Revisited Myth #133: The British “Vulgar Penny” was a deliberate insult.

November 5, 2017


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.

The Facts:

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.[1]  Queen Victoria purportedly even told Wyon, “You always represent me favourably,” referencing his depictions of the queen on coinage and medallions.[2]

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.[3]  In fact, the posture of Britannia seen on the Victoria coinage was previously utilized on King George IV coinage dating to the 1820s.[4]  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).[6]  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.[7]

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.[8]  In addition to designing coinage, Leonard Charles Wyon was responsible for producing most British military and naval medals between 1851 and 1891.[9]

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.[10]  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.[11]

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.”[12]

[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ODNB] article: “Wyon Family”; ODNB articl: “Wyon, William.”,30170



[4] This is shown on an 1827 “George IV” penny.

[6] ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.”

[7] ibid.





[12] ODNB article: “Wyon, Leonard Charles.”

Revisited Myth #113: A deerskin was worth a dollar, hence the origin of the word “buck.”

March 11, 2017

The display claims that when Michigan was a young territory, deer were common and hunting was such a part of life that deer skins or a whole deer were used as money. A deer carcass was worth a dollar and hence the dollar became known for what it was worth–a buck.

A quick trip to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary should straighten this out, or so I thought. It says “origin obscure,” which usually means insufficient evidence. The OED and the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang give the oldest example as 1856, but another source, finds examples as early as the 1820s; to wit:

From James Buchanan’s 1824 Sketches of the History, Manners, and Customs of North American Indians:

Each buck-skin one dollar.

From the 1826 Narrative of William Biggs, While He Was a Prisoner With the Kickepoo Indians:

McCauslin then sent for the interpreter, and the indians asked 100 Buckskins for me, in merchandize…the indians then went to the traders houses to receive they pay, they took but seventy bucks worth of merchandize at that time.

From Charles Cist’s 1841 Cincinnati in 1841:

They had sold the Indians whiskey that had frozen in the cask, before they reached their camp; they made an Indian pay for a rifle gun thirty, the Indians say forty, buck-skins, which they value at one dollar each, besides a horse of fifteen pounds price.

From Samuel Prescott Hildreth’s 1848 Pioneer History:

On the frontiers, and especially among the Indians, the value of property was estimated in bucks, instead of dollars or pounds—a buck was valued at one dollar. A copy of the following certificate, recorded in Colonel Morgan’s journal, among several others of the same tenor, is worth preserving:
“I do certify, that I am indebted to the bearer, Captian [sic] Johnny, seven bucks and one doe, for the use of the states, this 12 April 1779.”

From Henry Howe’s 1851 Historical Collections of Ohio:

A muskrat skin was equal to a quarter of a dollar; a racoon skin, a third of a dollar; a doe skin, half a dollar, and a buck skin, “the almighty dollar.”

And finally from James Wickes Taylor’s 1854 History of the State of Ohio: First Period, 1650-1787:

The English said we should buy everything of them, and since we had got saucy, we should give two bucks for a blanket which we used to get for one: we should do as they pleased, and they killed some of our people to make the rest fear them.

(Thanks go to Ben Zimmer for this information.)

Joe Mirky pointed out some earlier, 18th-century references:

Conrad Weiser, a German immigrant to England and then to America spent a year as a youth with the Mohawk Indians and learned their language. He became an interpreter and negotiator for the Pennsylvania colony and later one of the founders of Reading and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

He recounts addressing Indians in his journal in 1748:

Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.


Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.

But I wondered, were deerskins really worth a dollar throughout this time? 

After searching through several books on the subject of the deerskin trade, it became obvious that prices depended on many variables. The size and quality of the skin were obvious factors in its value, but so was the age of the deer, the sex of the deer (buckskins were worth more than doeskins which were worth more than fawn), and the degree of finishing. A dressed buckskin was worth more than a partially dressed one. Prices also varied according to geography and over time. Also, skins were often sold by the pound, not each. In short, the price received for deerskins varied a good deal over time and place. 

Prices on the world market declined from the 18th century to the early 19th century, which affected the prices paid to hunters. Here are some details: In the late 17th century in Pennsylvania, a dressed buckskin brought 2 shillings 5 pence. In South Carolina in the early 18th century, dressed skins brought 5 shillings per pound; in North Carolina during that time, a buckskin brought 2 shillings, a doeskin 1 shilling 6 pence. (Hunting for Hides, Lapham, 2005, p. 12) In the 1780s in the southeastern U.S., a pound of dressed skins went for 6 shillings. By the 1790s, the price had dropped by 50% from pre-Revolutionary War years. (Deerskins and Duffels, Braund, 1993, p. 99-100, 178) I found no prices specific to the Michigan Territory, but since the main market was Europe, it seems reasonable to conclude that prices paid were fairly consistent throughout the colonies/states.

So the statement above seems to be partly true. Deerskins were not worth a dollar, per se, but they were a form of barter on the frontier that could approximate value. The word buck could derive from that usage. 

However, there is another, equally plausible origin of the word “buck:” that it is a shortening of the word “sawbuck” which was slang for a 10-dollar bill (or any early US paper currency). Why? Because the ten dollar bill had a Roman numeral X on it, which is also called a sawbuck, which is an X-shaped brace, a tool for helping cut a long log into boards. This would date the association of the word “buck” with a piece of paper money to the mid-19th century. 

This could be an example of two origins that developed during different times and places, both correct. Dr. Russell A. Potter, who has taught History of the English language for 25 years, says, The derivation of buck (dollar) from the trade in deerskins is (in my view) unlikely, as the usage is quite scarce prior to the introduction of paper currency — but yes, words can sometimes have more than one origin. The “sawbuck” theory has the advantage of a clearer line of plausible transmission — but even with that theory, there are relatively few examples until late in this same period (as a casual slang term, it likely had a long gestation in common parlance before it began to see the light of print). All of which are reasons why the Oxford English Dictionary lists “origin obscure.” I would certainly say that the deerskin theory should not be presented as unquestionably true; offering it alongside the “sawbuck”/$10 theory is probably about the best that can be done.


Earlier Comments:

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
May 4, 2013 at 11:48 pm (Edit)
I Have got to go with the idea of a BUCK. ‘Dollar” as a short form of BUCKSKIN which was a trade item. The online Etymological Dictionary (
Lists buck
“male deer,” c.1300, earlier “male goat;” from Old English bucca “male goat,” from Proto-Germanic *bukkon (cf. Old Saxon buck, Middle Dutch boc, Dutch bok, Old High German boc, German Bock, Old Norse bokkr), perhaps from a PIE root *bhugo (cf. Avestan buza “buck, goat,” Armenian buc “lamb”), but some speculate that it is from a lost pre-Germanic language. Barnhart says Old English buc “male deer,” listed in some sources, is a “ghost word or scribal error.”

Meaning “dollar” is 1856, American English, perhaps an abbreviation of buckskin, a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days, attested in this sense from 1748

Marfy Goodspeed says:
May 5, 2013 at 1:49 am (Edit)
Check out this link:
Seems like this is not a myth after all.

oldud says:
May 5, 2013 at 6:57 am (Edit)
I always wondered what created the demand for deer hides in Europe until I read that they were favored by the trade class (i.e. masons, carpenters, wheelrights, etc.). They provided durable, long-lasting breeches used under hard working conditions, similar to wearing today’s jeans. The skins also provided a favorite material for glovers, at a reasonable price. Eventually, the French traders in Louisiana preferred the hides to be unfinished (dried) since the manufacturer wanted to tan them to their specifications rather than receive the hides already brain-tanned.

Deborah Brower says:
May 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
Then there is “sawbuck”, how does that relate? As Mary said this is a complex question and the simple rules of commerce would effect it. One thing Mary did not bring was the value of currency. Are we talking Spanish dollars, American dollars or something else?

Then there are the various meanings of the word buck. Even the Online Entomology Dictionary has at least three definitions.

The earliest reference at is 1824. The others are clustered between 1841 and 1854. Are they influenced by James Buchanan’s book? Where the heck did he get it? I think at best the jury is out without better references.

I get the feeling that this is like many of the myths here. Someone comes up with a simple, appealing thought. It catches on and through repetition takes on the aura of truth.

Charlie says:
May 15, 2013 at 5:43 pm (Edit)
A sawbuck is an x-shaped brace used when bucking felled timber for logs. This part I know for fact (I’ve used them).

Supposedly, because early ten dollar bills had large roman numeral ten (X) on them, and twenties carried the double-X this led to the names “sawbuck” and “double sawbuck”. I have no idea if this etymology is true, although the bills certainly did have roman numerals on them.

Charlie says:
May 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm (Edit)
As for shopkeepers taking entire dressed animals in trade, my mother’s father certainly did so in the 1930s in rural Virginia. He’d have been much less successful than he was if he hadn’t allowed the poorer members of his community to barter for finished goods like cloth and gunpowder! He sold the meat, garden truck and live stock he received in trade to the wealthier folks for cash, and everybody involved was better off for it.

Mary Miley says:
May 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm (Edit)
Well, okay. I’m open to revision!

Leanne Keefer Bechdel says:
January 31, 2014 at 5:47 pm (Edit)
pretty certain the deer hides were tanned- smoke tanned so they would not be raw and rotting. Current trade rate for Indian tanned (smoked) buck skin is about 100 bucks. Soft- and waterproof and great for making clothing.

Jake Pontillo says:
June 30, 2015 at 1:55 am (Edit)
Yes indeed,Ms. Bechdel, although $100 for a good smoked brain tanned hide would be a very good price. I think nowadays more in the line of a 135- 150- T
he hides could have been sent out dried as rawhides and the re hydrated and bark tanned in Europe.

joemirsky says:
June 16, 2015 at 8:55 pm (Edit)
The word “buck” for dollar comes from buckskin, deer hide, that the colonials used to trade with the Indians.

Conrad Weiser, a German immigrant to England and then to America spent a year as a youth with the Mohawk Indians and learned their language. He became an interpreter and negotiator for the Pennsylvania colony and later one of the founders of Reading and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

He recounts addressing Indians in his journal in 1748:

Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.


Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.

Copyright © 2015 Joseph Mirsky



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

May 6, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisited Myth # 82: Signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” were common.

April 24, 2016


Rachel Sims wrote “I’m not sure if this is myth or fact because I’ve heard that its a myth and then I’ve heard its a fact. You know when Irish immigrants came to the United States and tried to find work? Were there truly signs in the store windows that say, “No Irish need apply?”

It’s neither myth nor fact. The statement has a core of truth to it, as many do, although it is exaggerated in collective memory. There were some nineteenth-century newspaper advertisements like the one above that stipulated “No Irish Need Apply.” But according to historian Richard Jensen in a 2002 article in the Journal of Social History, signs on businesses saying “No Irish Need Apply” were rare. 

“The fact that Irish vividly ‘remember’ NINA signs is a curious historical puzzle. There are no contemporary or retrospective accounts of a specific sign at a specific location. No particular business enterprise is named as a culprit. No historian, archivist, or museum curator has ever located one; no photograph or drawing exists. No other ethnic group complained about being singled out by comparable signs. Only Irish Catholics have reported seeing the sign in America—no Protestant, no Jew, no non-Irish Catholic has reported seeing one. This is especially strange since signs were primarily directed toward these others: the signs said that employment was available here and invited Yankees, French-Canadians, Italians and any other non-Irish to come inside and apply. The business literature, both published and unpublished, never mentions NINA or any policy remotely like it. The newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent. There is no record of an angry youth tossing a brick through the window that held such a sign. Have we not discovered all of the signs of an urban legend?”

8c15746rJensen, in my opinion, overstates his thesis here. Certainly there were signs on businesses saying “no colored allowed” and “no Chinese,”or more often, “whites only.” This photo from the Library of Congress collection shows a bar with a sign on the wall that reads, “Positively No Beer Sold to Indians.” A rebuttal of Jensen’s thesis claims to have located several signs relating to Irish. But that doesn’t mean “common.” And remember, there’s a difference between serving and employing. Many whites-only establishments that refused to serve certain ethnic groups still hired them as laborers.

Why were the Irish discriminated against? They were Catholic, a religion that frightened many Protestants, and the stereotype that they were lazy, dirty drunks was widespread in the 19th century. Some thought of them as a separate, inferior race, one that caused poverty. Their biggest crime, perhaps, was that they took jobs from native-born Americans because they would accept lower wages–the perennial anti-immigrant lament we hear today. Employers were often eager to hire Irish because they would work for less. Sure, some employers refused to hire Irish, black, or other minorities; some establishments refused to serve them. Anti-Irish sentiments were strongest in the middle part of the nineteenth century, when this song,”No Irish Need Apply,” was popular. Listen to it here: 

Conclusion: The Irish Catholics faced serious discrimination in America. “No Irish Need Apply” newspaper advertisements like the one above existed, but were rare. Work-related signs were rare, but Irish were effectively barred from “better” occupations and shunted into low-paying factory work and domestic service. 

I don’t think anyone is denying that discrimination against the Irish immigrants existed, or that advertisements or even individual signs were posted. The issue is whether pre-printed signs reading merely “No Irish Need Apply” were in use (which, from lack of evidence as well as logic makes this particular printed product an unlikely item).

Being from an immigrant family myself, I can vouch for the fact that some narratives (such as the name change at Ellis Island) cannot always be taken as fact.

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My ancestors were Irish and there are plenty of stories passed down through the family about how commonplace what you’re calling “myth” was back then. I liken articles like this to the people who deny the Holocaust ever happened, though obviously on a much lesser scale. As the above article shows, there are so many derogatory phrases demeaning the Irish that are still in our vernacular, I just don’t understand why people like you choose to write long articles denying it ever happened. To what end? What are you trying to prove? Does it make you feel better to think that white-on-white racism didn’t exist?

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Yes, they existed . Despite the fact there are few left . It like saying that slaves weren’t sold. The fact that few exist . The declaration states all men are created equal. The rebel flag has recently fell under scrinity . The civil war cannot be denied. Yet people at that time free labor is not bragged about these days. People have done cruel behavior towards those not of the same religion or race they are. Funny thing is people whom are not catholic . Forget that they all were. That the protested against the church & the Church of England came from a murdrering King to marry another in the church so he created another. People ask about the worship of statutes . During the churches early days , people could not read during this period of time . Thus they made statutes to symbolize – the salvation of God. Irish need not apply was very real. They hated the Irish catholic! Called garbage . Those signs do exist , I’ve seen them . Because someone not showing people how stupid and prejudice their forefathers were. Suppose
Selling slaves happened signs do still exist . Even back then it wasn’t the English finest moments . Sadly people can pretend it didn’t happened. Next they say that ww2 . And the mass killing of Jews the mental ill , Catholics , liberals those with a different polical party… Apparently people whom are not affected by those whom are not well/versed in the subject make a blanket statement . Like they don’t exist ? Oh well.,

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Mary Miley In reply to Nate.
Did you download the article here? I read the abstract, which they said was free, but wasn’t able to download the actual article.

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Nate In reply to Mary Miley.
HEre you go:

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Mary Miley In reply to James Dailey.
Have you actually read the high school student’s paper? I have not been able to find it, and I wouldn’t care to comment unless I had read it myself.

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James Dailey
The Jensen study was thoroughly debunked by a high school student in 2015. The NINA signs were found to be quite common, and were found all over the U.S. Thanks to Beth(?) Fried, the Washington high school student, who toppled the quite frankly racist assertions put forward by Jensen. In my mind, Jensen and whoever was in charge of the “peer review” that his
poorly researched, invective-filled racist rant of a “thesis” should be consigned to teaching at Know Nothing University, in KKK county, Redneckville USA.

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Pat Young
Jensen’s article was the real myth.

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Mary Miley In reply to M H.
Interesting article. Kudos to the high school student who did some fine primary research. But there is nothing to contradict what is written above. The young lady’s paper purportedly shows many instances of newspaper advertisements that read “no Irish need apply,” but we knew that, and I don’t see where she has uncovered any evidence of signage. These are two different, if related, issues. I couldn’t read her article (well, I could if I wanted to pay $39 for a one-day subscription to the journal, but I didn’t) so I can’t be sure about what else she wrote.

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This has been reevaluated recently thanks to more in depth research. See an excerpt from a paper in the Oxford Journal of Social History at

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Revisited Myth # 81: Jefferson invented the triple-sash window when he was in France to avoid the French door tax.

April 17, 2016


Virginia Mizel, Director of the Edmondston-Alston House in Charleston, SC, asked: “Was there ever a door tax in the South as there was in France? We have heard Thomas Jefferson invented the triple sash window to avoid a door tax while he was ambassador to France. Some southern tour guides state the door tax was also in place in here, which is why many homes from the 1800s have triple sash exterior windows serving as both door and window.”

Thomas Jefferson is credited with many inventions, but the folks at Monticello have been able to identify only one: a moldboard plow. He did not invent the triple-sash window. The original sash window originated in the 1600s. Jefferson did incorporate triple-sash windows on the first floor of his home, Monticello. These could be opened like a window or used as a door. (Another problem with the statement is that, although Jefferson did live in France for several years, he did not build any houses there.)

So any relevance to French door taxes is moot. If there was a tax on doors in France in former days, would someone please let me know? I have it on good authority that there is no such tax today. (A reader wrote that there was a door tax in France that was abolished in 1926 but I couldn’t verify that.) 

As for door taxes in America, see Myth #1 on closet taxes, #11 on wardrobe taxes, #30 on mirror taxes, #75 on window taxes, and #78 on second-story taxes. If anyone–tour guide or guest–mentions a door tax, ask him/her to specify the colony or state and point to the legislation. I cannot find any examples.

Revisited Myth # 78: People built one-and-a-half story houses to avoid the second-story tax.

March 19, 2016


There are so many myths that involve taxes–can you stand one more?

Taxes are a complicated subject–what’s new about that? In early America, most of the government’s money came from import/export duties on liquor and slaves and from port charges. Colonists paid several sorts of taxes but no income tax and only occasional taxes on real estate and personal property. The usual tax assessments due from individuals were the parish tax, which paid for churches, clergy salaries, and aid to the poor; county taxes, which paid for courthouses, bridges, and ferries; colony taxes, which paid for public officials and the capitol building; and in some colonies, the old feudal quitrent to the king, who legally “owned” all the land. (Property owners were technically only renting.) These taxes didn’t necessarily occur every year and they varied over time. Most taxes were based on the number of “tithables” in the household (white males over 16 and all slaves over 16), meaning those with the most slaves and the largest families paid the most tax.

I could find no mention of taxes on a second story in the colonies of Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Georgia, after having searched online databases of those colonies’ laws. (see to find links to the laws of the 13 colonies.) I plan to check the remaining colonies–a tedious task–as the week progresses, but I do not expect to find any mention of a tax on the second story.

A one-and-a-half story house is just a one-story house with a finished attic for extra living or storage space. As the director of research at Colonial Williamsburg wrote so succinctly when this myth surfaced back in 1968: “One-and-a-half stories are simply cheaper to build than two.”

Revisited Myth # 75: Builders of early American houses built few windows to avoid paying the window tax.

February 14, 2016


Yawn . . . another bogus tax. Let’s all say it together: There were no taxes on — uh, hang on a minute . . .

There actually was a tax on windows! Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, Virginia passed an emergency tax on homeowners based on the number of windows in their houses. (Hening’s Statutes, vol. 10, p. 280.) It was to last three years and it only counted windows with glass, which eliminated the lowest economic cohort that would likely have had only shutters because they couldn’t afford glass. However, this was a war measure, not a regular tax, so most historians discount it, insisting that there were no taxes on windows. I was unable to discover whether this war-time tax was ever collected, since the war ended shortly thereafter and it was, presumably, no longer needed. Also, this law pertained only to Virginia. Here’s the law:

“A tax or rate of one shilling for every glass window shall be paid by the proprietor of each inhabited house within the commonwealth in the month of September 1781, and so on in each of the three next succeeding years.” The law goes on to list other taxes, calling them “urgent necessities of this commonwealth” due to the war.

This could be the basis for the persistent window tax myth. An online search of other colonies’ compiled statutes through google books yielded no other examples. Not all records of colonial laws are available online, but the ones I could access–Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina–did not mention windows. I think it’s pretty safe to say there were no taxes on windows, except for that one little, temporary, exception in Virginia.

However . . . blog readers contributed further information about another, more likely origin for the American window tax myth: there was a genuine window tax in England, Ireland, and Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Great Britain, the window tax existed from 1696-1851 and was meant as a tax on the wealthy–the more windows your house had, the wealthier you were. Sounds good, but as in all taxes, there were “incessant evasion attempts,” such as blocking up the windows and uncovering them after the tax assessor had gone away. The laws had an effect on architectural practices too, as you might expect. See the full article in the Penn History Review, Spring 2008“A Tax on Light and Air: Impact of the Window Duty on Tax Administration and Architecture, 1696-1851.” Note well: the article is about Great Britain, not America, but it isn’t too long–have a look at it! There is also decent information for further reading at that is referenced. It seems likely to me that the window tax in Great Britain was the basis for the mistaken belief that there were taxes on windows in the American colonies. 


Revisited Myth # 63: It cost the average worker a year’s wages just to buy a suit of clothes.

November 14, 2015


In an effort to show how expensive clothing was in early America, it is occasionally said that a journeyman (a man who worked for wages, from the French for day: journée) had to spend an entire year’s wages to buy one suit of clothes. Well, maybe if he had an audience with the king . . .

Clothing was expensive and even the well-to-do owned only a few outfits. Gentry women often re-made their dresses by sending them out to be dyed and then attaching different trimmings. The “middling sort” may have had only two or three changes of clothing; the poor may have had only what was on their backs. But just like today, clothing was available, new and used, at a very wide range of prices. William Carlin, a tailor in colonial Alexandria who made clothes for field hands as well as the planter elite, charged £3-5 for an ordinary wool suit and £15 for a silk brocade suit. Meanwhile, a journeyman’s wages around the time of the American Revolution averaged £30-35 per year, about half of which went toward housing. 




Submitted on 2012/07/20 at 9:12 pm
Hi, where did you get your sources for this debunking? Thanks!


This subject has been thoroughly examined by historians at Colonial Williamsburg and I used their information that has been knocking around for years, notably in the “Interpreter” (an in-house CW publication published from 1980-2009) of August 1992 and Summer 2003, available at the CW Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg. There is a little information about William Carlin here:
Submitted on 2011/11/04 at 11:32 am | In reply to marymiley.
Oh YES, Please!!
We are still fighting the myth of “women made all the clothing for their families” into the 20th century. They forget (or don’t know) about the various services beyond “making a dress from draping to trimmings” that the average dress-maker would offer. They’re surprised to hear that America had a second-hand clothing market system and that clothing could be had through charity, estate sales, debtor sales, group of friends forming an exchange, garments left behind by customers of dress-makers and tailors.
The subject is much more complex than “women made clothing for their families at home.”

Submitted on 2011/09/23 at 8:40 am | In reply to Jamie.
Sounds like a good myth to add to my list for future debunking. Thanks.

Submitted on 2011/09/04 at 8:54 pm
Thanks for this. We are fighting an uphill battle about the “myth of homespun,” that every colonial wife did all the preparation of wool or flax, spinning, weaving, and sewing of all of her family’s clothes, regardless of class, time period, geographic location, etc etc etc.


Revisited Myth # 45: The Dutch bought Manhattan for $24 worth of beads.

April 12, 2015


Only one period document mentions anything about the purchase of Manhattan. This letter states that the island was purchased from the Indians for 60 guilders worth of trade goods, which would consist of things like axes, iron kettles, and wool clothing. No reason beads couldn’t have been included, but nothing tells us exactly what the mix was. Indians were notoriously shrewd traders and would not have been fooled by worthless trinkets. 

The original letter is in the archives of the Netherlands. It was written by a merchant, Pieter Schagen, to the directors of the West India Company (owners of New Netherlands) and is dated 5 November 1626. He mentions that the settlers “have bought the island of Manhattes from the savages for a value of 60 guilders.” That’s it. It doesn’t say who purchased the island or from whom they purchased it, although many historians believe it was the local Lenape tribe.

Where the $24 comes from, I have no idea. For what it’s worth, I checked a couple of currency conversion websites and learned the approximate value of 60 guilders is over $1,000 in today’s money. Some speculate that a 19th-century historian calculated how much a Dutch guilder was worth in his day, and the amount came to $24 U.S. dollars–and that number was never updated to reflect 20th- or 21st-century values. Could be.  

A little more is known of the purchase of Staten Island a few years later. That sale was also made for 60 guilders worth of goods (must have been the going price for New World islands!), and for this, the Indians took fabric, axes, hoes, awls, kettles, Jews’ harps, and beads. It is likely the goods exchanged for Manhattan were similar. 

Historians point out that North American Indians had a concept of land ownership different from that of the Europeans. The Indians regarded land, like air and water, as something you could use but not own or sell. It has been suggested that the Indians may have thought they were sharing or receiving gifts, not selling. 

Here is the letter, followed by a transcript in English:


Recep.7 November 1626
 High and Mighty Lords, 
Yesterday the ship the Arms of Amsterdam
 arrived here. It sailed from New Netherland out
 of the River Mauritius on the 23d of September.
They report that our people are in good spirit
 and live in peace. The women also have borne
 some children there. They have purchased the 
Island Manhattes from the savages for the value
 of 60 guilders. It is 11.000 morgens in size
 [about 22.000 acres]. They had all their grain 
sowed by the middle of May, and reaped by the
 middle of August They sent samples of these
 summer grains: wheat, rye, barleey, oats, 
buckwheat, canary seed, beans and flax. The 
cargo of the aforesaid ship is:
7264 Beaver skins
 178 ½ Otter skins 
675 Otter skins 
48 Mink skins 
36 Lynx skins 
33 Minks 
34 Weasel skins
Many oak timbers and nut wood. Herewith,
 High and Mighty Lords, be commended to the
 mercy of the Almighty,
Your High and Mightinesses’ obedient
P. Schagen

Revisited Myth #19: Iron nails were so valuable that people burned down buildings just to get the nails.

July 3, 2014



Here’s a good illustration of how a myth gets started. Ken Schwarz, Colonial Williamsburg’s blacksmith since 1982 and the master blacksmith since 2003, says he hears this one every time they make handwrought nails at the Anderson Forge. It’s not true, yet there is a nugget of fact if you dig deep enough . . .

. . . back to a single Virginia law in the 1640s that forbade the burning of buildings for the nails. However, Ken explains that during the earliest years of the colonial period—the first few decades of the 1600s—buildings were constructed in a very slipshod manner, with wood touching the ground. They were meant to be temporary, because the earliest settlers hadn’t planned to “settle” at all–they were here in the New World to make a quick fortune and go home. So they built shoddy buildings that quickly rotted. Therefore, it was an occasional thrifty practice to get rid of these shacks by burning them, but then, why not sift through the ashes for the nails? Ken says the nails weren’t all that valuable, but why waste them?


The law aimed to stop Englishmen from deserting their plantations and from burning the buildings as they left (and taking the nails with them) by giving them the estimated number of nails. Here, read it yourself.

And it is further enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, That it shall not be lawfull for any person so deserting his plantation as afore said to burne any necessary houseing that are scituated therevpon, but shall receive so many nailes as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended bout the building thereof for full satisfaction, reservinge to the King all such rent as did accrew by vertue of the former grants or planting of the same from the expiration of the first seaven years.

Perfectly clear, right?

Okay, the translation: in essence, it says, if you’re going to desert your plantation (which you are leasing from the king, you don’t own the land), don’t burn the worthless buildings for the nails before you leave; we’ll give you as many nails as two men estimate are in the building, but you won’t get any of your rent back from the king.

Ken Schwarz says that this practice didn’t last long. Slipshod building techniques soon gave way to sounder architecture. No one would ever have burned a decent building for its nails. 

It’s also relevant to note that there were blacksmiths among the earliest settlers to Jamestown and archaeologists have uncovered nails and nail-making tools from the early years. So nails were not unduly rare or expensive; nor were they something to waste.

Schwarz says “Some legends persist because they appeal to the masses. This seems to be one of those appealing legends.”



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