Revisited Myth # 47: The fainting couch was invented during Victorian times for tightly corseted women to use whenever they felt faint.

May 16, 2015
19th-century tight lacing

19th-century tight lacing

Thanks to Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information at the Geneva Historical Society Geneva, NY, who sent this myth.

A recent study using reenactors showed that wearing corsets laced 3” tighter than natural reduced lung capacity by 2% to 29%. Some wearers felt short of breath but were easily relieved with rest. The conclusion: “Reports of corseted women fainting are likely to have been accurate,” especially during physical activity such as dancing. (See the excellent book, The Corset: A Cultural History, by Valerie Steele, 2003, for more info.)

So now we know that tightly corseted ladies were not faking the fainting spells, at least not all the time. But does it follow that fainting couches were invented and strewn about Victorian houses in case of sudden need?

In a word, no. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of the word daybed is 1594, but the actual object dates much earlier. Paging through the Dictionary of English Furniture turned up many, many examples of antique couches and daybeds—most upholstered or caned—from the 1600s forward, proving that this item of furniture was not a Victorian invention. While the term “fainting couch” seems to date from the Victorian era (sadly, there is no listing of it in the OED), the style existed in ancient Roman, Egyptian, and Greek times. (below top Greek, middle Roman, bottom Egyptian) According to historians at the Smithsonian, reclining furniture like these examples originated in the 7th century BC with the Greeks and spread to the Romans. (see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/videos/category/ask-smithsonian/ask-smithsonian-why-did-ancient-greeks-and/)

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Actual Roman daybed found in the ruins of Herculaneum near Pompeii

Actual Roman daybed found in the ruins of Herculaneum near Pompeii

Since the Victorians were fond of reviving historical styles—think Greek Revival, Egyptian Revival, etc.—the adaptation of those early pieces to current use was a fashion statement as much as a useful piece of furniture. As such, they probably would have been found in the most fashionable rooms of the house, like the parlor. 


Revisited Myth # 46: The Good Friday Massacre of 1622

May 9, 2015

1622massacre

On the morning of March 22, 1622, Virginia’s Powhatan Indian alliance executed a well-conceived and coordinated attack on English settlements spread more than fifty miles up and down the James River. Warriors from perhaps a dozen of the thirty-two affiliated tribes—Quiyoughcohannocks, Waraskoyacks, Weanocks, Appomatucks, Arrohatecks, and others—fell on men, women, and children in their homes and in their fields, burning houses and barns, killing livestock, mutilating the bodies of their victims. Planned by the Pamunkey headman Opechancanough, a kinsman of the deceased paramount chieftain Powhatan, the offensive slew about 350 whites, a sixth of the total in the fifteen-year-old colony. From modern Richmond to Hampton Roads, the onslaught devastated Jamestown’s outlying plantations, but it failed in its purpose: stopping the relentless encroachment of the English. The raid is commonly—and erroneously—called the Good Friday Massacre.

More than one historian has suggested that the attacks were timed to coincide with the Christian Holy Week, thinking that the 1622 raid was on Good Friday. Eminent colonist George Thorpe had often conferred with Opechancanough on matters of religion, trying to convert the old chief to Christianity, and presumably would have shared with him the details of Easter and the resurrection. The Powhatans had a predilection for blending irony and warfare (These are Indians who killed colonists for stealing corn by stuffing corn down their throats, for example.) It is suggested that Opechancanough planned the attack for Good Friday to emphasize a rejection of the foreigner’s religion.

Easter, however, does not cooperate with this theory, falling as it does on April 21 in 1622, several weeks after the massacre. So how did the myth begin?

It seems to have been a mix-up with the date of Opechancanough’s second major attack, the one in 1644, which actually did occur near Easter, although this one was not on Good Friday either. This second attack came on the Thursday before Easter, known by Christians as Maundy Thursday. Seems that a careless historian moved the attack of 1644 back one day—to Good Friday—and confused that with the date of the first attack in 1622. According to ethnohistorian Fred Fausz, this mixup “led to the creation of the myth–unforgivably by a clergyman. In 1871 the Rev. Edward D. Neill got his massacres mixed up; thought the 1644 attack occurred on Good Friday, rather than on Maundy Thursday; and then inadvertently reversed the years! A Neill admirer, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, embraced the symbolism of heathens slaying Anglicans on that special day of Christian sacrifice. A careless slip became an enduring myth because both men were popular celebrity authors, more prolific than careful, with Neill restating his error in multiple, repetitious books from 1871-1885, while Tyler did likewise from 1904-1915.”

Memorable and catchy, the mistake persists in textbooks and on Internet sites despite the efforts of historians to correct it.

Fred Fausz, a history professor at the University of St. Louis, wrote more on this topic:

Historians used to be taught to evaluate evidence, to question everything, but that is rarely the case today, as the most enduring old myth about Jamestown reveals. The “Good Friday Fallacy” associated with the 1622 Massacre originated 136 years ago and was still misleading the general public as recently as the May 7 issue of Time magazine and the January 2007 special Jamestown issue of U.S. News & World Report. Good Friday fell on April 19 in both the 1622 and 1644 years of massive Powhatan offensives, and that led to the creation of the myth–unforgivably by a clergyman. In 1871 the Rev. Edward D. Neill got his massacres mixed up; thought the 1644 attack occurred on Good Friday, rather than on Maundy Thursday; and then inadvertently reversed the years! A Neill admirer, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, embraced the symbolism of heathens slaying Anglicans on that special day of Christian sacrifice. A careless slip became an enduring myth because both men were popular celebrity authors, more prolific than careful, with Neill restating his error in multiple, repetitious books from 1871-1885, while Tyler did likewise from 1904-1915.

The indifference paid to or paid by copyeditors and proofreaders is even more telling in the publication industry today, as the Good Friday Fallacy is more widely disseminated than ever before. At least three Oxford University Press books perpetuate that error–including the 25th anniversary edition of T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes’s popular “Myne Owne Ground”: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676–while notable scholars, such as Breen, John Murrin, and Jill Lepore, keep it alive in their college textbooks. Such errors also live on in cyberspace, where “history viruses” proliferate like all the others. They have “infected” the Jamestowne.org website, which has an entire section under a prominent heading, “Good Friday Massacre,” as well as the 2005 online book by the National Park Service, A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century.

 


Myth # 141: Colonial-era bread ovens were constructed outside the fireplace, to one side of the hearth.

May 2, 2015
Above: 18th-c. New England fireplace with rear bread oven; below: Michie Tavern fireplace with right side oven.

Above: 18th-c. New England fireplace with rear bread oven; below: Michie Tavern fireplace with right side oven.

This is more misunderstanding than myth, but Cindy Conte of Michie Tavern, Charlottesville, Virginia (1784), asked me to address the subject, so I will! 

“The 18th-century hearth is one of the most romanticized and iconic images of colonial times,” writes Cindy Conte. “Early depictions feature a woman in colonial garb cooking over a roaring fire. Sadly, this romantic hearth cooking image has been stamped into our mindset as permanently as it has been inked into old history books. At least once every season a tourist will point to the bread oven which is tucked to the side of our fireplace and exclaim, ‘That has to be wrong. A person would get burned baking bread if the oven were placed there.’ Surely, they are thinking of that colonial woman, a roaring fire and possibly a large black kettle. Quite often, we explain that once a fire was good and hot, the coals would be separated into piles (think of burners on a stove) and several dishes could be prepared at once. Bread could be prepared as well. Bread ovens were tucked into the side of hearths, at the back of hearths, close to the hearth, to the right of the hearth, to the left of the hearth and outside.”

Bread ovens (which had doors that are missing in these photos), could be constructed in various places around the fireplace. Why build one inside the fireplace where surely it would be harder to access? Frank Clark, Colonial Williamsburg’s supervisor of Historic Foodways, says the reason is: “It was cheaper. If you put your oven on either side of the fireplace, you must also build a flue to tie it into the main chimney. This takes more bricks and more labor from a mason. If you don’t, your kitchen fills with smoke when you use it. When you build it in the back of the fireplace, it feeds to the main chimney with no flue. It is, however, more difficult to use since you have to keep the hearth fire to the other side so you can access the oven.”

So bread ovens at the back or side of the fireplace are not mistakes. 

 

 

 


Myth # 140: A woman would use a diamond to etch her name/date on window glass to see if the stone was genuine.

April 24, 2015

 

window at The Old Manse in Concord, MA

window at The Old Manse in Concord, MA


“I am a museum interpreter at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia. We have a couple of window panes that have names, dates, and even a branch with leaves etched in them – all from the 19th century. Is it true that ladies would test their diamonds or other gems to see if they were real or glass by doing such etchings?”

You may have heard that a real diamond will scratch glass and an imitation one won’t. If only it were that easy! Many high quality imitation diamonds made in recent decades are harder than glass, so even fakes will scratch glass. Don’t rely on this myth to determine whether your own diamond-looking piece of jewelry is genuine or not. Take it to a reputable, local jewelry, one who has been in business for many years, and he or she will tell you at no cost whether it is genuine or not. They will not appraise it at no cost–for that you need an experienced CGA or Certified Gemologist Appraiser who has the training to judge your jewelry value it.

The idea that the ability to scratch glass proves a diamond’s genuine-ness is clearly a myth today. But what about in earlier times?

Well, it was closer to the truth in the past, when imitation diamonds were made of something called “paste.” Not the sort of paste you used in kindergarten to glue lace to your Valentine, this word meant a type of glass with a high lead content that was used to make imitation stones. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Romans were the first to make this sort of imitation stone. For all you chemists, here’s the lowdown: 

“Before 1940 most imitation gems were made from glass with a high lead content. Such glasses were called paste because the components of the mixture were mixed wet to ensure a thorough and even distribution. Colourless paste is commonly formulated from 300 parts of silica (silicon dioxide, SiO2), 470 of red lead (a lead oxide, Pb3O4), 163 of potassium carbonate (K2CO3), 22 of borax (a sodium borate, Na2B4O7·10H2O), and 1 of white arsenic (arsenic oxide, As2O3). Pigments may be added to give the paste any desired colour: chromium compounds for red or green, cobalt for blue, gold for red, iron for yellow to green, manganese for purple, and selenium for red.”

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean it was true in the past–other clear stones that look like diamonds can scratch glass. Quartz, for instance. I think it likely that people who scratched on window glass were indulging in some playful or sentimental graffiti rather than testing their diamonds.

Some window glass in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion had two little girls’ names etched in it–these were youngsters who lived in the mansion when their father was governor in the 1840s. (Sadly, that pane went missing during the 1999 renovations.) Many old houses have windows with initials, names, dates, or even sketches that were scratched in the glass. My theory is that most of them were done by girls or young women having fun, but I can’t prove that. 

Does anyone else work at places where someone etched something into the window glass?  


Revisited Myth # 45: The Dutch bought Manhattan for $24 worth of beads.

April 12, 2015

manhattanpurchase

Only one period document mentions anything about the purchase of Manhattan. This letter states that the island was purchased from the Indians for 60 guilders worth of trade goods, which would consist of things like axes, iron kettles, and wool clothing. No reason beads couldn’t have been included, but nothing tells us exactly what the mix was. Indians were notoriously shrewd traders and would not have been fooled by worthless trinkets. 

The original letter is in the archives of the Netherlands. It was written by a merchant, Pieter Schagen, to the directors of the West India Company (owners of New Netherlands) and is dated 5 November 1626. He mentions that the settlers “have bought the island of Manhattes from the savages for a value of 60 guilders.” That’s it. It doesn’t say who purchased the island or from whom they purchased it, although many historians believe it was the local Lenape tribe.

Where the $24 comes from, I have no idea. For what it’s worth, I checked a couple of currency conversion websites and learned the approximate value of 60 guilders is over $1,000 in today’s money. Some speculate that a 19th-century historian calculated how much a Dutch guilder was worth in his day, and the amount came to $24 U.S. dollars–and that number was never updated to reflect 20th- or 21st-century values. Could be.  

A little more is known of the purchase of Staten Island a few years later. That sale was also made for 60 guilders worth of goods (must have been the going price for New World islands!), and for this, the Indians took fabric, axes, hoes, awls, kettles, Jews’ harps, and beads. It is likely the goods exchanged for Manhattan were similar. 

Historians point out that North American Indians had a concept of land ownership different from that of the Europeans. The Indians regarded land, like air and water, as something you could use but not own or sell. It has been suggested that the Indians may have thought they were sharing or receiving gifts, not selling. 

Here is the letter, followed by a transcript in English:

15birth.190

Recep.7 November 1626
 High and Mighty Lords, 
Yesterday the ship the Arms of Amsterdam
 arrived here. It sailed from New Netherland out
 of the River Mauritius on the 23d of September.
They report that our people are in good spirit
 and live in peace. The women also have borne
 some children there. They have purchased the 
Island Manhattes from the savages for the value
 of 60 guilders. It is 11.000 morgens in size
 [about 22.000 acres]. They had all their grain 
sowed by the middle of May, and reaped by the
 middle of August They sent samples of these
 summer grains: wheat, rye, barleey, oats, 
buckwheat, canary seed, beans and flax. The 
cargo of the aforesaid ship is:
7264 Beaver skins
 178 ½ Otter skins 
675 Otter skins 
48 Mink skins 
36 Lynx skins 
33 Minks 
34 Weasel skins
 
Many oak timbers and nut wood. Herewith,
 High and Mighty Lords, be commended to the
 mercy of the Almighty,
 
Your High and Mightinesses’ obedient
 
P. Schagen


Revisited Myth # 44: The position of a horse’s legs on an equestrian statue tells the fate of the rider.

April 6, 2015

jacksonpk3

This persistent myth claims that there is a code in the positioning of the horses legs in equestrian statues telling the fate of the rider. Supposedly, if one hoof is raised, the rider was wounded in battle. It two hooves are raised, he died in battle. If all four hooves are on the ground, he survived the battle/war. It isn’t true, but what makes it so amusing is that the myth persists, even though anyone can look around at the statues and see that there is no relationship to the “code.” Snopes has the best lengthy rebuttal at http://www.snopes.com/military/statue.asp, but I’ll summarize here.

In Washington, D.C., the American city with more statues than any other, one third of the equestrian statues follow the code. Seeing as how there are three possibilities, it seems that chance is hard at work. In Gettysburg, another location full of statues, most of the horses actually do follow the code, but not all. (General Longstreet wasn’t wounded in that battle but his horse has one leg raised.)

General Andrew Jackson, who did not die at the Battle of New Orleans but lived to become president.

General Andrew Jackson, who did not die at the Battle of New Orleans but lived to become president.

How did this myth get started? My opinion is that it started at Gettysburg where most of the statues actually do conform, if coincidentally, to the “code.” If you were to look at three or four statues and find the pattern held true, you might conclude all the rest did too. And we are all suckers for any sort of “secret code,” so that naturally sticks in our minds.

The myth lives on in another format in Richmond, Virginia, along Monument Avenue where Confederate heroes are said to face north if they died in the war and south if they lived through it. Generals Lee and Jackson do fit the formula, but the others (Stuart, Davis, and Maury) face east, which means . . . exactly what? (Actually, if you confined the statement to Confederate generals, leaving out Davis and Maury, and used the direction that their horses faced rather than their riders, the myth would hold true for those three instances, but that’s getting a bit elaborate.)

The equestrian statues code seems to be an American manifestation of the English effigies-of-knights code, which is at least as old as the nineteenth century. Supposedly, the position of the legs of the knights on their tombs indicates whether or not they went on Crusade. An English historian of the 1920s tried to debunk this by pointing out many examples where this was clearly wrong. We can all feel his pain as he wrote in 1923, “Surely it is time that the imaginary connection between cross-legged effigies and the Crusades should be exploded, and yet how rampant is that fiction in certain places, and how constantly it has to be contradicted!” No rest for the weary historian . . . 


Revisited Myth # 43: “Flip your wig” is an 18th-century expression referring to a dangerously low bow.

March 28, 2015

 

 

fig51

 

Speaking of wigs–and we were speaking of wigs in Myths #40 and #42–that famous phrase, “Don’t flip your wig” doesn’t seem to have been an eighteenth-century expression at all. Supposedly, it referred to bowing so low to one’s superior that one’s wig flipped off, but instead, the phrase seems to be a bit of twentieth-century American slang meaning “to go crazy.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the acknowledged authority on word origin, the first known use of the term occurred in 1952.


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