Revisited Myth # 112: “Mind Your Ps and Qs” meant watch out for Pints and Quarts.

February 24, 2017


There are several myths associated with the phrase “Mind your Ps and Qs.”

One says it was a warning to watch out for cheating bartenders who would short you when you ordered a pint or a quart.

Another says it means to watch your “pieds” (feet) and “queus” (wigs), or watch your behavior from head to toe. Yet another says it comes from the master printer reminding his young typesetters to distinguish between the letter P and the letter Q, which are virtually indistinguishable in lower case.


The author of the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898) notes that of the several explanations he had heard, none were “wholly satisfactory,” but he preferred the interpretation “Be very circumspect in your behaviour” from the French dancing master’s caution to mind your “pieds” and “queues.” I don’t agree.

Personally, I lean toward the printing shop origin. A typesetter in those days had to arrange the type in rows in mirror image, and frankly, looking at a lower case P (p) and a lower case Q (q), which are the backward versions of each other, I can see how that would be very, very easy to confuse. But there is no sure-fire answer to this claim, so you’ll have to decide for yourself.


Previous Comments:

Pat Smith says:
April 28, 2013 at 9:11 am (Edit)
I like the print shop one, of course!

oldud says:
April 28, 2013 at 10:32 am (Edit)
I believe Ockam’s razor would apply to this myth. The explanation with the least stretch would be the print shop.

Lynn Thornton says:
April 28, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
As a teacher the p and q one makes a great deal of sense – especially in a print shop with a dyslectic typesetter

Dani Stuckle says:
April 28, 2013 at 11:43 am (Edit)
P’s would be “Please” and Q’s are “Thank You” –just a reminder to mind your manners.

Chris D. says:
April 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm (Edit)
I’m all for the print shop origin, as it makes the most sense. Somewhat related: I teach classes on both home and industrial sewing machines, and I’ve borrowed this phrase to remind people that different machines require different ways of loading a bobbin. When holding a bobbin with the thread tail dangling it looks like a p or q, depending on which side the tail’s on. It is inserted in the q position for our industrial, and the p position for our home machines (may be different for other folk’s machines though). Mind your Ps & Qs helps them remember that they can’t just pop it in any which way!

Mary Miley says:
April 28, 2013 at 7:50 pm (Edit)
Very creative!

Daud Alzayer says:
April 28, 2013 at 11:49 pm (Edit)
The print shop does not make sense because it has nothing to do with manners. Dani offers the best theory if you ask me; simple wordplay seems a lot more plausible than something specific to a single trade, especially when the meaning doesn’t match.

Henry B. Crawford says:
April 29, 2013 at 9:39 am (Edit)
Most proverbial analogies have little to do with the originating inspiration. It’s the poetic irony that makes the point.

Henry B. Crawford says:
April 29, 2013 at 9:37 am (Edit)
It’s more likely to mistake p and q on a composing stick than it is to mistake a pint from a quart. I’ll go with the printing analogy as being the most plausible off all.

Beth says:
April 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm (Edit)
There is a good discussion of the various possible origins of “Ps and Qs” at the awesome “Phrase Finder” website:

I’m pretty sure I made mention of this site before for “Pop goes the Weasel.” It’s well-researched and fascinating. Everytime I visit, I invariably end up losing an hour or so if I’m not careful 🙂

Mary Miley says:
April 29, 2013 at 1:10 pm (Edit)
Yes, an excellent site. Thanks for reminding us.

Keith says:
April 30, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
I had heard that the Ps and Qs were for a tally board at a tavern where the # of pints and quarts were recorded per customer.

Mike says:
May 21, 2016 at 8:38 pm (Edit)
The French word “queue”, means tail, not wig. It is also used for a line up, or a queue, as for in front of a cinema. In vulgar slang, it is also used for a certain male body part.

Andrew says:
June 1, 2016 at 5:07 pm (Edit)
Definitely comes from the world of the movable press. Since typesetting was done in mirror image, a p would be a q when typeset and the q a p. No other two letters are so close when reversed and thus they had to mind these two in particular.

Tina Gubbings says:
August 18, 2016 at 6:37 am (Edit)
b & d ?

Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:29 am (Edit)
Mind your Bs and Ds???

Curtis Cook says:
February 18, 2017 at 7:27 am (Edit)
Speaking as someone who spent ten weeks as a typesetter (and hopes never to have to do that again), in the font we were using the ‘b’ and ‘d’ WERE the ‘q’ and ‘p’, respectively. We simply rotated the ‘p’ 180 degrees to get a ‘d’ and rotated the ‘q’ when we needed a ‘b’.

I, of course, find the typesetter solution to be the most likely. Trying to keep the ‘p’s and ‘q’s straight was the bane of my existence.

Mary Miley says:
February 18, 2017 at 8:53 am (Edit)
So say all the apprentices at Colonial Williamsburg’s printer’s shop.

Gary Bulthouse says:
October 2, 2016 at 3:30 pm (Edit)
I think it has it’s origin in the math expressions in LOGIC. E.G. In Modus tollens: if P then Q… and all the other logical equations. It makes more sense than any other explanation offered here because it’s saying quite clearly “mind the rules”.


Revisited Myth # 111: Orange dye was added to American cheese during the Civil War to differentiate between Northern-made cheese and Southern.

February 12, 2017

Pat McMillion of Burritt on the Mountain in Huntsville, Alabama, wrote, “The cheese monger at our local Publix told me today that the only difference between white and yellow American cheese is that dye is added…. ever since the Civil War when dye was added to tell the difference between cheese produced in the north and cheese produced in the south. That really sounded mythical to me, but I haven’t found any substantiation on the web. Is that a myth, legend or truth?”

Well, Pat, you have stumbled into one of my deepest secrets with this question. I will now have to confess that for three years after I graduated from college, I sold cheese for Kraft Foods in Cleveland, Ohio. (It was a recession, for heaven’s sake, so I was lucky to have a job at all!) Kraft sent me to cheese factories to learn all about processed cheese, white cheese, orange cheese, Cheez Whiz, Velveeta, and every sort of cheese, and I can personally assure you that American cheese (aka processed cheese) was not around during the Civil War.

J. L. Kraft invented American cheese and started producing it in 1915; he got the patent in 1916. It was originally sold in tins and was white. Because it was the middle of World War I, the Army bought up lots and shipped it to our soldiers in Europe, because it didn’t need refrigeration. Yum!!!

Later, I don’t know when exactly, orange color was added, but this old advertisement dates from the Twenties, and it shows that it was orange by then.

Thanks go to Deanna Berkemeier, who sent in documentation of cheese coloring prior to the American Civil War. Cheese makers did sometimes add color (and other things) to their products, for instance, “a yellow tint is given by annatto, marigolds, or carrots.” See more examples below. There is no evidence that this had anything to do with North/South production. 


April 20, 2013 at 9:05 am (Edit)
Thank you SO much for this answer. I’ll take it to the cheese monger today!! How fortuitous that you have first hand information. I have been spreading your messages about historic myths ever since I found your site over a year ago. You always get the credit and advertising for your wonderful book when I do a program on historic myths. Now, folks come to me to ask if things are true. Between you and Snopes I can usually burst some pretty egregious myths and urban legends. I will be coming to CW this summer to introduce my grandson to my love of history. I would love to meet you and thank you in person for the excellent research. Hugs, Pat McMillion Burritt on the Mountain Huntsville, Alabama

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:10 am (Edit)
Thanks, Pat. Just let me know when you are in Williamsburg and I’ll try to meet you.

opusanglicanum says:
April 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm (Edit)
orange dye is added to cheap cheese in the uk to make it look more appetising – its meant to immitate the classic red liecester – it also fools the pallete into thinking the cheese tastes cheesier. It’s been around for a long time, since victorian times at least. I grew up knowing that orange cheese was cheap and nasty, so never ate it.

I’ve heard about velveeta, it sounds disgusting

Greg says:
April 26, 2013 at 1:36 am (Edit)
At the Tillamook cheese factory in Oregon they will tell you that natural cheddar cheese comes out in various shades of white. While this is not related to quality, they started adding orange color so that it would have a consistent color. People thought that the less white batches meant the cheese had gone bad.,

Deanna Berkemeier says:
April 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm (Edit)
I’ve never heard this myth before, but I think you may have missed the point on this. It’s all in the way you read the question. Perhaps the cheese-monger did indeed mean “American cheese”, however there was a lot of “American” cheese made before the Civil War, because all kinds of Americans made cheese. American of the time referring to as opposed to European imports. Some people did color cheese to make it look richer. I have found many negative references to it, such as (paraphrased) you would not thank the farmer for coloring your milk, so why thank him for coloring your cheese? Many of these references are pre-Civil War, so I think the answer is still no. But is there any correlation to coloring cheese at a greater rate to differentiate between north and south? I’ve never looked into it, but I also doubt it.

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:02 pm (Edit)
In all fairness, Velveeta isn’t exactly disgusting, it’s okay when melted in a grilled cheese sandwich or sliced on a hamburger, but I’d not be interested in eating it plain or on a cracker.
We can discuss the meaning of the words “American cheese.” Today it means processed “cheesefood,” a dairy product that is cheese cooked and “processed” so it lasts longer without getting moldy. Good news for soldiers in WWI. Americans made cheese during the Civil War of course, but that isn’t what we’re talking about. I’d be interested in your pre-Civil War primary accounts to coloring cheese, as I can’t imagine why anyone would color their own homemade cheese.

Deanna Berkemeier says:
April 21, 2013 at 12:35 am (Edit)
I understand that “American cheese” today means a processed cheese food. But my point is that since I have only seen those processed cheesefoods in a grocery store and not being sold by an actual cheese-monger who would naturally scoff at a cheesefood even being considered actual cheese, I wonder if the cheese-monger was actually referring to American made natural cheeses being colored yellow rather than being left white. As opposed to European cheeses which are generally left their natural color.
Again, I am not saying that he is correct in any way regarding north vs south. Nor am I saying that what we call American cheese today was around for the Civil war.
I guess that being a cheesemaker of both modern and historic methods, when I read the question that was originally sent in, I understood the question as being the greater one of white vs. orange of American cheese -not the processed stuff- and it crossed my mind that as much reading as I have done on the subject, I have no idea if coloring cheese was related in any way to anything other than making one person or company’s cheese look “richer” than another’s. Higher fat content (richness) makes cheeses appear more yellowish, sometimes deepening to an orange-ish cast. Definitely not annatto orange, but orange-ish nonetheless. People did color cheese (and butter!) with the juice of carrot scrapings, pot marigold petals, and annatto that they purchased in order to make their product more appealing. It was a marketing ploy.
And I’d be more than happy to share some cheese coloring documentation with you. Being a historic cook and a dairy farmer’s wife, dairy is my thang! 🙂

Mary Miley says:
April 21, 2013 at 9:20 am (Edit)
Thanks Deanna–always good to hear from an expert. Do you know more about coloring cheese during the 1860s? Something that might have given rise to this idea of North vs South? I presume they made more cheese in the North, because of the greater proliferation of small farms and dairying than in the South, which probably imported cheese from the North (as they did so many foods).

opusanglicanum says:
April 23, 2013 at 3:11 am (Edit)
I think disgusting is relative – I seem to have been born a cheese snob, since I could never stomach any kind of processed cheese, specially not that yellow dairy based plastic they put on burgers. When I was a child I’d go round to friends houses and thier parents would offer me processed cheese then look at me like i had two heads when I politely inquired as to whether they had a nice mature cheddar? Its my dad;s fault, he used tot ake me to the wensleydale creamery

Melissa Nesbitt says:
April 20, 2013 at 5:21 pm (Edit)
The “scary” thing to me is that I can keep processed American cheese in the fridge a lot longer than other cheeses. Mary can you divulge the secret about that? 😉 (Preservatives and additives I’m sure, but since you mentioned a patent…) P.S. I worked for an insurance company in their marketing department prior to my launch into my museum career. Whatever it took to pay the student loans, right?

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:06 pm (Edit)
Thank you, Melissa, for being so understanding. 🙂 And I can’t divulge any secrets without torture. Of course, eating Cheez Whiz could be considered torture . . .

Roger Fuller says:
April 20, 2013 at 8:32 pm (Edit)
Here’s probably how it happened: a mainstream Civil War reenactor at a Civil War reenactment got caught by the public eating modern cheese product. Trying to squirm his way out of it, he made up some story about cheese dye. That’s how a lot of these urban legends get started, and with nobody to challenge them, they get told so often, they become “true”.

Mary Miley says:
April 20, 2013 at 9:07 pm (Edit)
I’m with you, Roger.

Katherine Louise says:
April 22, 2013 at 2:41 pm (Edit)
One cold and rainy day at Plimoth Plantation, Mrs Standish went across the street to visit Mrs Winslow. We drank tea before the fire and got to talking about favorite childhood treats, like bread and butter sprinkled with sugar. Foolishly, we decided to make some then and there–few 20th century folk were about the village on such a day, surely no one would come in–but of course a visitor arrived and exclaimed, “Oh, I loved bread, butter, and sugar when I was a child–I didn’t know the Pilgrim’s ate it too!” Mrs Winslow and I were mortified and tried to salvage the situation (and our reputations) by saying it was a rare treat–sugar was expensive, came all the way from England, and what a dreadful day it was for travelling. Roger is absolutely right about how these stories get started!

Mary Miley says:
April 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm (Edit)
Absolvo te. 🙂 (Mercy, I’ve done much worse in my day!)

Deanna Berkemeier says:
May 26, 2013 at 9:54 pm (Edit)
I apologize for it taking me a month to get back to you with some of my cheese coloring documentation you asked for. Chalk it up to preparations for my daughter’s upcoming wedding and our site opening for the season. I do not see an email address to send it to you privately and I hate to post it here, but I will try as a reply in hopes your moderation will catch it. The formatting did not stay, but if you read through each paragraph you will find references to coloring or not coloring cheese. Please note the source dates. Looking quickly, I saw nothing in my files that referenced anything related to coloring in the North vs. South at all. You will also find references to “American cheese” below, but as I noted before, American cheese in the 19th century was a natural cheese and in no way related to any processed cheesefood of today.

The following are some of my collected references to coloring cheese in the 19th century: Researched by Deanna Berkemeier

“If it is required to have the cheese of a Gloucester color, take Spanish anatto, rub a lump in a saucer with milk, a little experience will teach the quantity necessary for a cheese ; then mix it with the rest of the milk, when it is set for cheese. One ounce will cover four or five hundred pounds, and it is bought of the apothecaries. It is perfectly innocent, and I thought the cheese coloured with it, was higher flavoured ; this might have been owing to other causes.” Source: The BALANCE, and Columbian repository, Volume 5, For 1806 By Ezra Sampson, George Chittenden, Harry Croswell p. 260-261

“The practice of coloring cheese and butter, we think, should be discouraged; who would thank a milk man to color his milk?” Source: The New England Farmer, and Horticultural Journal, July 13, 1831, Vol. 9, No. 52, 409.


The milk strained in large tubs over night; the cream stirred in milk, and in morning strained in same tub; milk heated to natural heat; add color and rennet; curd broke fine and whey off, and broke fine in hoop with fast bottom, and put in strainer; pressed twelve hours; then taken from hoop, and salt rubbed on the surface; then put in hoop, without strainer, and pressed forty-eight hours; then put on tables, and salt rubbed on surface, and remain in salt six days, for cheese weighing thirty pounds. The crushings are saved, and set and churned, to grease the cheese. The above method is for making one cheese per day.
Cooperstown, January, 1842.”

Page 428

Cheshire Cheese.—This cheese is famous for its rich quality and fine piquant flavor. It is made of entire new milk, the cream not being taken off. The cheeses are generally of very large size, usually about sixty pounds weight, and some have been made of one, or even two, hundred weight. Each cheese is- usually made of the produce of one day’s milking, from herds of from one to two hundred cows, who feed in rich pastures on some of the finest land in England. Their excellence must be attributed to the goodness of the milk, their size and age, and the skill employed in their manufacture. The color is not entirely natural; but a yellow tint is given by annatto, marigolds, or carrots. It is said, that some increase the richness and mellowness of the cheese by adding beef-suet, or any other wholesome and sweet fat well clarified, which is poured into and mixed with the curd.”

Source: The Farmer’s and Emigrant’s Hand-book: Being a Full and Complete Guide for the Farmer and the Emigrant. Comprising the Clearing of Forest and Prairie Land Gardening—farming Generally—farriery Cookery—and the Prevention and Cure of Diseases. With Copious Hints, Recipes, and Tables.; By Josiah T. Marshall, Author of the Emigrant’s True Guide.
Second Edition, Revised.; Publisher: Appleton, 1845

“Previously to commencing the process of making cheese, besides the milk, two materials must be ready for use—the rennet for coagulating the milk, and the substance for colouring the cheese, if the latter is to be employed.
The colouring of cheese is a general custom, but not a necessary operation ; annatto is chiefly employed for this purpose. The usual mode of application, is to dip a piece of the requisite weight in a bowl of milk, and rub it on a smooth stone, until the milk assumes a deep red colour. This infusion without the sediment, which Is separated by standing a little, is to be added to the milk of which cheese is intended to be made, in such quantity as will impart to the whole a bright orange colour. The addition of annatto In no way effects the smell or taste.”

“CHEESE, BRITISH PARMESAN. — Heat the day’s milk to a temperature of from seventy-five to seventy-seven degrees, and after it has settled, put in the rennet. When it has stood for an hour or more, place the coagulated milk on a slow clear fire, and heat it till thecurd separates of itself. When separated, throw in cold water to reduce the temperature, and quickly collect the curd in a cloth, gathering it up at the corners. When drained. Dress it as other cheese. Next day it will be firm enough to turn. Let it dry slowly and gradually, often (at first about every hour) changing the wrapping-cloths. Rub it with a little salt daily, for three weeks, or plunge it in pickle for a few days. The curd for this, or any other cheese, may be coloured with a little saffron, or annatto, by putting a tincture of them, extracted in milk, to the milk when to be curdled.” Source: The dictionary of daily wants By Robert Kemp Philp, 1866

“The American cheeses are the Pineapple, which is double the price of ordinary cheese, imitations of English Dairy, American Factory, and California cheese, which is only about half the weight and thickness of Eastern, and instead of being incased in a round wooden box like the Eastern, is handled loose or naked in the wholesale market. None of the American cheeses are classed among strong cheeses. They are good all the year round. The foreign varieties, or equally as good American imitations, may all be had in the larger cities, while excellent, if not the best, American factory cheese is obtainable everywhere. Sage cheese is made by the addition of bruised sage leaves to the curd, which imparts a greenish color and a flavor liked by many. Cream cheese is not properly a cheese, although so called, but is simply cream dried sufficiently to be cut with a knife. Cheese from milk and potatoes is manufactured in Thuringia and Saxony. Cheese may be had in small, round shapes, brickbats, the thin California cheeses, etc., as well as shaped in the ordinary large round hoop, or by the pound therefrom. All cheese, except the foreign skim-milk makes, contains more or less coloring matter, principally annatto, turmeric, or marigold, all perfectly harmless unless they are adulterated.”

“To make a plain family cream cheese, take three half pints milk to one-half pint cream, warm it and put in a little rennet; keep it covered in a warm place till it is curdled ; put the curds into the colander on a cloth to drain about an hour, serve with good plain cream and pounded sugar over it. To color, pound fresh sage leaves in a mortar to obtain the juice, and mix it with the milk while warm after the rennet is put in. Spinach juice is an improvement.”

Source: The new practical housekeeping: A compilation of new, choice and carefully tested recipes; 1890

Mary Miley says:
May 27, 2013 at 7:52 am (Edit)
Wow, thanks Deanna. Interesting reading, especially the pre-Civil War references.

What do you think?


Revisited Myth # 110: The insult “Your name is mud” comes from Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Lincoln’s assassin for a broken leg.

February 5, 2017
Dr.Samuel Mudd

Dr.Samuel Mudd

Does the phrase ‘your name is mud’ or ‘your name will be mud’ come from Dr. Samuel Mudd who was known for helping John Wilkes Booth? My colleagues and I have been discussing this and I thought I would ask. Del Taylor, Program Coordinator, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons

Dr. Samuel Mudd was accused of helping John Wilkes Booth prior to Lincoln’s assassination and of treating his broken leg as he fled Washington after killing the president. He was imprisoned and then pardoned many years later. But the phrase has nothing to do with Dr. Mudd.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in an entry revised in December 2007, dates the first written example of the phrase at 1823, more than four decades before Lincoln was assassinated. Moreover, the term appeared in a British book, not an American one. It meant what it appears to mean–that your name is (or will be) dirty as mud if you do such-and-such.




Brian Leehan says:
April 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Edit)
Both make sense, but the 1823 written example clinches it, in terms of origin. I don’t ever recall seeing it written – only spoken. So, I always saw it in my mind’s-eye as “Your name will be Mudd.”

janice says:
April 15, 2013 at 5:29 pm (Edit)
i have heard this or even read it in books about the death of lincoln. thank you for this info

LYMHHM says:
May 1, 2013 at 9:04 am (Edit)
But the Dr. Mudd myth is so much more colorful. Thanks to BF Gates, AKA Nicolas Cage, we now have a new generation of misguided souls concerning real history. Thanks for the post,

Mary Miley says:
May 1, 2013 at 5:55 pm (Edit)
And that’s the problem with most myths–they are memorable or funny or scary or sexy and more interesting, in some cases, than the truth. Oh well . .. .

M Rob says:
April 21, 2015 at 11:49 pm (Edit)
Phrase and word meaning evolve and become more significant as events dictate. A phrase originally coined in 1823 Britain could very easily have taken on an American flavor following the infamy of Dr. Mudd.

David says:
December 16, 2015 at 9:56 pm (Edit)
Sometimes there are historical events that redefine what an expression means. So, I completely agree with M Rob.

PMV says:
October 18, 2016 at 2:09 pm (Edit)
I agree with M Rob and David.


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.


Revisited Myth # 108: People slept sitting up in bed for health reasons . . . which is why beds were shorter back then.

January 22, 2017


(Refer to Myth #8 about short beds.)

This week, we’ll deal with the sitting up part. This myth (which, I blush to disclose, I remember spreading to museum visitors back in the ’70s), often cites bad air as the reason for the belief that sleeping sitting up was healthier than lying down. Supposedly, bad air was heavier than fresh air, so sleeping with your head elevated kept your nose that much farther above the bad air.

Robin Kipps, supervisor of the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary in Williamsburg and an expert in early American medical issues, spent hours searching through volumes of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century medical books before reporting, “There isn’t any evidence that [they thought] bad air was heavier or that they slept with their heads raised due to bad air. There is evidence that people slept with their heads elevated for medical reasons. If patients had an upper respiratory condition such as asthma or were recovering from a specific type of surgery, it was suggested that they sleep with their head elevated. Note it is not sitting up sleeping, it merely says with head raised.”

Sharon Cotner, senior medical history interpreter at the Apothecary who has studied medical history for thirty years, found published medical information of the period suggested that “under normal conditions, people should sleep on their side, with knees bent and head raised. Not sitting up.”



Pam says:
March 16, 2013 at 3:33 pm (Edit)
I would love to hear more on this — it makes me wonder how one explains the “sleeping box” (not sure this is a real term, just my description) one can see at a site like Crailo State Historic Site in Renselear, NY (which recreates a 17th-C New Netherland room) The dimensions of this sleeping cubicle would not permit a reclining pose for sleep, and the height of the box suggests that, rather than curling up on its floor, the sleeper would have his/her back against the side of the box.

Mary Miley says:
March 16, 2013 at 8:16 pm (Edit)
I’m afraid I can’t oblige–I know very little about Dutch customs. I, too, have seen the compartment beds built against the wall, not in the NY museum you mention but on visits to Holland. It was my assumption that this construction was for warmth, to deep out drafts.

Daud Alzayer says:
March 17, 2013 at 11:57 am (Edit)
The bit about good air and bad air doesn’t sound right to me, but I had thought there was a practice of sleeping propped up for health.

In fact, I even had a particular quote in mind, but going back and reading it realize that I was misunderstanding it. A newspaper described a man found dead in bed and said that, “It was supposed by the easy position which he lay he had no fit but an entire stagnation of the fluids.” Maybe the key here is that he was laying peacefully and therefore had no fit, vs my previous reading which was that his easy position caused the stagnation.

Bob Giles says:
March 28, 2013 at 10:43 am (Edit)
We visited Thomas Jefferson’s Home in Charlottesville, VA and they discussed this issue. Can’t remember the details, but
Maybe they can add to your presentation.

Mike Shoop says:
March 5, 2014 at 2:44 pm (Edit)
Stonewall Jackson, who was very health conscious, believed that sitting up in bed to sleep aligned his organs properly and created better overall health. I remember relaying that story as a docent at his Lexington home in the late 70’s, and am fairly certain they still tell it. The researchers there had found evidence that he believed this practice to be beneficial, just as he believed an ice cold bath each morning was also a good health practice.

Mary Miley says:
March 5, 2014 at 3:01 pm (Edit)
Many people believed the cold bath theory, including George Wythe of Williamsburg. Hot water was widely believed dangerous to your health. The debate usually was between tepid water, cool water, and cold. Brrrr!! And I’ve heard that Jackson also rode his horse with one arm raised above his head for health reasons. Not sure if it’s a myth or not. I’ll touch base with the historian at the Stonewall Jackson House and see what he/she has to say.

Meg H says:
June 5, 2014 at 5:14 pm (Edit)
I recently watched an episode of “History of the Home” with Lucy Worsley on BBC, and in it, the host sleeps in a rope bed one night. By the morning, the ropes have stretched and she looks as though she is sitting up. She goes so far as to tell the viewer that she is not able to lie flat because both her mattress and the ropes are sagging. Obviously, not everyone slept on beds with rope construction and feather-filled mattresses, but she goes on to explain that the actual mattress material shifts away from the body in the night. This probably would have been the case had the bed support been slats or even a solid piece of wood beneath the mattress. Here is a link to the episode (the segment I’ve cited starts at 13:53):


Revisited Myth #107: Cooks went barefoot so they could sense where it was hot on the brick hearth in order to avoid burns.

January 14, 2017




Thanks to Brian Miller at Historic Odessa in Delaware for submitting this oddball. He says it is often stated in Odessa kitchens that cooks went barefoot for this reason.

I had not heard this one before, nor had Frank Clark, food historian and supervisor of Colonial Williamsburg’s foodways program, but he said, “I can pretty much tell you from experience that would be impossible. You might not burn your feet on the hot brick, but the heat of the fire on any bare skin is hard to take, especailly when you have to get your feet up next to the fire to get out coals and the like. Plus the chance of stepping on a stray ember is constant. I do it all the time. Sounds like a unsubstantiated myth to me. I think if someone was barefoot, it was only because they had no shoes, not for any advantage in hearth cooking.”



Keena, Katherine says:
March 9, 2013 at 10:49 am (Edit)
Mary – now this is a new one on me…I cannot help but respond that in Girl Scouting we insist on shoes for everything, especially coking!

Katherine Keena

Program Manager

Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace

Roger W. Fuller says:
March 10, 2013 at 10:01 am (Edit)
Sounds like somebody (un)wittingly transposed the dubious practice of “firewalking” onto a historical question. The suggestion becomes fact, if it’s told often enough….

Deborah Brower says:
March 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm (Edit)
It’s official: people will believe anything if they think it cool enough.

azambone says:
March 12, 2013 at 8:22 pm (Edit)
Reblogged this on Notanda and commented:
I think this is one of the most bizarre “just so” stories told in a historic house museum. Most of them are attempts to square the circle, to give some sort of “practical” or “common-sense” explanation for some sort of human behavior that, like a lot of human behavior, defies common-sense. But this is so counter-intuitive that it baffles me, just a little bit. Does that mean I don’t think that someone has spun this story to a group of rapt visitors? No. I can easily believe that they did.

Roger Fuller says:
August 9, 2013 at 6:55 pm (Edit)
Somebody was afraid to say, “I don’t know.” You should never be afraid of saying “I don’t know”, if you actually don’t know.

Gregory Hubbard says:
March 16, 2013 at 4:58 pm (Edit)
This myth is truly bizarre.

I am a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (the Other CIA) and an historian. With apologies to The Food Channel’s Barefoot Contessa, I can say with certainty that anyone who works in a kitchen barefoot is crazy. They won’t last 5 minutes.

1713, 1813 or 2013, working barefoot would be extremely dangerous. Not simply coals, as mentioned above, but with spattering grease from pan frying, roasts drippings, splatter and drips from kettles, and this list could go on and on, the tops of your feet would be badly burned as well.

Bare legs or short pants would be equally loony. This myth presumes our forbearers were stupid. Who thinks this stuff up?

Gregory Hubbard
Chatsworth, California

Mary Miley says:
March 16, 2013 at 8:21 pm (Edit)
Thank you Gregory. To answer your question, “Who thinks this stuff up?” I have no earthly idea, but it never seems to stop. But yes, many people do presume our ancestors were stupid. That’s one reason myths are so enduring–they appeal to our sense of superiority.


Revisited Myth # 106: They made everything for themselves in the olden days.

January 7, 2017
Ships brought  manufactured goods to the colonies

Ships brought manufactured goods to the colonies

(Also see the related Myth #99: Early American women spun and wove their own fabric.)

This week Katie Cannon has agreed to tackle a myth that has pestered her for years. She has more than a dozen years of experience working in history museums as well as a masters in Museum Studies, and she currently works at Mount Vernon. Katie admits she is especially fond of living history, having never quite grown out of playing dress-up.

This is something you hear all the time, about different places and times in American history. While I will certainly not dispute our ancestors’ ingenuity and skill, and many people did make a variety of objects for their own use, it is simply not true that anybody made everything— or even most things— that they used. Pre-Industrial Americans were part of a global economy and were consumers as well as producers; you can see this in all three centuries of early American history.1

The 1600s

When the first English settlers arrived on American shores, they thought they were landing in an untamed wilderness full of savage beasts and “savage” men. (Not true of course, but that’s a topic for another discussion.) This meant they were totally on their own and had to fend for themselves, right?


While they could not purchase the manufactured goods they were used to on this continent, they eagerly awaited regular ships bringing them European goods: cloth, thread, sugar, salt, furniture, paper, etc. etc. That romantic image of Priscilla Mullens industriously spinning wool while John Alden stumbles through wooing her? A bit difficult since there is no record of fiber processing tools in the colony until the late 1630s (and the two were married over a decade earlier).2

Here is an excerpt from a letter by Edward Winslow, 1621. He is writing to a friend and advising him on what to bring to the new colony:

“…bring good store of clothes and bedding with you. Bring every man a musket or fowling-piece…Bring juice of lemons, and take it fasting; it is of good use. … If you bring anything for comfort in the country, butter or sallet oil, or both is very good. …Bring paper and linseed oil for your windows, with cotton yarn for your lamps.”3

The 1700s

The 18th century saw the birth of the United States of America, land of the free, the brave… and the avid consumers. Prior to the Revolution, this country was heavily dependent on British imports; England even forbade the colonies from producing certain goods themselves, ensuring that they would be England’s customers.4

For political reasons around the time of the Revolution there was a push for “homespun” and other goods produced locally.5 This did not mean that everyone could be self-sustaining, however. Just think of all the tools and knowledge necessary to make every single item in someone’s home! An encyclopedia published in the 18th century shows images of craftsmen and their tools; take a look at what was required to make a single pin, necessary for sewing and fastening clothes:6

Image link:

If you look through probate inventories of the time, even for those in the lowest income brackets, you get the sense of all the many trades (needing years of training and specialized tools) that went into making that inventory. Consider this inventory of Patience Gilbert from 1742; she is listed in the lower wealth category of the York County, Virginia, probate inventories.7

Her list of possessions includes:

3 kettles, 2 frying pans, 1 copper kettle, 1 brass candlestick, and other metal items that would have been made by various smiths
Several items of clothing but no loom or spinning wheel so she at least purchased the fabric if not the finished clothes
Tea that she could not have grown in this climate
A looking glass which she certainly did not make
… and so forth.
You will find similar inventories for other years, wealth categories, and locations.

The 1800s

Ah yes, the self-sufficient pioneers, heading off into the frontier for a fresh start away from any outside assistance! … or not.

Becky Lauterbach, Senior Facilitator at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park whose specialty of over 20 years is early life in 19th century Indiana, says, “they were able to get to a store in Indiana, and it probably wasn’t all that difficult. Fur traders… had been in the area for 200 years. Even the Native Americans had become dependent on manufactured goods. St. Louis, MO was the “Gateway to the West” by the 1830’s. People moving on to the “frontier” could stop there to stock up and could no doubt buy anything they needed (and plenty of things they didn’t). Most settlers never intended to be self-sufficient, but were willing to “rough it” for a while to gain the advantage of being first on the scene.”

She also provides this list of just a few items offered at an Indiana store in 1834-35:

Guns and the gunpowder to fire them
Lead – While balls could be molded easily, you needed the bar lead to start with.
Salt – so necessary for preservation.
Metal items – tools, at least the heads, cooking pots, cooking utensils, horse shoes, nails, …
Dye stuffs for colors like blue, red, purple
Cotton – not grown in large quantities around here
Why does this matter?

I won’t deny that before the Industrial Revolution all items had to be made by a person, whether it was a person working with hand tools or operating a machine such as a loom. But, no single person was able to make everything they owned, nor did they have to; they could purchase items made locally or shipped from abroad, the same as we do today.

We honor the self-sufficient aspects of our ancestors quite readily; I think we should also recognize them as active consumers of a global marketplace, lest we do a disservice by diminishing the scope of the world they lived in.


1 I will be focusing on American history starting with European colonization. Pre-European contact also involved extensive trade networks, but this is meant to be a short article, not a doctoral thesis!

2 Jill Hall. “The Truth About Priscilla, Spinning in Early Plymouth Colony,” Spin Off. Winter 2010. Available online at

3 Dwight Heath, ed., Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1963), p. 86. Many thanks to Elizabeth Rolando of Plimoth Plantation for providing the quote.

4 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), pp. 84, 159.

5 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The Age of Homespun (New York: Vintage books), p. 176.

6 The Encyclopedia of Diderot, 1751-1777. Available online at

7 York County Probate Inventories, provided by Colonial Williamsburg’s digital library. accessed January 19, 2013.


7 Responses to Myth #106: They made everything themselves in those days.
Elaine says:
February 24, 2013 at 10:42 am (Edit)
I’m delighted to have someone else recognize this as a myth and try to tackle busting it.
The most common related myth I encounter is women of the mid-19th century doing all the sewing, including and especially making clothing, for their family members. The historical record just doesn’t support this lovely romanticized notion. Continuance of this myth does a grave disservice to the dress-makers, seamstresses, tailors, seamsters, and ready-made merchants of this era… and especially the dress-makers who, as female business-owners, made great strides in pioneering women taking roles outside of the home as both owners and consumers.

Iain Sherwood says:
February 24, 2013 at 4:36 pm (Edit)
In every town in the colonies (of any size) there was a blacksmith, a cooper, a tinsmith, a draper (cloth seller), a butcher and tanner, several joiners (carpenter), tilers (roofer), seamstresses, tailors, cordwainers, and other ‘domestic’ trades. On the coast there were plenty of fishermen and. later, whalers (I’m from New England), and there were numerous shipyards along the New England coast building cargo ships to carry lumber and goods up the rivers and along the coast.

Daud Alzayer says:
March 24, 2013 at 11:46 am (Edit)
Not to mention the large portion of goods that were imported.

janice says:
February 25, 2013 at 3:32 pm (Edit)
reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingles Wilder encouraged me to feel that the women did alot of their own work. the mother weaves cloth for making coats.

Jennifer says:
March 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm (Edit)
Almanzo’s mother was just one out of many people. In upstate New York they had access to a lot. There’s a point where they talk about the fine store bought fabric Mother had used to make Sunday clothes. I had the feeling that what the family made on the farm was because they thought they could do it better and cheaper than buying. Mother’s cloth was known to be water tight and finely woven, but it is only for the boys to wear. They are not yet allowed the fine store bought. Perhaps she made it because it wore well with no holes in knees, etc.

Jennifer says:
March 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm (Edit)
Very nicely put together piece. It is good to remember that the “good ol’ days” are not the ideal we think it is. Early in our history many items were made by and purchased from craftsmen, so our consumer history is very long.

Elaine says:
March 12, 2013 at 11:30 am (Edit)
Mrs. Almonzo Wilder also denotes how unusual it was for a family of the Wilder’s position and economic standing to have the Housewife weaving cloth.
It was simply a case of Mrs. Wilder, Sr. doing a craft she enjoyed very much… on a small scale.
Consider it similar to a Mother today who bakes cupcakes for children’s school celebrations… for her own and her friends’ children… because she enjoys it, not because her family cannot afford bakery-made ones.


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