Revisited Myth # 141: Colonial-era bread ovens were constructed outside the fireplace, to one side of the hearth.

February 10, 2018

Above: 18th-c. New England fireplace with rear bread oven; below: Michie Tavern fireplace with right side oven.

This is more misunderstanding than myth, but Cindy Conte of Michie Tavern, Charlottesville, Virginia, asked me to address the subject, so I will! 

“The 18th-century hearth is one of the most romanticized and iconic images of colonial times,” writes Cindy Conte. “Early depictions feature a woman in colonial garb cooking over a roaring fire. Sadly, this romantic hearth cooking image has been stamped into our mindset as permanently as it has been inked into old history books. At least once every season a tourist will point to the bread oven which is tucked to the side of our fireplace and exclaim, ‘That has to be wrong. A person would get burned baking bread if the oven were placed there.’ Surely, they are thinking of that colonial woman, a roaring fire and possibly a large black kettle. Quite often, we explain that once a fire was good and hot, the coals would be separated into piles (think of burners on a stove) and several dishes could be prepared at once. Bread could be prepared as well. Bread ovens were tucked into the side of hearths, at the back of hearths, close to the hearth, to the right of the hearth, to the left of the hearth and outside.”

Bread ovens (which had doors that are missing in these photos), could be constructed in various places around the fireplace. Why build one inside the fireplace where surely it would be harder to access? Frank Clark, Colonial Williamsburg’s supervisor of Historic Foodways, says the reason is: “It was cheaper. If you put your oven on either side of the fireplace, you must also build a flue to tie it into the main chimney. This takes more bricks and more labor from a mason. If you don’t, your kitchen fills with smoke when you use it. When you build it in the back of the fireplace, it feeds to the main chimney with no flue. It is, however, more difficult to use since you have to keep the hearth fire to the other side so you can access the oven.”

So bread ovens at the back or side of the fireplace are not mistakes. 

 

 

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Revisited Myth # 140: A woman would use a diamond to etch her name/date on window glass to see if the stone was genuine.

January 28, 2018

window at The Old Manse in Concord, MA

“I am a museum interpreter at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia. We have a couple of window panes that have names, dates, and even a branch with leaves etched in them – all from the 19th century. Is it true that ladies would test their diamonds or other gems to see if they were real or glass by doing such etchings?”

You may have heard that a real diamond will scratch glass and an imitation one won’t. If only it were that easy! Many high quality imitation diamonds made in recent decades are harder than glass, so even fakes will scratch glass. Don’t rely on this myth to determine whether your own diamond-looking piece of jewelry is genuine or not. Take it to a reputable, local jewelry, one who has been in business for many years, and he or she will tell you at no cost whether it is genuine or not. They will not appraise it at no cost–for that you need an experienced CGA or Certified Gemologist Appraiser who has the training to judge your jewelry value it.

The idea that the ability to scratch glass proves a diamond’s genuine-ness is clearly a myth today. But what about in earlier times?

Well, it was closer to the truth in the past, when imitation diamonds were made of something called “paste.” Not the sort of paste you used in kindergarten to glue lace to your Valentine, this word meant a type of glass with a high lead content that was used to make imitation stones. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Romans were the first to make this sort of imitation stone. For all you chemists, here’s the lowdown: 

“Before 1940 most imitation gems were made from glass with a high lead content. Such glasses were called paste because the components of the mixture were mixed wet to ensure a thorough and even distribution. Colourless paste is commonly formulated from 300 parts of silica (silicon dioxide, SiO2), 470 of red lead (a lead oxide, Pb3O4), 163 of potassium carbonate (K2CO3), 22 of borax (a sodium borate, Na2B4O7·10H2O), and 1 of white arsenic (arsenic oxide, As2O3). Pigments may be added to give the paste any desired colour: chromium compounds for red or green, cobalt for blue, gold for red, iron for yellow to green, manganese for purple, and selenium for red.”

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean it was true in the past–other clear stones that look like diamonds can scratch glass. Quartz, for instance. I think it likely that people who scratched on window glass were indulging in some playful or sentimental graffiti rather than testing their diamonds.

Some window glass in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion had two little girls’ names etched in it–these were youngsters who lived in the mansion when their father was governor in the 1840s. (Sadly, that pane went missing during the 1999 renovations.) Many old houses have windows with initials, names, dates, or even sketches that were scratched in the glass. My theory is that most of them were done by girls or young women having fun, but I can’t prove that. 

Does anyone else work at places where someone etched something into the window glass?  

 

Previous comments:

21 Responses to Myth # 140: A woman would use a diamond to etch her name/date on window glass to see if the stone was genuine.

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    Not exactly in an historical context, but certain graffiti ‘artists’ will scratch their initials, their ‘tag’ as they call it, on the windows of the NYC subway cars. To do this they use a sharpening stone- the kind I would use to sharpen a knife. They use the edge or else break it to get a finer edge. I think they found that using spray paint for their tags was not that permanent since the NYC Transit authorities can remove their paint work, but the tags on windows are left in place, I think.

  2. Frank says:

    According to the Shakespeare House in Stafford-upon-Avon, when I visited there, the etchings were customarily done by guests as a way of “leaving their mark”, so to speak.

  3. Thank you for your response! We have had visitors who have been to other historical sites where this is told to them as being the truth. Now I have more information to help debunk this myth!

    I forgot to mention that we also have a windowpane (it is broken into several pieces and kept carefully in storage) from 1840 where a husband wrote an entire love letter to his wife. We have a copy of that letter on display. He definitely was not testing any sort of gem – he was expressing his love to his wife in a permanent way!

  4. Margie Thompson says:

    There is a house in Ravenna,Ohio that has a window with the initials of my mother’s twin uncles. The boys carved them there when they were young. I would guess in the 1870,s.margiethompson

  5. Barb King says:

    My history professor at U of Michigan, who used to work at Ithica College (I believe) said the building he was housed in used to be Women’s Dorm in the early 1900’s. The women when they got engaged would etch their initals, and their fiancee’s, into the glass with the date, with their diamonds; IIRC there are letters to coroborate this. I’ll check and see for sure.

  6. In the 1730s four volumes of collected graffiti from English outhouses, walls, AND tavern windows and glasses were published under the title The Merry Thought, or the Glass-Window and Bog-House Miscellany. Occasionally the poems are self-referential and mention the use of a diamond-tipped pen for writing on glass.

    You can find online editions at Project Gutenberg

    Volume 1 – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20558/20558-h/20558-h.htm

    Volumes 2-4 – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20535/20535-h/20535-h.htm

  7. First Time Visitor says:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophia_Hawthorne

    “Together the couple etched their impressions of their new married life in the glass of a window in the study using Sophia’s diamond ring:”

    http://www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/greater-boston/old-manse.html

  8. I’ve etched in glass–as a boy. My grandmother possessed what my sister and I believed might be a diamond (it was probably quartz). We etched a little on her mirror to test it, but didn’t write our names–after all, she was renting.

  9. JennyOH says:

    I went to a private school in CT with many buildings, including the dorms, from the 19th/early 20th centuries. At this school, getting your school ring at the end of your first year was a big deal, and using your ring to then scratch your name/initials into your window was one of several of the school’s idiosyncratic traditions (that were mostly dying out at the time – I attended in the late 90’s). The room I stayed in my freshman year had names and initials from the early 20th century and I remember seeing a few older than that.

  10. Jayne says:

    I recently bought a 145 year old house. Just last week I glanced up from the sofa and noticed that someone had etched their name in the window but I can’t make it out. I do know that this is one of the older window panes as it is full of waves and bubbles. I find it to be fascinating!

  11. Andrew says:

    Honestly the myth makes no real sense, if the interest was to test the diamond they would do it in an out of the way place with as little a mark as possible. Names, dates or images put on glass were done intentionally, because someone wanted to leave their mark.

  12. I have 2 names in my grandparents home from 1832 😊

  13. Dianne Fitzpatrick says:

    Sophia Hawthorne (maiden name Peabody), when she was newly married to author Nathanial Hawthorne, supposedly etched some panes of window glass with her diamond ring while living at the Old Manse in Concord, MA. Her husband etched on the gkass as well. Here’s what they etched:
    Man’s accidents are God’s purposes. Sophia A. Hawthorne 1843
    Nath Hawthorne This is his study
    The smallest twig leans clear against the sky
    Composed by my wife and written with her diamond
    Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3 1843. In the Gold light.
    SAH[9]
    Their landlord was none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, a spiritual leader and founder of Transcendentalism. David Thoreau is said to have put in a vegetable garden for the newlyweds before they arrived. The house and those panes of glass still exist today overlooking the spot where the Battle of Concord and Lexington ignited with the “shot heard ’round the world.” I know all this because I regularly canoe to this spot and enjoy reading about these people and their contributions.

  14. Amy S says:

    This is a myth that has become a reality at Shirley Plantation. The Carter family attributes the first initials in the windows of their dining room to Elizabeth Carter, who married William Byrd III of Westover; according to the family legend, she hoped the stone would prove to be paste so she would have an excuse to call off the wedding. However, the diamond was real, after which discovery she felt duty-bound to proceed with the marriage. Successive generations of Carter women have since inscribed their names in similar fashion, not any longer with any real concern about the genuine nature of their diamonds, but to continue what they believe to be a family tradition. I’d be curious to know when their tale of “proving the stone” actually began! I imagine it has been spread from the time the house was first opened to the public in the ’50s, but it’s probably older than that, since the first tours were given by the owner and basically consisted of Carter family oral history of this sort. Like other commenters, I suspect the practice actually originated as a way the daughters of the house left a mark of themselves there before marrying and moving away. That Elizabeth’s marriage to William Byrd was in fact an unhappy one probably gave rise to some wishful thinking about her having searched for a loophole before the wedding!

  15. M.E. Botsford says:

    Our home was built in 1819. There was a pane of glass in the kitchen that had a name and saw arches in it. The date is hard to read, but it’s 18 something. We saved the lane when we remodeled the kitchen.

    • So glad you saved it! When the Virginia governor’s mansion was renovated during the 1990s during the Gilmore administration, the precious scratchings on an upstairs window by the then-governor’s little girls was not noticed, and therefore, replaced.


Revisited Myth #131: Government buildings were color coded in order to identify them for illiterate Americans.

September 23, 2017

The subtext to this one is, ” . . . because so many (or most) Americans were illiterate back then.” For that, scroll way back down to Myth #37 about shop signs. And thanks to Noah Briggs who adds, “This myth proceeds on the bizarre assumption that the American literacy rate was worse “back then” than it is today. In reality, the US had a very good literacy rate, as demonstrated in this article here. http://www.raggedsoldier.com/literacy.htm” That links to an interesting study of literacy during the Civil War era.

For the main portion of this myth, my thanks go to Carolyn Murphy who delivered the coup de grace. “In order to get the ultimate answer about color-coded post offices, I checked with the Jennifer M. Lynch, Postal Historian at US Post Service Headquarters, Washington, DC. She said: ‘I have never heard of color-coded government buildings. In the 1800s, most buildings that housed Post Offices were owned by the postmaster–not the government. There were no regulations regarding exterior paint.’ That seems to answer that question. For any further Postal information, go to http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history.” 

 

Why is Nobody Smiling?

September 3, 2017

A rainy day at the beach yesterday sent me to Norfolk, Virginia’s excellent Chrysler Museum of Art. I was particularly impressed by the labels on many of the works of art. They were very helpful in directing attention to certain features or posing thoughtful questions–or answering the question that is likely in the visitor’s head. This one made me think of the Myth 127: People didn’t smile in pictures because of the long exposure time required.  The myth speaks to photographs but makes the point that photographic portraits followed the traditions of painted portraits. Here’s what the Chrysler label said: 


Revisited Myth # 127: People didn’t smile in pictures because of the long exposure times required.

August 16, 2017

Martha Katz-Hymen at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation wrote about this belief. It is true, but it isn’t the whole story.

It is true that people rarely smiled in old photographs because it is harder to hold a smile than a relaxed face, and photographs were not a quick “click” in the early years. But that is only one reason. The other is cultural.

“But an article by Nicholas Jeeves, recently published in the Public Domain Review, suggests that, when folks frowned, they did so for reasons as economic, social and historical as they were technological. Mark Twain thought as much. In one of his letters, collected by Jeeves, he wrote:

A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.

Twain wasn’t the only believer in the idiocy of the style. Look back at painted portraiture — the tradition photography inherited — and you’ll rarely see a grinning subject. This is, in fact, Jeeves’s subject. “By the 17th century in Europe,“ he writes, “it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.’

Read the whole article: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/why-didn-t-people-smile-in-old-portraits/279880/?google_editors_picks=true

And read Nicholas Jeeves entire article, below. Jeeves is an artist, writer and lecturer at Cambridge School of Art. One excerpt: “A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable.” http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/09/18/the-serious-and-the-smirk-the-smile-in-portraiture/

 

Previous comments:

  1. Brian Leehan says:

    Looking forward to reading the linked article. I have always heard it was the “formality” of poses in portrait paintings that influenced poses people struck in early photographs (as is mentioned in this posting). Never thought about the issue of long exposure times for photographs – which makes a lot of sense, too. Of course, sitting for a portrait to be painted of you involves a LOT more “exposure time” than an early photograph, so perhaps it’s all inter-related. I’ve also heard that people were reluctant to smile because of the state of most people’s teeth in the 19th century. I think I can recall one or two photographs I’ve seen, total, of a group of soldiers in the field during the Civil War where one or two are smiling – usually with a closed mouth. I think one of those was with a soldier smiling and showing teeth, but he was in a larger group and is was hard to discern the state of his teeth. I just recall being surprised to see a photo from that period where someone was smiling broadly enough to show teeth.

  2. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    I discuss this on my tours frequently. Glad to know I’m getting it right. I often wonder what future generations will think of us from the 20th/21st centuries who not only smile but do all sorts of goofy poses.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Or no teeth.

      • therealguyfaux says:

        Candid photos of Queen Victoria, taken late in life, once short exposures had become possible, show her to have had a Terry-Thomas/David Letterman gap. (Of course, these were family photos– back then, nobody would have “paparazzi’d” the Queen!) At least in her case, SHE may have wanted to play down her dental condition in her photos, at any rate; But I’m sure maintaining the “stern visage of Vic” would have been advised to her, in any event, as looking more “regal.” (Remember, this is a somewhat prematurely-matronly thirtyish woman we are talking about, in the earliest photos of her.)

  3. Curtis Cook says:

    This reminds me of a recent comedy movie “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (spoiler alert: there aren’t a million ways depicted in the film, but it feels like they go through forty or so).

    In one scene the male and female protagonists are passing along a midway at a county fair and see a travelling photographer. The woman says she heard a rumor that some guy down in Texas had actually managed to hold a smile long enough for it to show up on film. They agree that the very idea is ridiculous, but at the end of the film the guy gives her a copy of the rumored photo… and it really does look unnatural.


Revisited Myth # 125: The word “bar” comes from the cage or bars that barred people out of the bartender’s space.

July 11, 2017
  1. This statement is part myth, part true. Allow me to dissect.

    I went to the Oxford English Dictionary (the 13-volume 1961 edition at my local library) for this one and perused 3 dense pages of definitions for the word “bar.” It’s not as simple as it sounds. Under nouns, there are 3 main segments: 1) “a piece of any material long in proportion to its thickness or width.” 2) “That which confines, encloses, limits, or obstructs. (a material barrier.” and 3) “a rail or barrier.” The 28th definition under #3 says “in an inn or other place of refreshment”, the word can mean, “A barrier or counter over which drink or food is served out to customers in an inn, hotel, or tavern.” Earliest written usage comes in at 1592. 

    As a verb, the word “to bar” has no references that are specific to a tavern or inn. There is the phrase, “to bar out,” which I know well from the 17th and very early 18th centuries when it referred to students (male, of course) “barring out” the teacher at Christmas to force him to give them time off from classes. This barring out was often very violent, involving guns and hammer & nails, and usually drunk students, but seems to have had no relation to bartending.

    I checked the 1972 OED supplement, which had nothing to offer as regards our query.

    I surmise from this that the word “bar” originally meant the counter or barrier. If a taproom bar in the 17th or 18th centuries had a grill or cage to lower that kept people out when the tender of the bar wasn’t there, that did “bar out” people, but I don’t take that to mean it’s the origin of the word–which is what some docents in taverns tell their guests. I believe the origin of the word is the barrier or counter. 

    I’m not going to the mat on this one, so if you disagree, let’s hear it!

    Joe Greeley says:

    I have access to the online edition of the OED and besides the above mentioned entry I found this:
    11. A transverse piece of wood making fast the head of a wine-cask. (If a cask is lying horizontal, wine is drawn from ‘below the bar,’ when it is more than half empty.)

    1520 R. Whittington Uulgaria 13 b, This wyne drynketh lowe or under the barre, Hoc vinum languescit.

    1576 W. Lambarde Perambulation of Kent 331 All the emptie hogsheads..,and for sixe tunne of wyne, so many as should be dronke under the barre.

    1611 R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues, Empeigner le bout d’vne douve, to pin the barre of a peece of caske.

    There’s also the Bar behind which prisoners on trial stand and might have some connection also in the sense of ‘barrier’. That goes back to 1400.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hmmmm. That is interesting, isn’t it? Still, I don’t think that would supersede the bar as a counter in an inn. Although it could be a secondary, related meaning that bolsters the prinicipal meaning.

  2. Steve says:

    What if it’s the metal bar that inevitably that runs around the outer bottom of the counter. standers at the bar often relax a leg on this bar. so is that why it’s called a bar ?


Revisited Myth # 124: Taverns were brothels.

July 2, 2017

Cindy Conte, Curator of Historic Michie Tavern, Virginia, wrote, “On a recent episode of Pawn Stars a person was selling an 18th-century tavern license.  The context of the letter included the word “entertainment,” and both the buyer and seller came to the immediate conclusion that this  letter referred to an 18th-century brothel. As you know, in the 18th century the word entertainment referred to “maintenance or provision; the term covered eating, drinking, and lodging.”   “Entertainment” was the catchword of tavern keeping. The majority of public house proprietors were licensed to keep an ordinary for the “Entertainment of travelers and Strangers,” and their house signs were embellished with the motto. Tavern owners advertised genteel or “good entertainment” at their houses.  The Moravian supervisors of the Salem, NC tavern even agreed in 1800 that “the word Tavern must be removed from the sign and the word Entertainment substituted.” (Kym S. Rice, “Early American Taverns:  For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers”.)

Yes, Cindy, I’ve often heard docents at taverns slyly intimate that their building was really a brothel. The myth here concerns the titillating implication that all or many early American taverns were really brothels. While there may have been some genuine examples in early America  (sometimes termed “disorderly houses”), they were certainly the exception. Outside large cities like London and colonial seaports like New York and Philadelphia, genuine brothels were rare, not because people were more virtuous back then but because the population wasn’t large enough. Read Harold Gill’s article on the topic as it existed in Williamsburg, VA at http://history.org/Foundation/journal/Autumn01/Demimonde.cfm?showSite=mobile.

 

Previous Comments:

  1. Jean says:

    Mary, I am so glad to read this! In the 1860 Federal census, my great-great grandfather s occupation is Tavern Keeping. So far, no one has suggested that he ran a brothel, if that happens I’m prepared!

  2. James “Jake” Pontillo says:

    Are you sure you have the reference from the Oxford correct : correct? I found this at the Online Oxford Etymological Dictionary :

    bar (n.2) Look up bar at Dictionary.com
    “tavern,” 1590s, so called in reference to the bars of the barrier or counter over which drinks or food were served to customers (see bar (n.1)).

    At our Tavern Nites at Queens Farm we have a Bar AND Grill set up- The GRILL is not for grilling anything, it is made of wooden slates and prevents customers from stealing bottles while the barmen are busy elsewhere ( The people who come to our Tavern Nites would not REALLY steal anything, but we still have the barrier set up and we do business thru an opening in the slats.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the warning, Jake, I’ll go back to the OED and have another look. Meanwhile, I scratched that part. I’ll revisit it later, maybe next week, in its own post.

  3. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    That was a great post. It hit me–we still use the word “entertain” today when we mean we’re having dinner guests over as in, “I’m entertaining this evening” which I would think relates to the 18th century meaning.

  4. Cindy Conte says:

    Thanks for the post! J


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