Revisited Myth # 136: Women married very young in “the olden days.”

December 3, 2017

(Thanks to Katie Cannon, assistant curator of education at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, for tackling this myth. I’m sorry I couldn’t reproduce her two charts, but I’ve transposed the information they contained.)

There is a phrase that I always find myself repeating whenever a general statement is made about the past: “It’s more complicated than that.” This is one of those myths that is sort of true… in some times and places… but tends to get overgeneralized. Yes, some women were married as teenagers in early America. However, this was not always true everywhere… or even most of the time!

There are many factors you must consider when talking about typical ages at marriage:

Geographic Location & Economic Situation. Not all times and places are the same. In the early years of New England, 1650-1750, most women married and most around the age of 20-22, with men four or five years older. By contrast, at the same time in Europe (where many of those women or their parents came from) about 10% of the population did not marry at all.(1) In his book From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, Alan Kulikoff makes the argument that marriage age in 18th-century America was directly tied to land availability. The more land is available to start working and providing for a family, the sooner a person (male or female) can marry. Here is what he found: The English and their colonists assumed that men could not marry until they could support a household. This was easier in America where land was plentiful than in England where it was not. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short time save money enough to purchase a Piece of new land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family.”(2) 

Even in America, marriage age fluctuated with availability and cheapness of land, which varied between regions and decades. Here is a chart summarizing Kulikoff’s findings. The numbers indicate average age at first marriage.(3)

England, 1700s; Women: 25-26; Men: 30

New England, early 1600s; Women: Teens; Men: 26

New England, late 1600s; Women: 20; Men: 25

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1600s; Women: 22; Men: 26

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1700s; Women: 23; Men: 26

Rural South Carolina, 1700s; Women: 19; Men: 22

For comparison, here is the U.S. census data showing the median age of marriage for selected years in  the more recent past:(4)

1900 Women: 21.9; Men: 25.9

1950 Women: 20.3; Men: 22.8

1975 Women: 21.1; Men: 23.5

2000 Women: 25.1; Men:  26.8

As you can see, the age at first marriage in the 20th century is not that different from the 17th or 18th, depending on exactly where and when you are talking about. While there is a variety, they are all within the same general range rather than the drastic difference many imagine.

Widows & Widowers: Sadly, disease was much more prevalent and you could do less about it than today. Second marriages and stepchildren were rather common, because both men and women regularly took ill and died before reaching old age. If we look for example at the first ten presidents and their wives, four of the wives had been married previously and one of the presidents married again when his wife died. So, the marriage ages often get skewed when an older person who has lost a spouse remarries. To illustrate this, consider President John Tyler, who married Letitia when they were both 23. When Letita died, John remarried, this time to Julia who was 24… although by that time he was 54. You might look at that second marriage and be delightfully scandalized that a man married a woman who was 30 years younger. But remember, in his first marriage, he and his wife were exactly the same age.

Personal Circumstance People still get married as teenagers in America. And some wait until their 40s… or never. It was the same in early America: not everybody fit into a tidy generalization. 

 

1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in Northern New England 1650-1750, published 1983, page 6.

2 Quoted in Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, page 228.

3 Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, pages 227-229.

4 http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/tabMS-2.pdf

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Revisited Myth #69: The first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621.

November 20, 2017

The heart-warming tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast and prayers at Plymouth never took place. More accurately, it is a combination of two events that did take place: a harvest feast that occurred in 1621 with about 90 Wampanoag Indians and a day of thanksgiving declared by William Bradford in 1623. The pious Pilgrims did not consider that feast to be a “thanksgiving,” which to them meant solemn day of prayer at church, not a harvest celebration or a meal shared with heathens. Historians believe they would not have combined the two events as we do today.

An annual Thanksgiving holiday wasn’t established until the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln made it official.

All this begs the question of where the real first Thanksgiving took place. There are other serious contenders, you know, including Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, where the settlers were specifically instructed to make the day of their arrival in 1619 a day of thanksgiving to be celebrated every year thereafter. But St. Augustine, Florida, may trump them both with its 1565 date. This is where the Spaniards celebrated with a Catholic mass and a fine meal with the Timucua Indians. And Texas believes it has claims on an earlier event. Now, now, children, no squabbling . . .

The truth is, there were many official days of prayerful thanksgiving in colonial America.

 

Previous comments:

informationforager says:
November 19, 2011 at 8:50 am (Edit)
Thanks for the info. I always like to find and realize real history. Mankind has such a propensity for misaligning the truth and making it totally self-serving. Recently I finished some books on the founding Fathers original religious views. That was very good. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

P.S. I’ve been to St. Augustine, Florida and it’s beautiful.

Reply
marymiley says:
November 19, 2011 at 9:55 am (Edit)
I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting St. Augustine but it’s definitely on my short list!

Reply
Jamie says:
November 19, 2011 at 11:51 am (Edit)
I believe George Washington also proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for Thurs, Nov. 26 in 1789 (see http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/GW/gw004.html), more of day of prayer than a feast. My understanding is it didn’t quite catch on (and where it did was mainly in the North?) but set the stage for Lincoln’s national holiday, late in November (though, did I read that originally Lincoln’s holiday was the fourth Tuesday? and FDR moved it to third and later the fourthThursday?).

Reply
Saraspondence says:
November 21, 2011 at 4:07 am (Edit)
Thanks! I like the idea of multiple events in different geographical locations involving shared harvest and thanks to God!

Reply


Revisited Myth #122: Blue Laws are named for the color paper they were printed on.

June 4, 2017

This myth states that the origin of the term “blue laws,” (statues regulating work, commerce, and activities on Sundays) comes from the color of the paper on which they were printed. Or the color of the book’s binding.  

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term “blue laws” originated in 1781 in A General History of Connecticut where the author, Rev. Samuel Peters, refers to outlandish Connecticut laws of the 17th century, most of which he made up. Some think he may have made up the phrase “blue laws” as well; the Oxford English Dictionary does not provide an earlier use. It does, however, give an earlier meaning of the word “blue”– it meant indecent or rigidly moral, as seen in bluestocking (a woman with literary or intellectual proclivities) or bluenose (person who advocates a rigorous moral code).

On another note, I am unaware of blue writing paper in colonial days–I am unaware of any color other than white or near white–although I have seen blue covers on books of that period. 


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

May 22, 2017

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

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

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


Revisited Myth # 69: The first Thanksgiving took place at Plymouth in 1621.

November 20, 2016

20071121-first-thanksgiving-300x252

The heart-warming tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a Thanksgiving feast and prayers at Plymouth never took place. More accurately, it is a combination of two events that did take place: a harvest feast that occurred in 1621 with about 90 Wampanoag Indians and a day of thanksgiving declared by William Bradford in 1623. The pious Pilgrims did not consider that feast to be a “thanksgiving,” which to them meant solemn day of prayer at church, not a harvest celebration or a meal shared with heathens. Historians believe they would not have combined the two events as we do today.

An annual Thanksgiving holiday wasn’t established until the Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln made it official.

All this begs the question of where the real first Thanksgiving took place. There are other serious contenders, you know, including Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, where the settlers were specifically instructed to make the day of their arrival in 1619 a day of thanksgiving to be celebrated every year thereafter. But St. Augustine, Florida, may trump them both with its 1565 date. This is where the Spaniards celebrated with a Catholic mass and a fine meal with the Timucua Indians. And Texas believes it has claims on an earlier event. Now, now, children, no squabbling . . .

The truth is, there were many official days of prayerful thanksgiving in colonial America.

 

Previous comments:

informationforager says:
November 19, 2011 at 8:50 am (Edit)
Thanks for the info. I always like to find and realize real history. Mankind has such a propensity for misaligning the truth and making it totally self-serving. Recently I finished some books on the founding Fathers original religious views. That was very good. Keep Blogging. Keep Writing.

P.S. I’ve been to St. Augustine, Florida and it’s beautiful.

Reply
marymiley says:
November 19, 2011 at 9:55 am (Edit)
I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting St. Augustine but it’s definitely on my short list!

Reply
Jamie says:
November 19, 2011 at 11:51 am (Edit)
I believe George Washington also proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving for Thurs, Nov. 26 in 1789 (see http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/GW/gw004.html), more of day of prayer than a feast. My understanding is it didn’t quite catch on (and where it did was mainly in the North?) but set the stage for Lincoln’s national holiday, late in November (though, did I read that originally Lincoln’s holiday was the fourth Tuesday? and FDR moved it to third and later the fourthThursday?).

Reply
Saraspondence says:
November 21, 2011 at 4:07 am (Edit)
Thanks! I like the idea of multiple events in different geographical locations involving shared harvest and thanks to God!

Reply


Revisited Myth # 102: “Twelve Days of Christmas” song has a secret meaning.

December 19, 2015

 

A partridge not in a pear tree

A partridge not in a pear tree

Okay, here’s another Christmas myth. One I hadn’t planned to include on the blog because I didn’t think it was a museum-related myth. But last week I was touring an early-nineteenth-century historic house and the guide presented this fable as truth, so I guess it’s fair game.

There is a secret code myth related to the well-known song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” According to this myth, the song is an underground catechism song for Catholics in England who were oppressed during the late 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s. As the story goes, persecution of Catholics was so severe that they dared not teach their children their beliefs, so this song was written as a memory aid. Here is the supposed “secret” meaning behind the song:

1 Partridge/Pear tree stands for Jesus

2 turtle doves = Old & New Testaments

3 French hens = faith, hope, love or the Holy Trinity or the 3 gifts of Magi (versions differ)

4 collie birds = four gospels

5 golden rings = Pentateuch (first 5 books of Bible)

6 geese a-laying = 6 days God created the Earth

7 swans a-swimming = the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit (prophecy, ministry, teaching, giving, exhortation, leading, compassion . . again, versions differ on these)

8 maids a-milking = the 8 beatitudes (blessed are . . .)

9 drummers drumming = the 9 fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, faith, meekness, etc. . . . but not consistent)

10 pipers piping = the ten commandments

11 ladies dancing = the eleven apostles (Judas doesn’t count)

12 lords a-leaping = 12 statements in Apostles’ Creed

With apologies to Eliz. Barrett Browning: How to debunk thee? Let me count the ways . . .

First and foremost, there is no historical documentation. The claim first surfaced in 1979 when it was proposed by a Canadian English teacher and part-time hymnologist who said the idea came from conversations he had with elderly Canadians. “I can at most report what this song’s symbols have suggested to me in the course of four decades.” This rather weak statement was soon taken up and popularized by a Catholic priest who claims he saw a reference to it “as an aside” in some very old letters from Irish priests, but his notes were ruined in a basement plumbing leak and the original information is, he said, on “a computer floppy disk that is so old that nobody has a machine that can read it anymore.” 

The original song is not even English, but French. And as a Catholic country that persecuted Protestants, the French had no need to compose songs with secret religious meaning.

12 Days Mirth MischiefHow do we know it’s French in origin? It’s hard to date a song: the earliest published form in English comes in a 1780 children’s book, Mirth Without Mischief, but it’s clearly earlier than that. The title page on Mirth Without Mischief (left) says “Sung at King Pepin’s ball.” There is no English King Pepin, but Pepin the Short was the father of Charlemagne. Pepin ruled from 752 to 768. One piece of evidence for French origin is that the partridge was unknown in England until 1770s when it was introduced from France. And the song has that light, dancing feel of a French carol.

Aside: I had wondered, so perhaps you do too, about the difference between a carol and a hymn. A carol is based on dance music, light and dancy, simple, popular, joyful, with a religious impulse. Many were developed in France between 1400-1650. Examples of a carol would include Deck the Halls and Il est ne le divin enfant. Examples of hymns: We Three Kings, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Silent Night.

There is no religious connection to the objects, only to the numbers; in other words, no relationship exists between concept and symbol. How does 8 maids a milking remind one of the 8 beatitudes? 2002-959How does the irreverent mental picture of lords a-leaping remind one of the Apostles’ Creed?

The symbolism varies with different versions of the song—how can something meant to be a memory aid have so many variations? For example, three French hens supposedly stood for faith, hope, love. Or in some variations, the Holy Trinity. Or in others, the 3 gifts of Magi.

Another major problem: none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations. All doctrines have Old and New Testament, 10 commandments, 3 gifts of the Magi, 11 faithful apostles, etc. There is no reason for Catholics to have to hide their knowledge of these religious tenets. Conversely, nothing uniquely Catholic appears here—no mention of the Pope or the Virgin Mary or confession, concepts that had been suppressed by the Anglican church. There is no reason why young Catholics could not be taught openly about the four gospels or the ten commandments.

Finally, the lyrics are entirely secular and playful, not spiritual.

WHAT, THEN, IS THIS SONG?

A memory-and-forfeits game.

Every time the song is mentioned in a book, it is said to be a forfeit game: each person repeats the gifts and when he/she misses one, he pays a forfeit (a kiss or sweetmeat) for the mistake. To wit: an 19th-c. novel, The Ashen Faggot: A Tale of Christmas: “When all the raisins had been extracted and eaten . . . a cry for forfeits arose. So the party sat down round Mabel on benches brought out from under the table, and Mabel began, ‘The first day of Christmas my true love sent to me a partridge and a pear tree . . . And so on. Each day was taken up and repeated all round; and for every breakdown (except by little Maggie, who struggled with desperately earnest round eyes to follow the rest correctly, but with very comical results) the player who made the slip was duly noted down by Mabel for a forfeit.’ ”

According to University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor and chairman of the Classics Dept. Edward Phinney in 1990, it is a love song : “If you think of all the things being presented, you realize they’re all gifts from a lover to a woman. Some of them are rather impossible to give, like eight maids a milking and nine ladies dancing. All those ladies and dancing and pipers and drums imply this is a wedding.” Phinney also points out the un-Biblical fertility symbols: partridge is famous aphrodisiac; six geese a-laying are reproducing. Seven verses are birds which are symbols of fertility and the pear itself is a male fertility symbol. Swans are significant in tales about love. “The whole song,” says Phinney, “seems to me to point to a festival of joy and love more appropriate to a secular holiday like Valentine’s Day or May Day than a religious holiday.” That may seem odd, but when you remember that weddings were a prominent feature of the Christmas season, the link seems more plausible.

 

 

Comments:
Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
71.56.173.116 In reply to WriterMelle.
I don’t believe it means bird covered with soot; rather birds that are black like soot. Blackbirds.

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WriterMelle
writermelle.com
melissalind@live.com
162.251.14.78
I think that giving away colly birds wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do since they were quite sooty….as in covered with soot.

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.82.204 In reply to kbchrist.
It refers to the 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany (Jan. 6).

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kbchrist
kbchrist@gmail.com
100.2.135.69
Do you know of any reason for it to be 12 days? My understanding was that it was the twelve days between Christmas and Kings’ Day, but with the courting connotations that seems unlikely

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to azambone.
Oh, geez, I’m so embarrassed! Colonial Williamsburg had me give a public lecture last November about this myth–another example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing.

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azambone
azambone@me.com
72.82.234.247
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
One of the most annoying and unkillable Christmas history myths is that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is actually a secret catechism…or something. It particularly annoys me because I once accepted it. And it was even more annoying when I heard a nice lady at Colonial Williamsburg not only repeating the myth at Christiana Campbell’s Tavern one night, but also passing out handouts explaining the “code.”

Anyway, given that the twelve days of Christmas are over, you’ll have to wait until next year to correct your annoying, know-it-all Aunt Sally when she trots this one out.

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fireside feasts
CMCapeStar@aol.com
173.68.14.21
“none of the secret meanings are distinctly Catholic; all are also fundamental to Church of England and other Christian denominations.”
Yeah, but Catholicism came first. The others were created later and in protest against it. Not that I’m disputing the myth as a whole, but this line…not so much! It doesn’t hold up.

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to Deborah Brower.
You’re very welcome! Thanks go to you for your contributions, too.
I have a few more myths in the works, but will run out soon. Then I think I’ll start to re-post the old ones, maybe adding a little or incorporating some of the comments into the text. We’ll see.

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Deborah Brower
eirdrum@fastmail.com
70.192.217.220
Congratulations and thanks for all your hard work providing another year of debunking. The topics are always interesting and responses informative. It is really helpful to have a forum to sort this stuff out in a friendly way. Have a appy and equally successful New Year!

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.147.133 In reply to Katherine Louise.
Yes, the order changes in different versions, which is yet another reason against the “secret meaning” that I hadn’t come across. The only order that seems genuinely historical is the division between birds and people: the first 7 gifts are birds, the last 5 are people. Fun topic, huh??


Revisited Myth #101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes with fresh fruit at Christmas.

December 9, 2015

D2008-BTL-0109-2004

The approaching holidays require a Christmas myth or two . . . so let’s start with the idea that colonial Americans in general celebrated and decorated for Christmas. That’s erroneous. Many early Americans didn’t acknowledge Christmas at all, let alone celebrate or decorate for it. These included the Puritans in New England and various denominations throughout the middle and southern colonies like Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quakers. But for many in the central and southern colonies, Christmas was a holiday season.

Let’s go to the biggest decorating myth in American Christmas history–the idea that our colonial forebears decked their homes with fruited wreaths.

The idea of decorating the doors with rare fresh fruit where it would hang until it rotted or was eaten by squirrels would have horrified everyone in colonial America, no matter how wealthy they were. Fresh fruit was rare to nonexistent during the winter and if one were fortunate enough to have some imported oranges from the Caribbean or late apples from New England, one ate them.

D2009-BTL-1223-1006

This myth originated with the DellaRobbia-style decorating that began in Williamsburg in the 1930s (when the town was being restored with Rockefeller money) as a compromise with its residents. As far as we can tell, colonists did not decorate the outside of their houses at all, but Americans in the 1930s most certainly did, and Williamsburg residents were not happy to be told that authenticity demanded they forego all their Christmas decorations. Nor did the Colonial Williamsburg executives relish the thought of blinking colored lights and reindeer glowing from the rooftops of the restored town. It was decided to encourage natural decoration with materials that would have been available to the colonists, such as greenery, dried seed pods, fruit, pinecones, gourds, oyster shells, and so forth. But no matter how often Foundation executives stressed that this was NOT a colonial decorating method but a modern-day compromise, the erroneous impression spread.

Christmas Stock

 

5 Responses to Myth # 101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes with fresh fruit on Christmas.
Melissa Nesbitt says:
December 22, 2012 at 11:10 am (Edit)
But now, WHO can imagine a Colonial Williamsburg Christmas without fruited wreaths? It has spread of course… I’m “guilty” of doing a Williamsburg style wreath for my own front door on occasion. Love it! 🙂

Have a question though, Mary–what about the “pomander balls” made of oranges and/or apples stuffed with cloves? Where did that come from?

Reply
Mary Miley says:
December 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm (Edit)
Hello Melissa. Nothing wrong with “Williamsburg” decorating. I love it too! It’s just that it isn’t colonial. As for pomanders, I remember doing research on those about thirty years ago. While the details escape me, I remember that the word comes from the French, pomme d’ambre, or apple of amber (gold) or ambergris (ambergris, from sperm whales, was a fixative used to hold scent). The scented ball was originally thought to ward off illnesses. Soon spread to other parts of Europe from France. You can see prints of medieval and renaissance ladies wearing a pomander on their belt. Later (not sure when), sticking a piece of round fruit with cloves gave a nice scent that lasted a long time because the cloves preserved the fruit. More recently, it became associated with Christmas. Wishing you lovely holidays!

Mary Mary Miley Theobald

Reply
Melissa Nesbitt says:
December 29, 2012 at 7:06 pm (Edit)
Thank you much, Mary! I’ve just now gotten back to read your comment. Hope your holidays were good as well.

That was interesting to know about how the Williamsburg decorations came about as a “compromise” with the residents. I wish I’d had that information last year when I gave a talk at our local DAR chapter’s Christmas luncheon. I did mention the part about fruit not being used as decorations, but now I can add this information when asked. LOVE your blog!

Roger W. Fuller says:
December 23, 2012 at 10:33 am (Edit)
I find it hard to believe that many colonists even celebrated Xmas, at least in New England.

Reply
azambone says:
December 24, 2012 at 9:07 am (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
An example of how a mild and harmless myth can be perpetuated despite the best intentions of those involved.

Reply


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