Revisited Myth #132: A shot glass was originally a small glass filled with lead buckshot to use as a pen holder.October 15, 2017
Revisited Myth # 129: Punched patterns on tin lanterns varied by family so people could tell who was moving about outside at night.September 16, 2017
First, the practical. Experiments revealed that it would be impossible to discern a particular pattern of tin lanterns at any distance. S. West reports “I just now performed an experiment with index cards, a hole punch, and a flashlight. In a dark room, if you can see the difference in the patterns – as the dots shine on the walls. However, outside, on the streets the light pattern would not be clear. Also, the more intricate the patterns, the more difficult it would be to tell them apart when looking at the lantern lit up from across the street.” E. Duval writes, “I’m dubious of the tin lantern theory. I work at Conner Prairie, a living history museum in Indiana where we frequently use these lanterns at night. Candles really don’t give off enough light to make the pattern punched into the lantern distinguishable from far distances. By the time you got close enough to see the pattern, you’d also be able to see the person’s face.”
Sarah Uthoff checked with her contacts and reports: Kitty Hillman Latané, a historic tinsmith, wrote, “I’d never heard the ‘family pattern’ thing about tin punching, though plaids and knit patterns have a tradition of family patterns. Here’s what Shay Lelegren, a historical tinsmith at Hot Dip Tin, told me. ‘That story being told in Nauvoo had made its way to Utah and I was asked about it many times in my Tinshop in Salt Lake. There is no documentary evidence to it. None of the museum pieces in the Utah Pioneer museums have patterns. In fact original punched tin lanterns I looked at have more holes than repros. Some have 90% of the body punched. I believe the story was invented by the gift shop industry. . . . In both sites they are volunteers serving a 2-year mission and they are telling the stories they have been taught by the generations before. The Nauvoo Tin shop was set up the late 1970 and has never been a working shop (only narrated) . . . The tinware on display is all repro.'”
Another wrinkle: how would the “family pattern” continue into the next generation? Which son or daughter’s family would “inherit” the family pattern? And Mormon families are so big and interconnected, it would become impossibly confusing.
I think we can judge the “family pattern” tin lantern a myth. Thanks to all the blog readers who helped with observations and information!
Revisited Myth #128: A “chin protector” strip sewn across the edge of a quilt to protect against the oils of grandpa’s beard, and this is evidence of a very old quilt.August 27, 2017
General agreement from blog readers says that it doesn’t take a beard to create stains on the top edge of a quilt. Hands and faces can do damage easily, which is why a bed properly made folds the top sheet over the blanket or quilt–sheets being frequently laundered and blankets/quilts not so much. After reading the following comments by experts, we can safely conclude that most of this statement is fact, just not the part about the strip being useful in dating the quilt.
Observation indicates that the extra border, a cuff covering both the top and backing of the quilt, is most often made of a fabric produced after 1900. The housekeeper might have added a chin protector to an 1880’s quilt, but it usually looks like that extra piece was stitched in place in the 20th century. Chin protectors, like sleeves for hanging, are often a later addition that is of little use in dating the quilt.”
“Sarah asked if we had any comments on the quilt myth mentioned in the second half of the post. Here’s what one of our curators had to say: A “beard guard” or “whisker guard” is something seen on quilts somewhat regularly. It was a way to help keep the area at the top of a quilt clean. It protected the quilt from oils – whether from a beard or from hands. They were used at various times in history, so it isn’t a clue to a particular date, period or region.”
Revisited Myth # 123: Parents put their babies in trundle beds and pushed them under the upper bed for warmth.June 18, 2017
Thanks to Eric Olsen, Park Ranger and Historian at Morristown National Historic Park, for this one. Seems new myths are always popping up! Let’s nip this one in the bud.
Revisited Myth # 108: People slept sitting up in bed for health reasons . . . which is why beds were shorter back then.January 22, 2017
(Refer to Myth #8 about short beds.)
This week, we’ll deal with the sitting up part. This myth (which, I blush to disclose, I remember spreading to museum visitors back in the ’70s), often cites bad air as the reason for the belief that sleeping sitting up was healthier than lying down. Supposedly, bad air was heavier than fresh air, so sleeping with your head elevated kept your nose that much farther above the bad air.
Robin Kipps, supervisor of the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary in Williamsburg and an expert in early American medical issues, spent hours searching through volumes of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century medical books before reporting, “There isn’t any evidence that [they thought] bad air was heavier or that they slept with their heads raised due to bad air. There is evidence that people slept with their heads elevated for medical reasons. If patients had an upper respiratory condition such as asthma or were recovering from a specific type of surgery, it was suggested that they sleep with their head elevated. Note it is not sitting up sleeping, it merely says with head raised.”
Sharon Cotner, senior medical history interpreter at the Apothecary who has studied medical history for thirty years, found published medical information of the period suggested that “under normal conditions, people should sleep on their side, with knees bent and head raised. Not sitting up.”
March 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm (Edit)
I would love to hear more on this — it makes me wonder how one explains the “sleeping box” (not sure this is a real term, just my description) one can see at a site like Crailo State Historic Site in Renselear, NY (which recreates a 17th-C New Netherland room) The dimensions of this sleeping cubicle would not permit a reclining pose for sleep, and the height of the box suggests that, rather than curling up on its floor, the sleeper would have his/her back against the side of the box.
Mary Miley says:
March 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm (Edit)
I’m afraid I can’t oblige–I know very little about Dutch customs. I, too, have seen the compartment beds built against the wall, not in the NY museum you mention but on visits to Holland. It was my assumption that this construction was for warmth, to deep out drafts.
Daud Alzayer says:
March 17, 2013 at 11:57 am (Edit)
The bit about good air and bad air doesn’t sound right to me, but I had thought there was a practice of sleeping propped up for health.
In fact, I even had a particular quote in mind, but going back and reading it realize that I was misunderstanding it. A newspaper described a man found dead in bed and said that, “It was supposed by the easy position which he lay he had no fit but an entire stagnation of the fluids.” Maybe the key here is that he was laying peacefully and therefore had no fit, vs my previous reading which was that his easy position caused the stagnation.
Bob Giles says:
March 28, 2013 at 10:43 am (Edit)
We visited Thomas Jefferson’s Home in Charlottesville, VA and they discussed this issue. Can’t remember the details, but
Maybe they can add to your presentation.
Mike Shoop says:
March 5, 2014 at 2:44 pm (Edit)
Stonewall Jackson, who was very health conscious, believed that sitting up in bed to sleep aligned his organs properly and created better overall health. I remember relaying that story as a docent at his Lexington home in the late 70’s, and am fairly certain they still tell it. The researchers there had found evidence that he believed this practice to be beneficial, just as he believed an ice cold bath each morning was also a good health practice.
Mary Miley says:
March 5, 2014 at 3:01 pm (Edit)
Many people believed the cold bath theory, including George Wythe of Williamsburg. Hot water was widely believed dangerous to your health. The debate usually was between tepid water, cool water, and cold. Brrrr!! And I’ve heard that Jackson also rode his horse with one arm raised above his head for health reasons. Not sure if it’s a myth or not. I’ll touch base with the historian at the Stonewall Jackson House and see what he/she has to say.
Meg H says:
June 5, 2014 at 5:14 pm (Edit)
I recently watched an episode of “History of the Home” with Lucy Worsley on BBC, and in it, the host sleeps in a rope bed one night. By the morning, the ropes have stretched and she looks as though she is sitting up. She goes so far as to tell the viewer that she is not able to lie flat because both her mattress and the ropes are sagging. Obviously, not everyone slept on beds with rope construction and feather-filled mattresses, but she goes on to explain that the actual mattress material shifts away from the body in the night. This probably would have been the case had the bed support been slats or even a solid piece of wood beneath the mattress. Here is a link to the episode (the segment I’ve cited starts at 13:53): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DIjQTavW6Y
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:
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.
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.
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.
It’s a pervasive image, isn’t it? A woman in old-fashioned dress sits by the cozy fire with her spinning wheel, spinning the yarn that she will later weave into “homespun” fabric, which she will later use to sew her family’s clothing. Surely every early American household had a spinning wheel and a loom, right? Most people wore “homespun,” right?
It is true that most women made most of the clothing their families wore, but few actually spun the yarn and fewer wove their own fabric. Why? Because imported fabric was cheaper and better than homespun and could be purchased in stores throughout colonial America and during the early decades of the federal period. In fact, when you examine store inventories from the colonial and early-American period, fabric makes up the bulk of the inventory. While some was exotic and expensive (silks from the Far East, for example, or printed cottons from India), much was cheap. Woolens and linens from England could be purchased for less than it cost to make them in America, which is why people overwhelmingly chose to buy fabrics rather than to weave their own. Even slaves’ and servants’ clothing was usually made from imported fabric.
Colonial Williamsburg’s textile curator Linda Baumgarten writes, “Only in frontier areas was most clothing homespun and homemade – and even there, traders and storekeepers quickly penetrated the backcountry to make imported goods available.” Retired colonial historian Harold Gill recalls that in his many decades of researching household inventories in the Williamsburg area, he never found a single reference to a loom. He did find that many (perhaps “most”) households had a spinning wheel.
And as one blog reader pointed out, “You neglect to mention the “homespun” movement, a popular protest against the Townshend Acts. Women learned to spin in order to forgo the imported, taxed fabric. In reality, even during the protest, nobody was producing enough fabric to truly replace the imports. And note that they were LEARNING how to spin, as in they hadn’t done it before. Still I think the protest probably contributed to the place that spinning has in the image we have of early America.” Excellent point.
December 2, 2012 at 12:45 am (Edit)
though i loved the part in Laura Ingills Wilder’s book, Farmer Boy, where her husband’s mother would weave wool to make coats for the family. she wove it and then shrank it to make it warmer. i think her loom was in the attic. i like when the women bring their looms, drop spindles and spinning wheels to the fair. i would like to have learned how to do that. didn’t they use their looms for rugs and carpets? those that raised sheep, did they use the wool for other purposes?
Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 9:15 am (Edit)
Laura tells about her life on the frontier where women like Mrs. Wilder had less access to stores, at least for the first few years.
December 3, 2012 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Mrs. Wilder was in upstate New York, wasn’t she? Was that still considered frontier?
Mary Miley says:
December 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
A quick check shows you are right, they lived in western NY state until Almonzo was 18 and moved to Minnesota in 1875. But remember, Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing fiction. She based her tales on true events but changed details quite a bit.
Erin Blake says:
December 2, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
My great grandmother, a homesteader on the Canadian prairies, used her spinning wheel to make yarn for sweaters, mittens, etc., not for weaving. She was famously baffled when my mother wanted a picture of her spinning: spinning was what you did in the evening, when it was dark and cold, and you were too tired to do anything else but had to do something to keep moving and be useful.
Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm (Edit)
Also, there were differences in who used looms in New England vs. the Mid Atlantic. See Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s books “A Midwife’s Tale” and “The Age of Homespun,” and her article “Wheels, Looms, and the Gender Division of Labor in Eighteenth-Century New England,” as well as Andrienne Hood’s articles “The Gender Division of Labor in the Production of Textiles in Eighteenth-Century, Rural Pennsylvania.”
In short, in the mid-Atlantic in the late 18th c., labor divisions adhered to the old model of weaving being a male occupation. In New England, women developed an informal system of home-production. A few households had the large and expensive loom, and women exchanged daughters to share the work of the weaving.
In my thesis work on textile production in late 18th-early 19th c. lower New York State, I found that there was indeed a complicated system and division of labor. Mary Guion, a young, unmarried, middle-class woman, wrote about fiber production parties (“frolics”) with her friends, mostly spinning, some carding. She spent days on her horse delivering the processed flax or wool to the dyer, the weaver, and by the early years of the 19th c., the “machine” (the carding factory)
Oh dear, I could go on forever on this subject! It’s so fascinating!
Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm (Edit)
Thank you for adding so much to the subject!
Alaina Zulli says:
December 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm (Edit)
Oh, I should also add that Mary bought imported fabric from the pedlar, ordered fabric and other clothing items from “the cart” (a pedlar or a townsperson who made trips to NYC?) and made trips to NYC herself, where she spent time shopping for fabric with her friends. So, yeah, she definitely didn’t make all her own fabric. It’s impossible to say what percentage, but if I had to make a guess I’d say around 20% of the fabric she used was made locally.
Elizabeth Bertheaud says:
December 3, 2012 at 10:39 am (Edit)
Might I recommend: Jensen, Joan. Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. Ms. Jensen discusses how the women of SE PA soon realized their efforts were better spent making cheese and butter to sell than in manufacturing textiles. A great read on many levels.
Alaina Zulli says:
December 3, 2012 at 11:20 pm (Edit)
Elizabeth, thanks for that recommendation. It sounds great, and is now on my Amazon wishlist!
December 4, 2012 at 9:25 am (Edit)
Just to comment about Farmer Boy with Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was Almanzo’s family that was in upstate New York (I visited – Canada’s but miles away), not Laura. Albeit fiction, she usually based all her writings on fact – and most of the “facts” she changed were about her family to make a better story, not about the activities. It is mentioned in the book that Almanzo’s mother making all their fabric was very unusual, especially for their economic status, for the time and region. This region was far from being the frontier and Almanzo’s family was considerably well-off compared to the pioneering Ingalls family. I just wanted to make sure Laura is not discounted because her books are “fiction;” most of them are very factual. From a loyal Little House fan.
Mary Miley says:
December 4, 2012 at 9:34 am (Edit)
As a loyal fan of Laura’s, I would never discount her writing. I discovered her books as a mother and read them to my children. And we loved the TV series too. It was wonderful finding books and TV programs that taught values as well as history.
December 5, 2012 at 10:55 am (Edit)
Thank you for clarifying this! It’s been many years and I did not recall the statement about it being unusual for her to spin and weave. And while I’m aware that Laura changed things, I also thought it was unlikely for her to insert a made-up detail like that. Thank you.🙂
Rena Lawrence says:
December 4, 2012 at 11:36 am (Edit)
I also recommend “Hands to the Spindle: Texas Women and Home Textile Production, 1822-1880” by Dr. Paula Mitchell Marks. Very nice treatment of spinning out of necessity (with women often learning from grandmothers or slaves) and the production of penitentiary cloth by prisoners at Huntsville.
Alaina Zulli says:
December 4, 2012 at 10:16 pm (Edit)
sounds like another great book! Thanks, I’m adding it to my to-read list.
Deborah Brower says:
December 4, 2012 at 12:42 pm (Edit)
Great choice of myths!!!!!!
This one really needed to be explored, because there is so much confusion on the subject. Spinning wheels have survived to such a degree that they have become icons. Spinning does not equal fabric it’s only part of the process.
The followups have been very informative. Thanks again it’s like an early Christmas gift.
December 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm (Edit)
Wow, this is shockingly incorrect! The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:03 pm (Edit)
Excuse me, I’m a little confused. Which part of the post or comments is shockingly incorrect?
December 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm (Edit)
The post. People definitely spun their own wool and made their own fabric. Especially during the War of 1812.
Mary Miley says:
December 7, 2012 at 5:49 pm (Edit)
Of course some did. Sorry if my post wasn’t clear–it says that the practice was not common, not that it didn’t ever happen. On the frontier where European fabric was not available or during brief periods when shipping was interrupted (like the War of 1812), women had to resort to buying homespun fabric, often made by professional weavers since few women owned expensive (and big!) looms.
Judy Cataldo says:
December 16, 2012 at 11:06 am (Edit)
Boston and surrounding towns are hardly the frontier. There are multiple primary accounts in the newspapers of the 1700s noting locally manufactured textiles. New England had a vibrant textile culture starting in the mid 1600s. Fashion fabrics were imported cheaply from England as with the other colonies but local manufacture was alive and well. It is not correct to paint all colonies with the same broad brush.
December 22, 2012 at 11:30 pm (Edit)
Right. Cloth was imported in the early colonial period until the mid-17th century when a weaver set up shop in Boston. The first textile mill,Slater Mill, in the United States was built in Rhode Island in 1793. Almost all the old farm house museums in Rhode Island have large weaving looms and spinning wheels. Women spun flax and wool. Check out this link for the story of one family’s looms
Mary Jean Adams says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:52 am (Edit)
Perhaps someone has already brought this up, but how about the notion of homespun as a political statement? My understanding has always been that toward the revolution, as more and more English goods were boycotted and goods from other countries embargoed, wearing homespun became a sign of your allegiance to the cause.
Mary Miley says:
February 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm (Edit)
You are quite correct. there is a marvelous (true) story about the Governor’s Palace ball that took place in Williamsburg, hosted by the last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, where the ladies wore dull-colored, homespun ball gowns. It made quite a statement.
April 9, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
It is my understanding that North American women of the 18th century spun yarn mostly for practical knitting, and that most home weaving was limited to toweling, rugs, and sometimes bed linens and underthings like shirts and shifts. And that most homes did not have a loom but did have a spinning wheel.
I do know that pioneer women in the west (Utah) in the 1840’s and 50’s did quite a bit of weaving out of necessity due to their geographical and cultural (Brigham Young’s emphasis on self sustaining industry) isolation.
Mary Miley says:
April 10, 2013 at 1:55 pm (Edit)
For some perspective, I checked with Harold Gill, a highly respected (retired) historian from Colonial Williamsburg who, during his many decades of researching colonial inventories, recalls that he never found a single example of a Williamsburg house with a loom. He recalled that many, perhaps “most” houses had spinning wheels.
Patricia Shandor says:
February 20, 2014 at 1:01 pm (Edit)
I work at a museum in South Carolina that owns dozens of 18th/19th Century locally-made spinning wheels used for various mediums, such as flax, cotton, and wool. And I know of a few 18th/19th Century looms in the area (one still located in its original privately-owned house). We are located in the midlands of South Carolina and near what would have been considered the American frontier until around 1820…at least. Though we certainly did have access to Charleston which was one of, if not THE richest city in Colonial America. So I know there was both weaving and buying going on.
Interestingly, we own locally-made quilts from the 1830s-1850s which include homespun dress fabrics as identified by scholars and also quilts that include Chintzes, imported from England (which were used in South Carolina quilts well into the 1850s). My point is that I would guess that there were more spinners and weavers in the South than in the North. Plus there were more factories and mills up North. So…the abundance of spinning wheels in the antique stores of New England and the Mid-Atlantic region could just be misplaced Southern antiques? LOL. Anyone have any thoughts on this?
July 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm (Edit)
I’m sorry but I think your history is inaccurate and based upon a modern viewpoint of industrial production expectations.
Mary Miley says:
July 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
No need to apologize, just explain why you think that and share your evidence.
July 10, 2015 at 10:02 pm (Edit)
Colonial Agent J. Bridger in 1719.
Elizabeth Barber’s book, Women’s Work: the first 20,000 years
Documentary on the loom and it’s working status at Mt. Vernon.
Those are just 3 off the top of my head.
There are many books, articles, references..etc that are pre-industrial to give an idea that spinning was not in fact a leisure activity of a woman sitting by the fire. Many homes needed the income from spinning or weaving in order to survive. And many villages/towns/commonwealths had dozens of spinners to feed the local weavers. Spinning often super ceded food storage and preparation in a home. It is not inconceivable to understand that home spinners were essential to their communities. The yarn they produced was beautiful, smooth, lustrous and their cloth was as well. For thousands of years Egypt was renown for their linen and cotton to the point where even modern machinery can not duplicate how fine and even it really was. France was known for silk, Scotland, Ireland and England for wool. These are the fore bearers of Colonial America who brought their trades with them across the pond. And without competition sold their wares back across it at a mighty profit.
July 10, 2015 at 10:07 pm (Edit)
I forgot to mention flax…which when spun is called linen. Linen production in Europe during the Colonial period was vast and it traveled across the Atlantic as well. I mentioned Egypt as an example of what ancient spinners and weavers could do on a massive productive scale. Somehow the paragraph didn’t separate France. And that’s not even going into China and their sericulture economy (which also made it across the Atlantic during Colonial times).