Revisited Myth # 119: “Too many irons in the fire’ refers to ironing and laundry.

April 30, 2017
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Susan Armstrong wrote: I enjoy your blog very much. I recently saw a video of Civil War (re-enactor) laundress explaining her work. She made a statement about the term “too many irons in the fire” originated during the Civil War, when the laundress was ironing and had too many “irons” heating up by the fire.
I have NEVER heard this about laundry-ironing.

Neither have I, Susan. I believe the expression originated in the blacksmith trade. I checked with master blacksmith Ken Schwarz of Colonial Williamsburg who explained the smith’s point of view. “Iron can be overheated and ‘burned,’ damaged beyond use. If a smith tries to increase productivity, he may put more than one bar into the fire in order to minimize the time waiting for a bar to heat to a working temperature. If the fire is fanned and the iron is not withdrawn before reaching the burning point, the attempt at increased production can actually lead to a reduction in efficiency and material loss. Therefore, too many irons in the fire is counterproductive, causing the smith to work frantically to try to stay ahead of the process.”   

The laundry interpretation seems illogical to me. A laundress traditionally used two irons (although Mrs. Pott’s sadirons with detachable handle, below, were sold in sets of three)–one heating on the stove while she ironed with the other. Why have “too many”? You can only use one at a time.  For more about irons and ironing, see Myth # 95. 
  1. Previous Comments:
    Brian Leehan says:

    My particular historical interests are the Civil War era and the American West of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and although a “city boy,” I always took an active interest in the history and life of the Cowboy. My understanding of the term “too many irons in the fire” has always been that it referred to the spring roundup and branding: a lot of cattle “outfits” would come together to separate-out the cattle that had been wintering on open range. Each outfit would brand their new calves, and there would be a lot of branding irons “in the fire.” I assume “too many irons in the fire” would refer to the chaos that could naturally occur with a lot of outfits trying to agree on who owned what, roping, holding and branding, etc.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of branding irons. I checked with the Oxford English Dictionary and learned that the earliest known written use of the phrase dates to 1549 (in England): “Put no more so many yrons in the fyre at ones.” Another intriguing mention in the OED is the one from 1624 from America’s own John Smith: “They that have many Irons int he fire, some must burne.” And another from 1751, “I had now several important irons in the fire, and all to be struck whilst hot.” Medieval Europeans did brand cattle, so the phrase may refer to that practice, but the blacksmith story seems more likely to me.

  2. Susan Armstrong says:

    Thank you for the post. It is interesting how we use adages, attributing them to everyday / common activities. Researching a term can tell you where it “originated” or what it is “attributed to”.


Revisited Myth #107: Cooks went barefoot so they could sense where it was hot on the brick hearth in order to avoid burns.

January 14, 2017

 

 

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Thanks to Brian Miller at Historic Odessa in Delaware for submitting this oddball. He says it is often stated in Odessa kitchens that cooks went barefoot for this reason.

I had not heard this one before, nor had Frank Clark, food historian and supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s foodways program, but he said, “I can pretty much tell you from experience that would be impossible. You might not burn your feet on the hot brick, but the heat of the fire on any bare skin is hard to take, especailly when you have to get your feet up next to the fire to get out coals and the like. Plus the chance of stepping on a stray ember is constant. I do it all the time. Sounds like a unsubstantiated myth to me. I think if someone was barefoot, it was only because they had no shoes, not for any advantage in hearth cooking.”

 

COMMENTS”

Keena, Katherine says:
March 9, 2013 at 10:49 am (Edit)
Mary – now this is a new one on me…I cannot help but respond that in Girl Scouting we insist on shoes for everything, especially coking!

Katherine Keena

Program Manager

Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace

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Roger W. Fuller says:
March 10, 2013 at 10:01 am (Edit)
Sounds like somebody (un)wittingly transposed the dubious practice of “firewalking” onto a historical question. The suggestion becomes fact, if it’s told often enough….

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Deborah Brower says:
March 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
It’s official: people will believe anything if they think it cool enough.

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azambone says:
March 12, 2013 at 8:22 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
I think this is one of the most bizarre “just so” stories told in a historic house museum. Most of them are attempts to square the circle, to give some sort of “practical” or “common-sense” explanation for some sort of human behavior that, like a lot of human behavior, defies common-sense. But this is so counter-intuitive that it baffles me, just a little bit. Does that mean I don’t think that someone has spun this story to a group of rapt visitors? No. I can easily believe that they did.

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Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 6:55 pm (Edit)
Somebody was afraid to say, “I don’t know.” You should never be afraid of saying “I don’t know”, if you actually don’t know.

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Gregory Hubbard says:
March 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm (Edit)
This myth is truly bizarre.

I am a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the Other CIA) and an historian. With apologies to The Food Channel’s Barefoot Contessa, I can say with certainty that anyone who works in a kitchen barefoot is crazy. They won’t last 5 minutes.

1713, 1813 or 2013, working barefoot would be extremely dangerous. Not simply coals, as mentioned above, but with spattering grease from pan frying, roasts drippings, splatter and drips from kettles, and this list could go on and on, the tops of your feet would be badly burned as well.

Bare legs or short pants would be equally loony. This myth presumes our forbearers were stupid. Who thinks this stuff up?

Gregory Hubbard
Chatsworth, California

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Mary Miley says:
March 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm (Edit)
Thank you Gregory. To answer your question, “Who thinks this stuff up?” I have no earthly idea, but it never seems to stop. But yes, many people do presume our ancestors were stupid. That’s one reason myths are so enduring–they appeal to our sense of superiority.

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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. 

 

 


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

November 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

PREVIOUS COMMENTS:

Elizabeth (@leezechka) says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi Mary,

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

Thanks, Alena

 

 

 


Revisited Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.

September 14, 2016

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It’s a pervasive image, isn’t it? A woman in old-fashioned dress sits by the cozy fire with her spinning wheel, spinning the yarn that she will later weave into “homespun” fabric, which she will later use to sew her family’s clothing. Surely every early American household had a spinning wheel and a loom, right? Most people wore “homespun,” right?

It is true that most women made most of the clothing their families wore, but few actually spun the yarn and fewer wove their own fabric. Why? Because imported fabric was cheaper and better than homespun and could be purchased in stores throughout colonial America and during the early decades of the federal period. In fact, when you examine store inventories from the colonial and early-American period, fabric makes up the bulk of the inventory. While some was exotic and expensive (silks from the Far East, for example, or printed cottons from India), much was cheap. Woolens and linens from England could be purchased for less than it cost to make them in America, which is why people overwhelmingly chose to buy fabrics rather than to weave their own. Even slaves’ and servants’ clothing was usually made from imported fabric.

Colonial Williamsburg’s textile curator Linda Baumgarten writes, “Only in frontier areas was most clothing homespun and homemade – and even there, traders and storekeepers quickly penetrated the backcountry to make imported goods available.” Retired colonial historian Harold Gill recalls that in his many decades of researching household inventories in the Williamsburg area, he never found a single reference to a loom. He did find that many (perhaps “most”) households had a spinning wheel. 

And as one blog reader pointed out, “You neglect to mention the “homespun” movement, a popular protest against the Townshend Acts. Women learned to spin in order to forgo the imported, taxed fabric. In reality, even during the protest, nobody was producing enough fabric to truly replace the imports. And note that they were LEARNING how to spin, as in they hadn’t done it before. Still I think the protest probably contributed to the place that spinning has in the image we have of early America.” Excellent point. 

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COMMENTS:

janice says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:45 am (Edit)
though i loved the part in Laura Ingills Wilder’s book, Farmer Boy, where her husband’s mother would weave wool to make coats for the family. she wove it and then shrank it to make it warmer. i think her loom was in the attic. i like when the women bring their looms, drop spindles and spinning wheels to the fair. i would like to have learned how to do that. didn’t they use their looms for rugs and carpets? those that raised sheep, did they use the wool for other purposes?

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Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 9:15 am (Edit)
Laura tells about her life on the frontier where women like Mrs. Wilder had less access to stores, at least for the first few years.

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Ginger says:
December 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Mrs. Wilder was in upstate New York, wasn’t she? Was that still considered frontier?

Mary Miley says:
December 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
A quick check shows you are right, they lived in western NY state until Almonzo was 18 and moved to Minnesota in 1875. But remember, Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing fiction. She based her tales on true events but changed details quite a bit.

Erin Blake says:
December 2, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
My great grandmother, a homesteader on the Canadian prairies, used her spinning wheel to make yarn for sweaters, mittens, etc., not for weaving. She was famously baffled when my mother wanted a picture of her spinning: spinning was what you did in the evening, when it was dark and cold, and you were too tired to do anything else but had to do something to keep moving and be useful.

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Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm (Edit)
Also, there were differences in who used looms in New England vs. the Mid Atlantic. See Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s books “A Midwife’s Tale” and “The Age of Homespun,” and her article “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” as well as Andrienne Hood’s articles “The Gender Division of Labor in the Production of Textiles in Eighteenth-Century, Rural Pennsylvania.”

In short, in the mid-Atlantic in the late 18th c., labor divisions adhered to the old model of weaving being a male occupation. In New England, women developed an informal system of home-production. A few households had the large and expensive loom, and women exchanged daughters to share the work of the weaving.

In my thesis work on textile production in late 18th-early 19th c. lower New York State, I found that there was indeed a complicated system and division of labor. Mary Guion, a young, unmarried, middle-class woman, wrote about fiber production parties (“frolics”) with her friends, mostly spinning, some carding. She spent days on her horse delivering the processed flax or wool to the dyer, the weaver, and by the early years of the 19th c., the “machine” (the carding factory)

Oh dear, I could go on forever on this subject! It’s so fascinating!

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Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm (Edit)
Thank you for adding so much to the subject!

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Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm (Edit)
Oh, I should also add that Mary bought imported fabric from the pedlar, ordered fabric and other clothing items from “the cart” (a pedlar or a townsperson who made trips to NYC?) and made trips to NYC herself, where she spent time shopping for fabric with her friends. So, yeah, she definitely didn’t make all her own fabric. It’s impossible to say what percentage, but if I had to make a guess I’d say around 20% of the fabric she used was made locally.

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Elizabeth Bertheaud says:
December 3, 2012 at 10:39 am (Edit)
Might I recommend: Jensen, Joan. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. Ms. Jensen discusses how the women of SE PA soon realized their efforts were better spent making cheese and butter to sell than in manufacturing textiles. A great read on many levels.

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Alaina Zulli says:
December 3, 2012 at 11:20 pm (Edit)
Elizabeth, thanks for that recommendation. It sounds great, and is now on my Amazon wishlist!

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Katie says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:25 am (Edit)
Just to comment about Farmer Boy with Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was Almanzo’s family that was in upstate New York (I visited – Canada’s but miles away), not Laura. Albeit fiction, she usually based all her writings on fact – and most of the “facts” she changed were about her family to make a better story, not about the activities. It is mentioned in the book that Almanzo’s mother making all their fabric was very unusual, especially for their economic status, for the time and region. This region was far from being the frontier and Almanzo’s family was considerably well-off compared to the pioneering Ingalls family. I just wanted to make sure Laura is not discounted because her books are “fiction;” most of them are very factual. From a loyal Little House fan.

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Mary Miley says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:34 am (Edit)
As a loyal fan of Laura’s, I would never discount her writing. I discovered her books as a mother and read them to my children. And we loved the TV series too. It was wonderful finding books and TV programs that taught values as well as history.

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Ginger says:
December 5, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
Thank you for clarifying this! It’s been many years and I did not recall the statement about it being unusual for her to spin and weave. And while I’m aware that Laura changed things, I also thought it was unlikely for her to insert a made-up detail like that. Thank you.🙂

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Rena Lawrence says:
December 4, 2012 at 11:36 am (Edit)
I also recommend “Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production, 1822-1880” by Dr. Paula Mitchell Marks. Very nice treatment of spinning out of necessity (with women often learning from grandmothers or slaves) and the production of penitentiary cloth by prisoners at Huntsville.

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Alaina Zulli says:
December 4, 2012 at 10:16 pm (Edit)
sounds like another great book! Thanks, I’m adding it to my to-read list.

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Deborah Brower says:
December 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm (Edit)
Great choice of myths!!!!!!
This one really needed to be explored, because there is so much confusion on the subject. Spinning wheels have survived to such a degree that they have become icons. Spinning does not equal fabric it’s only part of the process.

The followups have been very informative. Thanks again it’s like an early Christmas gift.

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goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm (Edit)
Wow, this is shockingly incorrect! The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

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Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm (Edit)
Excuse me, I’m a little confused. Which part of the post or comments is shockingly incorrect?

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goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm (Edit)
The post. People definitely spun their own wool and made their own fabric. Especially during the War of 1812.

Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm (Edit)
Of course some did. Sorry if my post wasn’t clear–it says that the practice was not common, not that it didn’t ever happen. On the frontier where European fabric was not available or during brief periods when shipping was interrupted (like the War of 1812), women had to resort to buying homespun fabric, often made by professional weavers since few women owned expensive (and big!) looms.

Judy Cataldo says:
December 16, 2012 at 11:06 am (Edit)
Boston and surrounding towns are hardly the frontier. There are multiple primary accounts in the newspapers of the 1700s noting locally manufactured textiles. New England had a vibrant textile culture starting in the mid 1600s. Fashion fabrics were imported cheaply from England as with the other colonies but local manufacture was alive and well. It is not correct to paint all colonies with the same broad brush.

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QNPoohBear says:
December 22, 2012 at 11:30 pm (Edit)
Right. Cloth was imported in the early colonial period until the mid-17th century when a weaver set up shop in Boston. The first textile mill,Slater Mill, in the United States was built in Rhode Island in 1793. Almost all the old farm house museums in Rhode Island have large weaving looms and spinning wheels. Women spun flax and wool. Check out this link for the story of one family’s looms
http://www.hearthsidehouse.org/news/2012.talbot.html

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Mary Jean Adams says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:52 am (Edit)
Perhaps someone has already brought this up, but how about the notion of homespun as a political statement? My understanding has always been that toward the revolution, as more and more English goods were boycotted and goods from other countries embargoed, wearing homespun became a sign of your allegiance to the cause.

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Mary Miley says:
February 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm (Edit)
You are quite correct. there is a marvelous (true) story about the Governor’s Palace ball that took place in Williamsburg, hosted by the last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, where the ladies wore dull-colored, homespun ball gowns. It made quite a statement.

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Tracy says:
April 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
It is my understanding that North American women of the 18th century spun yarn mostly for practical knitting, and that most home weaving was limited to toweling, rugs, and sometimes bed linens and underthings like shirts and shifts. And that most homes did not have a loom but did have a spinning wheel.
I do know that pioneer women in the west (Utah) in the 1840’s and 50’s did quite a bit of weaving out of necessity due to their geographical and cultural (Brigham Young’s emphasis on self sustaining industry) isolation.

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Mary Miley says:
April 10, 2013 at 1:55 pm (Edit)
For some perspective, I checked with Harold Gill, a highly respected (retired) historian from Colonial Williamsburg who, during his many decades of researching colonial inventories, recalls that he never found a single example of a Williamsburg house with a loom. He recalled that many, perhaps “most” houses had spinning wheels.

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Patricia Shandor says:
February 20, 2014 at 1:01 pm (Edit)
I work at a museum in South Carolina that owns dozens of 18th/19th Century locally-made spinning wheels used for various mediums, such as flax, cotton, and wool. And I know of a few 18th/19th Century looms in the area (one still located in its original privately-owned house). We are located in the midlands of South Carolina and near what would have been considered the American frontier until around 1820…at least. Though we certainly did have access to Charleston which was one of, if not THE richest city in Colonial America. So I know there was both weaving and buying going on.
Interestingly, we own locally-made quilts from the 1830s-1850s which include homespun dress fabrics as identified by scholars and also quilts that include Chintzes, imported from England (which were used in South Carolina quilts well into the 1850s). My point is that I would guess that there were more spinners and weavers in the South than in the North. Plus there were more factories and mills up North. So…the abundance of spinning wheels in the antique stores of New England and the Mid-Atlantic region could just be misplaced Southern antiques? LOL. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

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Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm (Edit)
I’m sorry but I think your history is inaccurate and based upon a modern viewpoint of industrial production expectations.

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Mary Miley says:
July 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
No need to apologize, just explain why you think that and share your evidence.

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Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 10:02 pm (Edit)
Colonial Agent J. Bridger in 1719.

Elizabeth Barber’s book, Women’s Work: the first 20,000 years

Documentary on the loom and it’s working status at Mt. Vernon.

Those are just 3 off the top of my head.

There are many books, articles, references..etc that are pre-industrial to give an idea that spinning was not in fact a leisure activity of a woman sitting by the fire. Many homes needed the income from spinning or weaving in order to survive. And many villages/towns/commonwealths had dozens of spinners to feed the local weavers. Spinning often super ceded food storage and preparation in a home. It is not inconceivable to understand that home spinners were essential to their communities. The yarn they produced was beautiful, smooth, lustrous and their cloth was as well. For thousands of years Egypt was renown for their linen and cotton to the point where even modern machinery can not duplicate how fine and even it really was. France was known for silk, Scotland, Ireland and England for wool. These are the fore bearers of Colonial America who brought their trades with them across the pond. And without competition sold their wares back across it at a mighty profit.

Cetacea says:
July 10, 2015 at 10:07 pm (Edit)
I forgot to mention flax…which when spun is called linen. Linen production in Europe during the Colonial period was vast and it traveled across the Atlantic as well. I mentioned Egypt as an example of what ancient spinners and weavers could do on a massive productive scale. Somehow the paragraph didn’t separate France. And that’s not even going into China and their sericulture economy (which also made it across the Atlantic during Colonial times).


Revisited Myth #97: British soldiers wore red coats because they wouldn’t show the blood.

August 28, 2016

Ben Swenson, former history teacher and reenactor, said he often heard the myth that the British wore red because it wouldn’t show blood if they were shot. “Considering that the rest of their uniforms were usually white, this made no sense. . . I seem to recall something about red being the cheapest dye for a country that had a substantial military budget. Not 100% sure on that one.”

Shoot03_r2You’re on the mark, Ben. For more than a century, inexpensive synthetic dyes have been able to create any color on the color wheel, so the world has forgotten the message of power and wealth that intense color once conveyed. People from the past craved bright colors, but only the rich and royal could afford expensive dyes and the fabrics that showed them off. So tight was the link between the aristocracy and color that in many societies, laws restricted strong colors like scarlet or purple to the nobility, just in case some nouveau riche lout was tempted to dress above his station. Renaissance Europeans would have considered today’s dress-for-success colors—black, beige, grey, and other subdued shades—fit only for paupers.

Red and its close cousin purple were the most coveted of colors because they were the most difficult to make and the most expensive. Down the centuries, reds and reddish purples became the acknowledged color of royalty throughout the world. Chinese and Persian rulers preferred red. The togas of Roman senators bore a reddish-purple band. The Catholic Church took red as a symbol of its authority, using a red cross on a white shield as its emblem and dressing its cardinals in scarlet robes. The British were not alone in dressing their military officers in red uniforms. Its rarity and its link to status made good red dye almost priceless.

350px-British_old_infantry_uniforms

Max Hamrick, Colonial Williamsburg’s master weaver and dyer, says that both cochineal and madder were used to put the red in Redcoats. The British government supplied their soldiers with uniforms that were dyed with madder because it was cheaper. Officers, who supplied their own uniforms, preferred the brighter red of cochineal for their jackets. Red was the symbol of power and prestige, not some cover up for blood.

Even Wikipedia says, “There is no known basis for the myth that red coats were favoured because they did not show blood stains. Blood does in fact show on red clothing as a black stain.”

My article on cochineal and the color red appeared in an issue of Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine. I found the topic fascinating–hope you will too.

http://www.history.org/Foundation/journal/summer12/dye.cfm

 

PREVIOUS COMMENTS:

Grace Burrowes says:
October 13, 2012 at 9:30 am (Edit)
I also suspect that once the artillery started firing, and smoke hazed over the battlefields, red was simply VISIBLE, making it less likely a soldier would be killed by friendly fire. Once the hand to hand fighting began, the downside of increased visibility (to the enemy) would have been moot since national affiliation would have been obvious up close.

Reply
PJ Curran says:
October 13, 2012 at 10:36 am (Edit)
In a conversation with a young “Redcoat” at Old North Bridge this summer I was informed that the reason for red was to identify the lines when the muskets began to generate smoke, an explanation similar to the previous response.

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Caitlin McRae says:
October 17, 2012 at 11:38 am (Edit)
When you say inexpensive synthetic dyes have been available for more than a century, do you mean aniline (sp?) dyes from the turn of the century…? Would love to know more of that kind of history.

Caitlin McRae cnmcrae@gmail.com

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Mary Miley says:
October 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm (Edit)
So would I, but I’m afraid I know very little about the chemistry of modern synthetic dyes. The first were created in the mid-1800s and soon crowded out the old plant-based and insect-based dyes that had been used for centuries.

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Edward Werner Cook says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm (Edit)
William Henry Perkin discovered Mauve in 1856 in August Von Hofmann’s Laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. After Prince Albert died Hofmann went to Berlin in 1863 where Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter was Crown Princess of Prussia. By the 1877’s dye industry in England was dead and became a German monopoly. At the end of the 19th century it was these same synthetic dye companies who had the skill to make synthetic drugs with the dye firm later known by the name of the founder Fredrick Bayer synthesizing Aspirin in 1897. The rest is, as we say, history. The giant firm I G Farben means “Common Interest in Dye Colors” and was at height the 4th largest company in the world.

You’ve Got Red On You « The BS Historian says:
December 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm (Edit)
[…] from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for […]

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James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:10 am (Edit)
There is an interesting correlation with the development of chemical dyes, which led to progress in industrial chemistry in general, which caused competitions and conflict between England and Germany and that, among other things,
led to the the tensions that blossomed into WW I – The idea of red not showing blood, may have had some origins in the painting of the deck of the Shipboard surgery in the days of Wooden ships and sail ( or is that a myth , too?!)

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Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:44 am (Edit)
I’ve read about that relationship between chemical dyes and WWI–fascinating. BUt I’ve not heard that statement about red decks, so don’t know if it is a myth or not. Sounds myth-like . . .

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James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm (Edit)
I was aboard USS Constitution a few years ago when it was dis-masted in dry-dock having preventative maintenance performed. I inquired of a sailor if they were going to paint the decks red and he said they only did that in the sick bay. I do not know if we can rely on this ( I am tempted to just call the commander of USS Constitution and just ask him!)
Anyway I came up with some info:

“The insides of the gun decks and the scupper ways were painted red so that blood stains should not be so noticeable.”

From http://www.exeterflotilla.org/history_misc/nav_customs/nc_customs.html

“In the artillery decks, the bulkwarks and the carriages of the cannons were often painted in red, to dissimulate the presence of the blood during combat.”
From http://shippictures.byethost22.com/anatomy%2004.htm

“The deck above the holds in the old ships, what would now be called the platform deck, was known as the orlop deck, a contraction of ‘overlap’, a word of Dutch origin meaning ‘that which runs over the hold’. In H.M.S. Victory this deck is painted red; the wounded were taken there to be tended by the ship’s surgeon. On this first deck below the waterline they were safer and their blood was not so noticeable against the red paint of the deck.”
From http://www.readyayeready.com/tradition/customs-of-the-navy/1-shipboard-terms.htm

BUT this one is not in agreement.

“Interior bulkheads were often painted red, not to cover up blood and gore during battle (most of which wound up on the deck anyway) but rather for decorative purposes and because red ocher pigment was relatively cheap.”
From http://www.steelnavy.com/MeteorFrigateDianaJL.htm

What do you think?

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm (Edit)
Hmmm. Interesting. I do know this: reddish-brown paint (iron oxide or sometimes called Spanish brown) was cheap and easy to make yourself, like whitewash. Neither is real paint, which was expensive, tricky to make, and rather a trade secret. (Painters made their own concoctions and kept formulas in the family.) If that’s the “red” paint used on the floors, as suggested in the final quotation which mentions red ocher (which is iron oxide), then I side with the final quotation.

Roger W. Fuller says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm (Edit)
Having been personally injured accidentally by a bayonet at a reenactment, in which I bled onto a red British regimental coat I was wearing, I can assure you, red does not cover up blood stains. Blood looks almost black in comparison when on period-dyed red woolen cloth.

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Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm (Edit)
Yikes! That’s what I call a primary source!

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Jan says:
September 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm (Edit)
Actually, what I’ve read suggests that *black* was the most difficult and expensive dye to produce consistently in a way that would not fade or run.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_dye#The_rise_of_formal_black

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James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 27, 2013 at 12:55 pm (Edit)
Well I went and called USS Constitution and the man there just called me back- Mr. Brecher I think it was, and we discussed the painting of the deck red- he said that almost all the decks are natural pine, which are ‘holy stoned ” ( sanded with a piece of sandstone)so they would be the natural pine color, with the bulkheads whitewashed- BUT that the deck of the cock pit, – where the wounded were treated – IS CURRENTLY painted red, BUT he has no historical reference for why this is done, and does not know why it has been done nowadays. I asked if the sailors who are assigned to the ship as guides tell the people that was because the red would not show the blood, and he laughed and said that they do have a training period for the sailors and expected that that was not done.

That is where the thing is now. Unfortunately I am not entirely convinced of whether or not the decks were or were not painted red because of the blood. Until I do more research and stumble upon some CONTEMPORARY source, . I could put forth a theory- which is that since the deck in the cockpit would have blood on it and since the decks were holy stoned pine the blood would soak in and so that deck was painted and since the Spanish brown was cheap the deck was therefore painted that reddish brown.

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Jeff Neice says:
September 29, 2013 at 2:26 am (Edit)
the old red barn, milk paint, was very thick and solid. Perhaps, they used something like that to seal and preserve the floors better in the sick bay.

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Mary Jean Adams says:
July 21, 2014 at 5:05 pm (Edit)
It reminds me of an old joke about a sea captain who wears red because it doesn’t show the blood. However, when faced with overwhelming odds, he asks his mate to bring him his brown pants.

The joke is funnier when not being told by me.

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Zain says:
August 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm (Edit)
Thanks for solving this myth i always wanted to know the truth

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RIchard Howe says:
December 10, 2015 at 3:25 pm (Edit)
I was told that the officers had Scarlet uniforms because they were more visible on the battlefield so that the rank and file could see them giving orders. In Europe at the time,it was considered “uncivilized” to shoot the officers! The American Revolution put an end to that!

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stephanusmurlinis says:
May 23, 2016 at 10:02 am (Edit)
It was my understanding that the red coat appeared during the English Civil War. While the cavaliers used blue uniforms, the Model Army used red. Is it correct?

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picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:32 am (Edit)
Reblogged this on Defense Issues.

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Patrice Ayme says:
June 9, 2016 at 2:50 am (Edit)
The Spartans supposedly used red to hide their wounds. Centurions of the Roman army carried spectacular head dress, parallel to their shoulders, above their helmets, to be seen from afar.


Revisited Myth # 95: They’re called “sadirons” because ironing was such a hated chore that any woman would be sad to iron.

August 7, 2016

pottsr

A reader wrote: “Does anyone know the reason that irons were called “sad irons” in the 19th century? I’ve heard that ironing was a sad business and any woman who ironed would be sad.”

The dictionaries should be enough to debunk this myth. The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s give the word’s origins. The sadiron (today it is one word) is one type of iron. There are many others, developed for special uses, like goffering irons that pressed ruffles or specially shaped irons for sleeves. The OED says that the sadiron is a smoothing iron, solid and flat, as opposed to a box iron that is hollow and meant to hold coals (so it didn’t need to be heated and reheated on the stove). It says that the word sad once meant heavy or compact. Webster’s defines sadiron as a flatiron pointed at both ends and having a removable handle, and dates the term to 1738.

Evidently an American woman named Mrs. Potts invented a removable wooden handle in 1871 that made it easier to iron–it didn’t burn your hand (women used rags or potholders but still, those things must have been dangerously hot!), and you could put one sadiron on the stove to heat while you moved the handle to the hot one.

irons2

ore iron history, from Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections at the White River Valley Museum:

In the first century BC, the Chinese became the first to apply heat in the process of pressing cloth, using long-handled metal pans filled with charcoal. Heated irons did not appear in the West until the 17th century. Since that time, a wide variety of irons have been developed in the attempt to find a solution to the problem of how to heat an iron efficiently — and protect both the user and the cloth against burns.

The sadiron — whose name derives from the Old English word “sald,” meaning solid — first appeared in the 17th century. The basic sadiron is a shaped piece of metal, with a polished base and attached metal handle. These irons were heated in front of an open fire or on a stove. The undesirable aspect of this, however, was that it heated the handle as well, so they had to be held with a potholder or thick glove. Sadirons were heavy, usually ranging from 5 to 9 pounds, and the weight contributed as much as the heat to the pressing process.

The first significant improvement of the sadiron was achieved by Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa. In 1870, Mrs. Potts was granted a patent for a sadiron pointed at both ends, making it handy to iron in both directions. The following year, Mrs. Potts endeared herself to housewives when she patented a sadiron with a detachable handle, thus allowing the iron to be heated without also heating the handle. These sadirons were sold in sets of 3, with a single handle.

One of the major drawbacks to all sadirons, however, was that they cooled off fairly rapidly, thus it was always necessary to have several irons so that one could always be re-heating. One solution to this problem was the “self-heating” irons.

The simplest of these was the charcoal iron, whose hollow interior could be filled with smoldering coals. In addition to being rather smoky, it was difficult to get a sufficient draft to keep the coals burning. For this reason, they were equipped with high, spout-like openings, so that the coals could be fanned by inserting a bellows, or by swinging the iron back and forth vigorously. In the late 1800s, other types of slef-heating irons were developed that used gasoline and alcohol as fuel, which was stored in small metal tanks at the back of the iron. The major drawback to these was the smell, and the tendency for them to “pop-off” suddenly when escaping fumes ignited, which not only frightened, but also singed the user.

The first electric iron was patented in 1882, but was far from an instant success, as most households lacked electricity — and those that did had power only at night to run lights. In addition, these early electric models were difficult to regulate. None had thermostats until the late 1920s.

So, as sad as many of us are to spend time ironing, that it not the origin of the word.


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