(Thanks to Katie Cannon, assistant curator of education at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, for tackling this myth. I’m sorry I couldn’t reproduce her two charts, but I’ve transposed the information they contained.)
There is a phrase that I always find myself repeating whenever a general statement is made about the past: “It’s more complicated than that.” This is one of those myths that is sort of true… in some times and places… but tends to get overgeneralized. Yes, some women were married as teenagers in early America. However, this was not always true everywhere… or even most of the time!
There are many factors you must consider when talking about typical ages at marriage:
Geographic Location & Economic Situation. Not all times and places are the same. In the early years of New England, 1650-1750, most women married and most around the age of 20-22, with men four or five years older. By contrast, at the same time in Europe (where many of those women or their parents came from) about 10% of the population did not marry at all.(1) In his book From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, Alan Kulikoff makes the argument that marriage age in 18th-century America was directly tied to land availability. The more land is available to start working and providing for a family, the sooner a person (male or female) can marry. Here is what he found: The English and their colonists assumed that men could not marry until they could support a household. This was easier in America where land was plentiful than in England where it was not. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short time save money enough to purchase a Piece of new land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family.”(2)
Even in America, marriage age fluctuated with availability and cheapness of land, which varied between regions and decades. Here is a chart summarizing Kulikoff’s findings. The numbers indicate average age at first marriage.(3)
England, 1700s; Women: 25-26; Men: 30
New England, early 1600s; Women: Teens; Men: 26
New England, late 1600s; Women: 20; Men: 25
Pennsylvania Quakers, 1600s; Women: 22; Men: 26
Pennsylvania Quakers, 1700s; Women: 23; Men: 26
Rural South Carolina, 1700s; Women: 19; Men: 22
For comparison, here is the U.S. census data showing the median age of marriage for selected years in the more recent past:(4)
1900 Women: 21.9; Men: 25.9
1950 Women: 20.3; Men: 22.8
1975 Women: 21.1; Men: 23.5
2000 Women: 25.1; Men: 26.8
As you can see, the age at first marriage in the 20th century is not that different from the 17th or 18th, depending on exactly where and when you are talking about. While there is a variety, they are all within the same general range rather than the drastic difference many imagine.
Widows & Widowers: Sadly, disease was much more prevalent and you could do less about it than today. Second marriages and stepchildren were rather common, because both men and women regularly took ill and died before reaching old age. If we look for example at the first ten presidents and their wives, four of the wives had been married previously and one of the presidents married again when his wife died. So, the marriage ages often get skewed when an older person who has lost a spouse remarries. To illustrate this, consider President John Tyler, who married Letitia when they were both 23. When Letita died, John remarried, this time to Julia who was 24… although by that time he was 54. You might look at that second marriage and be delightfully scandalized that a man married a woman who was 30 years younger. But remember, in his first marriage, he and his wife were exactly the same age.
Personal Circumstance People still get married as teenagers in America. And some wait until their 40s… or never. It was the same in early America: not everybody fit into a tidy generalization.
1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in Northern New England 1650-1750, published 1983, page 6.
2 Quoted in Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, page 228.
3 Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, pages 227-229.
Thanks to Matt Phillips, who researched and wrote this post back in 2014. Matt has worked at Mount Vernon as a living history and historic trades interpreter; he has a Masters Degree in history from George Mason University.
I recently came across a mid-19th century British penny that was supposedly called a “vulgar penny.” As the story goes, the man who designed the coins during Queen Victoria’s reign was Irish, and he disliked Great Britain. He depicted Britannia on the coin’s reverse holding a trident; the shaft of the trident goes between Britannia’s legs. This was supposedly done as an insult to the hated British. Furthermore, the insult went unnoticed for several years. When officials finally recognized the slight, the coins were considered to be “vulgar” because of the indecently sexualized Britannia, and the design was altered.
William Wyon was the medalist and engraver at the Royal Mint who designed the first generation of copper pennies to bear Queen Victoria’s likeness in the late-1830s. Contrary to the myth of the embittered Irish minter, Wyon’s family was of German descent, migrating from Cologne to Great Britain in the mid-1700s. William Wyon was born in Birmingham, England in 1795. He was appointed second engraver at the Royal Mint in 1816, and would become chief engraver in 1828, a position he held until his death in 1851. William Wyon produced not only coinage bearing Queen Victoria’s likeness, but also numerous medals to commemorate British military and naval engagements. Queen Victoria purportedly even told Wyon, “You always represent me favourably,” referencing his depictions of the queen on coinage and medallions.
By the late-1830s pennies bearing the likeness of Queen Victoria were being minted in Great Britain. These coins depicted the young monarch (the so called “Young Head” depiction) on one side, with Britannia depicted on the reverse. Britannia’s trident was held at an angle tilting inward toward her upper thigh. In fact, the posture of Britannia seen on the Victoria coinage was previously utilized on King George IV coinage dating to the 1820s. The commonality of depicting Britannia in this fashion undermines the myth’s assertion that the pose was considered to be vulgar, offensive, or insulting. Britannia would be posed in this manner on British coinage throughout much of the nineteenth century. Images of these coins can be found here.
A second generation of Victoria pennies was designed by William Wyon’s son, Leonard Charles Wyon (born in November 1826 at the Royal Mint in London, where the family lived). He took over many of the engraving duties of his father, William, after the elder Wyon’s death in 1851. As a modeler and engraver for the Royal Mint, Leonard Charles Wyon produced both coinage and medals to commemorate events and prominent figures of the British Empire, as his father had done before him.
Including an updated image of Queen Victoria, Leonard Charles Wyon’s bronze “Bun” pennies (so named because of the queen’s depicted hair style) were minted beginning in 1860. Though these coins featured a new depiction of the monarch on the front, they retained Britannia’s pose from William Wyon’s earlier Victoria penny (that, in turn, was utilized from early-nineteenth century coinage) on the coin’s reverse. This version of the Victoria penny was minted until 1894. In addition to designing coinage, Leonard Charles Wyon was responsible for producing most British military and naval medals between 1851 and 1891.
The posturing of Britannia, with trident angled inward toward her upper thigh predated the minting of Victoria pennies, being used on coinage by the early-nineteenth century. Collectively, the “Young Head” and “Bun” Victoria pennies continued to utilize this depiction of Britannia for over five decades. There is no record (implicit or explicit) that the way in which Britannia’s trident was depicted was considered to be vulgar, offensive, or insulting to the monarchy or the British state during the early- or mid-nineteenth century. The evidence strongly contradicts the myth’s allegation that the slight went unnoticed for only a few years before government officials recognized the insult and changed the imagery. The longevity of use of the Wyons’ depiction of Britannia certainly underlines this point. It was only with the third generation of “Widow” or “Veiled Head” Victoria pennies in 1895 that Britannia was depicted holding a trident in a more vertical fashion, its shaft terminating nearer her knee than her upper thigh.
Contrary to the myth of the embittered Irish engraver, the German-descended William and Leonard Charles Wyon enjoyed long careers engraving coinage and commemorative medallions for prominent British figures and events at the Royal Mint. Had either William or Leonard Wyon profaned Great Britain or its monarch with their work, as the myth alleges, they would certainly not have remained in such prominent positions at the mint, nor would they likely have been called upon to create further coinage and commemorative medallions. Furthermore, the long tenure and prolificacy of both William and Leonard Charles Wyon as prominent engravers and medalists at the Royal Mint indicates that both engravers were well regarded for their skill and quite secure in their posts at the mint. Indeed, Leonard Charles Wyon was “regarded as the foremost British die-engraver of his time, [though] he lived under the shadow of the greater reputation of his father.”
 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB] article: “Wyon Family”; ODNB articl: “Wyon, William.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/64499/64499?back=,30170
 ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/30170
 ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.” http://www.oxforddnb.com.mutex.gmu.edu/view/article/30170
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.”
Martha Katz-Hymen at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation wrote about this belief. It is true, but it isn’t the whole story.
It is true that people rarely smiled in old photographs because it is harder to hold a smile than a relaxed face, and photographs were not a quick “click” in the early years. But that is only one reason. The other is cultural.
“But an article by Nicholas Jeeves, recently published in the Public Domain Review, suggests that, when folks frowned, they did so for reasons as economic, social and historical as they were technological. Mark Twain thought as much. In one of his letters, collected by Jeeves, he wrote:
A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.
Twain wasn’t the only believer in the idiocy of the style. Look back at painted portraiture — the tradition photography inherited — and you’ll rarely see a grinning subject. This is, in fact, Jeeves’s subject. “By the 17th century in Europe,“ he writes, “it was a well-established fact that the only people who smiled broadly, in life and in art, were the poor, the lewd, the drunk, the innocent, and the entertainment.’
And read Nicholas Jeeves entire article, below. Jeeves is an artist, writer and lecturer at Cambridge School of Art. One excerpt: “A walk around any art gallery will reveal that the image of the open smile has, for a very long time, been deeply unfashionable.” http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/09/18/the-serious-and-the-smirk-the-smile-in-portraiture/
Myth #146: In early America, firefighters wouldn’t put out a house fire unless the building bore a fire insurance plaque.May 13, 2017
Legend in Charleston, SC, and other cities says that a fire company would not put out a house fire unless there was a marker on the building proving that fire insurance had been paid. This is a myth.
I want to acknowledge Stephen Herchak, president of the Charleston Tour Association (a group representing over one hundred tour guides), and Dr. Nic Butler, archivist and historian for the Charleston County Public Library system for their research on this subject. Everyone who looked into this topic found the legend highly improbable. According to Herchak: “This never made sense to me, given the great threat a burning structure poses to the rest of the city, and as you’re probably most likely aware, here in Charleston there were numerous disastrous fires (the Great Fire of 1740, as does all other Charleston fires, pales in comparison to the fire of 1861, but, nonetheless, it destroyed more than 300 buildings and bankrupted the first fire insurance company in America, established here more than a dozen years before the one organized by Franklin, who’s widely and erroneously given credit — there’s another myth buster topic for you — for organizing the first fire insurance company in America).”
Dr. Nic Butler concurs. “In my extensive research on a wide variety of topics in early Charleston history, examining primary source materials like old newspapers, colonial and post-colonial government records, and the like, I have not found any description or reference to the purpose of these plaques or marks or markers, whatever you call them. The idea that a fire-fighting company would NOT extinguish fires on buildings without markers simply defies logic. In a densely-built urban environment like Charleston or any other town, every fire, large or small, endangered the safety of the entire community. The notion of NOT fighting a blaze simply because the house was not insured is so utterly irresponsible that it could not have been tolerated.
“As early as 1785, the City of Charleston had a fire ordnance that levied a substantial fine on anyone who refused or neglected to assist in the fighting of any fire, or who impeded the fighting of a fire. The city’s fire ordinance was updated and revised over the years, but the mandate for citizens to assist in the fighting of all fires remained constant. A perusal of the fire reports in the newspapers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Charleston shows that fire companies and citizens in general responded consistently and promptly to battle any blaze, whether it was at the home of a rich family or of an enslaved family. Every fire endangered the lives and property of everyone.”
The Smithsonian’s Museum of American History has fire marks in its collection, including the one pictured above, and museum literature says nothing about firefighters allowing unmarked buildings to burn down. “Beginning in the 1750s, some American insurance companies issued metal fire marks to policyholders to signify that their property was insured against fire damage. The fire marks bore the name and/or symbol of the insurer, and some included the customer’s policy number. The company or agent would then affix the mark to the policyholder’s home or business. For owners the mark served as proof of insurance and a deterrent against arson. For insurance companies the mark served as a form of advertising, and alerted volunteer firefighters that the property was insured. [my italics] The Charleston Fire Insurance Company of Charleston, South Carolina issued this fire mark in the early 19th century. The oval mark is made of iron, and consists of an inner image of intact buildings on the left, and buildings engulfed in flames on the right. A figure of Athena guards the intact buildings from the fire, and has a shield by her feet emblazoned with a Palmetto tree. There is a text above the intact building that reads, “RESTORED.” The outer rim bears the text “CHARLESTON FIRE INSURANCE COMPy.” The Charleston Fire Insurance Company operated from 1811 until 1896.”
Herchak also interviewed Henry Lowdnes, owner of C. T. Lowdnes Insurance agency and the fifth generation at an agency founded by his family in 1850, who agreed that “due to the huge threat posed by a spreading fire, it’s absolutely false that firefighters would have stood around and let a building in an urban setting burn because it didn’t bear an insurance marker.” Lowndes did provide some new information about rewards, however. “Rewards to fire fighting companies — volunteer or professionals of insurance companies — were common, both from city government for arriving first and from insurance companies for saving insured structures. In an urban setting where fires often are not limited to a single structure and entire streets or neighborhoods burned down, upon arriving at the scene of this type of blaze threatening multiple structures — which are firefighters going to first combat fire or protect — one that pays a reward or one that doesn’t? . . . But this is most likely never going to be backed by any sort of documentation other than the chance finding of a stray line in a newspaper of the time or the discovery of a personal letter mentioning and discoursing on it.”
So where does the myth originate? Could the existence of rewards in Charleston have led to the idea that firefighters might prefer an insured building over another, which could have led to the conclusion that they allowed uninsured buildings to burn? Perhaps. Or, as Dr. Butler points out, there was a practice in England which might have led to such a conclusion. “In England, some fire insurance companies apparently did create their own fire-fighting units, and so fire insurance markers might have a special meaning to them. But the case is different here. The city of Charleston never had a fire-fighting company associated with any fire insurance company.”
Dr. Butler continues, “In his book Charleston Is Burning: Two Centuries of Fire and Flames (History Press, 2009), Daniel Crooks concludes that the fire insurance markers were merely a form of advertising. In the event of fire damage, an insurance marker on a house that was later rebuilt or restored was a visible sign that the insurance company had fulfilled its pledge to protect the owner’s investment. I had several conversations with Mr. Crooks (who has a small collection of historic fire insurance markers) about this topic while he was researching for his book, and I support his conclusion that the markers–at least in Charleston–were merely a form of advertising.”
(Also see the related Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.)
This week Katie Cannon has agreed to tackle a myth that has pestered her for years. She has more than a dozen years of experience working in history museums as well as a masters in Museum Studies, and she currently works at Mount Vernon. Katie admits she is especially fond of living history, having never quite grown out of playing dress-up.
This is something you hear all the time, about different places and times in American history. While I will certainly not dispute our ancestors’ ingenuity and skill, and many people did make a variety of objects for their own use, it is simply not true that anybody made everything— or even most things— that they used. Pre-Industrial Americans were part of a global economy and were consumers as well as producers; you can see this in all three centuries of early American history.1
When the first English settlers arrived on American shores, they thought they were landing in an untamed wilderness full of savage beasts and “savage” men. (Not true of course, but that’s a topic for another discussion.) This meant they were totally on their own and had to fend for themselves, right?
While they could not purchase the manufactured goods they were used to on this continent, they eagerly awaited regular ships bringing them European goods: cloth, thread, sugar, salt, furniture, paper, etc. etc. That romantic image of Priscilla Mullens industriously spinning wool while John Alden stumbles through wooing her? A bit difficult since there is no record of fiber processing tools in the colony until the late 1630s (and the two were married over a decade earlier).2
Here is an excerpt from a letter by Edward Winslow, 1621. He is writing to a friend and advising him on what to bring to the new colony:
“…bring good store of clothes and bedding with you. Bring every man a musket or fowling-piece…Bring juice of lemons, and take it fasting; it is of good use. … If you bring anything for comfort in the country, butter or sallet oil, or both is very good. …Bring paper and linseed oil for your windows, with cotton yarn for your lamps.”3
The 18th century saw the birth of the United States of America, land of the free, the brave… and the avid consumers. Prior to the Revolution, this country was heavily dependent on British imports; England even forbade the colonies from producing certain goods themselves, ensuring that they would be England’s customers.4
For political reasons around the time of the Revolution there was a push for “homespun” and other goods produced locally.5 This did not mean that everyone could be self-sustaining, however. Just think of all the tools and knowledge necessary to make every single item in someone’s home! An encyclopedia published in the 18th century shows images of craftsmen and their tools; take a look at what was required to make a single pin, necessary for sewing and fastening clothes:6
If you look through probate inventories of the time, even for those in the lowest income brackets, you get the sense of all the many trades (needing years of training and specialized tools) that went into making that inventory. Consider this inventory of Patience Gilbert from 1742; she is listed in the lower wealth category of the York County, Virginia, probate inventories.7
Her list of possessions includes:
3 kettles, 2 frying pans, 1 copper kettle, 1 brass candlestick, and other metal items that would have been made by various smiths
Several items of clothing but no loom or spinning wheel so she at least purchased the fabric if not the finished clothes
Tea that she could not have grown in this climate
A looking glass which she certainly did not make
… and so forth.
You will find similar inventories for other years, wealth categories, and locations.
Ah yes, the self-sufficient pioneers, heading off into the frontier for a fresh start away from any outside assistance! … or not.
Becky Lauterbach, Senior Facilitator at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park whose specialty of over 20 years is early life in 19th century Indiana, says, “they were able to get to a store in Indiana, and it probably wasn’t all that difficult. Fur traders… had been in the area for 200 years. Even the Native Americans had become dependent on manufactured goods. St. Louis, MO was the “Gateway to the West” by the 1830’s. People moving on to the “frontier” could stop there to stock up and could no doubt buy anything they needed (and plenty of things they didn’t). Most settlers never intended to be self-sufficient, but were willing to “rough it” for a while to gain the advantage of being first on the scene.”
She also provides this list of just a few items offered at an Indiana store in 1834-35:
Guns and the gunpowder to fire them
Lead – While balls could be molded easily, you needed the bar lead to start with.
Salt – so necessary for preservation.
Metal items – tools, at least the heads, cooking pots, cooking utensils, horse shoes, nails, …
Dye stuffs for colors like blue, red, purple
Cotton – not grown in large quantities around here
Why does this matter?
I won’t deny that before the Industrial Revolution all items had to be made by a person, whether it was a person working with hand tools or operating a machine such as a loom. But, no single person was able to make everything they owned, nor did they have to; they could purchase items made locally or shipped from abroad, the same as we do today.
We honor the self-sufficient aspects of our ancestors quite readily; I think we should also recognize them as active consumers of a global marketplace, lest we do a disservice by diminishing the scope of the world they lived in.
1 I will be focusing on American history starting with European colonization. Pre-European contact also involved extensive trade networks, but this is meant to be a short article, not a doctoral thesis!
2 Jill Hall. “The Truth About Priscilla, Spinning in Early Plymouth Colony,” Spin Off. Winter 2010. Available online at http://www.sail1620.org/history/articles/220-truth-about-priscilla-spinning-in-early-plymouth-colony.html
3 Dwight Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1963), p. 86. Many thanks to Elizabeth Rolando of Plimoth Plantation for providing the quote.
4 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), pp. 84, 159.
5 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), p. 176.
6 The Encyclopedia of Diderot, 1751-1777. Available online at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/
7 York County Probate Inventories, provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s digital library. http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/BrowseProbates.cfm accessed January 19, 2013.
7 Responses to Myth #106: They made everything themselves in those days.
February 24, 2013 at 10:42 am (Edit)
I’m delighted to have someone else recognize this as a myth and try to tackle busting it.
The most common related myth I encounter is women of the mid-19th century doing all the sewing, including and especially making clothing, for their family members. The historical record just doesn’t support this lovely romanticized notion. Continuance of this myth does a grave disservice to the dress-makers, seamstresses, tailors, seamsters, and ready-made merchants of this era… and especially the dress-makers who, as female business-owners, made great strides in pioneering women taking roles outside of the home as both owners and consumers.
Iain Sherwood says:
February 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm (Edit)
In every town in the colonies (of any size) there was a blacksmith, a cooper, a tinsmith, a draper (cloth seller), a butcher and tanner, several joiners (carpenter), tilers (roofer), seamstresses, tailors, cordwainers, and other ‘domestic’ trades. On the coast there were plenty of fishermen and. later, whalers (I’m from New England), and there were numerous shipyards along the New England coast building cargo ships to carry lumber and goods up the rivers and along the coast.
Daud Alzayer says:
March 24, 2013 at 11:46 am (Edit)
Not to mention the large portion of goods that were imported.
February 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Edit)
reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingles Wilder encouraged me to feel that the women did alot of their own work. the mother weaves cloth for making coats.
March 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm (Edit)
Almanzo’s mother was just one out of many people. In upstate New York they had access to a lot. There’s a point where they talk about the fine store bought fabric Mother had used to make Sunday clothes. I had the feeling that what the family made on the farm was because they thought they could do it better and cheaper than buying. Mother’s cloth was known to be water tight and finely woven, but it is only for the boys to wear. They are not yet allowed the fine store bought. Perhaps she made it because it wore well with no holes in knees, etc.
March 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Very nicely put together piece. It is good to remember that the “good ol’ days” are not the ideal we think it is. Early in our history many items were made by and purchased from craftsmen, so our consumer history is very long.
March 12, 2013 at 11:30 am (Edit)
Mrs. Almonzo Wilder also denotes how unusual it was for a family of the Wilder’s position and economic standing to have the Housewife weaving cloth.
It was simply a case of Mrs. Wilder, Sr. doing a craft she enjoyed very much… on a small scale.
Consider it similar to a Mother today who bakes cupcakes for children’s school celebrations… for her own and her friends’ children… because she enjoys it, not because her family cannot afford bakery-made ones.