Myth #79: Wine was an expensive luxury so most people drank beer or cider.

May 29, 2019

Sara Rivers Cofield heard this during a historic house tour and wondered if it was a myth. (And as part-owner of a Virginia winery www.valleyroadwines.com, I had more than normal interest in the answer.)

Not a myth–this one’s true. Wine was expensive, lots more expensive than beer or cider, because it was imported. Beer, “small beer” (with lower alcoholic content), and cider were everyday beverages for men, women, and children, drunk morning, noon, and night, and often made at home by the woman of the house. Small beer was served at every meal to boys at the College of William and Mary–in fact, the school had it’s own brewery. But wine had to be imported, usually from France, Portugal, the Canary Islands, or Spain.

The price differential shows up best in the colonial regulation of taverns and ordinaries. Many jurisdictions set “The Rates and Prices that every Ordinary keeper in this County may ask, demand, receive, or take for drink, Diet, Lodging, Fodder, Provender or Pasturage.” While these prices differ throughout time and place, there is a clear price gap between beer and cider and the more expensive wines.

For example, in 1743/1744, Lancaster County, Virginia, regulated beverages by the quart. Wines included Canary or French brandy at 5 shillings, Portugal or French wine at 4 shillings, Madeira wine at 2 shillings 3 pence, and Western Island wine (not sure which islands those were–Azores?) at 2 shillings. Meanwhile, a quart of strong beer from Virginia or Pennsylvania cost 6 pence and cider was 3 and 3/4 pence. At 12 pence to a shilling, that made wine eight to ten times as costly as strong beer and twelve to fifteen times as much as cider. Wine was for the gentry; cider and beer for everyone.

A related claim–that people drank beer because they thought water was bad for their health–is also true. This statement is often said with a patronizing smile, implying that people “back then” were so ignorant that they thought drinking water was harmful to their health and alcoholic beverages were not. In truth, people “back then” were pretty savvy. They shunned water because all too often, especially in cities, it wasn’t healthy to drink, because it came from polluted rivers or shallow wells. Alcoholic beverages like beer and cider were far safer. 

Advertisements

Carrot Myths

April 6, 2019

Looks like the Smithsonian is muscling in on the history myth business! Here’s their terrific post about a vegetable myth that I think you’ll enjoy . . . and it does have a good deal to do with history.

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/food/2013/08/a-wwii-propaganda-campaign-popularized-the-myth-that-carrots-help-you-see-in-the-dark


Myths about Quotes from Generals Lee and Grant

March 30, 2019
Since we are coming up on the 154th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse (April 9), I thought I’d re-run this early post from 2011. It was written by Gary Adams our first guest blogger:
 
My name is Gary Adams and I run a Face Book group by the name of Southern Heritage Preservation. Don’t allow the name to fool you– our goal is that of  Cicero: “THE FIRST law of the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.”  After what Southroners call “the war,” events and remarks were recorded by various sources that “usually” ensured the event and quote were correct, but that was not the case during the ear in question.  We take these stories and adages and examine them and have found more than a dozen to be false and many more questionable.  If you enjoy Civil War history, please feel free to join us.  
 
“Tell Hill he must come up … Strike the tent.” were reported as the last words of General Robert E. Lee. There are suggestions that Lee’s autobiographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, embellished Lee’s final moments.  Lee suffered a stroke on September 28, 1870. He died two weeks later, on October 12, 1870, shortly after 9 a.m., from the effects of pneumonia. Lee’s stroke had resulted in aphasia, rendering him unable to speak. When interviewed, the four attending physicians and family members stated “he had not spoken since 28 September…”.  We had to dig through the obituary and newspaper interviews to collect this material. 
Many Southron love to post this statement attributed General Grant: “If I thought this war was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side.”  They argue that this proves the war was not over slavery. While I personally agree, this is not proof as indeed, it is political lie.  We managed to track it down to a comment made by a political opponent running against Grant for President.  Here is the reference to the original newspaper and documentation. The quotation is but another myth.  (http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F20813F7355C1A7493C2AA1783D85F468784F9)
 
I would like to thank Mary Theobald for allowing me to address her audience and to thank you for taking the time to visit her site.  
Gary Adams, President SHPG

Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit bullets to combat the pain when no anesthesia was available. mm

February 4, 2019

Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 


Government Myths

January 16, 2019

With the disfunctional U.S. government in the news so much these past few weeks, I thought I’d boost your spirits with this debunking of commonly held myths about our congressmen and women. As Abraham Lincoln used to say, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”


Revisited Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with New Year’s Day and good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War

December 28, 2018

Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press, as I’ve been seeing displays of dried peas in the grocery stores, ready for New Year’s Day.)

The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.) 

Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband. 

But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: http://forward.com/articles/112887/at-rosh-hashanah-black-eyed-peas-for-good-fortune/#ixzz3OMoliuUG. The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.

Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “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.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.

Another article in Forward.com, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/142762/for-rosh-hashanah-eat-these-symbolic-sounding-food/#ixzz3ORjEzzpS

Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. 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 [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.” 

So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct cultures: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!

6 previous Responses to Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.

  1. Pat McMillion says:

    Thank you so very much!!! I knew that logically this was a myth but just didn’t have the proof! I hope to meet you some day so I can give you a hug of thanks for all you do!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Thank you, ma’am. Your blog is always a good read. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia (which is a lot further South than it looks on a map), and I have never heard that Sherman story. Is it really that widespread?

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m in Richmond too, and no, it isn’t THAT widespread. Mostly in Georgia, I expect, with that General Sherman angle. I hadn’t heard it myself until a couple readers sent the story to me. One reader said she had heard it as a youngster and she was from Mississippi.

      Hanley, Kevin says:

      Actually, Mary, they could very well have referenced silos! Though, as you state, the modern silos as we know wasn’t invented until the 1870’s in Illinois, aboveground silos were known before that. In the 1850’s, in France, they built some of masonry, lined with sheet iron. Prior to that, underground silos, were all the rage, going back to Greek (siros) and Roman (sirus/syrus) times. Both early terms referred to pits for storing grain. Its from those roots that the term “silo” evolved from. Remember the scene in the “Ten Commandments” when Charley Heston a/k/a Moses breaks open the Egyptian priests granary. Those mud brick storage bins were silos. So those southerners may have had underground “silos” on their farms. Civil War texts refer to the Georgian crowd, as with many southern farmers, burying their goods: crops, the good silver, etc., underground to hide them from those da*ned Yankees.

      BTW, no I’m not a silo historian. In the research for info about the Wick and Ford family farms here at Morristwon NHP, I wondered if they may have had such “silos”, and came across a whole bunch of neat stuff about silos (especially an 1880’s British book about the proper storage of their fodders. Those Brits really dug their agriculture! Course, what they did with their mudders we’ll never know. Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

      Kevin Hanley Park Ranger, MORR

      • Mary Miley says:

        Thanks for the information, Kevin. I’m afraid my brain leaped directly to tall, cylindrical silos when I read this term. Of course other grain storage facilities have been around for millennia, and I’m sure that’s what the story was referencing.

    • i know I’m rather late, but the other factor people tend to ignore or just flat out miss is that Sherman had contact with Federal units from Tennessee and Kentucky at least during the battle of Atlanta, so I’m sure that he was well informed about black-eyed peas.


Christmas . . . is it Merry or Happy?

December 20, 2018

This isn’t an actual myth, but in honor of the holidays, I thought I’d post this bit of research submitted by Kenneth Archbold of Mount Vernon, who reports that people there were debating which greeting–Merry Christmas or Happy Christmas–would have been used during George Washington’s time. Thank you, Kenneth! 

From what I’ve been able to find out, “Merry Christmas” is indeed what one was more likely to use at the time, if any greeting was used at all. Different sources trace the origin of the phrase back to different dates, but in each case that I’ve seen, they all pre-date the 18th Century. The casual use of the phrase in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” seems to suggest that it was already well-known to the English by the early to mid-19th Century. “Happy Christmas” seems to have originated in the late 19th Century and, in the opinions of some, grew out of the temperance movement in an effort diminish any association of Christmas with the alcohol fueled celebrations of Christmas past (the word “merry” being often associated with drinking, indulgence and raucous celebrations).

If you were to step back in time to 18th-century America, how likely would you have been to hear any greeting at all on Christmas day? As you probably already know, that depended on where exactly you were. If you were in New England, the answer would be none at all since the Puritans had banned the holiday in the mid-17th century, and it wouldn’t be celebrated there again until the early 19th century. The Quakers in Pennsylvania might not have outlawed it, but they didn’t really observe it either. Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, etc. on the other hand celebrated Christmas as we might expect with parties, dances, big dinners, decorating with holly and mistletoe (no Christmas tree, though) and good Christmas cheer. An article on the subject is here: http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/christmasthen.html According to this article, Christmas was celebrated most heartily in the Southern colonies.

So all considered, I think it is appropriate to gladly wish visitors to Mount Vernon and Williamsburg a Merry Christmas.


%d bloggers like this: