Victorian Tear-Catchers Myth

May 6, 2017

Thank you, Lisa Price, for bringing this to my attention. It’s certainly worth sharing.


I had not heard the myth of Victorian era tear-catchers (probably because there was no such thing), which says that grieving people captured their tears in decorative glass vials. These tiny, pretty vials were intended for perfume. Read more about this at Tear Catchers on Atlas Obscura, by Sonya Vatomsky.


Revisited Myth # 119: “Too many irons in the fire’ refers to ironing and laundry.

April 30, 2017
Susan Armstrong wrote: I enjoy your blog very much. I recently saw a video of Civil War (re-enactor) laundress explaining her work. She made a statement about the term “too many irons in the fire” originated during the Civil War, when the laundress was ironing and had too many “irons” heating up by the fire.
I have NEVER heard this about laundry-ironing.

Neither have I, Susan. I believe the expression originated in the blacksmith trade. I checked with master blacksmith Ken Schwarz of Colonial Williamsburg who explained the smith’s point of view. “Iron can be overheated and ‘burned,’ damaged beyond use. If a smith tries to increase productivity, he may put more than one bar into the fire in order to minimize the time waiting for a bar to heat to a working temperature. If the fire is fanned and the iron is not withdrawn before reaching the burning point, the attempt at increased production can actually lead to a reduction in efficiency and material loss. Therefore, too many irons in the fire is counterproductive, causing the smith to work frantically to try to stay ahead of the process.”   

The laundry interpretation seems illogical to me. A laundress traditionally used two irons (although Mrs. Pott’s sadirons with detachable handle, below, were sold in sets of three)–one heating on the stove while she ironed with the other. Why have “too many”? You can only use one at a time.  For more about irons and ironing, see Myth # 95. 
  1. Previous Comments:
    Brian Leehan says:

    My particular historical interests are the Civil War era and the American West of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, and although a “city boy,” I always took an active interest in the history and life of the Cowboy. My understanding of the term “too many irons in the fire” has always been that it referred to the spring roundup and branding: a lot of cattle “outfits” would come together to separate-out the cattle that had been wintering on open range. Each outfit would brand their new calves, and there would be a lot of branding irons “in the fire.” I assume “too many irons in the fire” would refer to the chaos that could naturally occur with a lot of outfits trying to agree on who owned what, roping, holding and branding, etc.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Very interesting. I hadn’t thought of branding irons. I checked with the Oxford English Dictionary and learned that the earliest known written use of the phrase dates to 1549 (in England): “Put no more so many yrons in the fyre at ones.” Another intriguing mention in the OED is the one from 1624 from America’s own John Smith: “They that have many Irons int he fire, some must burne.” And another from 1751, “I had now several important irons in the fire, and all to be struck whilst hot.” Medieval Europeans did brand cattle, so the phrase may refer to that practice, but the blacksmith story seems more likely to me.

  2. Susan Armstrong says:

    Thank you for the post. It is interesting how we use adages, attributing them to everyday / common activities. Researching a term can tell you where it “originated” or what it is “attributed to”.

Revisited Myth #118: Golf “caddies” were named by Mary Queen of Scots.

April 23, 2017

Some say that the term “caddie” was originally coined by Mary Queen of Scots in 1552. Here’s the story: She was the first female to play the game of golf. When she was living in France during her youth, it was traditional for French military cadets to carry the clubs of royalty. The cadets carrying golf clubs actually came to be called caddies due to the French language. The word cadet in French is pronounced “ca-dee,” thus the term. The word traveled to Scotland when Mary returned there in 1561.

The first problem with this is that the French word is NOT pronounced Cadee, but more like something between Caday and Cadeh. Another is the claim that she was the first woman to play golf. Possible but highly unlikely. 

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, caddy or caddie does come from the word “cadet,” from the French, meaning a younger son or younger brother, or the junior branch of the family. The first known written use was 1610, when it meant, “a gentleman who entered the army without a commission to learn the military profession and find a career for himself (as was regularly done by the younger sons of French nobility before the French Revolution).”

Caddie definition #1 from the Scots, 1730, “lad or man who waits about on the lookout for chance employment as a messenger, odd-job man, etc.” 1817 “a caddy came with a large parcel to Mrs. Hogan’s house.”

Definition #2, 1634, from the Scots “a young gentleman latelie come from France, pransing . . . with his short skarlet cloake and his long caudie rapier.”  Or 1776 “with his sword by his side like a cadie.”

1908 #3 caddy: verb, to act as caddy for a golfer  

While we can’t know whether Mary Queen of Scots was really the first woman to play golf, the word origin part of the story seems largely true. 

Revisited Myth # 117: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” was based on an actual wreck of a ship off Bermuda that was headed to Virginia.

April 15, 2017

Hogarth 1735: scene from The Tempest

Not a myth. This is true, or at least very likely. There is strong evidence that Shakespeare did use elements of the story of the wreck of the ship Sea Venture in his play, The Tempest. The ship was on its way to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609 when a huge storm, probably a hurricane, blew it onto the uninhabited island of Bermuda. There the survivors salvaged everything they could from the ship and built a new one from the salvaged parts and the local cedar. Months later, they made it to Jamestown where their arrival saved the colony from abandonment. According to Colonial Williamsburg research files, “An account written by one of the voyage’s members, William Strachey, entitled “A True Reportory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates, Knight” (Gates was the future governor of the colony and a leader of the survivors) was sent to an anonymous noble lady at court. It was not officially published until 1625, after The Tempest was first performed, but many scholars agree that Shakespeare was at least familiar with the story and incorporated parts of it into his tale of a shipwreck on a mysterious island.” 

For more details, see Louis B. Wright’s A Voyage to Virginia in 1609 (1964) which republishes Strachey’s “”A True Reportory” and another primary account, Silvester Jourdain’s “Discovery of Bermuda.” Either or both of these could have been Shakespeare’s source. Or Hobson Woodward’s A Brave Vessel: the True Tale of the Castaways who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2009).

Hemingway Didn’t Say That

April 9, 2017

I thought you’d like this NPR piece I came across. It’s about a new book and false attributions–a form of history myth. You know, all those things that Yogi Berra supposedly said that he didn’t say. Garson O’Toole is the author. Check out his blog at

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee marked Abraham Lincoln’s birthday by sharing a charming, if banal, aphorism attributed to Lincoln: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

The problem is there’s no evidence Lincoln ever wrote or said it, which critics on Twitter were only too delighted to point out. The RNC took down the tweet, but all that trouble could have been avoided if they’d first checked in with Garson O’Toole. That’s the pen name of a man who has tracked down the true origins of hundreds of quotes on his website, Quote Investigator.

O’Toole has collected some of those investigations into a new book called Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. He says, “It’s a lot of fun to uncover these hidden histories, and I’m also very glad when I get to give credit to the person who actually said it.”

Interview Highlights

On why quotes often get wrongly attributed to Mark Twain

Mark Twain is known for having a fantastic sense of humor, and if you preface a quotation by saying it’s from Twain, then people are prepared to laugh at it, to think that it’s wonderful. Many quotations, they’re anonymous or from lesser-known comedians reassigned to Twain. There might be a joke and somebody would say it’s Twain-like and then the next person will say, “No, actually, it’s from Twain.”

Hemingway Didn't Say That

On the origin of the quote “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt,” which has been wrongly attributed to both to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain:

The earliest evidence that I was able to find was a 1907 book by Maurice Switzer. And it seems to contain a lot of original material and it includes the statement “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” So it’s slightly different phrasing, but I believe that is what evolved to generate the modern common version.

On the quote by author Anne Rice that even she mistakenly attributed to Franz Kafka:

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion.” … It was in an introduction to a collection of stories by Franz Kafka, and she was talking about how she’d been inspired by him. It was her perception of the way Kafka thought when he was writing his stories, but somebody reading that introduction thought that it must have been Kafka that said this instead of Anne Rice and so it started being distributed in that way.

I got an email from an individual who said that on Facebook Anne Rice had posted this quotation and she had attributed it to Kafka. And so that was enormously confusing to me because I thought that if anyone would be able to recognize that quotation, it would be the person who created it. So I sent a Facebook message to Anne Rice; she replied very quickly and said she would look into it to try to find out who actually created it. And then she came back with another reply saying that she’d discovered that in fact it was her words and that she had written it in this introduction, and as evidence of that she gave me a URL that pointed to my website. … And it’s understandable: She’s written a large number of words and she’d written this more than a decade in the past.

Author Garson O’Toole has a simple explanation for why quotes are often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain: “If you preface a quotation by saying it’s from Twain, then people are prepared to laugh at it.”

Many of these quotations are cultural landmarks. They affect the way we think about, say, environmentalism. Let me find this quote: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” That’s been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson; it’s considered a Native American proverb; an Amish saying. But the earliest evidence I found: There’s an activist named Wendell Berry and he was discussing good stewardship of the environment … and I think he deserves credit for this kind of a cultural landmark.

Editor Melissa Gray and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Revisited Myth #116: The phrase “passing the buck” comes from poker where a token, called a buck, indicated the dealer.

April 2, 2017


Bingo! This is not a myth. The phrase “passing the buck” does come from the card table. According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, a buck was a token used in poker to indicate the dealer. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the buck was originally a “buck-handled knife,” by which they presumably mean a deer antler. It was the next person’s turn to deal, you passed the buck, or the knife, to him. Theoretically, someone who didn’t want the responsibility of dealing could pass the buck to another player. 

The term seems to come into use around the time of the Civil War. Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1871) says, “I reckon I can’t call that hand. Ante and pass the buck.”


Previous comments:

  1. I don’t always post a comment, but I always enjoy this blog. Thanks for the amusing information.

  2. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    Well! What a pleasant surprise! I thought for sure this one would be a myth. How interesting!

  3. Curtis Cook says:

    The version I read some fifty years ago was that the ‘buck’ was a $2 bill. Some people thought $2 bills were unlucky (why?), and in order to avert the bad luck that possessing one would bring a receiver of such would tear a corner off before passing it along. Once all four corners had been torn it would be difficult to find someone willing to accept it in payment, so frequently the buck would stop there (with the fourth tearer).

Revisited Myth #115: In the Revolutionary War, the Americans used guerrilla tactics to beat the British, who fought standing in straight lines.

March 26, 2017

The myth, which is reinforced in textbooks, at historic sites and battlefields claims that during the Revolutionary War, the American army used guerrilla tactics and hid behind rocks, trees, and walls, and mowed down the British who stood in nice straight lines out in the open. Ben Swenson, historian and former reenactor, comments on this myth, as does John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg. Thank you, gentlemen.

“There were a couple battles where the colonial militia, not the regular American Army (an important distinction), used these tactics, but in most battles, both sides used the classic linear tactics,” says Swenson. “It was the way that armies met on the field of battle then, and General Washington wanted more than anything to be recognized as a legitimate commander of a respectable military, so he used the conventional tactics of the day.”

John Hill agrees. “First of all, I hate the term guerrilla warfare [in this context]. In 1775 the British 1764 manual of arms was approved for all Virginia troops. Virginia regulars in Williamsburg and elsewhere were trained using the British model. However, it is interesting to note that although conventional tactics were the focus, one day each week the troops were marched from their Williamsburg camps to places like Queen’s Creek in order to practice woods tactics or Indian tactics. What determined which tactics are to be used? The action’s intended objective, troop strength in relation to the enemy’s, type of terrain and positions of the armies, types of weapons and ammunition available, types of soldiers available (infantry, dragoons, artillery, naval), and weather conditions are all important factors.

“Conventional linear tactics of the 18th century were accomplished using muskets, quick reloading by the use of paper cartridges, and if necessary sweeping the field with bayonets. Linear tactics made it possible for officers to deploy large numbers of soldiers into action in specific areas. Linear tactics allowed for good communication and control of the soldiers. This tactic was extremely effective in overwhelming a weaker force.

“Woods or Indian tactics were usually dictated in situations where the force was significantly smaller in number and mostly armed with civilian weapons (rifles, fowling pieces, tomahawks) rather than military weapons (muskets, bayonets, cannon). Although rifles were much more accurate than smoothbore muskets, they took longer to reload. Therefore, civilian firearms lacked the fire power of military firearms. Small bodies of troops utilizing woods tactics could cause great harassment and embarrassment to an occupying army, but displacing or defeating of an army of greater size armed with muskets and bayonets would be impossible.

“There are a few accounts in the Southern Campaign where both sides were largely using woods tactics such at Kings Mountain. These involved mostly militia: Loyalist vs. Rebels. I am unaware of any major battle of the American Revolution where an army using conventional warfare was defeated by an army using woods tactics.”

A wonderful, detailed article on this topic, titled “Of Rocks, Trees, Rifles, and Militia” (click on the title) was written by Christopher Geist, professor emeritus at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. I particularly like the opening where Geist reminds his readers of the Bill Cosby routine that I remember fondly (even though I no longer have fond thoughts of Bill Cosby himself). 

“Suppose way back in history if you had a referee before every war, and the guy called the toss. Let’s go to the Revolutionary War.”

[Referee speaking] “British call heads. It’s tails. What do you do, settlers? . . . Settlers say that during the war they will wear any color clothes that they want to, shoot from behind the rocks and trees and everywhere. Says your team must wear red and march in a straight line.”

We laugh because Cosby tapped one of the most tenacious and cherished myths of the Revolution: American colonists prevailed in the conflict against, arguably, the finest military force of the era by using frontier tactics.


Previous Comments:

Grant says:
May 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm (Edit)
It would be equally mythical to suggest that the British, who had fought a battle or two in broken terrain before, didn’t have quite capable light infantry.

I enjoy a good debunk myself over at the Eagle Clawed Wolfe. Currently perceptions of old age in history are in my (Pattern 1776 Rifle) sights.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:30 am (Edit)
I agree. Both sides employed light infantry and rifle units in the revolution. The drill and use of light infantry is quite different than line infantry. It concentrates on smaller units and individual maneuver, as well as the use of cover and concealment during skirmishing in support of line units. However, massed line infantry was the machine gun of the time and the bayonet was the infantry weapon of decision. And the only way the bayonet could be effectively deployed as a decisive force was by a disciplined, well drilled mass formation of infantry. As you point out, the British had developed and incorporated infantry tactics to combat the French and aboriginal forces in heavily wooded and broken terrain during the F&I War; not much chance hard learned lessons like those would be forgot by the time of the American Revolution. Not to mention that GW, as commander of the Continental Army, wanted a conventional army to match that of the British.

Grant says:
May 19, 2013 at 8:13 am (Edit)
All history is, of course, to a lessor or greater extent mythologised. The American Revolutionary War and War of 1812 probably more than most, as the cornerstone of of the American foundation narrative whilst it is almost ignored by British historians, which might give it balance. I think the British military was pretty functional in both wars- they were just wars which couldn’t be won and no tweaking of infantry tactics was going to change that.

“The Wolfe” on a similar lopsided view of history:

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:30 am (Edit)
I agree. Growing expenses for both conflicts, the loss of trade and failing public support led a pragmatic British government to end it’s attempt to retain the American colonies and in the case of the War of 1812, declare victory and go home.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:40 am (Edit)
I have changed my mind on cartridges. Failing to find explicit orders to recruiting officers and sergeants to specifically look for opposing teeth in recruits, I can not say it is not a myth. Having all of my teeth and never having “gummed” a cartridge, I can not attest to whether or not it could be done. However, I am now very interested in this detail of musketry and intend to learn more about paper cartridges than I knew before.

Mary Miley says:
May 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Good luck! Let us know the results.

Sharon Ferguson says:
May 19, 2013 at 11:08 am (Edit)
One major point here: it is a truth that the American’s (colonials, what have you) DID prevail. They won. Period. The British surrendered. Ignoring that fact isnt going to change it. The British Parliament continued to shunt responsibility for the colonies to priorities that worked to their benefit, not for the empire, and the American colonies said theyd had enough of it. FACT.

Travis says:
May 19, 2013 at 11:14 pm (Edit)
I don’t see where anyone called that into question, Sharon. No one is ignoring any facts here, just dispelling one of the most long-held misconceptions of how the war was fought – one that has been repeatedly reinforced by popular media and films like the Patriot but has little basis in reality. That’s fact.

mehh says:
December 1, 2013 at 5:57 pm (Edit)
Actually, one of the primary reasons the British surrendered to the American Army was that they (the British) had another war going on with Napoleonic France at the time, and they prioritized that war over some uppity colonists.

Mary Miley says:
December 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm (Edit)
Very true. Sometimes we Yanks give ourselves too much credit . . .

picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:38 am (Edit)
Actually, you are mistaken in one detail. British had a war with France going on, but it was a war with Royalist France – US War of Independence ended in 1776 IIRC, and Napoleon didn’t come into power until 1790s. There was a war between Britain and US during the Napoleonic wars, but that one was the War of 1812, in which Canadians with very little help from British kicked American butts when Americans decided to add Canada to the glorious USA.

oldud says:
December 2, 2013 at 11:21 am (Edit)
The British never surrendered in the War of 1812. The strategic objectives of the British were:

1. Retain Canada as a British colony by preventing a successful American invasion-successful.

2. Create a buffer reservation for aboriginal nations in the Old Northwest (current states of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan)-failed.

3. Split the US from it’s western territories obtained in the Louisiana Purchase by gaining and maintaining control of the Mississippi River from it’s headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, thus preventing the western expansion of the US-failed.

And a bonus point; possibly prying New England away from the US through succession.

The war with the US had come on the heels of the Napoleonic wars and the British public had pretty well had enough of martial conflict. And since they only accomplished one of their three strategic objectives* in the war, they just declared victory, signed the treaty of Ghent and sent their army and navy home; except for a defense force in Canada.

But the United States did manage to defend it’s self against the most powerful military in the world and survive. This meant our independence as a nation had been verified and our dependence on any other government was forever severed.

*Failure to capture the upper Mississippi by the British occurred before the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the failure at New Orleans occurred afterward.

Sean Corcoran says:
May 22, 2016 at 1:22 pm (Edit)
What seldom gets mention why the British Government decided to negotiate a peace settlement is the fact that Spanish forces had taken three key British bases in the Gulf ,Baton Rouge, Natchez, Pensacola which gave them West Florida. There was a good chance that Britain could lose Jamicia as a result. In addition Britain had to keep land and naval forces close to home in the event of France and Spain attempting military actions in the Channel. As mentioned above the higher priority was in Europe.


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