Revisited Myth #120: Using X for “kiss” comes from illiterate people signing a document and kissing their signature.

May 22, 2017

The myth says that the use of using X to mean “kiss” began in the Middle Ages, when most people were unable to read or write. Documents were often signed using an X. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfill obligations specified in the document. The X and the kiss eventually became synonymous.

Sounds like a myth, but it’s true. Using a cross as a signature has been common since the Middle Ages. The X is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ and it was used as an abbreviation for that word–hence Xmas for Christmas. To kiss your mark indicated a sworn signature, like swearing an oath.

So why does O mean hugs? I couldn’t find a thing about that, but I believe O came much more recently as the logical accompaniment to X because of its association in “noughts and crosses” or Tic-tac-toe, the ancient game that uses Xs and Os.


Revisited Myth # 37: Since most people were illiterate, shop signs had to have pictures instead of words.

February 2, 2015
Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Photo courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

While this may have been true in medieval Europe, the statement does not hold up for colonial America.

Colonial shop signs and inn signs with pictures were no doubt helpful to people who couldn’t read, but they were not used because of mass illiteracy. The overwhelming majority of white colonists were literate. (The overwhelming majority of blacks were not.) Percentages changed over time and vary from colony to colony or state to state, and the principle way to ascertain literacy is by using a signature as evidence, even though it is certain that some people could write their names but not read or write much else, and others could read but not write their names. 

Studies of specific areas give estimates for specific time periods. One study examined legal documents in the second half of the seventeenth century and found that about 60% of the white men and 25% of the white women could read. Another shows that in the Williamsburg area in the middle of the eighteenth century, 94% of white males and 56% of white females could read. In general, the evidence strongly suggests that nearly all property owners and heads of households in Virginia in the late colonial period were literate. In New England, literacy rates were higher than elsewhere because there were more schools and nearly everyone learned to read so that they could read the Bible. There are no reliable estimates of black literacy for the colonial period that I am aware of–please forward anything you might know about! Prior to the Civil War in the mid-nineteenth century, about 10% of blacks could read. After Reconstruction and the efforts of the Freedman’s Bureau, that number had risen to 30%.

Wealth and gender were the strongest predictors of literacy–no surprise there!

Simplifying the studies into one sentence, I would say that around the time of the American Revolution, about two thirds to 90% of white males could read, and about half to two thirds of white women. The pictures-on-the-shop-signs claim is a myth. But putting pictures or symbols on a shop sign was tradition and they certainly are eye-catching, so that probably explains their continued popularity.  

To read more on this topic, see

Revisited Myth #33: It was against the law to teach African-Americans, enslaved or free, to read and write.

November 9, 2014
Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Photo courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Well . . . it depends on the colony (or the state) and the year.

During the colonial period in Virginia, no laws prohibited teaching slaves to read. In fact, Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian minister, worked hard to bring books and education to Virginia slaves in the middle of the 1700s. Not only was it legal, there were some free schools set up to teach African-American children. In Williamsburg, Virginia, Mrs. Ann Wager operated a school for black children from 1760 until her death in 1774. A widowed teacher, she was hired to instruct young slave children by the Bray Associates, a group of English philanthropists who paid the expenses. The Bray School, as it was called, existed specifically to “instruct Negro Children in the Principles of the Christian Religion.”

There were other Bray Schools, one in Philadelphia that Benjamin Franklin praised for its good work. Nor were its students limited to boys, as was the case down the street at Williamsburg’s all-white, all-male College of William and Mary. The Bray Associates anticipated that girls would be taught as well as boys, and directed the hiring of a female teacher. “As tis probable that Some of Each Sex may be sent for Instruction, The Associates are therefore of the opinion that a Mistress will be preferable to a Master, as she may teach the Girls to Sew knit, &c. as well as all to read & say their Catechism. They think 30 Children or thereabout will Sufficiently employ one person.” Notice they thought that the girls could learn what the boys were learning, plus sewing and knitting!

Enrollment lists show that most students at the Bray School were enslaved, however, a few free black children also attended the classes which were held in Mrs. Wager’s home. The Bray School was one of several such establishments in the American colonies set up for educating African-American children. A Virginia churchman noted in 1750 that he sometimes visited three schools for blacks in his parish and hoped there would be one in every parish in the colony. Even so, the majority of slaves received no schooling at all.

But colonies differed. In colonial South Carolina, teaching a slave to write was made illegal in 1740, the year after the Stono Rebellion. Georgia passed a similar law in 1755. Teaching them to read was not specifically outlawed, since writing was the worry. Slaves who could write could communicate plans for rebellion more easily. But in most colonies, north and south, educating slaves was up to the owner.

During the 19th century, most Southern states passed laws prohibiting the education of African Americans, whether slave or free. In 1831, the Nat Turner uprising so frightened slaveholders everywhere that a slew of new laws were enacted to clamp down on slave activities. One of those laws prohibited teaching African Americans to read and write so they could not easily communicate to plan rebellion. In 1833 Alabama tried to cover all bases with its law that fined anyone who taught a slave or free person of color to read, write, or spell. Nonetheless, before this date and after it, there were many examples of literate African Americans, although never a great percentage. As historian Linda Rowe writes, education was considered by some to be “an instrument of conversion to Christianity for slaves,” and for that reason, encouraged.

Interestingly, in The Grandees of Government: Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia (2013), historian Brent Tarter debunks a pervasive myth. “A few months before the [Nat Turner] rebellion the [Virginia] assembly made it a criminal offense for any person to receive a salary for instructing enslaved people how to read and write, and it also made it a criminal offense for ‘any white person or persons’ to ‘assemble with free negroes or mulattoes, at any school-house, church, meeting-house, or other place for the purpose of instructing such free negroes or mulattoes to read or write.’ The state’s laws did not, as popularly believed, make it illegal for people to teach their own property to read and write.” So in Virginia, at least, state law did not prevent a master from educating his own slaves.

Before the Civil War, historians estimate that about 10% of African Americans could read. Immediately after the war, that number jumped to 30% as freed slaves, young and old, rushed to learn.

Generally speaking, teaching African Americans to read and write was usually legal in the colonies and American states before 1830. After that, it was usually illegal.

Myth #4 Revisited: When men smoked, they often shared the same white clay pipe. For sanitary reasons, they would break off the tip before passing on the pipe.

October 28, 2012

While attending a conference for museum professionals in Annapolis, MD, recently, I learned something new about broken pipe stems that requires an addition to Myth #4. I learned from Tony Lindauer, Anne Arundel County archaeologist, that men did sometimes break off the tip of the pipe stem, although certainly not for sanitary reasons. Tony explained that as the hot, tar-filled tobacco smoke is sucked up the stem, it cools a little, and when it gets to the moist mouth, it cools significantly and solidifies. Soon a deposit of tar builds up inside the pipe stem near the mouth, blocking the bore. So a smoker might, indeed, need to break off an inch or so of the clogged tip to continue smoking. I’ve modified Myth #4 accordingly, as follows:

      “. . . and that’s why archaeologists find so many bits of broken pipe stems in so many excavations.” 

      Well, it certainly makes sense to us today, with our knowledge of germs and the spread of disease.  But early Americans didn’t know about germs, and so it would not have occurred to them that sharing the same pipe was unsanitary.  Yet this myth has survived for decades, probably since someone applied modern logic to understand why historical archaeologists were unearthing thousands of bits of broken pipe stems. 

       And the real reason? The long slender stems of white clay pipes are fragile, as anyone who has handled a reproduction carelessly can attest.  Why did they make them so long then? They needed to be long so that the heat from the burning tobacco in the bowl of the pipe would not be conducted as far as the lips. Our forefathers did share pipes–and drinking vessels for that matter–but no one broke off the end for sanitary reasons. But there was one reason that might have prompted a colonial smoker to break off a small piece of pipe stem. Maryland archaeologist Tony Lindauer explains that as the hot, tar-filled tobacco smoke is sucked up the stem, it cools a little, and when it gets to the moist mouth, it cools significantly and solidifies. Eventually a deposit of tar builds up inside the pipe stem near the mouth, blocking the bore. So a smoker might, indeed, need to break off an inch of the clogged tip to continue smoking, rather than get a new pipe.        

How are Myths Perpetuated?

September 24, 2011

I can give a partial answer to this question by telling you about two events that occurred last week.

On a September weekend in Alexandria, Virginia, my husband and I joined a walking tour of the Old Town. The tour was led by a man I assumed to be a volunteer. Within the first hour, he had repeated three myths: that childbirth was the leading cause of death among women (Myth #2), that all the rocks in the streets came from ballast (Myth #54), and that the kitchen was separated from the main house because they burned down all the time (Myth #53). There may have been more to come, but after an hour had passed and we hadn’t managed to move farther than half a block, we concluded that we could accomplish more walking by ourselves. We slipped away.  

More alarming was the 5th grade textbook that I was asked to review last fall by Virginia’s Department of Education. Maybe you remember this subject in the newspapers at that time–a history professor at William and Mary had noticed in her daughter’s 4th grade textbook a number of serious errors about the Civil War, including such things as the incorrect number of states in the Confederacy and the large number of black soldiers fighting with Stonewall Jackson. Oooops. So the state decided to look more closely into the publisher’s 5th grade textbook as well, and I was the person who reviewed it. What I found was appalling. Not mere differences of opinion, which happens among historians, or shades of emphasis, but factual errors, such as Queen Elizabeth sent settlers to found Jamestown in 1607 (quite a feat since she died in 1603) and Cyrus McCormick’s young grandson was there on the day the reaper was tested (Cyrus McCormick was 22 when he tested his reaper–no grandchildren yet!). Spelling mistakes, such as  Mississipi, Washinton, Lousiana Purchase, Lousianna Purchase, governement, developement, ammendment, seccession, neccesary, weathy,  seperate, and astronmer. Grammatical errors, such as “Each country believed that their culture was superior to the others.”  Faulty maps: No, the battle of Vicksburg did not take place in Virginia, and Forts Duquesne and Necessity (misspelled Neccesity) were not in Ohio.  Not to mention punctuation, repetition, and wrongly numbered pages. Adding insult to injury, the book repeated many myths, including some of our favorites from this blog, such as  “Wigmakers made those all-important head toppers, since it was the style in the 1700s for most men to wear wigs” (Myth # 40).  “Very few people in colonial America could read . . .” (Myth #37). “Continental soldiers, some shooting bullets made from their own melted-down pewter spoons and plates, captured 6,000 Hessian and British soldiers . . .”  (Myth #39). “Every single American died [at the Alamo], but the Mexicans lost the fight a few weeks later . . .” (Myth #62). At the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, “a military band played a song called The World Turned Upside Down.”  (I haven’t gotten to that one yet.)

I’m pleased to say that I had the chance to see the revised textbook a few weeks ago and all but two of the mistakes I had found were corrected. (I presume they’ll handle those on the next go-round. ) And the publisher pledged to replace all the mistake-filled books, so all’s well that ends well.  Here’s a link to the newspaper announcement that the books have been approved.

Does anyone else have personal examples of how myths are spread?

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