Revisited Myth # 111: Orange dye was added to American cheese during the Civil War to differentiate between Northern-made cheese and Southern.

February 12, 2017

Pat McMillion of Burritt on the Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama, wrote, “The cheese monger at our local Publix told me today that the only difference between white and yellow American cheese is that dye is added…. ever since the Civil War when dye was added to tell the difference between cheese produced in the north and cheese produced in the south. That really sounded mythical to me, but I haven’t found any substantiation on the web. Is that a myth, legend or truth?”

Well, Pat, you have stumbled into one of my deepest secrets with this question. I will now have to confess that for three years after I graduated from college, I sold cheese for Kraft Foods in Cleveland, Ohio. (It was a recession, for heaven’s sake, so I was lucky to have a job at all!) Kraft sent me to cheese factories to learn all about processed cheese, white cheese, orange cheese, Cheez Whiz, Velveeta, and every sort of cheese, and I can personally assure you that American cheese (aka processed cheese) was not around during the Civil War.

J. L. Kraft invented American cheese and started producing it in 1915; he got the patent in 1916. It was originally sold in tins and was white. Because it was the middle of World War I, the Army bought up lots and shipped it to our soldiers in Europe, because it didn’t need refrigeration. Yum!!!

Later, I don’t know when exactly, orange color was added, but this old advertisement dates from the Twenties, and it shows that it was orange by then.

Thanks go to Deanna Berkemeier, who sent in documentation of cheese coloring prior to the American Civil War. Cheese makers did sometimes add color (and other things) to their products, for instance, “a yellow tint is given by annatto, marigolds, or carrots.” See more examples below. There is no evidence that this had anything to do with North/South production. 


April 20, 2013 at 9:05 am (Edit)
Thank you SO much for this answer. I’ll take it to the cheese monger today!! How fortuitous that you have first hand information. I have been spreading your messages about historic myths ever since I found your site over a year ago. You always get the credit and advertising for your wonderful book when I do a program on historic myths. Now, folks come to me to ask if things are true. Between you and Snopes I can usually burst some pretty egregious myths and urban legends. I will be coming to CW this summer to introduce my grandson to my love of history. I would love to meet you and thank you in person for the excellent research. Hugs, Pat McMillion Burritt on the Mountain Huntsville, Alabama

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:10 am (Edit)
Thanks, Pat. Just let me know when you are in Williamsburg and I’ll try to meet you.

opusanglicanum says:
April 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
orange dye is added to cheap cheese in the uk to make it look more appetising – its meant to immitate the classic red liecester – it also fools the pallete into thinking the cheese tastes cheesier. It’s been around for a long time, since victorian times at least. I grew up knowing that orange cheese was cheap and nasty, so never ate it.

I’ve heard about velveeta, it sounds disgusting

Greg says:
April 26, 2013 at 1:36 am (Edit)
At the Tillamook cheese factory in Oregon they will tell you that natural cheddar cheese comes out in various shades of white. While this is not related to quality, they started adding orange color so that it would have a consistent color. People thought that the less white batches meant the cheese had gone bad.,

Deanna Berkemeier says:
April 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm (Edit)
I’ve never heard this myth before, but I think you may have missed the point on this. It’s all in the way you read the question. Perhaps the cheese-monger did indeed mean “American cheese”, however there was a lot of “American” cheese made before the Civil War, because all kinds of Americans made cheese. American of the time referring to as opposed to European imports. Some people did color cheese to make it look richer. I have found many negative references to it, such as (paraphrased) you would not thank the farmer for coloring your milk, so why thank him for coloring your cheese? Many of these references are pre-Civil War, so I think the answer is still no. But is there any correlation to coloring cheese at a greater rate to differentiate between north and south? I’ve never looked into it, but I also doubt it.

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:02 pm (Edit)
In all fairness, Velveeta isn’t exactly disgusting, it’s okay when melted in a grilled cheese sandwich or sliced on a hamburger, but I’d not be interested in eating it plain or on a cracker.
We can discuss the meaning of the words “American cheese.” Today it means processed “cheesefood,” a dairy product that is cheese cooked and “processed” so it lasts longer without getting moldy. Good news for soldiers in WWI. Americans made cheese during the Civil War of course, but that isn’t what we’re talking about. I’d be interested in your pre-Civil War primary accounts to coloring cheese, as I can’t imagine why anyone would color their own homemade cheese.

Deanna Berkemeier says:
April 21, 2013 at 12:35 am (Edit)
I understand that “American cheese” today means a processed cheese food. But my point is that since I have only seen those processed cheesefoods in a grocery store and not being sold by an actual cheese-monger who would naturally scoff at a cheesefood even being considered actual cheese, I wonder if the cheese-monger was actually referring to American made natural cheeses being colored yellow rather than being left white. As opposed to European cheeses which are generally left their natural color.
Again, I am not saying that he is correct in any way regarding north vs south. Nor am I saying that what we call American cheese today was around for the Civil war.
I guess that being a cheesemaker of both modern and historic methods, when I read the question that was originally sent in, I understood the question as being the greater one of white vs. orange of American cheese -not the processed stuff- and it crossed my mind that as much reading as I have done on the subject, I have no idea if coloring cheese was related in any way to anything other than making one person or company’s cheese look “richer” than another’s. Higher fat content (richness) makes cheeses appear more yellowish, sometimes deepening to an orange-ish cast. Definitely not annatto orange, but orange-ish nonetheless. People did color cheese (and butter!) with the juice of carrot scrapings, pot marigold petals, and annatto that they purchased in order to make their product more appealing. It was a marketing ploy.
And I’d be more than happy to share some cheese coloring documentation with you. Being a historic cook and a dairy farmer’s wife, dairy is my thang! 🙂

Mary Miley says:
April 21, 2013 at 9:20 am (Edit)
Thanks Deanna–always good to hear from an expert. Do you know more about coloring cheese during the 1860s? Something that might have given rise to this idea of North vs South? I presume they made more cheese in the North, because of the greater proliferation of small farms and dairying than in the South, which probably imported cheese from the North (as they did so many foods).

opusanglicanum says:
April 23, 2013 at 3:11 am (Edit)
I think disgusting is relative – I seem to have been born a cheese snob, since I could never stomach any kind of processed cheese, specially not that yellow dairy based plastic they put on burgers. When I was a child I’d go round to friends houses and thier parents would offer me processed cheese then look at me like i had two heads when I politely inquired as to whether they had a nice mature cheddar? Its my dad;s fault, he used tot ake me to the wensleydale creamery

Melissa Nesbitt says:
April 20, 2013 at 5:21 pm (Edit)
The “scary” thing to me is that I can keep processed American cheese in the fridge a lot longer than other cheeses. Mary can you divulge the secret about that? 😉 (Preservatives and additives I’m sure, but since you mentioned a patent…) P.S. I worked for an insurance company in their marketing department prior to my launch into my museum career. Whatever it took to pay the student loans, right?

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:06 pm (Edit)
Thank you, Melissa, for being so understanding. 🙂 And I can’t divulge any secrets without torture. Of course, eating Cheez Whiz could be considered torture . . .

Roger Fuller says:
April 20, 2013 at 8:32 pm (Edit)
Here’s probably how it happened: a mainstream Civil War reenactor at a Civil War reenactment got caught by the public eating modern cheese product. Trying to squirm his way out of it, he made up some story about cheese dye. That’s how a lot of these urban legends get started, and with nobody to challenge them, they get told so often, they become “true”.

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:07 pm (Edit)
I’m with you, Roger.

Katherine Louise says:
April 22, 2013 at 2:41 pm (Edit)
One cold and rainy day at Plimoth Plantation, Mrs Standish went across the street to visit Mrs Winslow. We drank tea before the fire and got to talking about favorite childhood treats, like bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. Foolishly, we decided to make some then and there–few 20th century folk were about the village on such a day, surely no one would come in–but of course a visitor arrived and exclaimed, “Oh, I loved bread, butter, and sugar when I was a child–I didn’t know the Pilgrim’s ate it too!” Mrs Winslow and I were mortified and tried to salvage the situation (and our reputations) by saying it was a rare treat–sugar was expensive, came all the way from England, and what a dreadful day it was for travelling. Roger is absolutely right about how these stories get started!

Mary Miley says:
April 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm (Edit)
Absolvo te. 🙂 (Mercy, I’ve done much worse in my day!)

Deanna Berkemeier says:
May 26, 2013 at 9:54 pm (Edit)
I apologize for it taking me a month to get back to you with some of my cheese coloring documentation you asked for. Chalk it up to preparations for my daughter’s upcoming wedding and our site opening for the season. I do not see an email address to send it to you privately and I hate to post it here, but I will try as a reply in hopes your moderation will catch it. The formatting did not stay, but if you read through each paragraph you will find references to coloring or not coloring cheese. Please note the source dates. Looking quickly, I saw nothing in my files that referenced anything related to coloring in the North vs. South at all. You will also find references to “American cheese” below, but as I noted before, American cheese in the 19th century was a natural cheese and in no way related to any processed cheesefood of today.

The following are some of my collected references to coloring cheese in the 19th century: Researched by Deanna Berkemeier

“If it is required to have the cheese of a Gloucester color, take Spanish anatto, rub a lump in a saucer with milk, a little experience will teach the quantity necessary for a cheese ; then mix it with the rest of the milk, when it is set for cheese. One ounce will cover four or five hundred pounds, and it is bought of the apothecaries. It is perfectly innocent, and I thought the cheese coloured with it, was higher flavoured ; this might have been owing to other causes.” Source: The BALANCE, and Columbian repository, Volume 5, For 1806 By Ezra Sampson, George Chittenden, Harry Croswell p. 260-261

“The practice of coloring cheese and butter, we think, should be discouraged; who would thank a milk man to color his milk?” Source: The New England Farmer, and Horticultural Journal, July 13, 1831, Vol. 9, No. 52, 409.


The milk strained in large tubs over night; the cream stirred in milk, and in morning strained in same tub; milk heated to natural heat; add color and rennet; curd broke fine and whey off, and broke fine in hoop with fast bottom, and put in strainer; pressed twelve hours; then taken from hoop, and salt rubbed on the surface; then put in hoop, without strainer, and pressed forty-eight hours; then put on tables, and salt rubbed on surface, and remain in salt six days, for cheese weighing thirty pounds. The crushings are saved, and set and churned, to grease the cheese. The above method is for making one cheese per day.
Cooperstown, January, 1842.”

Page 428

Cheshire Cheese.—This cheese is famous for its rich quality and fine piquant flavor. It is made of entire new milk, the cream not being taken off. The cheeses are generally of very large size, usually about sixty pounds weight, and some have been made of one, or even two, hundred weight. Each cheese is- usually made of the produce of one day’s milking, from herds of from one to two hundred cows, who feed in rich pastures on some of the finest land in England. Their excellence must be attributed to the goodness of the milk, their size and age, and the skill employed in their manufacture. The color is not entirely natural; but a yellow tint is given by annatto, marigolds, or carrots. It is said, that some increase the richness and mellowness of the cheese by adding beef-suet, or any other wholesome and sweet fat well clarified, which is poured into and mixed with the curd.”

Source: The Farmer’s and Emigrant’s Hand-book: Being a Full and Complete Guide for the Farmer and the Emigrant. Comprising the Clearing of Forest and Prairie Land Gardening—farming Generally—farriery Cookery—and the Prevention and Cure of Diseases. With Copious Hints, Recipes, and Tables.; By Josiah T. Marshall, Author of the Emigrant’s True Guide.
Second Edition, Revised.; Publisher: Appleton, 1845

“Previously to commencing the process of making cheese, besides the milk, two materials must be ready for use—the rennet for coagulating the milk, and the substance for colouring the cheese, if the latter is to be employed.
The colouring of cheese is a general custom, but not a necessary operation ; annatto is chiefly employed for this purpose. The usual mode of application, is to dip a piece of the requisite weight in a bowl of milk, and rub it on a smooth stone, until the milk assumes a deep red colour. This infusion without the sediment, which Is separated by standing a little, is to be added to the milk of which cheese is intended to be made, in such quantity as will impart to the whole a bright orange colour. The addition of annatto In no way effects the smell or taste.”

“CHEESE, BRITISH PARMESAN. — Heat the day’s milk to a temperature of from seventy-five to seventy-seven degrees, and after it has settled, put in the rennet. When it has stood for an hour or more, place the coagulated milk on a slow clear fire, and heat it till thecurd separates of itself. When separated, throw in cold water to reduce the temperature, and quickly collect the curd in a cloth, gathering it up at the corners. When drained. Dress it as other cheese. Next day it will be firm enough to turn. Let it dry slowly and gradually, often (at first about every hour) changing the wrapping-cloths. Rub it with a little salt daily, for three weeks, or plunge it in pickle for a few days. The curd for this, or any other cheese, may be coloured with a little saffron, or annatto, by putting a tincture of them, extracted in milk, to the milk when to be curdled.” Source: The dictionary of daily wants By Robert Kemp Philp, 1866

“The American cheeses are the Pineapple, which is double the price of ordinary cheese, imitations of English Dairy, American Factory, and California cheese, which is only about half the weight and thickness of Eastern, and instead of being incased in a round wooden box like the Eastern, is handled loose or naked in the wholesale market. None of the American cheeses are classed among strong cheeses. They are good all the year round. The foreign varieties, or equally as good American imitations, may all be had in the larger cities, while excellent, if not the best, American factory cheese is obtainable everywhere. Sage cheese is made by the addition of bruised sage leaves to the curd, which imparts a greenish color and a flavor liked by many. Cream cheese is not properly a cheese, although so called, but is simply cream dried sufficiently to be cut with a knife. Cheese from milk and potatoes is manufactured in Thuringia and Saxony. Cheese may be had in small, round shapes, brickbats, the thin California cheeses, etc., as well as shaped in the ordinary large round hoop, or by the pound therefrom. All cheese, except the foreign skim-milk makes, contains more or less coloring matter, principally annatto, turmeric, or marigold, all perfectly harmless unless they are adulterated.”

“To make a plain family cream cheese, take three half pints milk to one-half pint cream, warm it and put in a little rennet; keep it covered in a warm place till it is curdled ; put the curds into the colander on a cloth to drain about an hour, serve with good plain cream and pounded sugar over it. To color, pound fresh sage leaves in a mortar to obtain the juice, and mix it with the milk while warm after the rennet is put in. Spinach juice is an improvement.”

Source: The new practical housekeeping: A compilation of new, choice and carefully tested recipes; 1890

Mary Miley says:
May 27, 2013 at 7:52 am (Edit)
Wow, thanks Deanna. Interesting reading, especially the pre-Civil War references.

What do you think?


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!

Katherine Keena

Program Manager

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.

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.

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?

Gregory Hubbard
Chatsworth, California

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.


Revisited Myth # 70: The Indians taught the Pilgrims how to pop corn at the first Thanksgiving.

November 27, 2016
from The Pilgrim's Party, Lowitz

from The Pilgrim’s Party, Lowitz

Another Thanksgiving myth would have us believe that the Indians taught the Pilgrims the magic of popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. It didn’t exactly happen that way, then or later.

While corn was ubiquitous in the Americas, that doesn’t mean the natives or the colonists popped it. First of all, not all corn pops. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that not all corn pops well, only the relatively few varieties that have hard, thick hulls. The type we eat has too thin a hull to contain the pressure necessary to cause a puffy explosion.

According to the Department of Agriculture, there is ample evidence that Native Americans in South America, Central America, and the southwestern part of the U.S. ate popcorn more than 2500 years ago. But no evidence exists for it in Massachusetts or Virginia or any of the Atlantic colonies. In the archives at Colonial Williamsburg there are letters going back to 1950, asking the historians that very question, and the answer has always been, “no references to popcorn in Virginia.” As for Massachusetts, the type of corn those Indians grew was the Northern Flint variety which does not pop well. And according to James W. Baker, vice president and chief historian for Plimoth Plantation, no trace of popcorn has been uncovered in regional archaeological excavations.

In his book Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (Smithsonian, 2001), food historian Andrew F. Smith traces the Pilgrims-and-popcorn myth to the 1880s, a time of heavy immigration when national myths were being created by magazines, newspapers, and school curricula to Americanize the newcomers. “Popcorn was sold in grocery stores, popped at fairs, and peddled at sporting events,” he writes of those years. Written references to popcorn seem to begin in the mid-19th century. The first known popcorn poem appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1853. It did not become commercially significant until the latter part of the 19th century. Look at this interesting advertisement from a magazine called the American Agriculturist, dated February 1866. It offers popcorn for sale as a novelty item. Regular local corn must not have popped well, because J. A. Hathaway imported this from Brazil and acclimated it in Cincinnati for two years. The company offers 150 grains for 25 cents, so you could grow your own. Get 6 to 15 ears to the plant!

But the popcorn myth is repeated endlessly in children’s textbooks, magazines, and newspapers. Andrew Smith calls it a “twice-told myth.” “Undocumented food stories are the grist of newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, and even works which purport to be true histories. Myths gain reality through repetition, and unfortunately, almost all modern food writers from James Beard to Waverly Root have colluded by repeating them.” He points to several popcorn myths that have no archaeological or historical evidence whatsoever: Columbus found popcorn in the Caribbean; American Indians attached religious significance to popcorn; colonial Americans ate popcorn as a snack; and Indians in what is today the eastern half of the United States ate popcorn in pre-Columbian times.

Revisited Myth # 69: The first Thanksgiving took place at Plymouth in 1621.

November 20, 2016


The heart-warming tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast and prayers at Plymouth never took place. More accurately, it is a combination of two events that did take place: a harvest feast that occurred in 1621 with about 90 Wampanoag Indians and a day of thanksgiving declared by William Bradford in 1623. The pious Pilgrims did not consider that feast to be a “thanksgiving,” which to them meant solemn day of prayer at church, not a harvest celebration or a meal shared with heathens. Historians believe they would not have combined the two events as we do today.

An annual Thanksgiving holiday wasn’t established until the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln made it official.

All this begs the question of where the real first Thanksgiving took place. There are other serious contenders, you know, including Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, where the settlers were specifically instructed to make the day of their arrival in 1619 a day of thanksgiving to be celebrated every year thereafter. But St. Augustine, Florida, may trump them both with its 1565 date. This is where the Spaniards celebrated with a Catholic mass and a fine meal with the Timucua Indians. And Texas believes it has claims on an earlier event. Now, now, children, no squabbling . . .

The truth is, there were many official days of prayerful thanksgiving in colonial America.


Previous comments:

informationforager says:
November 19, 2011 at 8:50 am (Edit)
Thanks for the info. I always like to find and realize real history. Mankind has such a propensity for misaligning the truth and making it totally self-serving. Recently I finished some books on the founding Fathers original religious views. That was very good. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

P.S. I’ve been to St. Augustine, Florida and it’s beautiful.

marymiley says:
November 19, 2011 at 9:55 am (Edit)
I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting St. Augustine but it’s definitely on my short list!

Jamie says:
November 19, 2011 at 11:51 am (Edit)
I believe George Washington also proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for Thurs, Nov. 26 in 1789 (see, more of day of prayer than a feast. My understanding is it didn’t quite catch on (and where it did was mainly in the North?) but set the stage for Lincoln’s national holiday, late in November (though, did I read that originally Lincoln’s holiday was the fourth Tuesday? and FDR moved it to third and later the fourthThursday?).

Saraspondence says:
November 21, 2011 at 4:07 am (Edit)
Thanks! I like the idea of multiple events in different geographical locations involving shared harvest and thanks to God!


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!

"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


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.

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.

Beth says:
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 […]

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?

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 # 100: After the 1890 McKinley tariff required imports to show country of origin, dishes from China were marked CHINA, which is why Americans came to call all dishes “china.”

September 25, 2016


Antiques dealer and auctioneer Martin Willis told me that he’d always believed this myth, one that he heard from his father decades ago, a man who was also in the auction business. Then he looked into it and learned it was false. He’s right on the money about that!

The story goes that in 1890, the McKinley Tariff established the requirement that all imports show their country of origin. Porcelain dinnerware was coming mainly from China and was marked accordingly. So far, so good. Here comes the myth in the punchline . . . So that’s why Americans refer to their dishes as “china,” because it said China on the back.

Americans do call plates, cups, and saucers “china” but not because of the McKinley Tariff. Historians find the word “china” in inventories from the 18th century. It became shorthand among early American settlers because much originated in China or was made in England to approximate Chinese wares, not because pieces were stamped CHINA.


Rosedown Plantation SHS says:
December 16, 2012 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Rosedownplantation’s Blog and commented:

Deb says:
December 21, 2012 at 12:13 pm (Edit)
Quite right. No good New Englander would fall for that one, I hope, since the fortunes of Salem and many other towns were founded on their importation of goods from the east including “Canton ware.” In fact there is a town in Massachusetts called Canton. Visit the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for much more….

Mary Miley says:
December 21, 2012 at 12:20 pm (Edit)
No good New Englander, perhaps, but plenty of auctioneers seem to fall for this one.

B.P. says:
June 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm (Edit)
You’ve introduced another myth. Americans do not call all dishes china. They call china china. Dishes that are not made of pocelain and ridiculously overpriced, well… they are called dishes

Mary Miley says:
June 7, 2013 at 2:49 pm (Edit)
I stand by my original generalization. Americans call their dishes china. As in “my everyday china” for earthenware, for example.

Candace says:
March 22, 2015 at 11:52 pm (Edit)
Thank you B. P.
Also, no offense, but this is stupid.

OK, so it’s not called China because it is “stamped China”. But according to your own argument against the myth, most if this type of tableware was produced in and imported from China. Hence, “china”. You even point out that what England produced was an effort to compete in that market by making their own tableware “like” what China was producing. It would be of more interest to know if porcelain table ware “originated” in China. At any rate, table ware that comes from China would be china, same as Champaign is so called because it is a product of Champaign, France. And, no doubt, the first country to produce it at least to gain notoriety fir it. If it is not produced in Champaign, it may be a similar product but it is not called Champaign. It is called sparkling wine. So a product that is similar to the Chinese product but not made in China, is not really china. It is fine porcelain tableware, made elsewhere. Porcelain tableware made in Canton, England would not be true china. Understanding this, it is redundant to say “fine” china. Chinaware, by it’s nature is fine. If someone is of the opinion that the tableware from England is finer, then they should call it “fine porcelain” from England, not china. I’m thinking THAT would be wherein the “myth” lies.
They could call it “england”, but that just sounds weird. And, finer or not, it is a knockoff, a copy if something China, perhaps, is credited for introduce to us.


Revisited Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.

July 2, 2016

Park Ranger Kevin Hanley wrote: “Outside of the 9 to 5 job, I’m a trustee for a historic Dutch house in Brooklyn. As part of my research into Dutch stuff, I’ve come repeatedly upon a reference to the Dutch use of popcorn. According to the texts, the Dutch didn’t know what to make or do with popcorn. Dutch wives apparently improvised and, supposedly, placed the popcorn in a bowl and added milk. Viola! The first cereal – or so it is claimed. Can you verify or bust this myth?”

This is a tough nut to crack. First, it’s terribly illogical. Pour milk on popcorn and it becomes a soggy glop. (I’ve tried.) Searching for historical underpinnings to this myth yields nothing in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, but see Myth #70–popcorn doesn’t become significant until the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was not something Indians introduced at the Pilgrim’s harvest feast we now call Thanksgiving. 

There is at least one somewhat historical mention of eating popcorn with milk, and it comes in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, page 32-33, a book set in the late 1850s but written in the 1930s. The author mentions that young Almonzo (who would become her husband) liked popcorn and milk. “You can fill a glass to the brim with milk and fill another glass of the same size brim full of popcorn, and then you can put all the popcorn kernel by kernel into the milk and the milk will not run over. You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go into the same place. Then, too, they are good to eat.” Of course, she also repeats the myth about Indians and Pilgrims and popcorn at Thanksgiving, so she is not wholly reliable. Even if we take her words at face value, she isn’t talking about breakfast cereal; she talking about a science experiment that tastes good.


The first packaged, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals were invented in the 1870s and made of oats and wheat. Cereal took a turn for the better in the early years of the twentieth century when the Kellogg brothers accidentally invented wheat flakes and corn flakes. None of these cereal pioneers used popcorn, presumably because it doesn’t work well. That doesn’t mean no one ever ate popcorn with milk, but it doesn’t seem to have been common or popular enough to call it the “first breakfast cereal.” 


12 Responses to Myth # 91: Popcorn was the first breakfast cereal.
Jean says:
June 30, 2012 at 7:33 am (Edit)
Thanks for pointing out that the Little House series is not reliable as historical fact. We need to keep in mind that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were written decades after the experiences. The books were also heavily edited by Rose Wilder Lane, Laura & Almanzo’s daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, the series is wonderful. There are working historians who trace their start interest in the Little House books!

Keep straightening us out with this blog!


marymiley says:
June 30, 2012 at 8:41 am (Edit)
Thank you, Jean. I’m straightening myself out with this blog too!Lots of things I assumed were true, I’ve found are not, and some things I thought sounded fishy turned out to be true!

As for the Little House books, yes they are WONDERFUL and inspiring, but that doesn’t mean they are historically perfect. The American Girl series is great too, but perhaps not as engaging because it isn’t “real.”

Pamela Toler (@pdtoler) says:
June 30, 2012 at 10:37 am (Edit)
I can’t speak to when popcorn was first used as a breakfast cereal, but I know my grandfather poured milk on left over popcorn and ate it for breakfast.

marymiley says:
June 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm (Edit)
I’m sure it happened on occasion. Popcorn seems traceable back to the mid-19th century. But since there isn’t any evidence for widespread practice of eating it with milk for breakfast, I’d hesitate to call it the first breakfast cereal. It does seem clear that it was not a colonial Dutch practice.

Keith Doms says:
July 4, 2012 at 9:16 am (Edit)
I remember reading about popcorn being used as a breakfast cerial by the Colonests in the World Book Encyclopedia Young Persons set in the the late 1960s.


Sei Paulson says:
May 16, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
Could it possibly have been “parched” corn? A recipe for parched corn is included in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden (originally published as “Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians,” 1917). It’s a little like modern corn nuts, in that the corn poofs out. I imagine in milk it would be a little like corn puffs.

Mary Miley says:
May 17, 2013 at 7:39 am (Edit)
How interesting! That’s a new idea for me, anyway. How does one make parched corn? I always assumed parched corn was just dried corn, but evidently not.

Sei Paulson says:
May 17, 2013 at 6:06 pm (Edit)
You sort of… roast it on a griddle? I don’t know, I’ve always wanted to try it. ^_^

deb mcintyre says:
March 31, 2014 at 11:09 pm (Edit)
We often ate popcorn in milk with a spoon, but as an after supper snack. My grandpas family (who had this tradition) originally came from New York state – just like Almanzo!

pavan inr levels creator says:
July 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm (Edit)
I learned about this in grade school. The Native Americans probably did this. They were geniuses with corn.

Sally says:
July 23, 2015 at 7:59 am (Edit)
My mother ate warm buttered popcorn with milk on it. She acquired this tradition from her father (b abt 1872 in NH). Said it was like Oyster Stew—a salty butter in milk flavor.

Mary Miley says:
July 23, 2015 at 8:12 am (Edit)
Have you ever tried that? Wouldn’t it turn to soggy slop instantly? I tried it once and that’s what happened. Maybe my “recipe” wasn’t the same as your mom’s!


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