Revisited Myth #109: Laws allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and that’s where the phrase “rule of thumb” originated.

January 28, 2017


There are actually two myths here: 1) that laws allowed men to beat their wives as long as the stick was small, and 2) that this is the origin of the phrase “rule of thumb.”

First par first. In the various American colonies, laws differed from place to place and year to year. In Maryland, at least in the 1600s, beating one’s dependents with a small stick was allowed. Dependents included indentured servants, slaves, children, and wives. “The community expected him [a husband and landowner] to keep good order and the law allowed him to correct any of his charges with physical punishment, provided that any stick used in beating was no thicker than a man’s finger at its thickest end. Beating even his wife was permissible.” Lois Green Carr, “From Servant to Freeholder” Maryland Historical Magazine (Fall 2004), p. 298. Legal reference not cited. No similar references have been found that refer to thumbs and beatings, only to fingers.

Beatings with this size stick could be severe, and several cases appear against masters who beat their slaves or servants excessively, “Whereuppon mr Ouerzee beate him wth some Peare Tree wands or twiggs to the bignes of a mans finger att the biggest end, wch hee held in his hand” and the slave died. (Maryland Provincial Court Proceedings 1658) but I found no mention of wives or children being beaten with sticks, perhaps because none sued in Court. Again, the reference to stick size is a man’s finger, not a thumb.

Now for Part 2) the origins of the phrase “Rule of Thumb.” Our old reliable friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, disputes this claim. The Rule of Thumb, it says, is “a method or procedure derived entirely from practice or experience without any basis in scientific knowledge; a roughly practical method.” The earliest known instance of the term is 1692: “What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art.” More examples from later years follow, but nothing pertaining to beating one’s wife.

In her 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism?, Christina Hoff Sommers spends five entire pages discussing the origins, legal and journalistic, of the phrase, “rule of thumb.” It is too long for me to retype the entire section and the book is not available online to cut and paste, so I can’t post it. You’ll have to read pages 203-207 at your local library if you want more detail. Suffice to say that Sommers’s exhaustive research uncovered no link between the phrase and the law, other than misguided journalists quoting one another in magazine and newspaper articles. Which is how such myths are spread.

In a nutshell, Sommers debunks the oft-repeated statement that rule of thumb laws permitting wife-beating can be found in the famous legal commentaries of William Blackstone (1723-1780), which is the basis of much U.S. common law, and that these laws prevailed in state courts throughout the 19th century. Blackstone does state, “The husband, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction . . . in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children . . . But with us, in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted; and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband.” This conforms to the Maryland law, mentioned above. (Charles II ruled 1660-1685)

“In America,” Sommers says, “there have been laws against wife beating since before the Revolution. By 1870, it was illegal in almost every state, but even before then, wife-beaters were arrested and punished for assault and battery. . . . The Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited wife-beating as early as 1655. The edict states: No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense . . . “

But a couple of careless judges stated in their opinions the erroneous belief that this myth was true, and these men are often quoted as proof. In Mississippi in 1824 and in North Carolina in 1874, judges referred to an “ancient law” by which a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no wider than his thumb. There is no ancient law. None. And even here, neither judge referred to the supposed law as the “rule of thumb.”

Even the much-maligned Wikipedia has got this right. But there are many online sites that cheerfully and wrongly explain the origin of this phrase.



Cassidy says:
March 23, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
Interesting, but can I ask if English laws were examined and/or why they weren’t? Because what I’ve heard is that the supposed “rule of thumb” is from Sir Francis Buller, called “Judge Thumb“. I mean, I’ve also heard that Buller never actually said anything about sticks as wide as a man’s thumb, but there must be something (perhaps blown out of proportion and exaggerated for comic effect) that sparked Gillray’s cartoon.

Mary Miley says:
March 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm (Edit)
I surmise from this cartoon that there was some British law about size of sticks, like the one mentioned above in Maryland about finger-size sticks. (And I’d be delighted if you wanted to look into the topic and report back!) But the origins of the phrase, Rule of Thumb, is explained by Oxford English Dictionary (above), and I always bow to their wisdom.

nunya says:
November 19, 2014 at 4:51 pm (Edit)

And another article from Yale Law would disagree with this article (at least the feminist aspect of it). Just because something is illegal/legal on the books does NOT mean it didn’t happen.

Lisa Denton says:
August 18, 2016 at 12:16 pm (Edit)
I recently watched some old BBC episodes of what I’d call experimental archaeology/reality show, Tudor Monastery Farm (2013). In the 3rd episode, one of the historians is visiting a miller (flour). The miller mentions rule of thumb. It’s 25m 45 sec into it.
Has anyone ever heard of this origin? Or is this another misguided historical interpreter? Or is there a difference between British and American usage?

Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:23 am (Edit)
Frankly, this sounds like a possible origin of the phrase, but I can’t prove it.


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 #50: Lee offered his sword to Grant at Appomattox, but Grant refused it.

June 30, 2015


This week’s myth comes to us courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where it was properly debunked. The story reported that Robert E. Lee’s French-made, ceremonial sword had been conserved and was being moved from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, to a newly constructed museum in Appomattox, where it is on display throughout 2015 (the 150th anniversary of the surrender) at the house where the surrender took place (below). The reporter repeated the enduring myth often heard at Civil War sites–that General Lee offered his ceremonial sword to General Ulysses S. Grant and that Grant gallantly refused it–saying that both claims were untrue.

Lee never offered his sword. Grant never requested it. Here are Grant’s own words from his memoirs: “The much talked of surrendering of Lee’s sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance.” Seems it was a widespread myth even back then! 


Revisited Myth # 39: During the Revolutionary War, people melted down their pewter mugs and plates to make bullets.

February 22, 2015


Since we’re already on the subject of deadly pewter . . . what about pewter bullets?

Bullet molds were intended to make lead bullets, but “in a pinch,” says Colonial Williamsburg gunsmith Richard Sullivan, “you could use pewter even though it would be inferior to lead. But I know of no accounts of such a practice.” Neither did two other Williamsburg gunsmiths I asked. I’ve read a few secondary sources that mention this practice as having occurred during the Revolutionary War, but these have been old publications (like the book on Nathan Hale from 1915), where the statement isn’t documented, or family genealogies, where the author repeats family lore, again, without documentation. It’s easy to repeat stories,  harder to find one that points to proof in the form of a primary source.

With bullets, heavier is better. Pewter would work—heck, aluminum foil would work—but pewter is mostly tin with a small amount of another metal, sometimes lead but not always. Imagine the power of a tin bullet . . . it wouldn’t go as far as a lead one, would lose speed more quickly, and wouldn’t have the energy when it struck. In dire circumstances, melting down one’s pewter plates might have provided ammunition that was better than nothing, but the practice could hardly have been widespread. Even though it might have occurred on rare occasion, the statement makes it sound commonplace, and so should be judged a myth.  

However, one reader of this blog, John Simpson, pointed out some recent research that shows archaeologists have discovered examples of lead-tin alloy musket balls on the site of the Battle of Monmouth (NJ), at Rice’s Fort (PA), and at Fort Motte (SC). At Monmouth, musket balls of “lead hardened with tin” were uncovered. At Fort Motte (1781), Stacey Whitacre’s 2008 MA thesis studied “lead alloy (pewter?)” that are “probable rifle balls.” For those who want to delve further into the subject, Mr. Simpson kindly provided links to the thesis and details of the other finds in his comments below. 



Revisited Myth #32: Colonial-era guns were very heavy and awkward to fire.

November 1, 2014


Not true. A standard British military gun of the eighteenth-century weighed about the same as the U.S. Army’s nine-and-a-half-pound World War II rifle, the M1 Garand. Colonial Williamsburg gunsmith Richard Sullivan says that they hear this a lot from visitors, but tell them that the weight of most colonial guns ranged from six to ten pounds.

Revisited Myth #10: A corner chair was designed to accommodate a man wearing a sword.

April 6, 2014

     Corner chairs, usually called roundabout chairs in their day, were occasional chairs often used in a corner or at a desk. They were not terribly rare—you can find antique examples at many decorative arts museums and in period houses where they are usually found in bed chambers, sitting rooms, dining rooms, or libraries. They were also called smoking chairs, barber’s chairs, writing chairs, and desk chairs, suggesting that men were the primary user. I found two portraits where the subject is sitting in a roundabout chair, and both are men. (See portrait of George Wyllis owned by the Connecticut Historical Society and the one pictured here of John Bours from the Worcester Art Museum.)


If you come across a roundabout chair with a particularly deep seat rail, it was probably used as a commode chair (AKA night chair, necessary chair, or closestool) with a chamber pot fixed below the removable seat. The deep seat rail hides the chamber pot.


Like so many fashions, roundabout chairs first became popular in England in the early years of the 18th century and spread to the American colonies. Most of these chairs were made during the period from about 1730 to the 1790s, after which their popularity diminished to the point that there are almost none in the Federal style. 

Several reenactors wrote to tell me that it was awkward sitting in a roundabout chair wearing a sword, which I can visualize, I think. The sword point (sheathed, of course) would hit the chair, where it would not do so in a traditional chair. Whatever, it’s irrelevant because men almost never wore swords indoors. During the 18th-c and afterward, the custom was to wear swords for battle or for parade, but not for social events like balls or dinner parties. So the roundabout chair was not invented to deal with this “problem.” 



Stump the Stars!

November 23, 2013
Yes, YOU are the stars! And I’m stumped. 
Here are two myths heard at museums that came to me via this blog. I’m tapped out. Can anyone help? 
1) This blog reader said a tour guide told them that the “shot glass” was “originally a small glass filled with lead buckshot to be used as a pen-holder. She explained that buckshot kept the ink on the pen nib wet, though I don’t see how it could be more moist than just leaving it in an inkwell. Every heard this one before?”
No. Sounds ridiculous to me but I cannot back that up.
2) The other myth the reader heard “seems like a very generalized assertion to answer a very specific question. I wanted to leave the site where I heard these myths anonymous, but in order to provide context, the link I am attaching here reveals its identity: This building was identified as a Federal government building due to its architectural style–which is also wrong–and its color was explained by the guide as part of a color scheme assigned to different government buildings, in this case, a post office. The buildings were color coded in order to identify them to–you guessed it–illiterate citizens. So the big question with this myth is: have you ever heard of color-coded government buildings? I’d love to know how this notion might have gotten its start and how widespread it may be.
This seems like a variation of Myth #37, about shop signs being pictures because most people “in those days” were illiterate. I feel certain the color-coding statement isn’t true, but I can’t speak to its origins. Anyone? 

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