Revisited Myth #114: You had to have two opposing teeth to join the army in early America, so you could tear off the end of the cartridge.

March 20, 2017

John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg, lays this one to rest. “I have heard many reenactors note the need for two opposing teeth as part of their musket-firing interpretations. Such a requirement isn’t mentioned in any of the drill manuals of the period. I don’t recall seeing anything requiring two opposing teeth in any of the recruitment documents or officers’ guides.”

Perhaps this started as a joke in the reenactment community and was taken seriously by some. Do people at Civil War sites hear this too?

Another (minor) consideration: As far as dental health was concerned, things were not as bad as people are led to believe. There was much less sugar in the diet in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely because sugar was a luxury item and very expensive. Less sugar = fewer cavities = fewer rotten or missing teeth. 


Previous Comments:

Melissa Nesbitt says:
May 12, 2013 at 10:29 am (Edit)
That one was a new one to me. It’s so odd what people will believe these days. And along the lines of “everyone” having rotten teeth, I grow tired of the assumption that “everyone was shorter” in those days. I think you may have already addressed that one though.

Megan says:
May 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm (Edit)
If you haven’t covered the “everyone was shorter” myth, I wish you would! I get tired of people saying that too, and then I have to find a way to nicely tell them they’re wrong without having actual research to back me up…. some people were certainly as tall as we are today!

Mary Miley says:
May 12, 2013 at 5:06 pm (Edit)
See myths 108 and 8. Also #8 Revisited, when I learned some new information that was intriguing.

Dudley Toelke says:
May 12, 2013 at 3:18 pm (Edit)
I can assure you that you have to have at least two opposing teeth to tear a cartridge. The paper used for cartridges in the early 19th century was intended for durability to hold the ball and powder and would NOT have been pre-torn. Safety was a matter of accomplishing the mission, even then; the are a lot of sparks flying around when firing in close ranks. Firing commands are quite specific, as far as loading procedure, include “tear cartridge”. Having done so many times, you can not “gum” a cartridge” open. All of that said, it would be good to have primary source documentation for the assertion. I will try to find some.

Mary Miley says:
May 12, 2013 at 5:08 pm (Edit)
Mr. Hill did not say the cartridges would have been pre-torn, he said theoretically, someone could have “pre-torn” them.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:43 am (Edit)
I have researched the inspection of recruits in the early 19th century and the only orders for oral inspection was for the regimental surgeon. However, having physical experience with tearing cartridges, they could not have been “gummed”. And as to pre-torn cartridges, if the offender would not have been caught by his sergeant, his line buddies would have known and corrected the error; exploding cartridge pouches don’t add to the efficiency of the unit and well being of those in the burst radius of it.

Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 9:04 am (Edit)
There was not one single type of paper used for cartridge-making in the world in the black-powder era. Anything from newsprint paper to the equivalent of bond paper to waxed paper was used, and everything else in between.

I’ve seen original cartridges still extant, found in cartridge pouches. The paper is easily torn. You could even rip paper with your fingers, if you had to.

However, as to whether “Two/four opposing teeth” was a condition to joining the army- any army, remember, anybody who has no teeth at a military age is probably somebody who’s not very healthy to begin with.

This is a lovely reenactor myth, that many of our fellow reenactors have got attached to saying, but until somebody comes forward with credible multiple primary sources from different ears saying “you needed two/four opposing teeth in order to bite open cartridges, to go in the army”, I’m going to chalk this one up to “reenactor logic”. It’s right up there with the three-sided bayonet myths.

Mary Miley says:
August 9, 2013 at 11:33 am (Edit)
Roger, For some strange reason, your comment isn’t making its way to my blog page. And I want it there–it’s a good bit of information! Would you mind cutting and pasting it and trying again? I can’t imagine what’s wrong . . . Thanks. Mary Miley Theobald Writer and Historian

5 Countryside Court Richmond, VA 23229 (804) 288-2770


Keith says:
May 14, 2013 at 9:09 am (Edit)
I had heard tihis said for the British army during the Nepolianic wars by severeal british historians interviewed for telivision programs. The continental army may not have been so picky. I also know a renactor with no upper front teeth and he manages quite well. Also, a good deal of tooth loose was from scuvy not caries.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:50 am (Edit)
Once again, it depends on the paper he is using for blanks. I’ve even seen a fool that tried to get through a safety inspection with powder rolled in cigarette papers. Easy to tear but a hazard to himself and others.

Roger Fuller says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:26 pm (Edit)
What British historians, and what sources did they mention?

Mom Wendel says:
May 15, 2013 at 9:45 pm (Edit)
There is a certificate of exemption for Rufus Downs of Ramsey, Minnesota, stating he was not eligible to serve or be drafted into the army during the Civil War. The reason for his disqualification was “by reason of not having teeth in his upper jaw.” The certificate is in the Anoka County Historical Society museum.

Mary Miley says:
May 16, 2013 at 7:48 am (Edit)
Interesting! But does that pertain to cartridges?

Brian Zawodniak says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:12 pm (Edit)
Is that a woman in uniform firing a musket? If so, that is so not historically-accurate unless that unit historically had a woman hide her gender.

Mary Miley says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:22 pm (Edit)
I can’t answer that question because I can’t see the person’s face. However, I will say that Colonial Williamsburg has had to bend to modern employment requirements and allow girls to serve in the Fife and Drum Corps and hire women to work as costumed carriage drivers, so it is possible. In these cases, they are supposed to conceal their hair and wear men’s clothing.

Will says:
August 6, 2013 at 5:35 pm (Edit)
Women did not serve in the military during these time periods out in the open. When they did see combat, it was in disguise as a man. If they were found out by superiors, they were removed from service. There are about 400 documented cases of women serving in combat in the American Civil War, and there were well over 3 million men serving between both armies. The ratio of women serving to men is very small…..

Brian Zawodniak says:
August 6, 2013 at 3:14 pm (Edit)
Also, pre-tearing a cartridge would have the powder leak out! Using your hands to tear a cartridge takes time away from the whole process of loading thus making one slower. Where is the musket in all of this hand tearing? Gumming your cartridge? Boy….

Lindsey says:
August 6, 2013 at 9:20 pm (Edit)
Yes, people make this claim at ACW battlefields, often that draft dodgers knocked out their own teeth to be unfit for service. They often add that the “draft board” would just put you in the artillery.

They neglect to remember that the Confederate Army of Tennessee’s Kentucky Brigade (the so-called Orphans) included a man with a “deformed mouth” who could not speak and had no teeth. No was an infantry private.

Dale Kidd says:
August 7, 2013 at 3:09 pm (Edit)
I can’t speak for the American Army, but this definitely WAS a documented condition of enlistment in the British Army during the Georgian era.

Mary Miley says:
August 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm (Edit)
Can you cite a source for that? (Without going to a great deal of trouble . . . )

Marc Schaftenaar says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm (Edit)
People are a bit eager to dismiss this as a “myth”, but the exercise is quite clear: the cartridge is opened by tearing it with the teeth. Any old soldier losing his teeth over time surely would not be kicked out immediately, -nor were woman, after discovery,- but I can’t imagine the old and teethless being accepted as new recruits.

Marc Schaftenaar says:
August 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm (Edit)
Also, saying something like pre-tearing and gumming a cartridge “might be possible” is also not a valid argument.

Craig Schomp says:
August 8, 2013 at 11:25 am (Edit)
Perhaps you think it is a myth because the search term was wrong? Try “4F”…

Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 8:52 am (Edit)
I dunno….an unsourced website on the Internet is not sufficient proof. This isn’t how historical research is supposed to work. It’s a secondary source at best. Anybody can put something on the Internet. Whether it’s true is another matter. It needs either a source from a period document or a picture of an original document confirming this assertion, preferably multiple sources, to give more credence to the assertion. If I passed this in for a grad school class, I’d get an F. Or in this case, “4-F”.

Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 6:53 pm (Edit)
Hi, Mary, I’ll try it again.

“There was not one single type of paper used for cartridge-making in the world in the black-powder era. Anything from newsprint paper to the equivalent of bond paper to waxed paper was used, and everything else in between.

I’ve seen original cartridges still extant, found in cartridge pouches. The paper is easily torn. You could even rip paper with your fingers, if you had to.

However, as to whether “Two/four opposing teeth” was a condition to joining the army- any army, remember, anybody who has no teeth at a military age is probably somebody who’s not very healthy to begin with.

This is a lovely reenactor myth, that many of our fellow reenactors have got attached to saying, but until somebody comes forward with credible multiple primary sources from different ears saying “you needed two/four opposing teeth in order to bite open cartridges, to go in the army”, I’m going to chalk this one up to “reenactor logic”. It’s right up there with the three-sided bayonet myths.

Daisiemae says:
December 3, 2015 at 9:55 pm (Edit)
I heard a reenactor today say that people often knocked out their front teeth in order to avoid serving in the army! I simply cannot believe that.

The same reenactor told the old “bite the bullet” myth and he was saying something about being stabbed with a 3-sided bayonet, but I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying. What is the 3-sided bayonet myth?

Mary Miley says:
December 6, 2015 at 10:35 pm (Edit)
Re: a 3-sided bayonet–such things did exist. I’ve seen them. I’m no expert on historic arms, so I can’t comment further. I don’t know what the myth is.

As for knocking out one’s own teeth to avoid military service, I find that hard to believe if only because so many people had missing teeth. (We don’t see it too often today, what with implants and dentures, but travel to a third-world country and you’ll notice a big difference. When I was in India, for instance, it seemed that almost all adults were missing a tooth or three. In 18th- and 19th-century America, it was probably the same.) If many (or most) adults were missing teeth, I doubt that missing one’s teeth would make one ineligible for the army.

Perhaps a military historian could better respond to this one?

Jake Pontillo says:
August 1, 2016 at 4:07 pm (Edit)
The standard military Bayonet was triangular in cross section. A wound via such a weapon would be difficult to suture. Also It is not absolutely necessary to tear open a cartridge with the teeth. One can be ripped easily with the fingers.

Roger Fuller says:
August 4, 2016 at 10:07 am (Edit)
As anyone who has ever sewn up wounds can tell you, you just use more stitches. Ever seen somebody who went through a car windshield? They look far worse than an some body with an even-sided wound, and those poor victims get stitched up successfully, too.

The “three-sided bayonet as especially cruel weapon of war” myth seems to have come from the late 1950’s or so, at least as Dave Jurgella recalled it for me years ago, who related that, in the dawn of Civil War reenactment, when reenactors were asked, why does the bayonet have three sides, they had no answer. Not knowing they answer, reenactors guessed at it, so as not to come off looking ignorant of the subject. (But, really, the honest thing to do is say, I don’t know. Get the person’s contact info, research it, and get back to them with whatever info you find. You learn new stuff that way, I find!) The guess got added to by further guesses (AKA reenactor logic), and became holy writ.

The reality is that the three-sided socket bayonet was a compromise between metal used and bending strength. Four sides are too heavy, two sides might snap, but three sides meant the blade might bend but not break, if slammed against a hard object. The flutes along the sides are not “blood gutters”, but fullers that impart bending and twisting strength, such as the inner surfaces of a railroad rail or I-beam do.

Unfortunately, old myths die hard, since reenactors get very attached to them. For instance, the Geneva Convention, which supposedly banned such weapons, had nothing to do with weapons. It was mostly about prisoner exchanges and prisoner treatment in war. The Hague Conventions didn’t ban them, either, since they we long out of service by about thirty years, when the first convention took place. But again, it makes a potent myth that folks like to tell credulous crowds at reenactments who ooh and gasp when they hear these myths.

oldud says:
August 4, 2016 at 10:42 am (Edit)
The triangle has an excellent strength – weight ratio.

Revisited Myth # 103: Civil War soldiers underwent surgery with no anesthesia.

October 1, 2016



The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD, tries to debunk the widespread medical myth that anesthesia did not exist during the Civil War.

Gaseous ether and chloroform were both widely available and their therapeutic impact was well known in both Union and Confederate medical services. (Both had been used since the 1840s.) Major surgery was carried out using these anesthetics if they were available. It is estimated that greater than 90% of all major surgery was carried out with anesthetics. See

But neither ether nor chloroform was available before the 1840s, so Revolutionary War-era medical practices did not include the use of anesthetics.

Other medical misconceptions from the pre-anesthesia era abound. Ben Swenson, a historian and re-enactor who worked at Yorktown, VA, a Revolutionary War site, says visitors often approached him with incorrect assumptions. Something “we heard all the time that was patently false was that they would get soldiers rip roaring drunk before amputating an arm or a leg. There are actually a couple of misconceptions here. First, despite popular belief, they did not just take a hacksaw to peoples’ limbs. It was actually quite an intricate procedure involving skin and muscle knives, muscle retractors, saws, cauterizing irons, etc. And the alcohol thing is Hollywood history. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels and they knew that. They would not have wanted their patient to bleed to death. Besides, being drunk doesn’t dull the pain, it only changes your reaction to it. So no alcohol. And no again, they didn’t give someone a bullet to bite on…when someone cuts into you, you scream, and that bullet goes down the gullet. A stick would probably have been used to keep someone from biting his tongue off.”

So the absence of anesthesia is a myth if it’s said to pertain to the Civil War, but true during the Revolutionary War.


Earlier Comments:

janice says:
January 8, 2013 at 4:21 pm (Edit)
well, thank you. yes, the movies have influenced my thinking. i never questioned this. also they make you feel that the conditions of surgery was barbaric. i remember seeing a house in a tour of a civil war battlefield that they indicated was used as a hospital for wounded. i wonder how few really lost limbs, after reading this.

Mary Miley says:
January 8, 2013 at 5:23 pm (Edit)
Soldiers certainly did lose limbs, but the circumstances were not as primitive as the movies would lead us to believe.

azambone says:
January 9, 2013 at 9:21 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
ALZ Comments: Another historical myth that frosts my clock. Like most historical myths, it believes that our ancestors were much, much less intelligent than we.

Carole Kingham says:
November 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm (Edit)
Being a Respiratory Therapist in my real world job, and a Confederate Doctor at events, I love the bite the bullet myth and usually address it when asked…my take is that pre modern age, teeth were not a thing to be taken lightly and without floride in the toothpastes were pretty soft in comparison to a hard lead bullet. A bite down on the bullet would probably lead to cracked and/or broken teeth, which would lead to a scream and probably inhalation of said bullet and fragments of teeth…causing a different form of lead poisoning, lol! And that anesthesia of both types were pretty available during the war.

Daisiemae says:
January 8, 2016 at 9:09 pm (Edit)
I was expounding upon this myth on Facebook when a Friend informed me that her brother-in-law owns a “Civil War bullet with teethmarks on it.”

I said that whatever marks are present on this bullet must have come from something else.

Does anyone have any light to shed on these supposed bullets full of teethmarks?


Revisited Myth #97: British soldiers wore red coats because they wouldn’t show the blood.

August 28, 2016

Ben Swenson, former history teacher and reenactor, said he often heard the myth that the British wore red because it wouldn’t show blood if they were shot. “Considering that the rest of their uniforms were usually white, this made no sense. . . I seem to recall something about red being the cheapest dye for a country that had a substantial military budget. Not 100% sure on that one.”

Shoot03_r2You’re on the mark, Ben. For more than a century, inexpensive synthetic dyes have been able to create any color on the color wheel, so the world has forgotten the message of power and wealth that intense color once conveyed. People from the past craved bright colors, but only the rich and royal could afford expensive dyes and the fabrics that showed them off. So tight was the link between the aristocracy and color that in many societies, laws restricted strong colors like scarlet or purple to the nobility, just in case some nouveau riche lout was tempted to dress above his station. Renaissance Europeans would have considered today’s dress-for-success colors—black, beige, grey, and other subdued shades—fit only for paupers.

Red and its close cousin purple were the most coveted of colors because they were the most difficult to make and the most expensive. Down the centuries, reds and reddish purples became the acknowledged color of royalty throughout the world. Chinese and Persian rulers preferred red. The togas of Roman senators bore a reddish-purple band. The Catholic Church took red as a symbol of its authority, using a red cross on a white shield as its emblem and dressing its cardinals in scarlet robes. The British were not alone in dressing their military officers in red uniforms. Its rarity and its link to status made good red dye almost priceless.


Max Hamrick, Colonial Williamsburg’s master weaver and dyer, says that both cochineal and madder were used to put the red in Redcoats. The British government supplied their soldiers with uniforms that were dyed with madder because it was cheaper. Officers, who supplied their own uniforms, preferred the brighter red of cochineal for their jackets. Red was the symbol of power and prestige, not some cover up for blood.

Even Wikipedia says, “There is no known basis for the myth that red coats were favoured because they did not show blood stains. Blood does in fact show on red clothing as a black stain.”

My article on cochineal and the color red appeared in an issue of Colonial Williamsburg’s magazine. I found the topic fascinating–hope you will too.



Grace Burrowes says:
October 13, 2012 at 9:30 am (Edit)
I also suspect that once the artillery started firing, and smoke hazed over the battlefields, red was simply VISIBLE, making it less likely a soldier would be killed by friendly fire. Once the hand to hand fighting began, the downside of increased visibility (to the enemy) would have been moot since national affiliation would have been obvious up close.

PJ Curran says:
October 13, 2012 at 10:36 am (Edit)
In a conversation with a young “Redcoat” at Old North Bridge this summer I was informed that the reason for red was to identify the lines when the muskets began to generate smoke, an explanation similar to the previous response.

Caitlin McRae says:
October 17, 2012 at 11:38 am (Edit)
When you say inexpensive synthetic dyes have been available for more than a century, do you mean aniline (sp?) dyes from the turn of the century…? Would love to know more of that kind of history.

Caitlin McRae

Mary Miley says:
October 17, 2012 at 2:55 pm (Edit)
So would I, but I’m afraid I know very little about the chemistry of modern synthetic dyes. The first were created in the mid-1800s and soon crowded out the old plant-based and insect-based dyes that had been used for centuries.

Edward Werner Cook says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:41 pm (Edit)
William Henry Perkin discovered Mauve in 1856 in August Von Hofmann’s Laboratory at the Royal College of Chemistry in London. After Prince Albert died Hofmann went to Berlin in 1863 where Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter was Crown Princess of Prussia. By the 1877’s dye industry in England was dead and became a German monopoly. At the end of the 19th century it was these same synthetic dye companies who had the skill to make synthetic drugs with the dye firm later known by the name of the founder Fredrick Bayer synthesizing Aspirin in 1897. The rest is, as we say, history. The giant firm I G Farben means “Common Interest in Dye Colors” and was at height the 4th largest company in the world.

You’ve Got Red On You « The BS Historian says:
December 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm (Edit)
[…] from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for […]

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:10 am (Edit)
There is an interesting correlation with the development of chemical dyes, which led to progress in industrial chemistry in general, which caused competitions and conflict between England and Germany and that, among other things,
led to the the tensions that blossomed into WW I – The idea of red not showing blood, may have had some origins in the painting of the deck of the Shipboard surgery in the days of Wooden ships and sail ( or is that a myth , too?!)

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 10:44 am (Edit)
I’ve read about that relationship between chemical dyes and WWI–fascinating. BUt I’ve not heard that statement about red decks, so don’t know if it is a myth or not. Sounds myth-like . . .

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm (Edit)
I was aboard USS Constitution a few years ago when it was dis-masted in dry-dock having preventative maintenance performed. I inquired of a sailor if they were going to paint the decks red and he said they only did that in the sick bay. I do not know if we can rely on this ( I am tempted to just call the commander of USS Constitution and just ask him!)
Anyway I came up with some info:

“The insides of the gun decks and the scupper ways were painted red so that blood stains should not be so noticeable.”


“In the artillery decks, the bulkwarks and the carriages of the cannons were often painted in red, to dissimulate the presence of the blood during combat.”

“The deck above the holds in the old ships, what would now be called the platform deck, was known as the orlop deck, a contraction of ‘overlap’, a word of Dutch origin meaning ‘that which runs over the hold’. In H.M.S. Victory this deck is painted red; the wounded were taken there to be tended by the ship’s surgeon. On this first deck below the waterline they were safer and their blood was not so noticeable against the red paint of the deck.”

BUT this one is not in agreement.

“Interior bulkheads were often painted red, not to cover up blood and gore during battle (most of which wound up on the deck anyway) but rather for decorative purposes and because red ocher pigment was relatively cheap.”

What do you think?

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm (Edit)
Hmmm. Interesting. I do know this: reddish-brown paint (iron oxide or sometimes called Spanish brown) was cheap and easy to make yourself, like whitewash. Neither is real paint, which was expensive, tricky to make, and rather a trade secret. (Painters made their own concoctions and kept formulas in the family.) If that’s the “red” paint used on the floors, as suggested in the final quotation which mentions red ocher (which is iron oxide), then I side with the final quotation.

Roger W. Fuller says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:09 pm (Edit)
Having been personally injured accidentally by a bayonet at a reenactment, in which I bled onto a red British regimental coat I was wearing, I can assure you, red does not cover up blood stains. Blood looks almost black in comparison when on period-dyed red woolen cloth.

Mary Miley says:
September 24, 2013 at 12:34 pm (Edit)
Yikes! That’s what I call a primary source!

Jan says:
September 24, 2013 at 4:50 pm (Edit)
Actually, what I’ve read suggests that *black* was the most difficult and expensive dye to produce consistently in a way that would not fade or run.

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
September 27, 2013 at 12:55 pm (Edit)
Well I went and called USS Constitution and the man there just called me back- Mr. Brecher I think it was, and we discussed the painting of the deck red- he said that almost all the decks are natural pine, which are ‘holy stoned ” ( sanded with a piece of sandstone)so they would be the natural pine color, with the bulkheads whitewashed- BUT that the deck of the cock pit, – where the wounded were treated – IS CURRENTLY painted red, BUT he has no historical reference for why this is done, and does not know why it has been done nowadays. I asked if the sailors who are assigned to the ship as guides tell the people that was because the red would not show the blood, and he laughed and said that they do have a training period for the sailors and expected that that was not done.

That is where the thing is now. Unfortunately I am not entirely convinced of whether or not the decks were or were not painted red because of the blood. Until I do more research and stumble upon some CONTEMPORARY source, . I could put forth a theory- which is that since the deck in the cockpit would have blood on it and since the decks were holy stoned pine the blood would soak in and so that deck was painted and since the Spanish brown was cheap the deck was therefore painted that reddish brown.

Jeff Neice says:
September 29, 2013 at 2:26 am (Edit)
the old red barn, milk paint, was very thick and solid. Perhaps, they used something like that to seal and preserve the floors better in the sick bay.

Mary Jean Adams says:
July 21, 2014 at 5:05 pm (Edit)
It reminds me of an old joke about a sea captain who wears red because it doesn’t show the blood. However, when faced with overwhelming odds, he asks his mate to bring him his brown pants.

The joke is funnier when not being told by me.

Zain says:
August 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm (Edit)
Thanks for solving this myth i always wanted to know the truth

RIchard Howe says:
December 10, 2015 at 3:25 pm (Edit)
I was told that the officers had Scarlet uniforms because they were more visible on the battlefield so that the rank and file could see them giving orders. In Europe at the time,it was considered “uncivilized” to shoot the officers! The American Revolution put an end to that!

stephanusmurlinis says:
May 23, 2016 at 10:02 am (Edit)
It was my understanding that the red coat appeared during the English Civil War. While the cavaliers used blue uniforms, the Model Army used red. Is it correct?

picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:32 am (Edit)
Reblogged this on Defense Issues.

Patrice Ayme says:
June 9, 2016 at 2:50 am (Edit)
The Spartans supposedly used red to hide their wounds. Centurions of the Roman army carried spectacular head dress, parallel to their shoulders, above their helmets, to be seen from afar.

Revisited Myth #96: Because trans-Atlantic communication was so slow, the Battle Of New Orleans occurred after the War of 1812 had ended.

August 20, 2016



Thanks go to Ralph Eshelman, a historian who specializes in the War of 1812 and who busts this common myth, below. It’s one we find in many history books. I confess, when I was teaching, I presented this to my students as fact. Sorry kids . . .

This commonly held myth is based on the fact that the American and Great Britain peace commissions agreed to terms of a treaty on December 24, 1814. But the British were fearful of the US Congress failing to agree to the recommendations of their own peace commission such as occurred with the Jay Treaty. So the British demanded that all hostiles would cease only after the treaty had been ratified and exchanged by both countries.

This is very clear in the wordage of the treaty as found in the first sentence of Article 2: “Immediately after the ratifications of this treaty by both parties, as hereinafter mentioned, orders shall be sent to the armies, squadrons, officers, subjects and citizens of the two Powers to cease from all hostilities.”

Great Britain ratified the treaty on December 30. The treaty did not reach Washington City until February 14, 1815 and was not ratified by congress until February 16. The United States and Great Britain exchanged ratifications of the treaty on February 17. At this time the treaty became binding. The Battle of New Orleans took place on January 8, 1815, forty days before the war was officially over and hostilities were to cease.



Revisited Myth #89: Women’s buttons are on their left because women were dressed by maids, who found it easier when the buttons were on their right.

June 19, 2016


. . . and men’s buttons are on their right because they preferred to dress themselves.

Well, not exactly.

First of all, buttons are seldom found on women’s clothing before the nineteenth century. Mens’ clothing, yes, but women used ties, hooks, and other fasteners more often than they used buttons. With most clothing made by the women of the house or, in the case of the wealthy few, by dressmakers and tailors, individual preference prevailed in positioning buttons. There was no standardization in America until the Civil War era when the manufacture of uniforms began on an industrialized scale. That is probably when buttons became more or less standard on the right for men.

Curators who deal with nineteenth-century women’s clothing report that they have seen buttons on both sides. No one is willing to go out on a limb on this topic, but it seems that the button-on-the-left for women’s clothing probably got started in the early twentieth century with the rise of women’s ready-made garments. And since women buying ready-made blouses would not have been among the wealthy few (who continued to use custom dressmakers), the argument about maids is illogical.

Besides, who says wealthy men preferred to dress themselves and wealthy women didn’t? That idea is totally unsupported by fact. What were all those valets, houseslaves, and manservants doing, anyway?


Jane padded says:
June 2, 2012 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
Ive heard that myth and it made since to me.
Elaine says:
June 2, 2012 at 4:43 pm (Edit)
…and another myth…
In an age where every cloth item in a household needed sewing and precise fit was crucial to a garment being considered acceptably “well made”, it was not only the “wealthy few” who made use of dress-makers and tailors. Folks would be more inclined to re-make, repair, and hand on garments to make their clothing dollar go further. Dress-makers offered many services that helped less affluent clients afford professionally made clothing.
Victoria says:
June 12, 2012 at 9:18 pm (Edit)
While I agree with you about left and right buttoning conclusion, I take some issue with your statement, “First of all, buttons are almost never found on women’s clothing before the nineteenth century. Mens’ clothing, yes, but women used ties, hooks, and other fasteners.” Buttons on women’s clothing fell in and out of fashion as the centuries went on and depended more on the time and location than on the genderization of fastenings. The location, material, and number of buttons vary. Cloth, metal, thread wrapped were all used on the front and sleeves of women’s clothing. Many of the choices in buttons were dictated by cost. Cloth buttons are the cheapest whereas threadwrapped and metal buttons are more costly.
A (very!) brief survey* of women’s clothing illustrates this:

14th century (on sleeves)

15th century (again, on sleeves)

16th century (English) (Flemish) (Italian)

17th century (French) (English) (Spanish)

18th century (French) (American)

These are all just visual examples of buttons on women’s clothing. Written records also illustrates buttons being bought and made for women’s clothing before the 19th century.

To sum up: I really❤ buttons!

Thanks for the awesome posts,

(*Side note: One thing I did not include here is examples of women’s hunting and riding outfits. These were usually festooned with buttons, but as they were purposefully based on men’s clothing styles, they were ignored for the sake of argument.)

marymiley says:
June 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm (Edit)
Wow, Victoria, what a great list of illustrations! I understand your point. I didn’t mean to suggest that there were no examples of buttons on women’s clothing in America before the nineteenth century–of course there were buttons on some women’s clothing in the 17th and 18th centuries, but, according to the curators I spoke with, other fasteners were more common. Perhaps I overstated their findings when I wrote that the curators said they “almost never” saw buttons on 17th and 18th-c. women’s clothing. I’ll change the wording to “seldom,” which I think addresses your point and makes the claim more accurate.
Roaring Ort (@red_mercer) says:
September 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm (Edit)
Wasn’t Archduke Ferdinand actually sewn into his suit every day?
Mary Miley says:
September 2, 2012 at 6:46 pm (Edit)
I’ve never heard of such a thing, but at my age, nothing surprises me.

Borden says:
January 28, 2014 at 7:35 am (Edit)
I’m not entirely convinced by the line of reasoning in this “myth”. Working backwards:

1) I disagree that the issue of whether to dress oneself was a matter of preference. One look at a portrait of Elizabeth I shows that her corsetry and dresses were far more elaborate than her father’s, Henry VIII, and would have been almost impossible for her to put on herself. Likewise, what about traditional wedding dresses which button at the back compared to, say, a man’s morning suit in which everything is buttoned at the front?

2) There may be truth that the US Civil War, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, led to the first industrially mass-produced uniforms. However, Europe had already been going to war for centuries and needed their own mass-produced military uniforms. I’m not convinced that the 1860s was the first time that the idea for standardised sewing patterns was developed.

3) Although it may be true that women’s clothes before the 20th century rarely had buttons, the other fastenings still would have needed a decision on whether to close on the right or left. Further, it’s not just buttons subject to the left-v-right convention. Zippers, buckles and wrapping (L over R for men, R over L for women) all follow this distinction, suggesting that the rules transcend, and were likely in effect long before, buttons.

You may very well be correct that the reason for opposite sides for buttoning has no historically functional justification. However, the reasons given don’t seem to defend the argument irrefutably.


Revisited Myth #86: Paul Revere rode through the countryside shouting, “The British Are Coming!”

June 5, 2016



Thanks to guest blogger Ceci Flinn for busting this week’s myth. Ceci recently received her PhD in history and has given tours of Boston for twenty years, so if anyone knows the truth about Paul Revere, it is she!

Standing at a library counter at a university in Canada, I explained what I had been looking for when the e-catalog failed. I gave the person working the front desk increasingly specific information – U.S. History, Early American History, Revolutionary War/War of Independence – until I reached my final description: Paul Revere’s ride. “Oh!” he said, “The British are coming!” When I told the retired history professor I was visiting about this, she said: “That’s all we know about it.” (“We” referring to ordinary Canadians, of course, not herself.) Americans are often the same. It is an amazing example of the strength of historic myth, that this simple phrase could be so prevalent and so . . . wrong.

When Paul Revere, William Dawes, Dr. Samuel Prescott, and others, rode to warn rebel leaders in Lexington and Concord that soldiers were heading their way, looking mainly for the stores of ammunition that were being stockpiled by rebel colonists and an excuse to arrest the leaders, they would never have shouted “The British are coming!” because, simply put, they were all still British. Imagine someone running down a road in Concord, MA today shouting “The Americans are coming!” and you’ve got the idea.
In April of 1775, there was plenty of agitation, and many historians argue that the first shots of the revolution had already been fired in New Hampshire the previous December. But one thing had not yet changed: the colonies were still British. They were still overseen by a faraway king and his parliament, and the composition of the “Declaration of Independence” was over a year in the future. So, what did Revere and his compatriots actually say? In their depositions they stated that they had warned residents “the Regulars are out.” British soldiers, such as those stationed in Boston under General Gage, were referred to as “Regulars,” or colloquially as “Redcoats” or “the King’s men”, or even derogatorily as “Lobsterbacks.” But they were certainly not called “the British.” Nor were colonists yet referred to generally as “Americans,” more often terms like “Yankees” or “provincials” were used.

It is easy to see why the myth came about since in hindsight, we refer to the parties involved in the Revolution that created a new country as “British” and “American” to identify the two sides. The expression was apparently used as early as the 1820s. For example, a man called Elias Phinney published a book in 1825 about the events of April 1775, and in his descriptive text he used the term “British.” Yet looking further to his appendices, where he reprints the depositions of colonists, the text quite clearly says “Regulars.” These depositions are available today on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website. Still, the myth is persistent,and not even the respected historian David McCullough did enough to prevent further perpetuation: in the HBO mini-series dramatizing his book John Adams, a messenger rides up to Adams, working outdoors at his farm, and shouts “The British are marching on Lexington!” Another history “fail”, though admittedly, for clarification’s sake, perhaps an understandable failure.

David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, 1994 (p 56, 109)
Elias Phinney, History of the Battle of Lexington, 1825 (p 15, 33)
Massachusetts Historic Society:
Revere’s deposition:

Revisited Myth #85: Prostitute were so common around Gen. Joseph Hooker’s army that they became known as “hookers.”

May 29, 2016


According to this myth, there were so many prostitutes working around Union General Joseph Hooker’s army that they became known as “Hooker’s Division” or “Hooker’s Brigade” or simply “hookers.” The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang calls this story “popular fiction.”

The fly in the ointment is that the term was in use before the Civil War. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word had its origins as early as 1567 when it meant petty thief or pickpocket. (Other definitions include a person who fastened his clothing with hooks, like the Amish, a two-masted Dutch finishing vessel, and a rugby player, but we’ll ignore those.)

In America this synonym for prostitute dates back at least as far as 1845. It probably evolved from the conventional sense of hook, to lure and take or rob, qualities associated with prostitutes. John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms of 1859 defines a hooker as a strumpet and says it comes from the New York neighborhood known as Corlear’s Hook, where there were lots of prostitutes. That’s probably another myth.

Since “hooker” already meant prostitute by the time of the Civil War, it was an obvious joke to refer to the prostitutes around General Hooker’s army as Hooker’s Brigade.

(An interesting aside: in French, the man who solicits patrons to come to a whorehouse is known as an accrocheur, or hooker, from the verb accrocher, to hook.)


irishhistoricaltextiles says:
April 16, 2012 at 6:09 am (Edit)
Any truth to the story that the word hooker came from women using a crochet hook, a la this website It’s a popular one in the crochet world!

Ted says:
January 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm (Edit)
The version I got was that Gen. Hooker was known to keep the company of Washington, D.C. prostitutes after the Civil War; he wasn’t very discreet about it. The ladies of the evening became labeled “Hooker’s brigade” ( or army).
I’ve read and heard this from a number of sources and don’t doubt that Gen. Hooker was associated with local prostitutes. I agree that the joke probably reinforced the “hooker” slang that was already common.


%d bloggers like this: