Death by Petticoat: And now a word from our sponsor . . .

October 11, 2015

DeathByPetticoat_09.28It was three and a half years ago that Death by Petticoat was published by Colonial Williamsburg in partnership with Andrews-McMeel Publishers. Since then, to our surprise, it’s sold thousands of copies at bookstores all over the country. However, as a former manager of historic stores for Colonial Williamsburg, my favorite place to see it is on the shelves of museum shops, national park stores, and historic house gift shops. This is where it fits best, in my opinion–where it can make money for museum nonprofits. If you have a connection to any of those institutions, I would appreciate it if you would suggest that your shop consider carrying Death by Petticoat. It’s great retail ($12.95) makes it an impulse item, and it’s lovely color photographs on every page add to its appeal. Wholesalers can click above where it says To Order the Book for wholesale information. 

Of course, Death by Petticoat is available at bookstores and online at for those who want a copy. Click here. The myths featured in the book are shorter versions of the ones you read here on the blog, so they lack cites and quotations and much of the detail that appeal more to historians and museum professionals than to the general public. 

In the past three years, I’ve done 36 presentations at various museums, conferences, bookstores, libraries, teacher conferences, and history groups in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, and, of course, Virginia. The next one will be Thursday, November 5 in western Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Ligonier Valley Historical Society. Tea at 5:00; illustrated lecture at 7:00. I hope anyone in the vicinity will check out the details at their website:

That’s my once-a-year advertisement. Now back to our regularly scheduled program . . . 

Revisited Myth # 60: Women ate arsenic to lighten their complexions.

October 3, 2015



This isn’t a myth, but it is probably exaggerated.

Unlike today when everyone wants a tan, women in previous centuries thought pale was prettier. Pale skin was a status symbol, since it showed that the woman did not have to labor outside in the fields like the peasants. There is some evidence that women ate arsenic to lighten their skin, or at least to minimize blemishes. But according to 18th-century apothecary specialist Robin Kipps, arsenic actually darkens the skin, so anyone trying this should have noticed that and abandoned the effort.

Evidence comes in the form of the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalogue that offered arsenic wafers for men and women. It was more for clearing up skin than for whitening, but I mention it nonetheless.  arsenic_wafers

Every lady a possible buyer of this celebrated complexion preparation and beautifier. Regular size, also large size boxes, can be sold constantly at a very good profit.

PERFECTLY HARMLESS when used in accordance with our directions, it possesses the “Wizard’s Touch” in producing, preserving and enhancing beauty of form and person in male and female by surely developing a transparency and pellucid clearness of complexion, shapely contour of form, brilliant eyes, soft and smooth skin, where by nature the reverse exists.
THE GREAT TROUBLE HITHERTO has been how to make this beautifying principle safely available and at the same time avoid what is detrimental and injurious. Arsenical solutions have utterly failed, and until a recent discovery by a French physician and chemist, the internal administration of arsenic has been attended with more or less danger as well as disappointing results. In the direction for which they are intended their effect is simply magical, the most astounding transformation in personal appearance being brought about by their daily use. Even the coarsest and most repulsive skin and complexion, marred by freckles and other disfigurements, slowly changes into an unrivaled purity of texture, free from any spot or blemish whatever; the pinched features become agreeable, the form angular gradually transforms itself into the perfection of womanly grace and beauty. Used by men the favorable results are the same. All danger is averted in these complexion wafers, prepared by our experienced chemist, and the remedy taken in the manner directed on each box is absolutely innocuous, while the peculiar virtues of the remedy remain unimpaired and intact. Taken as directed the wafers will be found a positive, safe and magical specific for all sorts of skin troubles, unsightliness and imperfections, being in reality the only beautifier of the complexion, skin and form known. Guaranteed a sure cure for freckles, moth, blackheads, pimples, vulgar redness, rough, yellow or muddy skin, and other facial disfigurements are permanently removed and a deliciously clear complexion and round up of angular forms assured.

LADIES, YOU CAN BE BEAUTIFUL. No matter who you are, what your disfigurements may be, you can make yourself as handsome as any lady in the land by the use of our French Arsenic Wafers. We recommend ordering one dozen large boxes and then carefully follow our directions.

No. 8R99 Our price, per dozen boxes, $3.30; per box of 50 treatments… 35¢
No. 8R100 Our price, per dozen boxes, $6.00; per box of 100 treatments, 67¢
If by mail, postage extra, per box, small, 3 cents; large, 3 cents.

Some women did something else that was just as bad as arsenic. Since the early 1500s, some upper class European women (think Queen Elizabeth I and her ladies-in-waiting) used a skin lightener called ceruse. Made with white lead, ceruse was also used in making paint. This probably caused damage, perhaps even death, if the woman applied it to her face often enough. It was still available in France in the middle 1700s, but I’ve seen no evidence that American women used it. 


Revisited Myth # 59: Women had very tiny waists during the “olden days.”

September 27, 2015


What makes waists appear smaller in paintings and photos is the illusion created by the dress styles, which in the 17th-18th centuries involved farthingales or panniers (above), in the 19th century involved wide crinolines or bustles (below), and in the 1940s involved padded shoulders (below).Unknown


Long gowns with wide panniers or full skirts make the waist seem smaller in comparison, as does the triangular stomacher that narrows to a point just below the waist, like this one:


Studies of costumes at the Smithsonian, Colonial Williamsburg, and other museums provide the evidence. Curator Linda Baumgarten’s measurements of 18th-century stays and gowns show waist sizes ranging from about twenty-one to thirty-six inches. Author Juanita Leisch’s personal collection of garments from the Civil War era shows a median waist of around 23-25 inches. Scarlett O’Hara and her 18” waist aside, few women except teenagers (like Scarlett, who is 16 when the novel opens) had unusually small waist measurements.


Revisited Myth # 58: Niches called ‘coffin corners’ were built into staircases to allow people to carry a casket downstairs and turn the corner.

September 20, 2015
Quarters #1, Fort Monroe, Hampton, VA

Quarters #1, Fort Monroe, Hampton, VA

I must admit, this is one of my favorite myths. You’ll hear it in some Victorian-era houses that have architectural niches built into the wall of the staircase landing, as on the left above. The story goes that these niches were called coffin corners. Someone might explain that, because most people died at home in their beds and because most bedrooms were upstairs, it was difficult to get the casket up and down the stairs when the staircase turned a corner. So at the landing, Victorian architects would cut a niche into the wall. The pallbearers would insert one corner of the coffin into the niche and make the turn at the landing.

Part of this is true: people did tend to die at home and the bedrooms of larger homes did tend to be located on the second or third floors. And many Victorian homes do have niches built into the wall of the staircase. But these were for decorative purposes: to display a statue, perhaps a bust, or a vase, or maybe flowers. Why would anyone carry a coffin upstairs to the corpse rather than carry the corpse downstairs to the coffin? Most books about Victorian architecture debunk this myth. For example, John Maass calls it a hoax in The Victorian Home in America (1972).

Revisited Myth # 57: Venetian blinds were invented in Venice. (Or Marco Polo brought Venetian blinds to Venice from China).

September 7, 2015


I was one of many docents who used to repeat this tale at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1970s. Mea culpa. 

Window blinds with slats existed in ancient Egypt and Pompeii long before the city of Venice was founded in AD 452. Those slats were fixed, however. In 1757, a French craftsman advertised blinds with adjustable slats, probably not his own invention but definitely a new idea.

By the end of the 1700s they were common in wealthier houses, shops, churches, and public buildings in England and the English colonies. In 1767 a Philadelphia craftsman advertised, “newest invented Venetian sun blinds for windows . . . stained to any colour, moves to any position.” In 1769, Diderot’s French encyclopaedia illustrated them (above). When Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson moved the capital from Williamsburg to Richmond, the list of packages sent included “Venen Blinds.” Thrifty George Washington had one Venetian blind made to fit a dining room window at Mount Vernon so that “others may be made by it, at home.”

Only the English called them Venetian blinds. In Italy, they were persiana; in France, jalousie a la persienne. This suggests that they originated in the East, perhaps in the Persian Empire or beyond, in China or India. They probably got the name Venetian Blinds courtesy of having come via Venice, a city that dominated trade with the East.

And whenever anyone says “the Venice trade with the East,” they inevitably think of Marco Polo, an association that probably gave rise to the legend that Marco Polo brought them back from China. But on reflection, it appears highly unlikely. First of all, Marco Polo doesn’t mention blinds in his journals, and frankly, it seems like an inexplicably long delay between his travels in the late 1200s and the European debut of the blinds in the 1750s.

Revisited Myth # 56: Quilters put a mistake in each quilt to show their humility.

August 29, 2015


While we’re on the subject of quilts (last week’s post), how about the claim above? Or this one: The Amish made mistakes in their quilts on purpose because “only God is perfect.” Never mind that Amish quilters have strongly denied this custom.

Quilt historians are a careful bunch, and they take unproven claims very seriously. One went looking for the origins of this “humility block” legend and found the earliest reference dated to 1949. No sources from the 1800s like diaries or letters or published materials mention a practice like this, and no oral tradition could be traced. Perhaps the idea got started when people noticed an odd placement of a piece of fabric or a change in color and wondered whether it was done on purpose. For more information from quilt historians, see and scroll down a bit until you reach “humility” blocks. 

There is a similar myth that goes with Persian rugs. Supposedly the weaver makes a mistake on purpose so as not to offend Allah. And see below for another that involves Native Americans and the Great Spirit.

Ask any quilter, Amish or not, and they’ll tell you that they make plenty of mistakes without even trying!


Previous comments:

Mark M
Submitted on 2014/01/11 at 10:41 pm
I heard a similar story decades ago from Native American beadworkers who frequented the bead store I worked at. Basically, that nothing in the world created by the Great Spirit was perfect, and that in humility, no one should attempt to outdo the Great Spirit. Therefore, if one’s creation came out flawlessly, a tiny flaw should be deliberately introduced at the very end.

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Brian Stanley
Submitted on 2011/10/11 at 4:10 pm
Navajo rug makers deliberately leave an opening in closed rectangle patterns to avoid trapping evil spirits / energies in the rug.

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Alden O’Brien
Submitted on 2011/07/13 at 11:51 am | In reply to marymiley.
oh my! So much for my staying under the radar. So glad you enjoyed our exhibit. Do you know all our quilts are visible online at Great site. Also we have a book out this month of a selection of some of our “greatest hits” of the quilt collection published by Martha Pullen Co, available on her website or in our museum shop (am working on wider distribution to other shops, but it’ll never be on Amazon….)meanwhile I’m subscribing to you. I consider one of my vocational duties is myth-busting!–A

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Submitted on 2011/07/13 at 11:47 am | In reply to Alden O’Brien.
Thanks should also go to you, Alden. You’re the one(s) who inspired me, with the DAR’s marvelous exhibit back in 2006.

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Alden O’Brien
Submitted on 2011/07/13 at 11:39 am
thanks for tackling this and other quilt myths!
Alden O’Brien, a curator

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Lisa Sansone
Submitted on 2011/07/12 at 9:58 am
That is excellent. I do counted cross stitch, among other things, and I have to tell you that it’s not hard to make a mistake. Sometimes, you can’t find the mistake in backtracking, so you’re stuck working around it. I’m sure that the Amish feel the same way. Or, if there is a different piece of fabric, it could be possible, in a cruel world, that the lady ran out of the matching fabric, and had to weasel in another!

Revisited Myth #55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to guide escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad.

August 21, 2015


Few history myths have origins so recent or so clear as the quilt code myth. We know who started it, who publicized it, and who is profiting from it. We also know the overwhelming body of evidence against it. This myth caught on quickly, thanks in part to teachers and librarians looking for an imaginative way to teach children about slavery, especially during February (Black History Month).

If you haven’t heard this humdinger, it focuses on quilt patterns that supposedly contained secret messages that would guide slaves along the Underground Railroad route. For instance, the Monkey Wrench pattern, when displayed on a line in the slave quarters, supposedly meant “Gather up tools and prepare to flee.” Quilt experts, academic historians, and museum curators all over the country have exposed this myth as a hoax. None of the various claims have been substantiated, and all are contradicted by facts, for instance, several of the quilt patterns that are supposed to have had hidden meanings didn’t even exist before the Civil War. (The Dresden Plate design is late 19th century; the Wedding Ring, pictured above, dates from 1920.) The examples of slave-made quilts with the secret code are all recently made; no independently-documented example has ever been found. Firsthand accounts from people like Harriet Tubman and other slaves (some of which were collected in the 1930s by WPA writers), do not mention anything about this quilt code, even when referencing quilts, as Tubman did.

Kate Clifford Larson, a historian and expert on Harriet Tubman, the former slave who returned to Maryland again and again to help friends and relatives escape, wrote, “She (Tubman) never used the quilt code. The quilt code is another myth created in the last 20 years. It is not true and everyone should know that. The truth is people who ran away used their great intelligence and took great risks to flee, and they used networks of people who were willing to help. Some people did not get any help; they just ran away and got to freedom on their own.”

This persistent fairy tale is too profitable to kill off. It has spawned several children’s books, a money-making lecture circuit, sales of quilt-code designs to quilt makers, and sales of quilts to tourists. It is even—horror of horrors—morphing into other cultures. Someone has claimed that Native Americans made coded quilts, another that German Jews made coded quilts to warn others about Nazis. All such stories have been debunked by reputable experts who have, on occasion, been accused of racism when they dared to point out the fallacies. 

There is a lesson here—If you want to start a history myth, be sure to include the word “code” or “secret” in it. This is guaranteed to get you lots of attention, as we are all suckers for secret messages, conspiracies, codes, and plots.

Over the years, Leigh Fellner has researched and written an exhaustive, impressive rebuttal of the quilt code myths that you can read in its very interesting entirety at

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