Revisited Myth # 66: In the winter, itinerant portrait painters would work ahead, painting canvases with bodies and backgrounds, but no heads, so that come summer, they would have only to fill in the subject’s head.

January 4, 2016

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This is, I think, my favorite myth because it is such a good idea! It appeals to my hyper organizational nature. Stay home during the winter months and paint a stock of canvases with bodies and backgrounds, then ride out in the warm months to find clients who could select a body and pay to have their own head painted on it. A real time saver for both artist and sitter, right? What could be more logical?

images-2

But there is no evidence for it. None. No artist or sitter mentioned in dairies or other written records that this practice occurred. No unfinished, headless portrait painted by an early American folk artist has been discovered in an attic or storage shed. (The few unfinished portraits that do survive inevitably include heads.) No physical evidence, like overlapping paint layers at the neck or head, has been detected on existing portraits. Nonetheless, museum guides say that someone in the group inevitably mentions this myth whenever folk art portraits come into view.

It makes sense to us today because it seems to explain the weird angles and the similarities in clothing and backgrounds of some American folk portraits. However, in portrait painting, artists typically start with the most important feature—the head or eyes—and work the rest around that. The myth also seems to explain why some of these portraits are so . . . well, irregular. The perspective is off; the arms bend in unnatural ways; the head is larger than the body. Art historians say that these anomalies occur because the painters were unschooled. They had inborn talent, yes, but without any formal art training, they didn’t understand perspective or proportion. 

Because there are many examples of portraits that are highly similar in body and background, the myth spread. Scholars such as E. C. Pennington (Lessons in Likeness, 2011) and museum curators at museums like the American Folk Art Museum, Cooperstown, the Columbus Museum, and Colonial Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller galleries point out the lack of evidence for this practice.

 

 

Nann says:
October 16, 2011 at 10:29 am (Edit)
In grade school I read a mystery book that included one of those headless canvasses so for four decades or so I’ve assumed that was true (and I’ve seen many early 19th-c portraits). Thanks for providing “the whole picture”!

Reply
Hammond-Harwood House says:
October 18, 2011 at 11:13 am (Edit)
At Hammond-Harwood House in Annapolis, MD, we have a portrait by Robert Edge Pine that shows that the head and body were painted separately. You can clearly see a square where the layer of canvas containing the head seems to have been glued on top of the layer showing the body. I don’t think that Pine painted a generic body and then put a specific face on it, but I haven’t been able to find a definite reason for the technique he used. Someday I hope to have time to research it…

Reply
marymiley says:
October 18, 2011 at 4:11 pm (Edit)
How very odd . . . sounds like the artist glued another head onto one he didn’t like, or maybe the sitter didn’t like his first attempt so he painted another. Aren’t there X-ray machines that look underneath paint and canvas? I guess they are expensive. What a great mystery! I hope you can solve it one day.

Reply
Will Hunter says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:52 pm (Edit)
Is this the picture on your profile? I would like to see the portrait.

Reply
marymiley says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm (Edit)
The folk art portrait I used to illustrate this myth is just one I found online and thought illustrated the point that heads and bodies didn’t always look like they went together. There is no known illustration of a headless portrait, so I couldn’t do that.

Will Hunter says:
November 23, 2011 at 5:40 pm (Edit)
There is a painting at the Fearing Tavern Museum in Wareham Mass that the sitters head is very oddly placed her a body. It has been suggested this is a stock painting finished with the sitters head. I will attempt to photograph it, but it may take sometime. The museum is operated by the local historcal society and only open on Saturday in August. It was this painting that help fuel my interest in these early American Artist.

Reply
john gebhardt says:
February 12, 2012 at 10:55 pm (Edit)
Recently purchased a 14 by 16 inch original frame portrait of a small child.
The body appears to be a photo but the head is painted. it is odd because the head appears much older then the body.

The head is a child about 2 or 3 but the body is an infant.

Can you refer us to a research site or have comment??

thank you

Reply
marymiley says:
February 13, 2012 at 9:02 am (Edit)
Do you have any idea how old the portrait is? I have portraits, smaller than yours, of great-great-grandparents that are painted photographs, something that was done to colorize the black and white photos of the day. Could that be the case with yours?

Reply


Blue-colored Paper for Sugar Wrapping

February 8, 2022

Myth #49 deals with the use of blue- or purple-colored paper to wrap sugar loaves. A fascinating article was recently brought to my attention, a scholarly piece written by paper conservator Irene Bruckle about the history of blue paper making. She clarifies many points that I could only vaguely address, including the use of woad, logwood, and indigo; how blue was less expensive to make than white, so often used for wrapping; and various common mordants and dying procedures. One relevant paragraph reads as follows:

The production of sugar paper is well documented in the early 17th century, when a Saxon papermaker sold 50 balesof bluesugarwrapping papertoan Amsterdam paper merchant. The first patent in the history of paper manufacture, issued in 1665 in England, concerned the production of sugar paper. The use of this typeof paper continued in many European countries at least until the second world war.nSugar mills even made their own wrapping paper in associated paper mills. Since the paper was mainly intended to protect the sugar cone from dust, it was not required to be strong, could be made from coarse, un-retted rags which were sharply beaten, and did not necessarily require sizing. Different varieties of sugar paper existed: light- and dark blue or purple paper, or double-sided paperconsistingofa light-colouredsheet couched onto a dark blue sheet. The blue or purple ‘Dutch paper’ was particularly famous for its quality.


History Myths at the Folk Art Museum

December 20, 2021

An impulsive visit to the Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg brought me face-to-face with examples from Death by Petticoat, the history myths book I wrote years ago for Colonial Williamsburg. Here’s some information about Myth #66 about itinerant portrait painters painting backgrounds first and adding the heads later. https://historymyths.wordpress.com/?s=66


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

January 1, 2020

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.


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. 


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.


Revisited Myth #74: The Christmas tree tradition was brought to America by German immigrants.

December 11, 2018

Well, yes and no. Ironically, the German Christmas tree came to America from England, courtesy of an English queen.

The Christmas tree is a German tradition that can be traced back to the 1500s to Strasbourg, which is now part of France. (See Myth #73)  But it was a minor tradition confined to the Alsace region that did not spread to the rest of Germany until after 1750. German-speaking immigrants had been coming to America in significant numbers since the late 17th century. Many came from parts of Germany where the decorated tree custom was unknown. Many did not celebrate Christmas at all, for religious reasons (like the Puritans in New England). So, not all German immigrants were aware of the Christmas tree custom, and some of those who were aware of it opposed all celebration of Christmas. 

But some German immigrants did celebrate the holiday with a decorated tree. There are numerous references to Christmas trees in America, each competing to be first in its state or region, and a few lay claim to the 1700s. Whenever the name of the family setting up one of these early trees is known, it is a German-sounding name. But this quaint German custom might well have died out as immigrants assimilated had it not been for the influence of an English queen.

When Queen Victoria’s German-born husband and first cousin, Prince Albert, arranged for a fir tree to be brought from his homeland and decorated in 1841, it created a minor sensation throughout the English-speaking world, thanks to the newly important media: the magazine. Everyone knew about Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree. A print of the royal family gathered about the Christmas tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1848, then in Godey’s Lady’s Bookin 1850, and was reprinted again ten years later. The six-foot fir sits on a table, each tier laden with a dozen or more lighted wax tapers. An angel with outstretched arms poses at the top. Gilt gingerbread ornaments and tiny baskets filled with sweets hang by ribbons from the branches. Clustered around the base of the tree are dolls and soldiers and toys.

The queen’s Christmas tree certainly caught the public’s imagination. It was not, however, the first German tree in England, as is commonly thought. Queen Victoria had seen one as a girl in 1832. The little princess wrote excitedly in her diary that her Aunt Sophia had set up two “trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed around the tree.” And long before that, in 1789, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, the last king of America, sent to her native Meckelberg-Strelitz in northern Germany for a Christmas tree. The queen’s physician, Dr. John Watkins, described it as “a charming imported German custom, [with] bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits, and toys most tastefully arranged” on its branches. Charming it may have been, but it didn’t stick. More than three generations would pass before the custom took root in England and in America. 

Once the royal seal of approval had been stamped solidly on the Christmas tree, the practice spread throughout England and America and, to a lesser extent, to other parts of the world, through magazine pictures and articles. Upper-class Victorian Englishmen loved to imitate the royal family, and Americans followed suit. Late in the century, larger floor-to-ceiling trees replaced the tabletop size. 

The Christmas trees that existed in America before the Queen Victoria media blitz seemed to have involved Moravians (now the Czech Republic), Alsatians (now France), or other German-Americans, and the custom had shown no sign of spreading beyond those narrow ethnic groups. The writer of an 1825 article in The Saturday Evening Post mentions seeing trees in the windows of many houses in Philadelphia, a city with a large German population. He wrote, Their “green boughs [were] laden with fruit, richer than the golden apples of the Hesperides, or the sparkling diamonds that clustered on the branches in the wonderful cave of Aladdin.” Gilded apples and nuts hung from the branches as did marzipan ornaments, sugar cakes, miniature mince pies, spicy cookies cut from molds in the shape of stars, birds, fish, butterflies, and flowers. A woman visiting German friends in Boston in 1832 wrote about their unusual tree hung with gilded eggshell cups filled with candies. 

Not until the mid-nineteenth century did Christmas trees start spreading to homes with no known German connection. In Virginia, Judge Nathaniel Beverley Tucker adopted the custom after a German friend introduced him to the Christmas tree in 1842. Robert E. Lee’s children enjoyed a tabletop tree at their quarters at West Point, NY, in 1853 when their father was Superintendent of the Military Academy. President Franklin Pierce set up a “German tree” in the White House in 1856. Newspapers and women’s magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Godey’s Lady’s Book spread the Christmas tree custom to all ethnic groups and economic classes.

Merry Christmas to all! 

 

Previous comments:

  1. Dixie Lee says:

    The members of the Follen Church, in Lexington MA would beg to differ with you. Charles Follen, founder of the church, who fled from the German empire in the 1830s, supposedly brought the custom to the US and the church sells Christmas trees every year to commemorate their very own historical myth.

    See: http://follen.org/about/history/

    • Mary Miley says:

      What a nice story. Differ with me about what? A number of Germans brought the Christmas tree custom to the US, no doubt your Follen was one of them.

  2. Elaine says:

    There is also the Baroness Riedesel who may have had the first candlelit Christmas tree in North America in Sorel, Quebec, Canada in 1781.


Revisited Myth # 145: It was the custom to bury old shoes in a new building for good luck.

July 30, 2018

Susan Smyer wondered about the custom of burying a shoe in the walls or foundation of a house. For good luck? To ward off evil spirits? Is this a myth?

Not a myth. There is ample documentation for this practice at various times and in various cultures. It seems people did and still do put a shoe in the walls or foundation of a building, probably in order to ward off bad luck or bring good luck. According to June Swann, a footwear historian and keeper of the boot and shoe collection at the Northampton Museum in England who began studying concealed shoes in 1957, the practice has been reported in Germany, France, Australia, and the New England states of America. A few examples date from the 15th century, after which the practice appears to have become more common. It peaked in the 19th century and has fallen away since the 1930s. According to Ms. Swann, most of the shoes are well-worn, utilitarian sorts, and nearly half belonged to children. (To read more, click HERE.)

However, Marc Carlson, Librarian of Special Collections at the University of Tulsa who has compiled references of shoe-related superstitions at www.personal.utulsa.edu/%7Emarc-carlson/shoe/RESEARCH/CONCEALED/shoestuff.htm, warned in 2008 about making unwarranted assumptions on this topic: “. . . there is an increasingly common modern assumption that shoe concealments are intended for a superstitious or ritual, so we should look at a wide variety of actual superstitious and ritual practices regarding shoes. My personal position is that we don’t know why these items were concealed in walls way back when, and it’s sloppy to assume that they all were for ritual reasons (which is where this trend is currently heading). Some may well have been, others likely were not. Since the idea was first proposed by June Swann back in the 60s, the idea that they were ritual deposits has certainly influenced the reasons why people are currently depositing shoes, as well as the assumptions about the past.” 

I acknowledge Mr. Carlson’s warning against over-generalizing, but my own view is that most instances of shoes in walls were prompted by superstition. 

Janice says:

Never heard of this.
We found a newspaper in the wall when remodeling. We put a current one back in when we closed the wall

  1. Why is the illustration a holster?

  2. Well Thomas,I was sure . . . until I saw your link. I got the picture off the Internet where it was mislabeled. My bad. I’ll take that down ASAP and put up another, hopefully more accurate!
    Thanks for the correction.


Myth # 148: Pan tiles (S-shaped roof tiles) were made by workers shaping the clay over their thighs.

April 7, 2018

Steve Herchak wrote: Hello again, and thanks for your fabulous posts! In my early days as a volunteer docent at a colonial house I heard for the first time something I’ve often since heard from guides, that being, that the curves in pantiles for roofing came from the workers shaping the clay over the tops of their thighs. The idea seemed absurd to my ears from the get-go that soft clay could be formed like that and somehow hang together and still keep its shape when lifted off and set aside to be fired. The idea of perhaps patty-caking the clay flat for something large like a tile on a surface of similar size such as a thigh was at least in the realm of conceivable, but why not just work it on a surface such as a plank or work table like dough for baking? But because I heard this from the mouth of a “top” guide and heard it repeated since, it keeps me from saying “absolutely not” to people who say “I heard the way they made those tiles was shaping the clay over their thighs,” even though, like the “old glass in windows continues to sag with age” myth, the mechanics of this one also strike me as impossible. Could you bring the hammer down for a verdict on this one?

Well, Steve, this is a bit esoteric, but I’ll give it a go. Please chime in if I’m off base on this topic. 

I’d never heard of pan tiles, which are S-shaped clay tiles used for roofs, especially in certain countries (Scotland and England) and in certain eras (Roman, then the art was lost until rediscovered in the 12th century). There is even a famous picturesque center of Tunbridge Wells, England, called “The Pantiles” after their quaint roofing styles. 

After doing some preliminary research online, which is all I can do for this topic, I can only say I believe this is a myth because it would have been far too laborious to be practical. And workers are practical, above all else. No documentation mentions making tiles on one’s thighs, and frankly, it would be a lot easier and a lot more regular (regularity being important for a roof that will drain rainwater efficiently) if you made them using a mold. Bricks were made with molds, other tiles were made with molds. Why would pantiles be made without molds on your thigh? Makes no sense to me. If I were in your shoes, I’d challenge those who say it to prove it with documentation or cease saying it. 

Thanks to a reader, I now feel certain my gut feeling was correct. Thank you, Joanna Kenny, for the reference to the York (England) Archaeological Trust technical report about tiles, which reads  on page 40: 

These tiles were made in moulds placed over a block or stock-table, both of which were coated with very fine sand, and there was a depression in the top edge of the block that produced the nib on the underside of the tile (Betts 1985, 535-7). The tile was then placed in a second mould and ‘washed-down’ to obtain its characteristic curving shape (ibid., 537). After partially drying it could be beaten back into shape if any warping had occurred while drying; the tile was then fired (ibid., 537).

Also check out these websites for more information on tiles than you ever thought you would need. This one, below says, in part, 

At first clay plain tiles were simple rectangles of clay with nibs pressed out by hand, and laid to overlap the joints of the ones beneath. They were generally 10½ x 6½ inches, which was a size that was not only convenient to press out by hand, but was also easy to handle on the roof. Less scrupulous manufacturers sometimes made them smaller to save on their costs, prompting King Edward IV in 1477 to pass an Act of Parliament laying down their minimum size. Today plain tiles remain standardised at 10½ x 6½ inches and are often referred to in the industry as “ten and a half by six and a half tiles”. Although this size has persisted as the norm through the centuries, in some places plain tiles were historically supplied in non-standard sizes; in York for example many of the older buildings are still roofed with tiles using 12 x 7 plain tiles. Where replacements are needed today for such odd sizes, manufacturers can usually offer to make them to those sizes.

More general use of clay plain tiles seems to have commenced in the 12th or 13th centuries. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, thatched roofing was no longer allowed in London and clay tiles provided an obvious fireproof alternative.

Overlapping tiles were first re-introduced into Britain from the Netherlands in around the 16th century. It was the Dutch nation that probably discovered the idea of linking tiles together using an ogee or S-shape, rather than relying on their vertical overlaps to prevent the ingress of water. This new design was effectively a Roman under and an over, joined into one tile. It was a clever idea, not at all as simple as it at first appears. Even today tilers who are not familiar with the way pantiles overlap find it a difficult concept to understand. In order to make them fit against each other from side to side, and also from top to bottom,  it was necessary to chamfer the top right and bottom left corner (shoulder) of each tile.

These tiles became known in England as pantiles, believed to be from the Dutch word panne (German pfanne). The advantages possessed by pantiles over plain tiles were easily apparent. While plain tiles were laid with their side joints merely butted together, pantiles actually overlapped each other from side to side. Because water could fall through the side joints of plain tiles, 2 to 3 thicknesses of tiles were used to ensure that they were watertight. Pantiles on the other hand only required 1 to 2 thicknesses at any point. It is for this reason that we refer nowadays to plain tiles as “double lap tiles”, but we call tiles which overlap or interlock with each other “single lap tiles”. To construct a roof using plain tiles you need 60 tiles per square metre, but if you use pantiles you only need about 15 tiles. The savings in weight and labour time are obvious.

The National Park Services, a site I trust, has a technical preservation website for this subject.   No mention of making the tiles on your thigh. (See below)

Historical Background

The origin of clay roofing tile can be traced independently to two different parts of the world: China, during the Neolithic Age, beginning around 10,000 B.C.; and the Middle East, a short time later. From these regions, the use of clay tile spread throughout Asia and Europe. Not only the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, but also the Greeks and Romans roofed their buildings with clay tiles, and adaptations of their practice continue in Europe to the present. European settlers brought this roofing tradition to America where it was established in many places by the 17th century.

Clay roof tiles and a roof-supporting post on an adobe building.Tapered barrel clay roof tiles were custom made for the restoration of the 1820s Indian barracks at Mission Santa Cruz in California. Photo: NPS files.

Archeologists have recovered specimens of clay roofing tiles from the 1585 settlement of Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Clay tile was also used in the early English settlements in Jamestown, Virginia, and nearby St. Mary’s in Maryland. Clay roofing tiles were also used in the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in Florida, and by both the French and Spanish in New Orleans.

Dutch settlers on the east coast first imported clay tiles from Holland. By 1650, they had established their own full-scale production of clay tiles in the upper Hudson River Valley, shipping tiles south to New Amsterdam. Several tile manufacturing operations were in business around the time of the American Revolution, offering both colored and glazed tile and unglazed natural terra-cotta tile in the New York City area, and in neighboring New Jersey. A 1774 New York newspaper advertised the availability of locally produced, glazed and unglazed pantiles for sale that were guaranteed to “stand any weather.” On the west coast clay tile was first manufactured in wooden molds in 1780 at Mission San Antonio de Padua in California by Indian neophytes under the direction of Spanish missionaries.

By far the most significant factor in popularizing clay roofing tiles during the Colonial period in America was the concern with fire. Devastating fires in London, 1666, and Boston in 1679, prompted the establishment of building and fire codes in New York and Boston. These fire codes, which remained in effect for almost two centuries, encouraged the use of tile for roofs, especially in urban areas, because of its fireproof qualities. Clay roofing tile was also preferred because of its durability, ease of maintenance, and lack of thermal conductivity.

Although more efficient production methods had lowered the cost of clay tile, its use began to decline in much of the northeastern United States during the second quarter of the 19th century. In most areas outside city-designated fire districts, wood shingles were used widely; they were more affordable and much lighter, and required less heavy and less expensive roof framing. In addition, new fire-resistant materials were becoming available that could be used for roofing, including slate, and metals such as copper, iron, tin-plate, zinc, and galvanized iron. Many of the metal roofing materials could be installed at a fraction of the cost and weight of clay tile. Even the appearance of clay tile was no longer fashionable, and by the 1830s clay roofing tiles had slipped temporarily out of popularity in many parts of the country.

 


Revisited Myth # 143: Lawn Jockeys are not racist; they honor Jocko, a black groom who served General Washington.

March 26, 2018

Thanks to Sarah Uthoff who sent me this link and suggested it would make a good addition to the blog. Credit for the research goes to David Pilgrim, Curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. He writes, in part:

The story begins the icy night in December 1776 when General George Washington decided to cross the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on the British forces at Trenton. Jocko Graves, a twelve-year-old African-American, sought to fight the Redcoats, but Washington deemed him too young and ordered him to look after the horses, asking Jocko to keep a lantern blazing along the Delaware so the company would know where to return after battle. Many hours later, Washington and his men returned to their horses that were tied up to Graves, who had frozen to death with the lantern still clenched in his fist. Washington was so moved by the young boy’s devotion to the revolutionary cause he commissioned a statue of the ‘Faithful Groomsman’ to stand in Graves’s honor at the general’s estate in Mount Vernon, [Baltimore].

I have heard this account from many African Americans and it is frequently cited on Internet sites. It is a heroic tale and, like many such tales, its historical accuracy is questionable. In a 1987 letter to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Ellen McCallister Clark, a Mount Vernon librarian, concluded that “the story is apocryphal; conveying a message about heroism among blacks during the Revolutionary War and General Washington’s humanitarian concerns, but it is not based on an actual incident. Neither a person by the name of Jocko Graves, nor the account of any person freezing to death while holding Washington’s horses has been found in any of the extensive records of the period. Likewise, the Mount Vernon estate [in Baltimore] was inventoried and described by a multitude of visitors over the years and there has never been any indication of anything resembling a ‘jockey’ statue on the grounds. I have put the story in the category with the cherry tree and silver dollar, fictional tales that were designed to illustrate a particular point.” 

Yes, this is a myth. For details read David Pilgrim’s entire footnoted (and very interesting!) research paper, see www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/july08/index.htm

 

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