Revised Myth # 49: Sugar Loaf Paper Used for Dying Fabric

July 6, 2019


One of the earliest myths I wrote about is included in my book, Death by Petticoat: Housewives used the blue/purple paper that wrapped their sugar loaves to make a dye. I had written on this blog that this was a myth. I had researched the subject and spoken to several 18th century dye authorities, none of whom had ever heard such a thing. White sugar loaves were only for the wealthy, and those people had no need to dye their own fabric. So I was confident about declaring it a myth. This is what I originally wrote for publication:

A sweet story, but experts in historic crafts say that no examples of dying yarn or fabric with blue paper are known. Apart from that, it’s downright illogical. Sugar was an expensive, imported luxury—think caviar—that only the wealthy could afford . . . not the sort of people who would be recycling packaging for dying their clothes. And given the amount of blue paper needed to soak before any color seeped into the water, someone would have to eat a mountain of sugar!

It is more likely that wrapping sugarloaves in blue paper, as opposed to white or brown or any other color, was simply a tradition that evolved in the Middle East. Sugar cultivation originated in Asia and spread through the Middle East to Europe. In certain North African and Middle Eastern countries, sugar is still sold today in grocery stores and marketplaces in large conical shapes wrapped in blue paper.

If they couldn’t afford sugar, what did average Americans use for sweeteners? Maple sugar, honey, molasses, or unrefined muscovado sugar. Or more likely, nothing.

Fortunately, thanks to Beth Chamberlain, I learned of my mistake and was able to rewrite the page just weeks before the book was published. Beth pointed me toward an 1835 household management book that mentions dying fabric with blue wrapping paper. While there is no evidence of this practice in early America (the 17th & 18th centuries), Beth noted that Lydia Maria Child’s American Frugal Housewife of 1835 mentions using “the purple paper which comes on loaf sugar, boiled in cider or vinegar with a small bit of alum, makes a fine purple slate color.” 

I immediately went to other mid-19th-century household management books and found another reference, Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s House-Book; a Manual of Domestic Economy (1850) that contained a chapter on domestic dyes and told how to make “a slate color” with “the thick purple paper that comes round sugar-loaves.” No doubt there are other mid-19th-century references. 

The question that immediately came to mind: Why then and not earlier? What had changed? Further research revealed a steep drop in the cost of sugar from the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth due to the expansion of Caribbean sugar plantations. The market was flooded with sugar. Prices plunged, bringing white sugar loaves, wrapped in their traditional purplish-blue paper (which had been something only the wealthy few could afford), within reach of most housewives for the first time. Domestic economy books aimed at the middle-class homemaker often pointed out economical ways to do things, and making homemade dyes would have been a useful skill, especially on the expanding frontier where access to stores was limited. 

So this myth turns out to be false when heard at early American sites and true for later, nineteenth-century sites. I modified Myth #49 accordingly. Another detail: those websites and museums that mention this myth usually say that the blue paper was used to dye fabric blue, when in actual references, the blue (or purplish-blue) paper resulted in a slate color. And many say that the blue paper was dyed with indigo, but Colonial Williamsburg’s expert on dyes, Max Hamrick, says it was most likely logwood.

As good luck would have it, Beth Chamberlain’s note arrived in the nick of time. A few more days and it would have been too late for me to modify this myth for Death by Petticoat. Readers like Beth are the strength of this blog–it’s given me the chance to preview things and make changes before going into the unforgiving medium of a printed book. I am grateful to all have chimed in with corrections and comments on various myths.


For the last word on blue paper dying, see the lengthy scholarly article by paper conservator Irene Bruckle, “The Historical Manufacture of Blue-colored Paper.”

Death by Petticoat: And now a word from our sponsor . . .

October 11, 2015

DeathByPetticoat_09.28It was three and a half years ago that Death by Petticoat was published by Colonial Williamsburg in partnership with Andrews-McMeel Publishers. Since then, to our surprise, it’s sold thousands of copies at bookstores all over the country. However, as a former manager of historic stores for Colonial Williamsburg, my favorite place to see it is on the shelves of museum shops, national park stores, and historic house gift shops. This is where it fits best, in my opinion–where it can make money for museum nonprofits. If you have a connection to any of those institutions, I would appreciate it if you would suggest that your shop consider carrying Death by Petticoat. It’s great retail ($12.95) makes it an impulse item, and it’s lovely color photographs on every page add to its appeal. Wholesalers can click above where it says To Order the Book for wholesale information. 

Of course, Death by Petticoat is available at bookstores and online at for those who want a copy. Click here. The myths featured in the book are shorter versions of the ones you read here on the blog, so they lack cites and quotations and much of the detail that appeal more to historians and museum professionals than to the general public. 

In the past three years, I’ve done 36 presentations at various museums, conferences, bookstores, libraries, teacher conferences, and history groups in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Florida, and, of course, Virginia. The next one will be Thursday, November 5 in western Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Ligonier Valley Historical Society. Tea at 5:00; illustrated lecture at 7:00. I hope anyone in the vicinity will check out the details at their website:

That’s my once-a-year advertisement. Now back to our regularly scheduled program . . . 

Debunking Our Past

August 5, 2015


I had a letter from Bob Lehr at Henrico County, Virginia, Recreation and Parks about a program they have created based on history myth–History Mythbusters: Debunking Our Past. Bob writes, “I have enjoyed reading your posts about myths and attended one of your lectures a while back. A few of my co-workers at Henrico Recreation and Parks are followers of your site as well.” Well, gosh, thanks! 

The program will be held at historic Walkerton Tavern on Friday August 21 at 7:00 PM. “Participants will rotate throughout the property and see scenarios based on several myths. They will try to determine if it is a myth or fact or somewhere in between. (Once you see some of these myths acted out in real life, it’s hard to believe that they could be true, but we will try to make some difficult to tell.) After about 6 or 7 stops, we will have a small reception, see how well they did, and hear some background on the myths. This program wouldn’t be possible without using information from your website so we will definitely give you credit. We hope you do not mind and also hope you could promote the program through your website.”  

Mind? I’m flattered. And I’d be there myself if I didn’t have a prior engagement at the Suffolk Mystery Authors festival that weekend. 

So if you live in the central Virginia area and are looking for something different on Friday night, August 21, check out the Walkerton Tavern myth busting event here:

Revisited Myth #2: Burning to death from their long petticoats catching fire was the leading cause of death for colonial American women, after childbirth.

January 25, 2014


Burning to death sounds gruesome, and there were certainly some instances where women died of burns when their long skirts, or petticoats, came too close to fire. And by today’s standards, childbirth did take a shocking toll on women right up until the twentieth century.

      But historians who have studied death records from the first couple centuries of American history have determined that the leading cause of death for both men and women during this era was disease. The Death by Petticoat myth is a huge exaggeration (although it certainly made a great title for my book!) How did the myth come about? DAR Curator Alden O’Brien speculates that “the horrific nature of the accident may have made the rare incidents more famous and memorable, making them stick in people’s minds and seeming more common.” 

     Julie H. who works at a living history museum in the Valley of Virginia points to a possible origin of this myth, “a page in an 1850s Godey’s Lady Book magazine, telling ladies to be careful around fires. The sheer cotton dress became all the rage in the 1850s, and was worn by non-working-class people (i.e., women who had a servant or slave tending the fire for them since a young age). Godey’s warns that some young ladies burned to death, because they got their sheer cottons too close to the fire, and it caught. They didn’t seem to know Stop, Drop, & Roll at the time, so as the ladies threw open the door to run outside, the gust of air that greeted them fed the fire its much needed oxygen, and made the lady go up in flame more quickly.”       

    Several readers wrote to say that their great-great grandmother or some ancestor burned to death when her clothing caught fire. No one doubts this happened. Men and children also died when their clothing caught fire; sometimes the burn was relatively minor but the infection killed them (pre-penicillin). Often such incidents involved alcohol. Julie H. wrote, “Our museum did some research on death-by-petticoats, and found a few instances of women catching on fire and dying. Two of the women were drunk and fighting each other. Another came home drunk and passed out in the fire. Visitors liked the truth more than the myth!”     

     Skirts made of natural fibers (linen, cotton, wool) do not catch fire that easily. Several readers who work in costume around hearth fires or candles wrote of occasions when a hem or sleeve came too close to a flame and the fabric smoldered or became singed. Their clothing did not burst into flame, as some man-made fabrics today do. In the 1970s when polyester became widely available, many museums began using these cheaper, “improved” fabrics for their historical costumes. They soon switched back. Polyester brought several unexpected problems, one of which was its tendency to melt or burn very quickly when it came into contact with candle flame, hearth fires, or camp fires. Traditional fabrics–cotton, linen, and wool–do not easily burst into flame, which is probably why there were not more instances of death by petticoat.


     What about the other claim–that childbirth was the leading cause of death for women? Poor records make it difficult to quantify deaths in childbirth. A recent study of 17th-century Plymouth (Catherine Scholten, Childbearing in American Society 1650-1850) says fewer than 20% of women died in childbirth. (NB: that is not 20% of births killed the mother–a woman might, like Martha Jefferson, have 6 children and die after the 6th). The author also mentions Maine midwife Martha Ballard who, from 1778-1812, wrote in her diary that she delivered 996 babies and lost 4 mothers. The Rev. Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, tracked childbirth deaths from 1760-1764 and found that 900 women had 1600 babies during those years and 10 women died. These are all snapshots, of course, but they do suggest that women were not dying in childbirth at rates that would have made it the leading cause of death. 

 Conclusion: disease was the leading cause of death for women in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, not burning petticoats or childbirth. 

A New Year’s Request

January 2, 2014


We pause in our regularly scheduled programming for a commercial. A request, actually.

If you have read DEATH BY PETTICOAT, would you please take a few minutes to post an honest review on The same review can also be posted at Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, or any other site where books are reviewed. It doesn’t have to be something that would impress your English teacher–a couple sentences would be terrific. I am told that the number of reviews a book has is important in driving sales. If you’ve never done this before, all you do is go to the book’s page–

–scroll down until you see the Write A Customer Review button, click, and type. Many thanks.

Impressive Delaware Exhibit Fashioned after DEATH BY PETTICOAT

October 20, 2013


Who knew that DEATH BY PETTICOAT would have such a far-ranging reach? Certainly not I. But when I arrived in Odessa, Delaware, last week to speak at a museum conference on history myths, I discovered they had outfitted their 1772 Corbit-Sharp House for the fall season with a special exhibit drawn from my book! It was an impressive use of the information, with every room in this large colonial home (I can’t count how many rooms were in the basement, first floor, second and third floors) sporting 4-5 examples of myths that related to something in that room. “Beds were shorter back then because people were shorter” in one bedroom, or this one, above, about fire screens that were intended to save a lady’s makeup from melting, and so forth. Truly an inspiring exhibit! They told me it had been one of their most popular exhibits. And their information center had a second exhibit with myths painted on the walls that corresponded to antiques in display cases all around the room. 

“Discover some of the most persistent fabrications and embellishments in early American history!

Visitors to the Historic Odessa Foundation will explore myths repeated at museums and historical societies all across America… about people, their objects, and architecture. Through this informative exhibit the foundation seeks to discredit and discourage the retelling of tall tales like…houses didn’t have closets in colonial days because people wanted to avoid paying the closet tax… beds were shorter because people slept sitting up…Venetian blinds were invented in Venice…just to name a few!

Please join us for this insightful look at the myths that have made very appealing stories for generations but are completely false…and… share with us the myths you may heard when visiting other cultural institutions.”

 I never in a million years imagined anything like this would come from my book. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, because when I was visiting Durham, North Carolina in August, Historic Stagville had done something similar. They’d taken their colonial-era house and fashioned a handout for a self-guided tour that took you through it on a history myths tour. Some myths came from my book, like “Kitchens were built separate from the house so that if the kitchen burned down, at least the house didn’t burn as well.” Others were myths that pertained more to their own location, like “Plantation houses were big fancy homes with large porches and columns that look like the movie Gone With the Wind.” (Not Stagville, which is far more typical.) The handout was inexpensively produced but very professional, and I was very impressed. 

If you live within striking distance of Odessa, DE, do drive over for a look, before their Christmas exhibit takes out their fall exhibit on Oct. 31. Or contact these two excellent museums if you want more information or a sample of their handout–maybe you can do something similar at your own museum!

National Parks Employees–Advice Please?

March 30, 2013


I know many of the readers of this blog work for the National Parks as park rangers or in other capacities because I hear from many of you. Some of you have proposed myths for debunking, myths that you come across in your daily interaction with visitors. And others have provided information to assist with debunking certain myths. I appreciate the help very much, and wonder if you can help on something else: making DEATH BY PETTICOAT available to visitors/customers in your bookstores. 

Last year, when the book first came out, I sent a letter and sample to Eastern National in Philadelphia but had no response. I don’t know if it even arrived on the right desk. I honestly can’t imagine why this book would be unsuitable for National Parks bookstores, since it is related to the mission of the park service and deals with many myths heard or repeated at our national parks. It would seem a perfect fit.  I’m very proud of the book and it is selling well nationally: about 8,000 copies last year and it was only available for a few months. I think the retail of $12.95 makes it an easy item to pick up. It has been a good moneymaker for Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, and other nonprofit shops and would surely be a good moneymaker for the National Parks bookstores. 

Am I correct in thinking that all publications must be purchased through Eastern National, or can bookstore managers make their own decisions? Does anyone have any suggestions as to how I might proceed? If you want to e-mail me directly, I’m at 

Excuse the commercial, but I’m really clueless as to what to do here. Stay tuned for Myth #110 in a few days. 

DEATH has arrived!

June 11, 2012

As of this week, DEATH BY PETTICOAT: AMERICAN HISTORY MYTHS DEBUNKED is available at bookstores across the country. The book contains 63 myths, most of which are shortened forms of some of the myths I’ve posted on this blog over the past couple years, with a color illustration for each one. Published by Colonial Williamsburg with Andrews-McMeel Press, it retails for $12.99. That’s a great price for an impulse item like this, and it’s also a good gift idea. At my lecture and book signing last week, several people bought two and one woman bought six!

A request, please. This book is a natural for gift shops at museums, national parks, historic houses, or battlefield parks, so if you have any connection to these, I’d appreciate it if you would point them to this blog and this book. It’s available to shops from all the major wholesale book distributors. And the next time you visit your local public library, in person or online, please request that they purchase DEATH BY PETTICOAT so lots of people can have access to it. Most libraries have a request process whereby card holders can ask the library to consider purchasing a particular book. Then you can read it for free!

Meanwhile, I’m collecting myths for Book Two, so keep those suggestions coming. I don’t have enough yet, but I’m getting close.   

Debunking Books and a Book on Debunking

January 29, 2012

It isn’t just history myths that need debunking. Now and then, books do too. Here’s a list I thought you’d enjoy of  the “10 Bestselling Books That Were Later Debunked” and why.  Were you taken in by any of them?

News flash:

DEATH BY PETTICOAT: AMERICAN HISTORY MYTHS DEBUNKED is now available for reviewers on The book itself won’t be in bookstores until June 5. 

If anyone has a connection to a publication that might run a review of the book, I’d appreciate it if you’d consider writing one. The publisher has given permission for reviewers to excerpt up to 3 myths of their choice, if that makes it easier (I think it does!) Actual hard copies of the book will be available for reviewers in a couple months, and if you’d like to have one, send your name and address directly to my email at and tell me where your review would appear, and I’ll forward the information to the publisher.

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