Revisited Myth #133: The British “Vulgar Penny” was a deliberate insult.

November 5, 2017

 

Thanks to Matt Phillips, who researched and wrote this post back in 2014. Matt has worked at Mount Vernon as a living history and historic trades interpreter; he has a Masters Degree in history from George Mason University.  

I recently came across a mid-19th century British penny that was supposedly called a “vulgar penny.” As the story goes, the man who designed the coins during Queen Victoria’s reign was Irish, and he disliked Great Britain. He depicted Britannia on the coin’s reverse holding a trident; the shaft of the trident goes between Britannia’s legs. This was supposedly done as an insult to the hated British. Furthermore, the insult went unnoticed for several years. When officials finally recognized the slight, the coins were considered to be “vulgar” because of the indecently sexualized Britannia, and the design was altered.

The Facts:

William Wyon was the medalist and engraver at the Royal Mint who designed the first generation of copper pennies to bear Queen Victoria’s likeness in the late-1830s.  Contrary to the myth of the embittered Irish minter, Wyon’s family was of German descent, migrating from Cologne to Great Britain in the mid-1700s.  William Wyon was born in Birmingham, England in 1795.  He was appointed second engraver at the Royal Mint in 1816, and would become chief engraver in 1828, a position he held until his death in 1851.  William Wyon produced not only coinage bearing Queen Victoria’s likeness, but also numerous medals to commemorate British military and naval engagements.[1]  Queen Victoria purportedly even told Wyon, “You always represent me favourably,” referencing his depictions of the queen on coinage and medallions.[2]

By the late-1830s pennies bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria were being minted in Great Britain.  These coins depicted the young monarch (the so called “Young Head” depiction) on one side, with Britannia depicted on the reverse.  Britannia’s trident was held at an angle tilting inward toward her upper thigh.[3]  In fact, the posture of Britannia seen on the Victoria coinage was previously utilized on King George IV coinage dating to the 1820s.[4]  The commonality of depicting Britannia in this fashion undermines the myth’s assertion that the pose was considered to be vulgar, offensive, or insulting.  Britannia would be posed in this manner on British coinage throughout much of the nineteenth century. Images of these coins can be found here. 

A second generation of Victoria pennies was designed by William Wyon’s son, Leonard Charles Wyon (born in November 1826 at the Royal Mint in London, where the family lived).[6]  He took over many of the engraving duties of his father, William, after the elder Wyon’s death in 1851.  As a modeler and engraver for the Royal Mint, Leonard Charles Wyon produced both coinage and medals to commemorate events and prominent figures of the British Empire, as his father had done before him.[7]

Including an updated image of Queen Victoria, Leonard Charles Wyon’s bronze “Bun” pennies (so named because of the queen’s depicted hair style) were minted beginning in 1860.  Though these coins featured a new depiction of the monarch on the front, they retained Britannia’s pose from William Wyon’s earlier Victoria penny (that, in turn, was utilized from early-nineteenth century coinage) on the coin’s reverse.  This version of the Victoria penny was minted until 1894.[8]  In addition to designing coinage, Leonard Charles Wyon was responsible for producing most British military and naval medals between 1851 and 1891.[9]

The posturing of Britannia, with trident angled inward toward her upper thigh predated the minting of Victoria pennies, being used on coinage by the early-nineteenth century.[10]  Collectively, the “Young Head” and “Bun” Victoria pennies continued to utilize this depiction of Britannia for over five decades.  There is no record (implicit or explicit) that the way in which Britannia’s trident was depicted was considered to be vulgar, offensive, or insulting to the monarchy or the British state during the early- or mid-nineteenth century.  The evidence strongly contradicts the myth’s allegation that the slight went unnoticed for only a few years before government officials recognized the insult and changed the imagery.  The longevity of use of the Wyons’ depiction of Britannia certainly underlines this point.  It was only with the third generation of “Widow” or “Veiled Head” Victoria pennies in 1895 that Britannia was depicted holding a trident in a more vertical fashion, its shaft terminating nearer her knee than her upper thigh.[11]

Contrary to the myth of the embittered Irish engraver, the German-descended William and Leonard Charles Wyon enjoyed long careers engraving coinage and commemorative medallions for prominent British figures and events at the Royal Mint.  Had either William or Leonard Wyon profaned Great Britain or its monarch with their work, as the myth alleges, they would certainly not have remained in such prominent positions at the mint, nor would they likely have been called upon to create further coinage and commemorative medallions.  Furthermore, the long tenure and prolificacy of both William and Leonard Charles Wyon as prominent engravers and medalists at the Royal Mint indicates that both engravers were well regarded for their skill and quite secure in their posts at the mint.  Indeed, Leonard Charles Wyon was “regarded as the foremost British die-engraver of his time, [though] he lived under the shadow of the greater reputation of his father.”[12]


[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB] article: “Wyon Family”; ODNB articl: “Wyon, William.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/64499/64499?back=,30170

[2]http://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/history/people/artists/william-wyon/index2.html

[3] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[4] This is shown on an 1827 “George IV” penny.  http://www.petitioncrown.com/PENNY_1d.html

[6] ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/30170

[7] ibid.

[8] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[9] http://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person.php?id=msib4_1240311740

[10] http://www.petitioncrown.com/PENNY_1d.html

[11] http://www.victorianpenny.com/

[12] ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/30170

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Revisited Myth # 105: Colonial women dipped their hems in water when they worked around fires to keep their skirts from catching fire.

November 5, 2016

kit_woman

Reenactors tell me they get this question all the time. As the women work around the campfire, on-lookers ask whether their hems are wet. Costumed interpreters also hear this question as they work in kitchens. It’s related to the myth about burning being the most common cause of death for women in “the olden days” because of their long skirts catching fire (see Myth #2).

800px-French_and_Indian_War_reenactment

Generally speaking, only formal wear was worn so long that hems skimmed the ground. While skirt length in America has varied throughout the past four centuries according to fashion, working women (which is to say, most women) were more likely to wear skirts that were several inches above the ground. Even then, they might hike up the hem and tuck it in their waist to get the skirt out of the way. “During much of the eighteenth century,” writes textile curator Linda Baumgarten, “women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”

Another point worth noting, as many reenactors have discovered from personal experience, is that natural fabrics that are common in historically accurate clothing–wool and linen–don’t burst into flame when they come into contact with fire. They smolder.

Just for fun, here’s an old poem (1568) by Sir Philip Sidney that mentions young women hiking up skirts to play sports!

"A time there is for all, my mother often sayes, When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes." --Sir Philip Sidney, 1568

“A time there is for all, my mother often sayes, When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes.” –Sir Philip Sidney, 1568

PREVIOUS COMMENTS:

Elizabeth (@leezechka) says:

February 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
Linen can still burn though it does not light up like cotton, wool has amazing fire resistant properties, which also is why it works well for military uniforms, which can easily come into contact with sparks and flames from guns and cannons.

Reply
Caroline Clemmons says:
February 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm (Edit)
Very interesting, and your point about fabrics hit home. Nylon melts to the skin. Sometimes, old ways were best. Not that I’d ever want to cook over an open fire. I prefer modern conveniences.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:55 am (Edit)
Amen, Sister! I’ll take mod-cons every day.

Reply
madamepdg says:
February 5, 2013 at 1:36 am (Edit)
A reblogué ceci sur La médiathèque de la Compagnie des Cent Associes and commented:
Un blog intéressant sur les “mythes historiques”. A suivre.

Reply
Beth says:
February 5, 2013 at 9:24 am (Edit)
Love the poem!

Reply
Petticoat Burns « Kitty Calash says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:47 pm (Edit)
[…] on an English site catering to reenactors. There’s a variation I’d never heard, about wetting petticoat hems to keep them from engulfing the wearer in flames. (OK, mild exaggeration: to keep the petticoat from igniting fully, thus… hat tip to Back […]

Reply
Pam says:
April 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm (Edit)
I have my doubts that it is a true “myth”. It seems like such common sense to me to wet long skirt hems when working near a fire. How would anyone now really know how each individual person would handle this?

Reply
Mary Miley says:
January 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm (Edit)
The Voice of Experience:
Alena who works in costume wrote me,

“Hi Mary,

I am a long-time reenactor who recently started working at a museum, and since starting I have twice heard about women wetting the bottom few inches of their skirts so they would not catch fire while cooking on the hearth. I believe this to be a myth for two reasons. One, as you know, skirts made of natural fibers don’t catch fire all that easily. I have stood too close to the cook-fire in my wool skirts, I got a scorch hole in my skirt, but no flames, I promise. The other reason I can not imagine this is true is the weight that a couple of inches of water add to a skirt. When reenacting outdoors we inevitably run into wet weather, and once the bottom few inches of our skirts soak up the moisture they get so heavy, they stick to the ankles and ultimately become harder to control. None of us would ever willingly soak our skirts then work over the fire. That would make hard work even harder!

Thanks, Alena

 

 

 


Revisited Myth # 81: Jefferson invented the triple-sash window when he was in France to avoid the French door tax.

April 17, 2016

dscn3448_011

Virginia Mizel, Director of the Edmondston-Alston House in Charleston, SC, asked: “Was there ever a door tax in the South as there was in France? We have heard Thomas Jefferson invented the triple sash window to avoid a door tax while he was ambassador to France. Some southern tour guides state the door tax was also in place in here, which is why many homes from the 1800s have triple sash exterior windows serving as both door and window.”

Thomas Jefferson is credited with many inventions, but the folks at Monticello have been able to identify only one: a moldboard plow. He did not invent the triple-sash window. The original sash window originated in the 1600s. Jefferson did incorporate triple-sash windows on the first floor of his home, Monticello. These could be opened like a window or used as a door. (Another problem with the statement is that, although Jefferson did live in France for several years, he did not build any houses there.)

So any relevance to French door taxes is moot. If there was a tax on doors in France in former days, would someone please let me know? I have it on good authority that there is no such tax today. (A reader wrote that there was a door tax in France that was abolished in 1926 but I couldn’t verify that.) 

As for door taxes in America, see Myth #1 on closet taxes, #11 on wardrobe taxes, #30 on mirror taxes, #75 on window taxes, and #78 on second-story taxes. If anyone–tour guide or guest–mentions a door tax, ask him/her to specify the colony or state and point to the legislation. I cannot find any examples.


Revisited Myth # 102: “Twelve Days of Christmas” song has a secret meaning.

December 19, 2015

 

A partridge not in a pear tree

A partridge not in a pear tree

Okay, here’s another Christmas myth. One I hadn’t planned to include on the blog because I didn’t think it was a museum-related myth. But last week I was touring an early-nineteenth-century historic house and the guide presented this fable as truth, so I guess it’s fair game.

There is a secret code myth related to the well-known song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” According to this myth, the song is an underground catechism song for Catholics in England who were oppressed during the late 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. As the story goes, persecution of Catholics was so severe that they dared not teach their children their beliefs, so this song was written as a memory aid. Here is the supposed “secret” meaning behind the song:

1 Partridge/Pear tree stands for Jesus

2 turtle doves = Old & New Testaments

3 French hens = faith, hope, love or the Holy Trinity or the 3 gifts of Magi (versions differ)

4 collie birds = four gospels

5 golden rings = Pentateuch (first 5 books of Bible)

6 geese a-laying = 6 days God created the Earth

7 swans a-swimming = the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophecy, ministry, teaching, giving, exhortation, leading, compassion . . again, versions differ on these)

8 maids a-milking = the 8 beatitudes (blessed are . . .)

9 drummers drumming = the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, faith, meekness, etc. . . . but not consistent)

10 pipers piping = the ten commandments

11 ladies dancing = the eleven apostles (Judas doesn’t count)

12 lords a-leaping = 12 statements in Apostles’ Creed

With apologies to Eliz. Barrett Browning: How to debunk thee? Let me count the ways . . .

First and foremost, there is no historical documentation. The claim first surfaced in 1979 when it was proposed by a Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist who said the idea came from conversations he had with elderly Canadians. “I can at most report what this song’s symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades.” This rather weak statement was soon taken up and popularized by a Catholic priest who claims he saw a reference to it “as an aside” in some very old letters from Irish priests, but his notes were ruined in a basement plumbing leak and the original information is, he said, on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it anymore.” 

The original song is not even English, but French. And as a Catholic country that persecuted Protestants, the French had no need to compose songs with secret religious meaning.

12 Days Mirth MischiefHow do we know it’s French in origin? It’s hard to date a song: the earliest published form in English comes in a 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, but it’s clearly earlier than that. The title page on Mirth Without Mischief (left) says “Sung at King Pepin’s ball.” There is no English King Pepin, but Pepin the Short was the father of Charlemagne. Pepin ruled from 752 to 768. One piece of evidence for French origin is that the partridge was unknown in England until 1770s when it was introduced from France. And the song has that light, dancing feel of a French carol.

Aside: I had wondered, so perhaps you do too, about the difference between a carol and a hymn. A carol is based on dance music, light and dancy, simple, popular, joyful, with a religious impulse. Many were developed in France between 1400-1650. Examples of a carol would include Deck the Halls and Il est ne le divin enfant. Examples of hymns: We Three Kings, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Silent Night.

There is no religious connection to the objects, only to the numbers; in other words, no relationship exists between concept and symbol. How does 8 maids a milking remind one of the 8 beatitudes? 2002-959How does the irreverent mental picture of lords a-leaping remind one of the Apostles’ Creed?

The symbolism varies with different versions of the song—how can something meant to be a memory aid have so many variations? For example, three French hens supposedly stood for faith, hope, love. Or in some variations, the Holy Trinity. Or in others, the 3 gifts of Magi.

Another major problem: none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations. All doctrines have Old and New Testament, 10 commandments, 3 gifts of the Magi, 11 faithful apostles, etc. There is no reason for Catholics to have to hide their knowledge of these religious tenets. Conversely, nothing uniquely Catholic appears here—no mention of the Pope or the Virgin Mary or confession, concepts that had been suppressed by the Anglican church. There is no reason why young Catholics could not be taught openly about the four gospels or the ten commandments.

Finally, the lyrics are entirely secular and playful, not spiritual.

WHAT, THEN, IS THIS SONG?

A memory-and-forfeits game.

Every time the song is mentioned in a book, it is said to be a forfeit game: each person repeats the gifts and when he/she misses one, he pays a forfeit (a kiss or sweetmeat) for the mistake. To wit: an 19th-c. novel, The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of Christmas: “When all the raisins had been extracted and eaten . . . a cry for forfeits arose. So the party sat down round Mabel on benches brought out from under the table, and Mabel began, ‘The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge and a pear tree . . . And so on. Each day was taken up and repeated all round; and for every breakdown (except by little Maggie, who struggled with desperately earnest round eyes to follow the rest correctly, but with very comical results) the player who made the slip was duly noted down by Mabel for a forfeit.’ ”

According to University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor and chairman of the Classics Dept. Edward Phinney in 1990, it is a love song : “If you think of all the things being presented, you realize they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.” Phinney also points out the un-Biblical fertility symbols: partridge is famous aphrodisiac; six geese a-laying are reproducing. Seven verses are birds which are symbols of fertility and the pear itself is a male fertility symbol. Swans are significant in tales about love. “The whole song,” says Phinney, “seems to me to point to a festival of joy and love more appropriate to a secular holiday like Valentine’s Day or May Day than a religious holiday.” That may seem odd, but when you remember that weddings were a prominent feature of the Christmas season, the link seems more plausible.

 

 

Comments:
Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
71.56.173.116 In reply to WriterMelle.
I don’t believe it means bird covered with soot; rather birds that are black like soot. Blackbirds.

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WriterMelle
writermelle.com
melissalind@live.com
162.251.14.78
I think that giving away colly birds wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do since they were quite sooty….as in covered with soot.

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.82.204 In reply to kbchrist.
It refers to the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany (Jan. 6).

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kbchrist
kbchrist@gmail.com
100.2.135.69
Do you know of any reason for it to be 12 days? My understanding was that it was the twelve days between Christmas and Kings’ Day, but with the courting connotations that seems unlikely

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to azambone.
Oh, geez, I’m so embarrassed! Colonial Williamsburg had me give a public lecture last November about this myth–another example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

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azambone
azambone@me.com
72.82.234.247
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
One of the most annoying and unkillable Christmas history myths is that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is actually a secret catechism…or something. It particularly annoys me because I once accepted it. And it was even more annoying when I heard a nice lady at Colonial Williamsburg not only repeating the myth at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern one night, but also passing out handouts explaining the “code.”

Anyway, given that the twelve days of Christmas are over, you’ll have to wait until next year to correct your annoying, know-it-all Aunt Sally when she trots this one out.

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fireside feasts
CMCapeStar@aol.com
173.68.14.21
“none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations.”
Yeah, but Catholicism came first. The others were created later and in protest against it. Not that I’m disputing the myth as a whole, but this line…not so much! It doesn’t hold up.

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to Deborah Brower.
You’re very welcome! Thanks go to you for your contributions, too.
I have a few more myths in the works, but will run out soon. Then I think I’ll start to re-post the old ones, maybe adding a little or incorporating some of the comments into the text. We’ll see.

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Deborah Brower
eirdrum@fastmail.com
70.192.217.220
Congratulations and thanks for all your hard work providing another year of debunking. The topics are always interesting and responses informative. It is really helpful to have a forum to sort this stuff out in a friendly way. Have a appy and equally successful New Year!

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to Katherine Louise.
Yes, the order changes in different versions, which is yet another reason against the “secret meaning” that I hadn’t come across. The only order that seems genuinely historical is the division between birds and people: the first 7 gifts are birds, the last 5 are people. Fun topic, huh??


The Spanish Myth I Encountered in Seville

March 22, 2015

170px-Estatua_de_Pedro_I_el_Cruel_(M.A.N.)_01I had the good fortune to spend last week in Seville, Spain, with a group of graduate students from the University of Richmond. Early in the week, we had a walking tour of the historic city center, conducted by a knowledgable professor. I took the opportunity to ask him about something I’d heard forty years ago when I took Spanish in college, something I suspected was a myth. 

The reason Castilian Spanish speakers lisp is because, hundreds of years ago, a beloved king lisped, so everyone at court copied him. 

Not true, said our guide. There was a Spanish king who lisped, hence the association. Pedro the Cruel (probably not beloved, with a name like that, huh?) lived from 1334-1369. But the linguistic feature that sounds lisp-ish to our ears came after his death. And it’s not really a lisp–they say S in some words, just not in all. Certain Ss and Zs turn into THs, like the city of Cadiz, which, when I went there on a bus one day, was everywhere pronounced Cadith. 

It’s not an American myth, so I didn’t give it a number, but it’s interesting that everywhere one goes, pervasive myths are lurking. 


Revisited Myth # 34: Colonial women were put in the pillory for the crime of showing their ankles.

November 29, 2014

Punishment:  Karen Clancey Steve Hollaway 2001 CWJ. Photo By David M Doody

While there have been many instances throughout history when women didn’t bare their ankles, the colonial era was not one of them. “Skirt length,” says Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg, “was a matter of both fashion and occasion. Formal clothing usually has longer skirts. Work clothing was nearly always shorter for practical reasons.” For example, polonaise style gowns in the 1770s and early 1780s are shorter and reveal plenty of ankle. And during the work day, a woman might hike up her skirt and tuck the hem into her waist to get it out of the way. No one went to the pillory for showing her ankles.

P.S. I loved this picture so much, we used it on the back cover of DEATH BY PETTICOAT.


Revisited Myth #19: Iron nails were so valuable that people burned down buildings just to get the nails.

July 3, 2014

 

D2011-TEG-0211-0069-200x300

Here’s a good illustration of how a myth gets started. Ken Schwarz, Colonial Williamsburg’s blacksmith since 1982 and the master blacksmith since 2003, says he hears this one every time they make handwrought nails at the Anderson Forge. It’s not true, yet there is a nugget of fact if you dig deep enough . . .

. . . back to a single Virginia law in the 1640s that forbade the burning of buildings for the nails. However, Ken explains that during the earliest years of the colonial period—the first few decades of the 1600s—buildings were constructed in a very slipshod manner, with wood touching the ground. They were meant to be temporary, because the earliest settlers hadn’t planned to “settle” at all–they were here in the New World to make a quick fortune and go home. So they built shoddy buildings that quickly rotted. Therefore, it was an occasional thrifty practice to get rid of these shacks by burning them, but then, why not sift through the ashes for the nails? Ken says the nails weren’t all that valuable, but why waste them?

D2011-TEG-0211-0093-200x133

The law aimed to stop Englishmen from deserting their plantations and from burning the buildings as they left (and taking the nails with them) by giving them the estimated number of nails. Here, read it yourself.

And it is further enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, That it shall not be lawfull for any person so deserting his plantation as afore said to burne any necessary houseing that are scituated therevpon, but shall receive so many nailes as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended bout the building thereof for full satisfaction, reservinge to the King all such rent as did accrew by vertue of the former grants or planting of the same from the expiration of the first seaven years.

Perfectly clear, right?

Okay, the translation: in essence, it says, if you’re going to desert your plantation (which you are leasing from the king, you don’t own the land), don’t burn the worthless buildings for the nails before you leave; we’ll give you as many nails as two men estimate are in the building, but you won’t get any of your rent back from the king.

Ken Schwarz says that this practice didn’t last long. Slipshod building techniques soon gave way to sounder architecture. No one would ever have burned a decent building for its nails. 

It’s also relevant to note that there were blacksmiths among the earliest settlers to Jamestown and archaeologists have uncovered nails and nail-making tools from the early years. So nails were not unduly rare or expensive; nor were they something to waste.

Schwarz says “Some legends persist because they appeal to the masses. This seems to be one of those appealing legends.”

 

 


Myth #105: Colonial women dipped their hems in water when they worked around fires to keep their skirts from catching fire.

February 4, 2013

800px-French_and_Indian_War_reenactment

Reenactors tell me they get this question all the time. As the women work around the campfire, on-lookers ask whether their hems are wet. Costumed interpreters also hear this question as they work in kitchens. It’s related to the myth about burning being the most common cause of death for women in “the olden days” because of their long skirts catching fire (see Myth #2).

Generally speaking, only formal wear was worn so long that hems skimmed the ground. While skirt length in America has varied throughout the past four centuries according to fashion, working women (which is to say, most women) were more likely to wear skirts that were several inches above the ground. Even then, they might hike up the hem and tuck it in their waist to get the skirt out of the way. “During much of the eighteenth century,” writes textile curator Linda Baumgarten, “women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”

Another point worth noting, as many reenactors have discovered from personal experience, is that natural fabrics that are common in historically accurate clothing–wool and linen–don’t burst into flame when they come into contact with fire. They smolder. 

"A time there is for all, my mother often sayes, When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes." --Sir Philip Sidney, 1568

“A time there is for all, my mother often sayes, When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes.”

Just for fun, here’s an old poem (1568) by Sir Philip Sidney that mentions young women hiking up skirts to play sports! 


Mary Todd Lincoln Hoax

February 19, 2012

a portrait that isn't Mary Todd Lincoln

This seems more hoax than myth, but either way, it’s one that has been going on for almost a hundred years. The New York Times carried this story a few days ago.

The painting was purported to be one Mrs. Lincoln had made of herself as a surprise gift for the president, but before she could give it to him, he was assassinated. Turns out it’s another woman’s likeness, and the painting was retouched by a vaudeville actor, no less, in the 1920s and sold to Lincoln descendants along with the heart-wrenching story. The forger changed the hairdo to look more like Mrs. Lincoln’s and added a brooch that showed a picture of Abraham Lincoln. The scam earned him a couple hundred bucks. Art conservators who cleaned the painting discovered the over-painting and realized it wasn’t Mrs. Lincoln at all. For the whole story, see 

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/arts/design/portrait-of-mary-todd-lincoln-is-deemed-a-hoax.html?nl=todaysheadlines 


The Myths of George Washington

February 27, 2011

 

On February 24, in honor of George Washington’s birthday, I attended a lecture at the Virginia Historical Society about the creation of George Washington myths. The speaker was Edward G. Lengel, a history professor at the University of Virginia and, more to the point, the director of the Washington Papers for the past 15 years. He has just published a book, INVENTING GEORGE WASHINGTON: AMERICA’S FOUNDER, IN MYTH AND MEMORY, that deals with Washington myths. As someone who has spent years working with some 140,000 Washington letters, papers, and diaries, he probably knows old George better than anyone alive. His talk was recorded to be shown later on the Book Channel, but no specific date or time was given, so I can’t steer you to that. However, here is the link to his very interesting NPR interview a couple days ago.  http://www.npr.org/2011/02/21/133943644/George-Washington-Separating-Man-From-Myth

Or listen to a three-minte snippet here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHkyaoBfDM0

Lengel start his presentation by reviewing several of the thousands of legends and myths that have grown up about Washington. Some are funny (a GW diary was recently discovered in Scotland that mentions the general coming across greenish men who lived in aluminum cones at Valley Forge and they helped him get through the winter), some are annoying (GW grew marijuana at Mount Vernon and smoked it often), and some are infuriating (GW had a child by a slave girl). The first myth-maker, “Parson” Weems, understood that biography was not enough, that stories would bring Washington to the people. Weems realized that a series of anecdotes would make him into a real human being and create a sense of connection to the great man.

The myths about Washington being a great lover, a Lothario, made him appeal to men and women alike, although Lengel said the evidence is all to the contrary. These are the myths about Sally Fairfax and others that portray Martha as dowdy, stupid, and dour, forcing him, in effect, to find romance elsewhere. Facts are to the contrary–Martha was pretty, vivacious, intelligent, and there is not a shred of evidence that Washington was unfaithful.

The pious Christian image that came about during a pious time in American history (the mid-late 19th century) made GW appealing to very religious people. This is the time that the image of GW praying in the snow at Valley Forge was invented, as well as his supposed baptism in the river–Potomac, Hudson, Schuylkill, it changes place depending upon the teller. These events made people feel that GW was “one of us.” Actually, Lengel says, the evidence is all to the contrary. GW was not an atheist, not a Diest, not an evangelical Christian, and not interested in theology. He did go to church sometimes, where he made a point of never kneeling or taking communion, and didn’t mention Jesus on his deathbed. He was, however, a very moral man, one who was influenced more by the philosophy of Stoicism than any particular religion, and he respected all faiths, even attended many churches such as Catholic and Jewish synagogues.

Some myths are simply statements that GW was supposed to have said, according to Glen Beck or some other announcer. Lengel says his office gets frequent questions from reporters asking whether it is true that GW said such-and-such, and most often, it is not. So Lengel’s office acts as a sort of Snopes for GW!

Lengel concluded that the myths serve an important purpose. We want them to be true because they seem to bring Washington into our lives. We still need him and want him to be real. His talk, which lasted only about 40 minutes, was most interesting. I learned a lot! The large lecture hall was literally packed. I hope you get the chance to hear his entire talk on the Book Channel.


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