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.” 

 
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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


Myth #146: In early America, firefighters wouldn’t put out a house fire unless the building bore a fire insurance plaque.

May 13, 2017

Legend in Charleston, SC, and other cities says that a fire company would not put out a house fire unless there was a marker on the building proving that fire insurance had been paid. This is a myth.

I want to acknowledge Stephen Herchak, president of the Charleston Tour Association (a group representing over one hundred tour guides), and Dr. Nic Butler, archivist and historian for the Charleston County Public Library system for their research on this subject. Everyone who looked into this topic found the legend highly improbable. According to Herchak: “This never made sense to me, given the great threat a burning structure poses to the rest of the city, and as you’re probably most likely aware, here in Charleston there were numerous disastrous fires (the Great Fire of 1740, as does all other Charleston fires, pales in comparison to the fire of 1861, but, nonetheless, it destroyed more than 300 buildings and bankrupted the first fire insurance company in America, established here more than a dozen years before the one organized by Franklin, who’s widely and erroneously given credit — there’s another myth buster topic for you — for organizing the first fire insurance company in America).” 

Dr. Nic Butler concurs.In my extensive research on a wide variety of topics in early Charleston history, examining primary source materials like old newspapers, colonial and post-colonial government records, and the like, I have not found any description or reference to the purpose of these plaques or marks or markers, whatever you call them. The idea that a fire-fighting company would NOT extinguish fires on buildings without markers simply defies logic. In a densely-built urban environment like Charleston or any other town, every fire, large or small, endangered the safety of the entire community. The notion of NOT fighting a blaze simply because the house was not insured is so utterly irresponsible that it could not have been tolerated.

“As early as 1785, the City of Charleston had a fire ordnance that levied a substantial fine on anyone who refused or neglected to assist in the fighting of any fire, or who impeded the fighting of a fire. The city’s fire ordinance was updated and revised over the years, but the mandate for citizens to assist in the fighting of all fires remained constant. A perusal of the fire reports in the newspapers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Charleston shows that fire companies and citizens in general responded consistently and promptly to battle any blaze, whether it was at the home of a rich family or of an enslaved family. Every fire endangered the lives and property of everyone.”

Fire mark, Smithsonian Museum of American History

The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History has fire marks in its collection, including the one pictured above, and museum literature says nothing about firefighters allowing unmarked buildings to burn down. “Beginning in the 1750s, some American insurance companies issued metal fire marks to policyholders to signify that their property was insured against fire damage. The fire marks bore the name and/or symbol of the insurer, and some included the customer’s policy number. The company or agent would then affix the mark to the policyholder’s home or business. For owners the mark served as proof of insurance and a deterrent against arson. For insurance companies the mark served as a form of advertising, and alerted volunteer firefighters that the property was insured. [my italics] The Charleston Fire Insurance Company of Charleston, South Carolina issued this fire mark in the early 19th century. The oval mark is made of iron, and consists of an inner image of intact buildings on the left, and buildings engulfed in flames on the right. A figure of Athena guards the intact buildings from the fire, and has a shield by her feet emblazoned with a Palmetto tree. There is a text above the intact building that reads, “RESTORED.” The outer rim bears the text “CHARLESTON FIRE INSURANCE COMPy.” The Charleston Fire Insurance Company operated from 1811 until 1896.”

Herchak also interviewed Henry Lowdnes, owner of C. T. Lowdnes Insurance agency and the fifth generation at an agency founded by his family in 1850, who agreed that “due to the huge threat posed by a spreading fire, it’s absolutely false that firefighters would have stood around and let a building in an urban setting burn because it didn’t bear an insurance marker.” Lowndes did provide some new information about rewards, however. “Rewards to fire fighting companies — volunteer or professionals of insurance companies — were common, both from city government for arriving first and from insurance companies for saving insured structures. In an urban setting where fires often are not limited to a single structure and entire streets or neighborhoods burned down, upon arriving at the scene of this type of blaze threatening multiple structures — which are firefighters going to first combat fire or protect — one that pays a reward or one that doesn’t? . . . But this is most likely never going to be backed by any sort of documentation other than the chance finding of a stray line in a newspaper of the time or the discovery of a personal letter mentioning and discoursing on it.”

So where does the myth originate? Could the existence of rewards in Charleston have led to the idea that firefighters might prefer an insured building over another, which could have led to the conclusion that they allowed uninsured buildings to burn? Perhaps. Or, as Dr. Butler points out, there was a practice in England which might have led to such a conclusion. In England, some fire insurance companies apparently did create their own fire-fighting units, and so fire insurance markers might have a special meaning to them. But the case is different here. The city of Charleston never had a fire-fighting company associated with any fire insurance company.” 

Dr. Butler continues, “In his book Charleston Is Burning: Two Centuries of Fire and Flames (History Press, 2009), Daniel Crooks concludes that the fire insurance markers were merely a form of advertising. In the event of fire damage, an insurance marker on a house that was later rebuilt or restored was a visible sign that the insurance company had fulfilled its pledge to protect the owner’s investment. I had several conversations with Mr. Crooks (who has a small collection of historic fire insurance markers) about this topic while he was researching for his book, and I support his conclusion that the markers–at least in Charleston–were merely a form of advertising.” 


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

December 17, 2016

 

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 the wall were prompted by superstition. 

 

 


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