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.


Revisited Myth #84: The “The World Turned Upside Down” was played as the British surrendered in Yorktown.

May 23, 2016


(Thanks to guest blogger, Deborah Brower, who wrote this to debunk one of her favorite myths.)

In case you missed it, the story goes like this: when the British surrendered at Yorktown, they played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.”

The problem is no one who was present at Yorktown said that at the time. It’s not until an 1828 memoir by a man named Alexander Garden that it appears in print. Only one other veteran agreed but he was in his 80s by the time it came up. He was speaking years after the memoir had been published and by then it had already entered the public imagination. Also problematic is the fact that there are several melodies that are associated with that title. Even if it were true, which one would it be? In the end there is no reliable evidence that it happened.

I play historic music with a group called Tasker’s Chance. When we were first putting music sets together, one of my band mates said, “We just have to play ‘World Turned Upside Down.’ It’s the tune they played at Yorktown and everyone asks for it.” It became a regular part of our performances. Then came an excellent article in the Williamsburg Journal (Oct/Nov 1999) by Dennis Montgomery: “If ponies rode man and grass ate the cows?”: Just What Tune was un the Air when The World Turned Upside Down? With a heavy heart, I shared it with the group. We all liked the tune and were reluctant to toss it out. All that was left was to make lemonade out of the lemons.

From the article I learned that the roots of the tune we play go back to the first part of the 17th century and a truly cataclysmic event in British history, the English Civil Wars. The tune is catchy and was used with different sets of words. Two sets of lyrics really appealed to me. “When the King Enjoys His Own Again” is a hopeful vision of the return of Charles I to the English throne. The other is a complaint about the banning of Christmas customs by the Puritans also titled the “World Turned Upside Down.” The last line of the first verse of the song is “…old Christmas is kickt out of town.” Who could resist that?

Several years later I had a conversation with some musicians who were indignantly complaining their group NEVER plays the tune. If anyone asks about it, they set them straight in short order. That’s a valid approach, but I look at it differently, especially since I like the tune. I play it, but I also explain its story. I think it interesting that the story endures. Maybe it’s because it sums up prevailing emotions in a single phrase anyone can understand. Perhaps it’s because the English Civil War and American Revolution have something in common, both fundamentally caused the British to rethink who they were. In both cases, their world really was turned upside down.

For more detail, read the article by Dennis Montgomery, retired editor of Colonial Williamsburg’s Journal, at

Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit on bullets to combat pain.

January 17, 2016


Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 

Revisited Myth # 62: Everyone was killed at the Alamo.

November 1, 2015


“Remember the Alamo!” became a famous battle cry.

We may remember the Alamo, but we don’t remember who died there. The battle of 1836 was a victory for the Mexican army under General Santa Anna, whose soldiers killed all the Texans who fought against them. But many other men, women, and children in the fort were spared. Historians argue about the exact number—was So-and-so still there or had he left before the final battle?—but it seems that two or three African-American male slaves were spared as were many wives and children of the defenders. And yet, I read a couple of years ago in a textbook intended for Virginia fifth-graders that “everyone at the Alamo perished,” so I’m afraid the myth is still running rampant. 

The official Alamo website tries to correct this: “It is true that nearly all of the Texans under arms inside the fort were killed in the March 6, 1836, attack. However, nearly twenty women and children, who experienced the twelve days of siege leading to the final assault, were spared and allowed to return to their homes. The survivors also included Joe, the slave of William B. Travis. The best-known Alamo survivor, Susanna Dickinson, was sent to Gonzales by Santa Anna with a warning to the Texans that the same fate awaited them if they continued their revolt.”

Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson

Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson

Revisited Myth #61: Back then, people bathed once a year.

October 26, 2015


Other versions of this myth include: “Brides carried bouquets of flowers to cover up their body odor,” and “People bathed twice a year, in May and October.” All nonsense.

Personal habits are notoriously difficult to document—when was the last time you noted in your diary that you took a shower? If the verb “to bathe” means to sit in a large tub of hot water and wash, then Myth #61 might be considered true. Almost no one bathed that way until the 20th century when the miracle of indoor plumbing brought gallons of hot water directly into a tub with no more effort than it took to turn a tap. Before that, hot water required too much labor to allow even the upper classes with servants or slaves to fill up a tub every day and soak in it–although some did, as evidenced by large tubs like the one above. Men could bath in rivers and lakes as part of their swimming recreation; women seldom did. Bathing in warm mineral springs and seaside resorts began to spread in the early 19th century, at first for the wealthy, but later for middle classes as well.

Just like today, habits varied. Some people washed daily and others did not. Some washed hands and face daily; others took sponge baths daily. Inventories and photographs commonly show a wash stand in bed chambers. People washed as they stood or sat in a small tin tub with a few inches of water or stood on a floorcloth beside the wash basin. And there are some written references to bathing. In the eighteenth century, William Byrd II wrote in his book, HISTORY OF THE DIVIDING LINE (1741), that he was relieved to bathe after several days in the wilderness. Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia was writing about soldiers but his recommendations could have applied to any American when he said that they should “wash his hands and face at least once every day, and his whole body twice or three times a week, especially in the summer.”

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people visited public baths in towns and cities. Even a city as small as Richmond, Virginia, had one in 1832 and possibly earlier. There were several public baths in Richmond in operation until the last closed in 1950. John Zehmer of the Historic Richmond Foundation wrote in his new book, THE CHURCH HILL OLD & HISTORIC DISTRICTS, that the Branch baths served 60,000 bathers a year. “The cost [in the early 1900s] was five cents for adults and three cents for children. The bath was popular with judges, doctors, lawyers, and all classes of people because it was so much better than what was available at home. The development of indoor plumbing led to the closing of the public baths . . .”

Primitive “shower baths” came into play in the middle of the 19th century for the well-to-do to install in their homes. Virginia’s governor installed one of these in the basement of the executive mansion in the 1840s. This newspaper advertisement dates from 1847. 

shower bath 5

Still, most early Americans took sponge baths, standing beside their washstand with its pitcher and bowl of water or in a small tin tub with a few inches of warm water, usually in their bedchamber. Servants or slaves, if one were wealthy enough to have them, brought buckets of water from the pump, heated it in kettles on the stove, and lugged it up the stairs to the shallow tub. Otherwise you did the chore yourself. Ladies often preferred to put the tub by a fireplace. Some people bathed in the kitchen, nearer the stove—less privacy but less carrying. Many who were willing to wash their bodies while standing in a basin were unwilling or unable to immerse themselves fully in a large tub.

Interestingly, bathing and washing didn’t necessarily include the use of soap, at least not until the 19th century. Kathleen Brown writes in her book Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, p. 244, that the association of bathing with soap began in the 1830s, representing “a new fastidiousness about body odor that increased the labor required to achieve decency.”

One thing’s for sure, people washed their hair less often than we do today. A women would have had to spend half her daylight hours sitting by the fire or in the sun to dry her long tresses. Hair styles reflected this reality. Until the 1920s when American women began cutting their hair short for the first time, most braided, knotted, or twisted up their long hair and wore it under a cap or bonnet. The invention of the electric hair dryer allowed a greater variety of styles.

In the 1870s, the discovery of germs helped boost the idea of cleanliness in Europe and America. Modern indoor bathrooms with a sink, tub, and toilet in one room, gained popularity from the 1920s on. But even then, by 1940 (just before World War II), only half of American homes had this sort of modern bathroom.

Accuracy might best be served by saying that, while people bathed less frequently than most do today, they did not necessarily wash less frequently.

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