “m’aidez,” French for help me. Fact. […]

What do you think?

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