Revisited Myth # 138: Women in early America didn’t play the violin or flute because they would have to raise their arms, revealing their elbows.January 7, 2018
This well entrenched myth is trickier than I suspected, but when one digs into the details (“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say), it seems there is no evidence to back up the belief that the reason women and girls didn’t play the violin or flute was because they would have to raise their arms and reveal their elbows. This statement has long been made by historic interpreters and volunteer docents at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites and is still found in some CW podcasts.
The idea that elbows were indecent seems to have no historical foundation. Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and an expert on 18th-c. costume, expressed surprise and dismay that this was still being said by CW interpreters. “Almost all gowns of the 18th century typically did cover women’s elbows, because that was the fashionable silhouette. . . I have not seen period sources stating that women’s elbows were considered indecent. In fact, working women did not hesitate to roll their sleeves up when work demanded it. When fashions changed at the very end of the 18th century and early 19th century, most women readily adopted the new short-sleeved styles. Again, I have not found any period sources [such as manuals of manners and deportment] saying that women found the visible elbows to be shocking.”
For more information see the article at http://www.history.org/search/google_search_results.cfm where it states, “The concepts of comfort and modesty have always been relative and subject to the influence of fashion and the needs of the occasion. Like us, eighteenth-century people needed clothing for warmth and comfort, but they quickly abandoned those needs if fashion or the occasion dictated. During much of the eighteenth century, 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.”
But is it true that women did not play the violin or the flute? John Watson, conservator of instruments and associate curator of musical instruments for Colonial Williamsburg, says that few women played these instruments because, in general, they were not considered ladylike instruments. In Music and Image: Domesticity, ideology and socio-cultural formation in eighteenth-century England, author Richard Leppert contrasts the English guitar (a strongly female-associated instrument) to the violin. He points out that the guitar “was never an instrument of high musical caste…There was no ‘art’ music for the instrument… Men by contrast took up the violin, archetypal instrument of the ‘best’ music from the European Courts” (p.167) Leppert goes on to say (p.168) “There is no ‘natural’ reason why women should not have taken up the violin; indeed, they would have had far more time available to learn how to play it well. That they did not do so was a cultural or ideological matter involving the instrument’s appropriation by men, as the musical enthusiast Hester Lynch Piozzi understood perfectly and so stated in the silence of her diary : ‘How the Women do shine [in music] of late! . . . Madame Gautherot’s wonderful Execution on the Fiddle; — but say the Critics a Violin is not an Instrument for Ladies to manage, very likely! I remember when they said the same Thing of a Pen.’” [Ouch!]
Colonial Williamsburg’s Research Librarian Juleigh Clark sheds further light on the subject with her discovery of a 1722 London publication by author John Essex, The young ladies conduct: or, rules for education, under several heads; with instructions upon dress, both before and after marriage. It seems there were several instruments that were “unbecoming the Fair Sex.” Essex writes, “The Harpsicord, Spinnet, Lute and Base Violin, are Instruments most agreeable to the Ladies: There are some others that really are unbecoming the Fair Sex; as the Flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike, and would look indecent in a woman’s mouth; and the Flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the Juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d, to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion. Musick is certainly a very great Accomplishment to the Ladies; it refines the Taste, polishes the Mind; and is an Entertainment, without other Views, that preserves them fron the Rust of Idleness, that most pernicious Enemy to Virtue.” Interesting logic, huh? Women need to conserve their saliva for digestive purposes, but men don’t.
John Watson suggests that it is also worth considering whether the “female” instruments (keyboards and guitar) were considered suitable for women because they were seen as more for accompaniment for the voice and less soloistic.
It isn’t so hard to imagine that some instruments were considered feminine and others masculine. The same is true today–although the instruments have sometimes switched sexes! I interviewed a retired, female violinist who played for the Richmond symphony for decades who told me that over the past 60 years, certain instruments have been played predominantly by one sex or the other. It is mostly men, for example, who play percussion, horns, double bass, tuba, and saxophone; while women are almost exclusively in possession of the harp. Considerably more women than men play the violin today, she said. A cursory glance at contemporary music shows that it is mostly men who play the guitar nowadays, an instrument considered feminine in colonial times. So the guitar, a female instrument in the 18th century, and the violin, a male instrument, changed sexes in the 20th century!
Long story short: the violin and flute were among the instruments considered unsuitable for women, but not because of their elbows.
Revisited Myth # 126: “A boot of ale” derives from the custom of using old boots as drinking vessels.July 22, 2017
The myth says that the expression “a boot of ale” comes from the custom of cutting off the top of old boots and using them as serving containers. (How the top of an old boot transformed into a vessel is unclear–to me, at least.)
As most of you who work at or visit colonial-era museums know, the American colonists drank out of leather vessels called jacks or blackjacks. These were lined with pitch to make them waterproof and are very sturdy. Decades ago, my stores in Colonial Williamsburg sold reproductions, and I believe they still do. These large leather jugs and mugs made such an impression on the French visitors to England in the 17th century that they reported that Englishmen drank out of their boots! A funny story, not meant to be taken literally. (Waterer’s Leather in Life, Art, and Industry, 1946, London)
Why use leather to make a drinking vessel? It’s an English tradition. In medieval England, there was little glass manufacture, so aside from wood, pottery, or tin, what are you going to use to make a mug or goblet? (Yes, gold and silver, but those are for the nobles, not taverns or average folks, so let’s not go there.) Leather worked very well. Still does. But not boots.
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.
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
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.”
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!
Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace
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….
Deborah Brower says:
March 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
It’s official: people will believe anything if they think it cool enough.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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).
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!
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.
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.
Mary Miley says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:55 am (Edit)
Amen, Sister! I’ll take mod-cons every day.
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.
February 5, 2013 at 9:24 am (Edit)
Love the poem!
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 […]
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?
Mary Miley says:
January 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm (Edit)
The Voice of Experience:
Alena who works in costume wrote me,
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!