Susan Smyer wondered about the custom of burying a shoe in the walls or foundation of a house. For good luck? To ward off evil spirits? Is this a myth?
Not a myth. There is ample documentation for this practice at various times and in various cultures. It seems people did and still do put a shoe in the walls or foundation of a building, probably in order to ward off bad luck or bring good luck. According to June Swann, a footwear historian and keeper of the boot and shoe collection at the Northampton Museum in England who began studying concealed shoes in 1957, the practice has been reported in Germany, France, Australia, and the New England states of America. A few examples date from the 15th century, after which the practice appears to have become more common. It peaked in the 19th century and has fallen away since the 1930s. According to Ms. Swann, most of the shoes are well-worn, utilitarian sorts, and nearly half belonged to children. (To read more, click HERE.)
However, Marc Carlson, Librarian of Special Collections at the University of Tulsa who has compiled references of shoe-related superstitions at www.personal.utulsa.edu/%7Emarc-carlson/shoe/RESEARCH/CONCEALED/shoestuff.htm, warned in 2008 about making unwarranted assumptions on this topic: “. . . there is an increasingly common modern assumption that shoe concealments are intended for a superstitious or ritual, so we should look at a wide variety of actual superstitious and ritual practices regarding shoes. My personal position is that we don’t know why these items were concealed in walls way back when, and it’s sloppy to assume that they all were for ritual reasons (which is where this trend is currently heading). Some may well have been, others likely were not. Since the idea was first proposed by June Swann back in the 60s, the idea that they were ritual deposits has certainly influenced the reasons why people are currently depositing shoes, as well as the assumptions about the past.”
I acknowledge Mr. Carlson’s warning against over-generalizing, but my own view is that most instances of shoes in the wall were prompted by superstition.
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, or if Castro had made the 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.
Another Thanksgiving myth would have us believe that the Indians taught the Pilgrims the magic of popcorn at the first Thanksgiving. It didn’t exactly happen that way, then or later.
While corn was ubiquitous in the Americas, that doesn’t mean the natives or the colonists popped it. First of all, not all corn pops. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that not all corn pops well, only the relatively few varieties that have hard, thick hulls. The type we eat has too thin a hull to contain the pressure necessary to cause a puffy explosion.
According to the Department of Agriculture, there is ample evidence that Native Americans in South America, Central America, and the southwestern part of the U.S. ate popcorn more than 2500 years ago. But no evidence exists for it in Massachusetts or Virginia or any of the Atlantic colonies. In the archives at Colonial Williamsburg there are letters going back to 1950, asking the historians that very question, and the answer has always been, “no references to popcorn in Virginia.” As for Massachusetts, the type of corn those Indians grew was the Northern Flint variety which does not pop well. And according to James W. Baker, vice president and chief historian for Plimoth Plantation, no trace of popcorn has been uncovered in regional archaeological excavations.
In his book Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America (Smithsonian, 2001), food historian Andrew F. Smith traces the Pilgrims-and-popcorn myth to the 1880s, a time of heavy immigration when national myths were being created by magazines, newspapers, and school curricula to Americanize the newcomers. “Popcorn was sold in grocery stores, popped at fairs, and peddled at sporting events,” he writes of those years. Written references to popcorn seem to begin in the mid-19th century. The first known popcorn poem appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1853. It did not become commercially significant until the latter part of the 19th century. Look at this interesting advertisement from a magazine called the American Agriculturist, dated February 1866. It offers popcorn for sale as a novelty item. Regular local corn must not have popped well, because J. A. Hathaway imported this from Brazil and acclimated it in Cincinnati for two years. The company offers 150 grains for 25 cents, so you could grow your own. Get 6 to 15 ears to the plant!
But the popcorn myth is repeated endlessly in children’s textbooks, magazines, and newspapers. Andrew Smith calls it a “twice-told myth.” “Undocumented food stories are the grist of newspapers, magazines, cookbooks, and even works which purport to be true histories. Myths gain reality through repetition, and unfortunately, almost all modern food writers from James Beard to Waverly Root have colluded by repeating them.” He points to several popcorn myths that have no archaeological or historical evidence whatsoever: Columbus found popcorn in the Caribbean; American Indians attached religious significance to popcorn; colonial Americans ate popcorn as a snack; and Indians in what is today the eastern half of the United States ate popcorn in pre-Columbian times.
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.
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.
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!
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?).
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!
Revisited Myth # 105: Colonial women dipped their hems in water when they worked around fires to keep their skirts from catching fire.November 5, 2016
Reenactors tell me they get this question all the time. As the women work around the campfire, on-lookers ask whether their hems are wet. Costumed interpreters also hear this question as they work in kitchens. It’s related to the myth about burning being the most common cause of death for women in “the olden days” because of their long skirts catching fire (see Myth #2).
Generally speaking, only formal wear was worn so long that hems skimmed the ground. While skirt length in America has varied throughout the past four centuries according to fashion, working women (which is to say, most women) were more likely to wear skirts that were several inches above the ground. Even then, they might hike up the hem and tuck it in their waist to get the skirt out of the way. “During much of the eighteenth century,” writes textile curator Linda Baumgarten, “women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”
Another point worth noting, as many reenactors have discovered from personal experience, is that natural fabrics that are common in historically accurate clothing–wool and linen–don’t burst into flame when they come into contact with fire. They smolder.
Just for fun, here’s an old poem (1568) by Sir Philip Sidney that mentions young women hiking up skirts to play sports!
Elizabeth (@leezechka) says:
February 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
Linen can still burn though it does not light up like cotton, wool has amazing fire resistant properties, which also is why it works well for military uniforms, which can easily come into contact with sparks and flames from guns and cannons.
Caroline Clemmons says:
February 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm (Edit)
Very interesting, and your point about fabrics hit home. Nylon melts to the skin. Sometimes, old ways were best. Not that I’d ever want to cook over an open fire. I prefer modern conveniences.
Mary Miley says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:55 am (Edit)
Amen, Sister! I’ll take mod-cons every day.
February 5, 2013 at 1:36 am (Edit)
A reblogué ceci sur La médiathèque de la Compagnie des Cent Associes and commented:
Un blog intéressant sur les “mythes historiques”. A suivre.
February 5, 2013 at 9:24 am (Edit)
Love the poem!
Petticoat Burns « Kitty Calash says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:47 pm (Edit)
[…] on an English site catering to reenactors. There’s a variation I’d never heard, about wetting petticoat hems to keep them from engulfing the wearer in flames. (OK, mild exaggeration: to keep the petticoat from igniting fully, thus… hat tip to Back […]
April 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm (Edit)
I have my doubts that it is a true “myth”. It seems like such common sense to me to wet long skirt hems when working near a fire. How would anyone now really know how each individual person would handle this?
Mary Miley says:
January 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm (Edit)
The Voice of Experience:
Alena who works in costume wrote me,
I am a long-time reenactor who recently started working at a museum, and since starting I have twice heard about women wetting the bottom few inches of their skirts so they would not catch fire while cooking on the hearth. I believe this to be a myth for two reasons. One, as you know, skirts made of natural fibers don’t catch fire all that easily. I have stood too close to the cook-fire in my wool skirts, I got a scorch hole in my skirt, but no flames, I promise. The other reason I can not imagine this is true is the weight that a couple of inches of water add to a skirt. When reenacting outdoors we inevitably run into wet weather, and once the bottom few inches of our skirts soak up the moisture they get so heavy, they stick to the ankles and ultimately become harder to control. None of us would ever willingly soak our skirts then work over the fire. That would make hard work even harder!