Revisited Myth #101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes with fresh fruit at Christmas.

December 7, 2019

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The approaching holidays require a Christmas myth or two . . . so let’s start with the idea that colonial Americans in general celebrated and decorated for Christmas. That’s erroneous. Many early Americans didn’t acknowledge Christmas at all, let alone celebrate or decorate for it. These included the Puritans in New England and various denominations throughout the middle and southern colonies like Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quakers. But for many in the central and southern colonies, Christmas was a holiday season.

Let’s go to the biggest decorating myth in American Christmas history–the idea that our colonial forebears decked their homes with fruited wreaths.

The idea of decorating the doors with rare fresh fruit where it would hang until it rotted or was eaten by squirrels would have horrified everyone in colonial America, no matter how wealthy they were. Fresh fruit was rare to nonexistent during the winter and if one were fortunate enough to have some imported oranges from the Caribbean or late apples from New England, one ate them.

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This myth originated with the DellaRobbia-style decorating that began in Williamsburg in the 1930s (when the town was being restored with Rockefeller money) as a compromise with its residents. As far as we can tell, colonists did not decorate the outside of their houses at all, but Americans in the 1930s most certainly did, and Williamsburg residents were not happy to be told that authenticity demanded they forego all their Christmas decorations. Nor did the Colonial Williamsburg executives relish the thought of blinking colored lights and reindeer glowing from the rooftops of the restored town. It was decided to encourage natural decoration with materials that would have been available to the colonists, such as greenery, dried seed pods, fruit, pinecones, gourds, oyster shells, and so forth. But no matter how often Foundation executives stressed that this was NOT a colonial decorating method but a modern-day compromise, the erroneous impression spread.

Christmas Stock

 

5 Responses to Myth # 101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes with fresh fruit on Christmas.
Melissa Nesbitt says:
December 22, 2012 at 11:10 am (Edit)
But now, WHO can imagine a Colonial Williamsburg Christmas without fruited wreaths? It has spread of course… I’m “guilty” of doing a Williamsburg style wreath for my own front door on occasion. Love it! 🙂

Have a question though, Mary–what about the “pomander balls” made of oranges and/or apples stuffed with cloves? Where did that come from?

Reply
Mary Miley says:
December 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm (Edit)
Hello Melissa. Nothing wrong with “Williamsburg” decorating. I love it too! It’s just that it isn’t colonial. As for pomanders, I remember doing research on those about thirty years ago. While the details escape me, I remember that the word comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, or apple of amber (gold) or ambergris (ambergris, from sperm whales, was a fixative used to hold scent). The scented ball was originally thought to ward off illnesses. Soon spread to other parts of Europe from France. You can see prints of medieval and renaissance ladies wearing a pomander on their belt. Later (not sure when), sticking a piece of round fruit with cloves gave a nice scent that lasted a long time because the cloves preserved the fruit. More recently, it became associated with Christmas. Wishing you lovely holidays!

Mary Mary Miley Theobald

Reply
Melissa Nesbitt says:
December 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm (Edit)
Thank you much, Mary! I’ve just now gotten back to read your comment. Hope your holidays were good as well.

That was interesting to know about how the Williamsburg decorations came about as a “compromise” with the residents. I wish I’d had that information last year when I gave a talk at our local DAR chapter’s Christmas luncheon. I did mention the part about fruit not being used as decorations, but now I can add this information when asked. LOVE your blog!

Roger W. Fuller says:
December 23, 2012 at 10:33 am (Edit)
I find it hard to believe that many colonists even celebrated Xmas, at least in New England.

Reply
azambone says:
December 24, 2012 at 9:07 am (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
An example of how a mild and harmless myth can be perpetuated despite the best intentions of those involved.

Reply


Another history myths website!

July 25, 2019

Yikes! Competition! (Just kidding.) Here’s an interesting history myths website I stumbled across last week. Nicely written and researched, and fun to read! Click here for some American history myths. 


Revised Myth # 49: Sugar Loaf Paper Used for Dying Fabric

July 6, 2019

 

One of the earliest myths I wrote about is included in my book, Death by Petticoat: Housewives used the blue/purple paper that wrapped their sugar loaves to make a dye. I had written on this blog that this was a myth. I had researched the subject and spoken to several 18th century dye authorities, none of whom had ever heard such a thing. White sugar loaves were only for the wealthy, and those people had no need to dye their own fabric. So I was confident about declaring it a myth. This is what I originally wrote for publication:

A sweet story, but experts in historic crafts say that no examples of dying yarn or fabric with blue paper are known. Apart from that, it’s downright illogical. Sugar was an expensive, imported luxury—think caviar—that only the wealthy could afford . . . not the sort of people who would be recycling packaging for dying their clothes. And given the amount of blue paper needed to soak before any color seeped into the water, someone would have to eat a mountain of sugar!

It is more likely that wrapping sugarloaves in blue paper, as opposed to white or brown or any other color, was simply a tradition that evolved in the Middle East. Sugar cultivation originated in Asia and spread through the Middle East to Europe. In certain North African and Middle Eastern countries, sugar is still sold today in grocery stores and marketplaces in large conical shapes wrapped in blue paper.

If they couldn’t afford sugar, what did average Americans use for sweeteners? Maple sugar, honey, molasses, or unrefined muscovado sugar. Or more likely, nothing.

Fortunately, thanks to Beth Chamberlain, I learned of my mistake and was able to rewrite the page just weeks before the book was published. Beth pointed me toward an 1835 household management book that mentions dying fabric with blue wrapping paper. While there is no evidence of this practice in early America (the 17th & 18th centuries), Beth noted that Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife of 1835 mentions using “the purple paper which comes on loaf sugar, boiled in cider or vinegar with a small bit of alum, makes a fine purple slate color.”  http://books.google.com/books?id=Fq_uAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA39 

I immediately went to other mid-19th-century household management books and found another reference, Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s House-Book; a Manual of Domestic Economy (1850) that contained a chapter on domestic dyes and told how to make “a slate color” with “the thick purple paper that comes round sugar-loaves.” No doubt there are other mid-19th-century references. 

The question that immediately came to mind: Why then and not earlier? What had changed? Further research revealed a steep drop in the cost of sugar from the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth due to the expansion of Caribbean sugar plantations. The market was flooded with sugar. Prices plunged, bringing white sugar loaves, wrapped in their traditional purplish-blue paper (which had been something only the wealthy few could afford), within reach of most housewives for the first time. Domestic economy books aimed at the middle-class homemaker often pointed out economical ways to do things, and making homemade dyes would have been a useful skill, especially on the expanding frontier where access to stores was limited. 

So this myth turns out to be false when heard at early American sites and true for later, nineteenth-century sites. I modified Myth #49 accordingly. Another detail: those websites and museums that mention this myth usually say that the blue paper was used to dye fabric blue, when in actual references, the blue (or purplish-blue) paper resulted in a slate color. And many say that the blue paper was dyed with indigo, but Colonial Williamsburg’s expert on dyes, Max Hamrick, says it was most likely logwood.

As good luck would have it, Beth Chamberlain’s note arrived in the nick of time. A few more days and it would have been too late for me to modify this myth for Death by Petticoat. Readers like Beth are the strength of this blog–it’s given me the chance to preview things and make changes before going into the unforgiving medium of a printed book. I am grateful to all have chimed in with corrections and comments on various myths.

 


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. 


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. 


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