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.

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“I’ve got a new myth for you that I never heard before last week. I was talking with one of our new volunteers after she had completed a tour of Washington’s Headquarters [Ford Mansion, Morristown NHP] and she was excited because she learned something new from one of our visitors.
 
The visitor told her that parents placed their babies in trundle beds and then pushed the bed underneath the adult bed with the baby still in the trundle bed! The reason for this behavior was that the heat from the adults sleeping in the large bed about the trundle bed would help keep the baby warm.
 
At this point I explained the whole concept of Old House Tour myths and plugged your book at the same time. I pointed out that parents did indeed put babies in trundle beds but not underneath another bed. By having the baby in a trundle bed next to the parent’s bed, a mother could easily reach her baby for nursing in the middle of the night. If a mother placed her baby in bed with the parents, to make it easier to reach the child when nursing time came, there was always the possibility that the sleeping parents might roll over on the baby. So it was safer to put the baby in a separate trundle bed.
 
I also suggested that if a baby was placed under the parents bed the baby would probably get a lot of dust leaking out from the mattress above. Also depending on how tight the ropes were on the parents bed, there might not have been much room for the baby.”
Thank you, Eric. The lesson here is always beware of what you hear from visitors and from other guides. Don’t repeat it before you’ve checked it out first.
 Previous comments:
James “Jake” Pontillosays:
  1. Amazing how ‘new historical facts’ are constantly being invented! Your site is great at keeping this nonsense in check

  2. …and of course, the parents couldn’t “sleep tight” unless the bed ropes were adjusted properly….(sorry, couldn’t resist…)

  3. Joe Greeley says:

    I think it sounds like a great way to induce severe claustrophobia in your children . . .

  4. It is also good to note that heat rises, so it doesn’t seem likely that putting the baby *under* the parents’ bed would transfer heat to the child anyway.

  5. Two myths people love are one’s that talk about how people in the past were so pious and simple and ones that talk about how barbaric and backward they were.

    I’d file this one under column B

  6. Is it a myth that folks in the 19th C and earlier used the phrase “sleep tight?” If so, please enlighten us with a post on that topic.


Revisited Myth # 108: People slept sitting up in bed for health reasons . . . which is why beds were shorter back then.

January 22, 2017

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(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.”

 

PREVIOUS COMMENTS

Pam says:
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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:
Interesting

Reply
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….

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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Revisited Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.

September 14, 2016

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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. 

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COMMENTS:

janice says:
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?

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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.

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Ginger says:
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.

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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!

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Mary Miley says:
December 2, 2012 at 2:07 pm (Edit)
Thank you for adding so much to the subject!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Katie says:
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.

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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.

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Ginger says:
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.🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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goodwoolhunting says:
December 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm (Edit)
Wow, this is shockingly incorrect! The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

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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?

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goodwoolhunting says:
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.

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QNPoohBear says:
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
http://www.hearthsidehouse.org/news/2012.talbot.html

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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.

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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.

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Tracy says:
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.

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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.

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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?

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Cetacea says:
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.

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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.

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Cetacea says:
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.

Cetacea says:
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).


Revisited Myth # 98: Curtains that puddled on the floor were a sign of great wealth.

September 3, 2016

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Trish Aleshire writes: As a manager of an 1835 historic plantation in Louisiana, I can testify that these myths are very much still alive and being told at historic house museums. They are not told at our plantation, but we get some testy visitors who want to argue the truth behind the myth. Could you please address the topic of overly long drapery that puddle on the floor being a sign of great wealth? Our drapes do this and we are constantly bombarded with visitors telling us this myth.

This is one of those myths that has a little substance to it. Throughout the 19th century (and the 18th, for that matter), lavish use of fabric was an indirect way to show wealth and status, as were fine carriages, sleek horses, liveried servants, jewelry, and a grand house. It’s a bit of a stretch, however, to say that wealthy people were purposefully installing extra-long draperies to advertise their bulging bank accounts.

The puddled style is still popular–I see it in decorating magazines today–but I don’t believe anyone would suggest it means that the homeowners are flaunting their excessive wealth. They like the look and can afford the extra yard of fabric.

 

Previous Comments:

Margaret Geiss-Mooney – Textile/Costume Conservator says:
November 3, 2012 at 6:23 pm (Edit)
From a textile conservator’s viewpoint, it was good to have the drapes puddle on the floor as ‘puddling’ helps mitigate the effects of gravity. Of course, the floor needs to be clean, dry and not waxed often (possible chemical contamination and damage from too much handling).

Susan Baker says:
November 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm (Edit)
Hi, when I was in Art History and Stage Craft in college this was how it was explained to me: the additional fabric was to act as a draft stop, same as the idea behind using heavy fabric that cut out the wind because it was tighter weave. I think function may have come before fashion, but fashion followed the function.

Carlos Talavera says:
December 3, 2012 at 9:51 am (Edit)
I believe that Susan Baker is correct in that this was devised for the stated purpose of keeping out drafts. A sign of wealth would have been how lavish the fabric was and not necessarily the copious amounts used…Although MORE of a exceptionally fine fabric would be a pretty obvious sign.

 


Revisited Myth # 95: They’re called “sadirons” because ironing was such a hated chore that any woman would be sad to iron.

August 7, 2016

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A reader wrote: “Does anyone know the reason that irons were called “sad irons” in the 19th century? I’ve heard that ironing was a sad business and any woman who ironed would be sad.”

The dictionaries should be enough to debunk this myth. The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s give the word’s origins. The sadiron (today it is one word) is one type of iron. There are many others, developed for special uses, like goffering irons that pressed ruffles or specially shaped irons for sleeves. The OED says that the sadiron is a smoothing iron, solid and flat, as opposed to a box iron that is hollow and meant to hold coals (so it didn’t need to be heated and reheated on the stove). It says that the word sad once meant heavy or compact. Webster’s defines sadiron as a flatiron pointed at both ends and having a removable handle, and dates the term to 1738.

Evidently an American woman named Mrs. Potts invented a removable wooden handle in 1871 that made it easier to iron–it didn’t burn your hand (women used rags or potholders but still, those things must have been dangerously hot!), and you could put one sadiron on the stove to heat while you moved the handle to the hot one.

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ore iron history, from Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections at the White River Valley Museum:

In the first century BC, the Chinese became the first to apply heat in the process of pressing cloth, using long-handled metal pans filled with charcoal. Heated irons did not appear in the West until the 17th century. Since that time, a wide variety of irons have been developed in the attempt to find a solution to the problem of how to heat an iron efficiently — and protect both the user and the cloth against burns.

The sadiron — whose name derives from the Old English word “sald,” meaning solid — first appeared in the 17th century. The basic sadiron is a shaped piece of metal, with a polished base and attached metal handle. These irons were heated in front of an open fire or on a stove. The undesirable aspect of this, however, was that it heated the handle as well, so they had to be held with a potholder or thick glove. Sadirons were heavy, usually ranging from 5 to 9 pounds, and the weight contributed as much as the heat to the pressing process.

The first significant improvement of the sadiron was achieved by Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa. In 1870, Mrs. Potts was granted a patent for a sadiron pointed at both ends, making it handy to iron in both directions. The following year, Mrs. Potts endeared herself to housewives when she patented a sadiron with a detachable handle, thus allowing the iron to be heated without also heating the handle. These sadirons were sold in sets of 3, with a single handle.

One of the major drawbacks to all sadirons, however, was that they cooled off fairly rapidly, thus it was always necessary to have several irons so that one could always be re-heating. One solution to this problem was the “self-heating” irons.

The simplest of these was the charcoal iron, whose hollow interior could be filled with smoldering coals. In addition to being rather smoky, it was difficult to get a sufficient draft to keep the coals burning. For this reason, they were equipped with high, spout-like openings, so that the coals could be fanned by inserting a bellows, or by swinging the iron back and forth vigorously. In the late 1800s, other types of slef-heating irons were developed that used gasoline and alcohol as fuel, which was stored in small metal tanks at the back of the iron. The major drawback to these was the smell, and the tendency for them to “pop-off” suddenly when escaping fumes ignited, which not only frightened, but also singed the user.

The first electric iron was patented in 1882, but was far from an instant success, as most households lacked electricity — and those that did had power only at night to run lights. In addition, these early electric models were difficult to regulate. None had thermostats until the late 1920s.

So, as sad as many of us are to spend time ironing, that it not the origin of the word.


Revisited Myth #55: African-American quilts were really secret codes meant to guide escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad.

May 6, 2016

519Qj41qP2L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Myth #55 was in the news this week, with the announcement that Harriet Tubman was going to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20. The Washington Post ran an article by Kate Clifford Larson, the author of an acclaimed biography of Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. In the article, Larson debunks 5 myths about  Tubman in much the same way we did when dealing with our Myth #55. (Read the entire Washington Post article here.) Here is what Larson says about the quilt code: 

Myth #3: She [Tubman] followed the quilt code to the North.

This myth is a staple of school curricula. Students are taught that slaves and free people stitched secret, coded directions into quilts and then hung them outside at night to help guide freedom seekers to the next safe house. While it is a pretty story, it has no basis in fact, and it tells us nothing about the real heroes and actual workings of the Underground Railroad.

Most of the quilt designs claimed by proponents of the quilt code were not even created until after the Civil War and slavery ended. Enslaved people would not have had access to the multiple varieties and colors of fabrics needed to construct such quilts, nor would they have placed precious bedding outside when it would have been badly needed inside their homes. We also know that Underground Railroad routes changed frequently because of the danger involved, so something as permanent as a quilt pattern would have been of limited use, anyway.

Rather than quilts, Tubman depended on her great intellect, courage and religious faith to escape slavery and then go back to rescue others. She followed rivers that snaked northward, and used the stars and other natural phenomena to guide her. She relied on sympathetic people, black and white, who hid her, told her which way to go and connected her with other people she could trust. She wore disguises. She paid bribes.

When leading her charges, she would alter the tempo of certain songs, “Go Down Moses” and “Bound for the Promised Land,” or mimic the hoot of an owl, to signal whether it was safe or too dangerous to reveal their hiding places. She also used coded letters. In December 1854, for instance, she had a letter sent to Jacob Jackson, a literate, free black farmer and veterinarian, instructing him to tell her brothers that they needed to be ready to “step aboard” the “Ol’ Ship of Zion.” In other words, she was coming to rescue them.


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