Why is Nobody Smiling?

September 3, 2017

A rainy day at the beach yesterday sent me to Norfolk, Virginia’s excellent Chrysler Museum of Art. I was particularly impressed by the labels on many of the works of art. They were very helpful in directing attention to certain features or posing thoughtful questions–or answering the question that is likely in the visitor’s head. This one made me think of the Myth 127: People didn’t smile in pictures because of the long exposure time required.  The myth speaks to photographs but makes the point that photographic portraits followed the traditions of painted portraits. Here’s what the Chrysler label said: 

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

May 22, 2017

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

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

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


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.”

Fire mark, Smithsonian Museum of American History

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.” 


Victorian Tear-Catchers Myth

May 6, 2017

Thank you, Lisa Price, for bringing this to my attention. It’s certainly worth sharing.

 

I had not heard the myth of Victorian era tear-catchers (probably because there was no such thing), which says that grieving people captured their tears in decorative glass vials. These tiny, pretty vials were intended for perfume. Read more about this at Tear Catchers on Atlas Obscura, by Sonya Vatomsky.

 


Revisited Myth #118: Golf “caddies” were named by Mary Queen of Scots.

April 23, 2017

Some say that the term “caddie” was originally coined by Mary Queen of Scots in 1552. Here’s the story: She was the first female to play the game of golf. When she was living in France during her youth, it was traditional for French military cadets to carry the clubs of royalty. The cadets carrying golf clubs actually came to be called caddies due to the French language. The word cadet in French is pronounced “ca-dee,” thus the term. The word traveled to Scotland when Mary returned there in 1561.

The first problem with this is that the French word is NOT pronounced Cadee, but more like something between Caday and Cadeh. Another is the claim that she was the first woman to play golf. Possible but highly unlikely. 

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, caddy or caddie does come from the word “cadet,” from the French, meaning a younger son or younger brother, or the junior branch of the family. The first known written use was 1610, when it meant, “a gentleman who entered the army without a commission to learn the military profession and find a career for himself (as was regularly done by the younger sons of French nobility before the French Revolution).”

Caddie definition #1 from the Scots, 1730, “lad or man who waits about on the lookout for chance employment as a messenger, odd-job man, etc.” 1817 “a caddy came with a large parcel to Mrs. Hogan’s house.”

Definition #2, 1634, from the Scots “a young gentleman latelie come from France, pransing . . . with his short skarlet cloake and his long caudie rapier.”  Or 1776 “with his sword by his side like a cadie.”

1908 #3 caddy: verb, to act as caddy for a golfer  

While we can’t know whether Mary Queen of Scots was really the first woman to play golf, the word origin part of the story seems largely true. 


Revisited Myth # 117: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was based on an actual wreck of a ship off Bermuda that was headed to Virginia.

April 15, 2017

Hogarth 1735: scene from The Tempest

Not a myth. This is true, or at least very likely. There is strong evidence that Shakespeare did use elements of the story of the wreck of the ship Sea Venture in his play, The Tempest. The ship was on its way to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609 when a huge storm, probably a hurricane, blew it onto the uninhabited island of Bermuda. There the survivors salvaged everything they could from the ship and built a new one from the salvaged parts and the local cedar. Months later, they made it to Jamestown where their arrival saved the colony from abandonment. According to Colonial Williamsburg research files, “An account written by one of the voyage’s members, William Strachey, entitled “A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight” (Gates was the future governor of the colony and a leader of the survivors) was sent to an anonymous noble lady at court. It was not officially published until 1625, after The Tempest was first performed, but many scholars agree that Shakespeare was at least familiar with the story and incorporated parts of it into his tale of a shipwreck on a mysterious island.” 

For more details, see Louis B. Wright’s A Voyage to Virginia in 1609 (1964) which republishes Strachey’s “”A True Reportory” and another primary account, Silvester Jourdain’s “Discovery of Bermuda.” Either or both of these could have been Shakespeare’s source. Or Hobson Woodward’s A Brave Vessel: the True Tale of the Castaways who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2009).


Revisited Myth # 110: The insult “Your name is mud” comes from Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Lincoln’s assassin for a broken leg.

February 5, 2017
Dr.Samuel Mudd

Dr.Samuel Mudd

Does the phrase ‘your name is mud’ or ‘your name will be mud’ come from Dr. Samuel Mudd who was known for helping John Wilkes Booth? My colleagues and I have been discussing this and I thought I would ask. Del Taylor, Program Coordinator, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons

Dr. Samuel Mudd was accused of helping John Wilkes Booth prior to Lincoln’s assassination and of treating his broken leg as he fled Washington after killing the president. He was imprisoned and then pardoned many years later. But the phrase has nothing to do with Dr. Mudd.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in December 2007, dates the first written example of the phrase at 1823, more than four decades before Lincoln was assassinated. Moreover, the term appeared in a British book, not an American one. It meant what it appears to mean–that your name is (or will be) dirty as mud if you do such-and-such.

 

 

COMMENTS:

Brian Leehan says:
April 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Edit)
Both make sense, but the 1823 written example clinches it, in terms of origin. I don’t ever recall seeing it written – only spoken. So, I always saw it in my mind’s-eye as “Your name will be Mudd.”

Reply
janice says:
April 15, 2013 at 5:29 pm (Edit)
i have heard this or even read it in books about the death of lincoln. thank you for this info

Reply
LYMHHM says:
May 1, 2013 at 9:04 am (Edit)
But the Dr. Mudd myth is so much more colorful. Thanks to BF Gates, AKA Nicolas Cage, we now have a new generation of misguided souls concerning real history. Thanks for the post,

Reply
Mary Miley says:
May 1, 2013 at 5:55 pm (Edit)
And that’s the problem with most myths–they are memorable or funny or scary or sexy and more interesting, in some cases, than the truth. Oh well . .. .

Reply
M Rob says:
April 21, 2015 at 11:49 pm (Edit)
Phrase and word meaning evolve and become more significant as events dictate. A phrase originally coined in 1823 Britain could very easily have taken on an American flavor following the infamy of Dr. Mudd.

Reply
David says:
December 16, 2015 at 9:56 pm (Edit)
Sometimes there are historical events that redefine what an expression means. So, I completely agree with M Rob.

Reply
PMV says:
October 18, 2016 at 2:09 pm (Edit)
I agree with M Rob and David.

Reply


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