Every day, stories about people or objects are told in museums that are not true. Some are outright fabrications. Others contain a kernel of truth that has been embellished over the years. Because they are catchy, humorous or shocking, these stories often stick in our memories when less sexy information slips away.
Some of the weird things we hear are actually true. Hat makers really were driven ‘mad’—or more accurately, they were poisoned—by the mercury they used in making hats from furs. The symptoms: hallucinations, tremors, and twitching, looked like insanity to people of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ came about. But many myths are utter nonsense.
It is hard to visit a historic site or museum today without encountering at least one myth. How many have you heard? How many do you believe? Let me know what you’ve heard and I’ll try to confirm or debunk it.
Who am I? A historian and writer with an M.A. in American history, 14 years of teaching American history at Virginia Commonwealth University, 10 years working for Colonial Williamsburg (the country’s largest history museum), and 40 years of writing books and magazine articles, mostly about history. I got started busting myths for an article in the Colonial Williamsburg magazine, and it seemed like the more I dug, the more I uncovered. Finally I compiled a bunch of the more fantastic stories into a book, DEATH BY PETTICOAT, co-published in June 2012 by Andrews-McMeel Press and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
How do we submit a myth? There’s no link in that box. I have some doozies…
Thank you for your articles and this wonderful site! In your list of myths, I did not see one that comes up frequently in my experience–the “glass flow” myth. Many visitors insist that glass is a liquid and windows that are thicker at the bottom prove it! I have found a few web sites with expert opinion that bust this myth. For example: http://www.thefoa.org/tech/glass.htm
Recent research says that “it would take over 10 million years for a window pane to flow perceptibly.”
OOOOPS! This Old House isn’t that old….
Thanks again, and keep fighting the good fight!
Park Ranger/Education Specialist
Morristown National Historical Park
Hmmm, yes, I’ve heard that one too. That’ll take some research. I’ll add it to my list. Thanks, Tom. Look for it in a couple weeks.
I think that myth comes from the way that older glass panes were made, They didn’t have the modern techniques or technology to make a pane of (near) perfectly even thickness throughout, and the glass flowed while still molten. People who see it now, assume that flow occurred since it was placed in the window. I don’t know about them being thicker at the bottom, but if they are, maybe glaziers did that with the inconsistent panes for some reason.
In conjunction with glass being borderline liquid, I read that it could be cut with scissors if done underwater. I tried that, and it really can. I filled my bathroom sink and cut a piece of glass with my Fiskars.
Another comment visitors often make is that the purpose of the cast iron fireback in fireplaces was to reflect heat. Yet I have heard some people say that the primary reason was (in the days before firebrick) to protect the bricks in the hearth from damage due to high temperatures. Is is one or the other…or “all of the above?”
(I can’t believe how many times I have had kids think that the fireback is a tombstone and ask “Who’s buried there?” !!!)
I think that most of the myths prove a statememt attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds–” “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”
Thank you again, Mary!
That’s one I’ve not heard. Maybe a historical blacksmith could shed light on whether or not that’s true, although smiths wouldn’t have made firebacks, since they are cast, not wrought. I’ll have to think about how to check that one out.
bricks are fired in a Kiln – they are one of the most fire-resistant building materials. In a fire, they think they are back in the kiln. the cast-iron may have been there to protect the brick from impacts from tossing logs into the fireplace.
Every single source I’ve ever found says firebacks were meant to reflect heat and to protect the masonry in the back wall of the fireplace. Until I hear a better explanation, I am going to accept this one I think.
I love this blog, Mary! Myth busting is an unending battle, I know, but I’m glad you’re fighting it. 🙂
After reading your recent post about the cult of the hospitable pineapple, I blogged about 17th-18th c. pineapples myself, linking to you, of course:
Yet even after your seemingly irrefutable proof (at least to me, anyway), one of my readers still had to add her two cents via a local historical society docent:
“I just found out when I was visiting a historical society in Derby Ct that the folks back then, in the 18th century, used to leave a pineapple out on the front steps whenever a member of their household had returned from a sailing trip to the West Indies or Carribbean. The pineapple on the doorstep meant that neighbors could come over and listen to tales about strange lands and foods the sailor had encountered. So, in that sense, it was a welcoming sign, a sign of hospitality.”
Well, at least it’s another story for your “collection”….:)
I’ve heard that one, or something similar . . . that the sailor stuck the pineapple on his picket fence post to let people know he was home. What a waste of a precious pineapple! I’ll try to deal with that one in a future post.
I might buy that if it was a plaster pineapple or similar imitation. But an expensive fruit like that? I could believe them serving it to their close friends at the next dinner event, but not putting it on the stairs so it either goes bad, is stolen, picked by birds or at least attracts every nodding acquaintance to angle for dinner invitations.
Oh, this blog is just what I needed!
This myth persistently lives in Ephesus, pretty much the Riviera of the ancient world. Cleopatra stayed there for a few months, and her poor younger sister lived there for much longer until, sadly, she didn’t anymore. Death by ptolemaic family politics, pretty much.
Well, here’s the myth. Opposite of the great library, there’s a building, or the ruins of it, which had spectacularly filthy floor mosaics. So evolves the myth (probably by some archeologist who either walked through most other households of rich romans – I’m looking at you, Pompeji – with his eyes firmly shut or who was really, really desperate for a publication) that this was a brothel, right opposite of the library.
The myth now leads a sort of undead existence – our tour guide tells us it’s now considered wrong, but for that, he first has to tell it. I sit there in the shadow for a while, stroke the cats and give them some water, watch tour guides smoking where they shouldn’t and tell their followings about how this house here, right opposite of the library, was a brothel and – for extra spiciness – probably connected to the library by an underground tunnel! (Because ancient romancs and greek were such a puritan lot, right.). The proof of both brothel and tunnel?
An Priapus statue (that god where you always have to use as much clay for the genitals as for the rest of the statue) was found on the grounds of the house.
Please savor the logic.
Pretty much the most popular fertility god, whose statues were supposed to frighten away both thieves and birds. (That last bit is funny, really, because the anatomy makes for a pretty good perch.) It’s like finding a porn stack under your sons or boy-friends socks and drawing the conclusion that he is leading an international porn-ring.
I’ve been to Ephesus and, yes, I remember the guide telling us about the brothel and the sign for it embedded in the mosaics, a heart and an arrow or something like that?? I believed it then. Glad they are coming clean about this, but they obviously can’t stop talking about it because the tourists love the story.
I just bought your book. I have been trying to find proof one way or the other about women burning to death in the 17th century. I am writing a book about the women who helped settle Connecticut and have been researching for five years and have not run across one case of a woman burning to death. Yet, some very respected historians have made this claim.
I wish I could find what they were basing this claim on so I can disprove it.
Just to say it isn’t true won’t work.
I’m a Rev War reenactor, and we get that all the time…I’ve taken to keeping strips of fabric handy. It really only works outdoors, but it helps. You just throw them in a fire! Wool and linen don’t burn, they just smolder. You also have to remember that for the average woman, petticoats were hitting about mid-calf or a little lower, at least in the 18th century, I’m not sure about the 17th. Longer skirts were for fancier dresses. So, unless you didn’t know your way around a hearth, you’re all set. I’ve also heard that women would dampen the hems of their petticoats before putting them on, but I’m not sure how accurate that is…
I believe that part about dampening the hem is a myth too, but haven’t researched it properly yet. Will do.
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Thanks for putting it all down in print. We’ve all heard these over the years and we’ve all spoken to colleagues, friends and tour groups about them. It’s nice to know that we’re all together in our quest for de-mythified history.
“If you want to safeguard our History, tell the truth.”
As a Montana historian/author who also loves to debunk myths, I agree that the truth is much more interesting than the stuff people make up.
I’m so happy to have found this site! I’m enjoying it and sharing it. The truth is always more interesting than anything anyone could make up. Thanks for your good work!
Here’s something for you to check out, if it’s in your area of expertise:
I’ve heard all my life that Native Americans used every part of the animals they killed. While I know that they made use of almost every part of their kills, the idea that they used every part of every animal seems a little absurd to me. The edible portions, of course, would have been put to use in every case, and most of the times the pelts, but I can’t picture nomadic peoples transporting dozens of buffalo robes around the prairies. They are pretty heavy.
The more accurate way to state that would be, “Native Americans could use every part of their kills.” As pointed out in the Earth’s Children series by Jean Auel, there is literally no part of a dead mammal that couldn’t be re-purposed, but often some to many parts of a particular animal wouldn’t be, either because there was no need or because the time involved could more profitably be used in other pursuits. In a pinch, though every bit of a bison was reusable.
Indians traded buffalo robes for centuries. In that sense they “used” them for commerce. I have also read that there is evidence found at buffalo jump sites that not all of the animals were butchered. There have been bones found with no cut marks where they should be, suggesting that they were not processed.
[…] week, Preservation Week 2014, we’re taking a cue from our blogging colleagues at History Myths Debunked, and debunking a pair of common preservation myths. Both anthropomorphize objects. Can you think […]
Have you heard about the “secret language of the fan” basically ladies using hand fans to communicate secret languages. ie: hold the fan against your left cheek means “i love you” etc, etc. I’ve heard that one a bunch from docent tours. Someone told me it was published in 19th century magazines as more of a flirting parady. Any thoughts?
I hope someone else can weigh in on this. I vaguely remember (from 30-some years ago at Colonial Williamsburg) that the Language of the Fan was not 18th-c, but 19th and had something to do with Spanish customs. I’ll research it as soon as I’m able to spend some time at a research library . . .
As someone who lives in Spain and has a Spanish wife, the language of the fan in Spain was/is very much alive and very true .Since the 16th century, brought from the Far East by Portuguese merchants. In principle, this object was used to relieve heat and was commonly used by both sexes, men used smaller pocket-size ones and women larger ones, although over the years the use of the fan was exclusive to the ladies arriving these to develop a complicated “language of the fan”. And it is that this object has always been considered an object of seduction, imagination and liberation. The history of this device is as long and ancient as the very existence of humanity. Over the centuries, many are the countries and civilizations that have used it. Although it is believed that it was in the 15th century when the first fans arrived in China from Korea and it was from there that the great adventurers exported them to other countries, recent studies show that the first fans were introduced in Europe by the Jesuits.
But really its time of maximum diffusion was with the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, when they were totally indispensable in the wardrobe. Very luxurious products (precious stones, Florentine taffeta, gold and precious metals) were used for its construction. But it is in the seventeenth century when they arrive in England, but here they were painting by famous artists, they were larger and their rods were attached to a rigid handle.
A number of the Amazon reviews of your book say that there are no references for your “busts” of any of the myths. The Amazon sample doesn’t happen to have the acknowledgements, so what are your sources? I’m sure your experience at Colonial Williamsburg factors heavily, but where does the “proof” come from, even at that notable historical site? I’m intrigued and would like to buy a copy, but how do I know, seriously, that your debunking is correct?
The reviewer is correct that the book DEATH BY PETTICOAT does not have citations or footnotes. This was an editorial decision made by Colonial Williamsburg; the book was conceived as “pop history,” a fun, impulse purchase, inexpensive, aimed at a general audience, mostly tourists, who would enjoy it and learn a little something in the process. It was not intended for scholars or museum professionals. That is the purpose of this blog, where references are cited and people’s names attached to opinions. Proof usually comes via primary documentation (like the OED or an 18th-c. architectural drawing) or from scholars who have spent long years researching a specific topic. And while CW has more than its share of experts and scholars, you can still find the occasional tour guide repeating a myth. No one (or no institution) is perfect.
While touring a restored 1880’s or 1890’s (?) large boat in San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier National Historic Maritime Park, we saw a set of wooden & velvet chairs and loveseats with extremely low seats and short legs in the glassed-in display of the captain’s family quarters.
The closest thing I’ve seen so far to describe this is a “slipper chair” as described here: http://shorthistoryslipperchair.nova-antiques.com
It looked very uncomfortable, and I doubt that having seats 4″ above the floor provided much comfort on long sea voyages between California and India!
Is this “slipper chair” a real function? Is the National Maritime Museum mistaken in showing these items in the family living quarters? Would it be realistic to have such furniture as a space savings in a generously-sized (for a boat) room at the time?
(My brother tried the “people were shorter then” line on me, but I’m not buying it. Perhaps it is hoop-skirt compatible furniture? I’m dying to know!)
On your article on the Six Pane Door,
Could you research this again?
The first colonists were highly superstitious (by todays standards). The Salem Witch Trials come to first thought. Even today some people will only live in houses with side doors to confuse evil spirits along with a hundred other beliefs from all over the world just on doors. Not to mention crosses and crucifixes over a door on the inside. Superstition? Maybe. Real in practice? Very. And it came from somewhere.
Its obvious designs back then were inspired either in part or whole mainly from religion. Looking at fashion, architecture, and even mundane articles are evident of that. And with how much those settlers believed in good, they feared evil more so. It would make perfect sense to design a door in such a manner to prevent evil spirits, demons, the devil, etc. from entering.
I just wish someone would deal with the “Spanish Arabian” mustang myth. The Spaniards didn’t ride Arabian horses, and most of the animals they imported were pack and draft types. Most soldiers *walked* and saddle horses were few and far between.
Hello Nadja. Why don’t you tackle this subject yourself? It sounds as if you’ve done some work on it already. I’d be happy to post your results in a guest blog.
Ok here’s a myth/fact check… there is one that has been going around since the movie was released on vhs…. the original….. when the wizard of oz was released it is said that there was a munchkin whom had killed itself in the background right after the tinmans scene… here is where the controversy begins… some claim it’s a real suicide others claim it is a big bird like a crane or emu of sorts… digital postings show such an event but it looks more patchy than anything like a bad splice job of an actual hanging and no decent version has been posted to clearly validate a hanging…
The bird version seems to apply better in HD and seems to possibly bear the argument that it isn’t hard to substitute other images around the real image… so what is the truth? Bird or tragedy amidst classic family comedy entertainment?
I think Snopes handled this one quite adequately.http://www.snopes.com/movies/films/ozsuicide.asp
it’s refreshing to see someone make this book. It’s also refreshing that historian is working on debunking myths. I am so tired of going on house tors and hearing docents say stupid things like, Victorian homes have less closets because they were taxed on closets as rooms. Or the coffin door nonsense. I wish someone would make a small pamphlet and distribute it to all museums and make every does it read it before giving a tour.
Well, this book, DEATH BY PETTICOAT, is sort of that pamphlet. It’s cheap and available, and many museums carry it in their shops and have copies in the docent break rooms. That helps a lot.
Any chance you can add a “contact me” link? Sadly, this wordpress platform is dated. It would be nice to see an index of all the articles on one page. The search feature really doesn’t do justice to your work.
Sadly, the blogger is dated too. I wouldn’t know how to add a contact me link more update the page–sounds like a good idea though.
My first post here and as a long retired English antique dealer, auctioneer and fine art valuer I have trouble with many Americans on FB antique identifications sites convincing them that their many vernacular names (fainting couch, steamer trunk, Captain’s desk/chair, love seat and courting candles to name a few) have no place in actuality in recorded social history as a descriptive term. However, my insertion today is to add the true history of myth no 132, the shot glass. The shot glass also has another name, a firing glass which goes back nearly three centuries and was a different form to the late 19thc and 20thc American versions and long precedes the American explanation of being for a “shot” of whisky/gin etc. The shot/firing glass tradition started with the British army sometime in the 18thc in the Officer’s Mess’s when after eating a hearty meal, the brandy etc would flow, with several toasts to the King. After each toast, the officers would all bang these thick stemmed glasses on the table to have their glasses refilled for the next toast which in staccato sounded like gunfire, hence the name shot or firing glass was attached to this glassware and have been a commonly used terms in the professional antiques world for over 250 years. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/192671
Thank you, Adrian. By the way, are you an antiques dealer who is English or a person who deals in English antiques? (I have a reason for asking.)
Hi Mary, I am English but have dealt in antiques from many countries, I hope this helps.
Here’s my question: did you know Alan Pountney, an Englishman who was an antiques dealer based in London and St. Albans until his death ten years ago? He is a relative.
I’m afraid not, I believe he was London based and I was in the central and south west provinces from Gloucester, Hereford, Worcester, down to Devon and |Cornwall.
It was a long shot . . .
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