Revisited Myth #144: Fidel Castro and the Baseball Tryout

June 19, 2018

As a young man before the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro tried out for the New York Yankees, almost making the team. 

I believed this! Until I read the debunking on NPR, I thought this was true. Something in the same vein as Hitler having been rejected from art school. An “if only” sort of feeling washes over you as you contemplate the way the world would have gone had Hitler been accepted to art school or if Castro had made the baseball team.

But it’s not true. Adrian Burgos Jr., University of Illinois history professor and author of Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, says it simply didn’t happen. One way he knows that is because the Yankees didn’t scout in Latin America until the 1960s and the Cuban Revolution began in 1953 and ended in early 1959. 

“He didn’t try out for the Yankees,” Burgos tells NPR’s David Greene. It’s possible Castro went to an open tryout held by the Washington Senators in Havana, Burgos says, but he was not “at the level of a talented Cuban ballplayer where the scouts went looking for him.”

Read the entire story here on the NPR site.  

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More door myths: Double doors for superstitious people

May 5, 2018

Melissa Nesbitt from Texarkana Museums System in Arkansas writes, “I just heard this from a visitor to our museum today–he can’t (of course) remember at what historic home he heard it, but it went something like this–there were often double doors on older homes (one on each side of the front area I think he meant), and one was used for entering and one for exiting because it was “bad luck” to enter and exit through the same door.  Yeah, right…  ”

Actually, Melissa, your visitor has it backwards. The superstition says it is bad luck for entering and exiting through different doors. So if you entered through the back door, you should exit through the back door to avoid bad luck. Some attribute this to Irish superstition; others to general folklore. 

I can’t quite see what the visitor here had in mind . . . “double doors” are just a single opening with two doors that open from the middle. If he meant “two front doors” in one house, he’s probably picturing a duplex. 


Myths of the Revolutionary War

April 20, 2018

Smithsonian “Castle”

I stumbled across this site while researching the years just prior to the Revolutionary War. It’s a Smithsonian site and deals ably with several myths about that war. I thought you might enjoy it–I did. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/myths-of-the-american-revolution-10941835/

Here are the myths that historian John Ferling debunks:

“Great Britain did not know what is was getting into.”

“Americans of all stripes took up arms out of patriotism.”

“Continental soldiers were always ragged and hungry.”

“The militia was useless.”

“Saratoga was the war’s turning point.”

“General Washington was a brilliant tactician and strategist.” 

“Great Britain could never have won the war.”


Myth # 148: Pan tiles (S-shaped roof tiles) were made by workers shaping the clay over their thighs.

April 7, 2018

Steve Herchak wrote: Hello again, and thanks for your fabulous posts! In my early days as a volunteer docent at a colonial house I heard for the first time something I’ve often since heard from guides, that being, that the curves in pantiles for roofing came from the workers shaping the clay over the tops of their thighs. The idea seemed absurd to my ears from the get-go that soft clay could be formed like that and somehow hang together and still keep its shape when lifted off and set aside to be fired. The idea of perhaps patty-caking the clay flat for something large like a tile on a surface of similar size such as a thigh was at least in the realm of conceivable, but why not just work it on a surface such as a plank or work table like dough for baking? But because I heard this from the mouth of a “top” guide and heard it repeated since, it keeps me from saying “absolutely not” to people who say “I heard the way they made those tiles was shaping the clay over their thighs,” even though, like the “old glass in windows continues to sag with age” myth, the mechanics of this one also strike me as impossible. Could you bring the hammer down for a verdict on this one?

Well, Steve, this is a bit esoteric, but I’ll give it a go. Please chime in if I’m off base on this topic. 

I’d never heard of pan tiles, which are S-shaped clay tiles used for roofs, especially in certain countries (Scotland and England) and in certain eras (Roman, then the art was lost until rediscovered in the 12th century). There is even a famous picturesque center of Tunbridge Wells, England, called “The Pantiles” after their quaint roofing styles. 

After doing some preliminary research online, which is all I can do for this topic, I can only say I believe this is a myth because it would have been far too laborious to be practical. And workers are practical, above all else. No documentation mentions making tiles on one’s thighs, and frankly, it would be a lot easier and a lot more regular (regularity being important for a roof that will drain rainwater efficiently) if you made them using a mold. Bricks were made with molds, other tiles were made with molds. Why would pantiles be made without molds on your thigh? Makes no sense to me. If I were in your shoes, I’d challenge those who say it to prove it with documentation or cease saying it. 

Thanks to a reader, I now feel certain my gut feeling was correct. Thank you, Joanna Kenny, for the reference to the York (England) Archaeological Trust technical report about tiles, which reads  on page 40: 

These tiles were made in moulds placed over a block or stock-table, both of which were coated with very fine sand, and there was a depression in the top edge of the block that produced the nib on the underside of the tile (Betts 1985, 535-7). The tile was then placed in a second mould and ‘washed-down’ to obtain its characteristic curving shape (ibid., 537). After partially drying it could be beaten back into shape if any warping had occurred while drying; the tile was then fired (ibid., 537).

Also check out these websites for more information on tiles than you ever thought you would need. This one, below says, in part, 

At first clay plain tiles were simple rectangles of clay with nibs pressed out by hand, and laid to overlap the joints of the ones beneath. They were generally 10½ x 6½ inches, which was a size that was not only convenient to press out by hand, but was also easy to handle on the roof. Less scrupulous manufacturers sometimes made them smaller to save on their costs, prompting King Edward IV in 1477 to pass an Act of Parliament laying down their minimum size. Today plain tiles remain standardised at 10½ x 6½ inches and are often referred to in the industry as “ten and a half by six and a half tiles”. Although this size has persisted as the norm through the centuries, in some places plain tiles were historically supplied in non-standard sizes; in York for example many of the older buildings are still roofed with tiles using 12 x 7 plain tiles. Where replacements are needed today for such odd sizes, manufacturers can usually offer to make them to those sizes.

More general use of clay plain tiles seems to have commenced in the 12th or 13th centuries. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, thatched roofing was no longer allowed in London and clay tiles provided an obvious fireproof alternative.

Overlapping tiles were first re-introduced into Britain from the Netherlands in around the 16th century. It was the Dutch nation that probably discovered the idea of linking tiles together using an ogee or S-shape, rather than relying on their vertical overlaps to prevent the ingress of water. This new design was effectively a Roman under and an over, joined into one tile. It was a clever idea, not at all as simple as it at first appears. Even today tilers who are not familiar with the way pantiles overlap find it a difficult concept to understand. In order to make them fit against each other from side to side, and also from top to bottom,  it was necessary to chamfer the top right and bottom left corner (shoulder) of each tile.

These tiles became known in England as pantiles, believed to be from the Dutch word panne (German pfanne). The advantages possessed by pantiles over plain tiles were easily apparent. While plain tiles were laid with their side joints merely butted together, pantiles actually overlapped each other from side to side. Because water could fall through the side joints of plain tiles, 2 to 3 thicknesses of tiles were used to ensure that they were watertight. Pantiles on the other hand only required 1 to 2 thicknesses at any point. It is for this reason that we refer nowadays to plain tiles as “double lap tiles”, but we call tiles which overlap or interlock with each other “single lap tiles”. To construct a roof using plain tiles you need 60 tiles per square metre, but if you use pantiles you only need about 15 tiles. The savings in weight and labour time are obvious.

The National Park Services, a site I trust, has a technical preservation website for this subject.   No mention of making the tiles on your thigh. (See below)

Historical Background

The origin of clay roofing tile can be traced independently to two different parts of the world: China, during the Neolithic Age, beginning around 10,000 B.C.; and the Middle East, a short time later. From these regions, the use of clay tile spread throughout Asia and Europe. Not only the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, but also the Greeks and Romans roofed their buildings with clay tiles, and adaptations of their practice continue in Europe to the present. European settlers brought this roofing tradition to America where it was established in many places by the 17th century.

Clay roof tiles and a roof-supporting post on an adobe building.Tapered barrel clay roof tiles were custom made for the restoration of the 1820s Indian barracks at Mission Santa Cruz in California. Photo: NPS files.

Archeologists have recovered specimens of clay roofing tiles from the 1585 settlement of Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Clay tile was also used in the early English settlements in Jamestown, Virginia, and nearby St. Mary’s in Maryland. Clay roofing tiles were also used in the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in Florida, and by both the French and Spanish in New Orleans.

Dutch settlers on the east coast first imported clay tiles from Holland. By 1650, they had established their own full-scale production of clay tiles in the upper Hudson River Valley, shipping tiles south to New Amsterdam. Several tile manufacturing operations were in business around the time of the American Revolution, offering both colored and glazed tile and unglazed natural terra-cotta tile in the New York City area, and in neighboring New Jersey. A 1774 New York newspaper advertised the availability of locally produced, glazed and unglazed pantiles for sale that were guaranteed to “stand any weather.” On the west coast clay tile was first manufactured in wooden molds in 1780 at Mission San Antonio de Padua in California by Indian neophytes under the direction of Spanish missionaries.

By far the most significant factor in popularizing clay roofing tiles during the Colonial period in America was the concern with fire. Devastating fires in London, 1666, and Boston in 1679, prompted the establishment of building and fire codes in New York and Boston. These fire codes, which remained in effect for almost two centuries, encouraged the use of tile for roofs, especially in urban areas, because of its fireproof qualities. Clay roofing tile was also preferred because of its durability, ease of maintenance, and lack of thermal conductivity.

Although more efficient production methods had lowered the cost of clay tile, its use began to decline in much of the northeastern United States during the second quarter of the 19th century. In most areas outside city-designated fire districts, wood shingles were used widely; they were more affordable and much lighter, and required less heavy and less expensive roof framing. In addition, new fire-resistant materials were becoming available that could be used for roofing, including slate, and metals such as copper, iron, tin-plate, zinc, and galvanized iron. Many of the metal roofing materials could be installed at a fraction of the cost and weight of clay tile. Even the appearance of clay tile was no longer fashionable, and by the 1830s clay roofing tiles had slipped temporarily out of popularity in many parts of the country.

 


Revisited Myth # 143: Lawn Jockeys are not racist; they honor Jocko, a black groom who served General Washington.

March 26, 2018

Thanks to Sarah Uthoff who sent me this link and suggested it would make a good addition to the blog. Credit for the research goes to David Pilgrim, Curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan. He writes, in part:

The story begins the icy night in December 1776 when General George Washington decided to cross the Delaware River to launch a surprise attack on the British forces at Trenton. Jocko Graves, a twelve-year-old African-American, sought to fight the Redcoats, but Washington deemed him too young and ordered him to look after the horses, asking Jocko to keep a lantern blazing along the Delaware so the company would know where to return after battle. Many hours later, Washington and his men returned to their horses that were tied up to Graves, who had frozen to death with the lantern still clenched in his fist. Washington was so moved by the young boy’s devotion to the revolutionary cause he commissioned a statue of the ‘Faithful Groomsman’ to stand in Graves’s honor at the general’s estate in Mount Vernon, [Baltimore].

I have heard this account from many African Americans and it is frequently cited on Internet sites. It is a heroic tale and, like many such tales, its historical accuracy is questionable. In a 1987 letter to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Ellen McCallister Clark, a Mount Vernon librarian, concluded that “the story is apocryphal; conveying a message about heroism among blacks during the Revolutionary War and General Washington’s humanitarian concerns, but it is not based on an actual incident. Neither a person by the name of Jocko Graves, nor the account of any person freezing to death while holding Washington’s horses has been found in any of the extensive records of the period. Likewise, the Mount Vernon estate [in Baltimore] was inventoried and described by a multitude of visitors over the years and there has never been any indication of anything resembling a ‘jockey’ statue on the grounds. I have put the story in the category with the cherry tree and silver dollar, fictional tales that were designed to illustrate a particular point.” 

Yes, this is a myth. For details read David Pilgrim’s entire footnoted (and very interesting!) research paper, see www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/question/july08/index.htm

 

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Revisited Myth # 142: During the Civil War, wounded soldiers bit bullets against the pain.

March 14, 2018

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. 


Myth # 147: Immigrants had their last names changed or shortened on Ellis Island.

February 17, 2018

While doing some research on a certain Russian immigrant for the nonfiction book I’m working on, I came across this myth. It surprised me, as I had never questioned this “fact.”  

We all know the story: millions of immigrants passed through immigration on Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954 at an average of 500 people a day, and as they came, inspectors often shortened their last names to something easier to spell, something more “American” sounding. So Waclawek became Walters, Markovitch became Marks, or Schwarz could be translated literally and become Black.

According to the National Park Service, this is a myth. In actual fact, the inspectors on Ellis Island worked from ships’ manifests, where passengers’ names were already listed along with details about their occupation, age, country of origin, marital status, and so forth. These were created in their home port, not in the U.S. 

According to Smithsonian historians, “If anything, Ellis Island officials were known to correct mistakes in passenger lists,” says Philip Sutton, a librarian in the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, at the New York Public Library, in a blog post delving into the name change mythology. More commonly, immigrants themselves would change their names, either to sound more American, or to melt into the immigrant community, where they were going to live, says Sutton. If name changes happened with any frequency on Ellis Island, it was not noted in any contemporaneous newspaper accounts or in recollections from inspectors, Sutton says. 

It is also unlikely a foreign name would flummox an Ellis Island inspector. From 1892 to 1924, “one-third of all immigrant inspectors were themselves foreign-born, and all immigrant inspectors spoke an average of three languages,” says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

So was your last name one of those that was Americanized?  

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ask-smithsonian-did-ellis-island-officials-really-change-names-immigrants-180961544/#WMjuCszSzCHjSYB1.99


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