Revisited Myth # 141: Colonial-era bread ovens were constructed outside the fireplace, to one side of the hearth.

February 10, 2018

Above: 18th-c. New England fireplace with rear bread oven; below: Michie Tavern fireplace with right side oven.

This is more misunderstanding than myth, but Cindy Conte of Michie Tavern, Charlottesville, Virginia, asked me to address the subject, so I will! 

“The 18th-century hearth is one of the most romanticized and iconic images of colonial times,” writes Cindy Conte. “Early depictions feature a woman in colonial garb cooking over a roaring fire. Sadly, this romantic hearth cooking image has been stamped into our mindset as permanently as it has been inked into old history books. At least once every season a tourist will point to the bread oven which is tucked to the side of our fireplace and exclaim, ‘That has to be wrong. A person would get burned baking bread if the oven were placed there.’ Surely, they are thinking of that colonial woman, a roaring fire and possibly a large black kettle. Quite often, we explain that once a fire was good and hot, the coals would be separated into piles (think of burners on a stove) and several dishes could be prepared at once. Bread could be prepared as well. Bread ovens were tucked into the side of hearths, at the back of hearths, close to the hearth, to the right of the hearth, to the left of the hearth and outside.”

Bread ovens (which had doors that are missing in these photos), could be constructed in various places around the fireplace. Why build one inside the fireplace where surely it would be harder to access? Frank Clark, Colonial Williamsburg’s supervisor of Historic Foodways, says the reason is: “It was cheaper. If you put your oven on either side of the fireplace, you must also build a flue to tie it into the main chimney. This takes more bricks and more labor from a mason. If you don’t, your kitchen fills with smoke when you use it. When you build it in the back of the fireplace, it feeds to the main chimney with no flue. It is, however, more difficult to use since you have to keep the hearth fire to the other side so you can access the oven.”

So bread ovens at the back or side of the fireplace are not mistakes. 

 

 

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Revisited Myth # 140: A woman would use a diamond to etch her name/date on window glass to see if the stone was genuine.

January 28, 2018

window at The Old Manse in Concord, MA

“I am a museum interpreter at Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia. We have a couple of window panes that have names, dates, and even a branch with leaves etched in them – all from the 19th century. Is it true that ladies would test their diamonds or other gems to see if they were real or glass by doing such etchings?”

You may have heard that a real diamond will scratch glass and an imitation one won’t. If only it were that easy! Many high quality imitation diamonds made in recent decades are harder than glass, so even fakes will scratch glass. Don’t rely on this myth to determine whether your own diamond-looking piece of jewelry is genuine or not. Take it to a reputable, local jewelry, one who has been in business for many years, and he or she will tell you at no cost whether it is genuine or not. They will not appraise it at no cost–for that you need an experienced CGA or Certified Gemologist Appraiser who has the training to judge your jewelry value it.

The idea that the ability to scratch glass proves a diamond’s genuine-ness is clearly a myth today. But what about in earlier times?

Well, it was closer to the truth in the past, when imitation diamonds were made of something called “paste.” Not the sort of paste you used in kindergarten to glue lace to your Valentine, this word meant a type of glass with a high lead content that was used to make imitation stones. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Romans were the first to make this sort of imitation stone. For all you chemists, here’s the lowdown: 

“Before 1940 most imitation gems were made from glass with a high lead content. Such glasses were called paste because the components of the mixture were mixed wet to ensure a thorough and even distribution. Colourless paste is commonly formulated from 300 parts of silica (silicon dioxide, SiO2), 470 of red lead (a lead oxide, Pb3O4), 163 of potassium carbonate (K2CO3), 22 of borax (a sodium borate, Na2B4O7·10H2O), and 1 of white arsenic (arsenic oxide, As2O3). Pigments may be added to give the paste any desired colour: chromium compounds for red or green, cobalt for blue, gold for red, iron for yellow to green, manganese for purple, and selenium for red.”

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean it was true in the past–other clear stones that look like diamonds can scratch glass. Quartz, for instance. I think it likely that people who scratched on window glass were indulging in some playful or sentimental graffiti rather than testing their diamonds.

Some window glass in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion had two little girls’ names etched in it–these were youngsters who lived in the mansion when their father was governor in the 1840s. (Sadly, that pane went missing during the 1999 renovations.) Many old houses have windows with initials, names, dates, or even sketches that were scratched in the glass. My theory is that most of them were done by girls or young women having fun, but I can’t prove that. 

Does anyone else work at places where someone etched something into the window glass?  

 

Previous comments:

21 Responses to Myth # 140: A woman would use a diamond to etch her name/date on window glass to see if the stone was genuine.

  1. Jake Pontillo says:

    Not exactly in an historical context, but certain graffiti ‘artists’ will scratch their initials, their ‘tag’ as they call it, on the windows of the NYC subway cars. To do this they use a sharpening stone- the kind I would use to sharpen a knife. They use the edge or else break it to get a finer edge. I think they found that using spray paint for their tags was not that permanent since the NYC Transit authorities can remove their paint work, but the tags on windows are left in place, I think.

  2. Frank says:

    According to the Shakespeare House in Stafford-upon-Avon, when I visited there, the etchings were customarily done by guests as a way of “leaving their mark”, so to speak.

  3. Thank you for your response! We have had visitors who have been to other historical sites where this is told to them as being the truth. Now I have more information to help debunk this myth!

    I forgot to mention that we also have a windowpane (it is broken into several pieces and kept carefully in storage) from 1840 where a husband wrote an entire love letter to his wife. We have a copy of that letter on display. He definitely was not testing any sort of gem – he was expressing his love to his wife in a permanent way!

  4. Margie Thompson says:

    There is a house in Ravenna,Ohio that has a window with the initials of my mother’s twin uncles. The boys carved them there when they were young. I would guess in the 1870,s.margiethompson

  5. Barb King says:

    My history professor at U of Michigan, who used to work at Ithica College (I believe) said the building he was housed in used to be Women’s Dorm in the early 1900’s. The women when they got engaged would etch their initals, and their fiancee’s, into the glass with the date, with their diamonds; IIRC there are letters to coroborate this. I’ll check and see for sure.

  6. In the 1730s four volumes of collected graffiti from English outhouses, walls, AND tavern windows and glasses were published under the title The Merry Thought, or the Glass-Window and Bog-House Miscellany. Occasionally the poems are self-referential and mention the use of a diamond-tipped pen for writing on glass.

    You can find online editions at Project Gutenberg

    Volume 1 – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20558/20558-h/20558-h.htm

    Volumes 2-4 – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20535/20535-h/20535-h.htm

  7. First Time Visitor says:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophia_Hawthorne

    “Together the couple etched their impressions of their new married life in the glass of a window in the study using Sophia’s diamond ring:”

    http://www.thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/greater-boston/old-manse.html

  8. I’ve etched in glass–as a boy. My grandmother possessed what my sister and I believed might be a diamond (it was probably quartz). We etched a little on her mirror to test it, but didn’t write our names–after all, she was renting.

  9. JennyOH says:

    I went to a private school in CT with many buildings, including the dorms, from the 19th/early 20th centuries. At this school, getting your school ring at the end of your first year was a big deal, and using your ring to then scratch your name/initials into your window was one of several of the school’s idiosyncratic traditions (that were mostly dying out at the time – I attended in the late 90’s). The room I stayed in my freshman year had names and initials from the early 20th century and I remember seeing a few older than that.

  10. Jayne says:

    I recently bought a 145 year old house. Just last week I glanced up from the sofa and noticed that someone had etched their name in the window but I can’t make it out. I do know that this is one of the older window panes as it is full of waves and bubbles. I find it to be fascinating!

  11. Andrew says:

    Honestly the myth makes no real sense, if the interest was to test the diamond they would do it in an out of the way place with as little a mark as possible. Names, dates or images put on glass were done intentionally, because someone wanted to leave their mark.

  12. I have 2 names in my grandparents home from 1832 😊

  13. Dianne Fitzpatrick says:

    Sophia Hawthorne (maiden name Peabody), when she was newly married to author Nathanial Hawthorne, supposedly etched some panes of window glass with her diamond ring while living at the Old Manse in Concord, MA. Her husband etched on the gkass as well. Here’s what they etched:
    Man’s accidents are God’s purposes. Sophia A. Hawthorne 1843
    Nath Hawthorne This is his study
    The smallest twig leans clear against the sky
    Composed by my wife and written with her diamond
    Inscribed by my husband at sunset, April 3 1843. In the Gold light.
    SAH[9]
    Their landlord was none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson, a spiritual leader and founder of Transcendentalism. David Thoreau is said to have put in a vegetable garden for the newlyweds before they arrived. The house and those panes of glass still exist today overlooking the spot where the Battle of Concord and Lexington ignited with the “shot heard ’round the world.” I know all this because I regularly canoe to this spot and enjoy reading about these people and their contributions.

  14. Amy S says:

    This is a myth that has become a reality at Shirley Plantation. The Carter family attributes the first initials in the windows of their dining room to Elizabeth Carter, who married William Byrd III of Westover; according to the family legend, she hoped the stone would prove to be paste so she would have an excuse to call off the wedding. However, the diamond was real, after which discovery she felt duty-bound to proceed with the marriage. Successive generations of Carter women have since inscribed their names in similar fashion, not any longer with any real concern about the genuine nature of their diamonds, but to continue what they believe to be a family tradition. I’d be curious to know when their tale of “proving the stone” actually began! I imagine it has been spread from the time the house was first opened to the public in the ’50s, but it’s probably older than that, since the first tours were given by the owner and basically consisted of Carter family oral history of this sort. Like other commenters, I suspect the practice actually originated as a way the daughters of the house left a mark of themselves there before marrying and moving away. That Elizabeth’s marriage to William Byrd was in fact an unhappy one probably gave rise to some wishful thinking about her having searched for a loophole before the wedding!

  15. M.E. Botsford says:

    Our home was built in 1819. There was a pane of glass in the kitchen that had a name and saw arches in it. The date is hard to read, but it’s 18 something. We saved the lane when we remodeled the kitchen.

    • So glad you saved it! When the Virginia governor’s mansion was renovated during the 1990s during the Gilmore administration, the precious scratchings on an upstairs window by the then-governor’s little girls was not noticed, and therefore, replaced.


Revisited Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War

January 14, 2018

Pat McMillion from Burritt on the Mountain, Huntsville, AL, wrote to ask if I would take on this story behind the tradition that black-eyed peas eaten on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. (Actually, I had mentioned it back in July of 2013, but this week we’ll give it full court press.)

The story told throughout the South is that the tradition of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck dates back to Sherman’s March to the Sea in the fall of 1864, when the Yankees laid waste to the Georgia countryside, stealing, killing, or burning everything in their wide path. Survivors faced starvation, until they realized Sherman’s men had left silos full of black-eyed peas, thinking it was food fit only for livestock, as was the case in the North at that time. And since there was no more livestock, there was no use for the peas, so theYankees left the beans alone, and the South was saved from starvation. Hence the good luck. (The relationship to New Year’s Day is fuzzy.) 

Anyone knowledgable about history would surely raise their eyebrows at this lame story–silos full of black-eyed peas in 1864? According to footnoted references in Wikipedia, the first modern silos were invented in Illinois in the 1870s, but we’ll leave that aside, assuming the story doesn’t really mean silos but rather “storage.” It’s just hard for me to picture Sherman’s troops being quite that carefully judgmental as they loot and burn a wide swath of territory for over a month. All the soldiers who came across storage bins with black-eyed peas came to the independent conclusion that they could be left in place because they were no use to anyone but animals? Not logical. Another flaw in the story: the Yankees actually did confiscate animal fodder–millions of pounds of it–either for their own animals or to ship North as contraband. 

But never mind common sense, we must search for hard evidence! (Excuse the enthusiasm, I’m having a glass of wine as I write.)

Black-eyed peas are native to Africa and/or the Far East, and they figure prominently in Southern African-American cuisine. It’s logical that the African-born slaves brought food-related customs with them (“cultural baggage”) long before General Sherman marched to the sea. But black-eyed peas also belong to a 2,500-year-old Jewish custom that links the food to a celebratory meal at Rosh Hashanah. Martha Katz-Hyman, curator at Yorktown Victory Center, sent an informative link to a Jewish article which points to the Babylonian Talmud. “Now that you have said that an omen is significant, at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, black-eyed peas, fenugreek….” Each of the foods (nine in total) represents something different for the year ahead; the black-eyed peas symbolize good fortune.” Read more: http://forward.com/articles/112887/at-rosh-hashanah-black-eyed-peas-for-good-fortune/#ixzz3OMoliuUG. The good-fortune/New Year link to black-eyed peas, this article states, likely arrived in America with the Sephardic Jews who moved to the South. The traditions of the Jews and the African slaves, who did much of the cooking in Southern homes, overlapped with black-eyed peas.

Sharon (no last name) wrote in July of 2013 that “if 18th c. Jews traditionally ate beans for Rosh HaShana, it wasn’t for luck. Rosh HaShana is a two-day “yom tov” or holy day, and Jews are not allowed to light fires or cook on holy days. So it was a long-standing tradition to assemble a casserole, usually something like a pot of beans, and set it among the banked coals on the hearth before the holiday starts, so it will slow-cook like a crock pot meal, and still be hot a day or (even two days) later. However I seriously doubt that anyone in the American South learned this from their Jewish neighbors as a “New Year’s” tradition. Rosh HaShana is in September or very early October, and non-Jewish southerners would almost certainly not have understood enough about the holiday to make the connection to their own New Year’s celebrations.” Good point, Sharon, but Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, so the connection is there.

Another article in Forward.com, the Jewish Daily, explains a mixup between fenugreek and black-eyed peas (although I note the quote from the Talmud mentions both, so there, at least, is no mix up.). “Fenugreek is a little seed that the Talmud calls rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the word for “to increase” — as in, to increase luck. But it actually increased confusion, says [food historian] Gil Marks, because the Sephardim got it mixed up with lubia, the word for black-eyed peas. So the Sephardim began eating black-eyed peas rather than fenugreek for good luck in the new year, a tradition they brought with them when some of them up and moved to the colonies. There, non-Jewish Southerners picked up the tradition, too, which is why — Marks swears — to this day, many of them eat black-eyed peas on Rosh Hashanah.” Thank you, Mr. Marks.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/142762/for-rosh-hashanah-eat-these-symbolic-sounding-food/#ixzz3ORjEzzpS

Another reader of this blog, a “Southerner married to an Englishman,” chimed in. “In northeast England it is traditional to eat carlings on New Years for good luck. Carlings [or carlins] are a black-eyed pea. This tradition is older than the U.S. Civil War and comes from an old Catholic tradition during Lent. Carlings began to be seen as good luck, period. The history of the Carling Festival and Carling Sunday [during Lent] might help with understanding why southerners eat black-eyed peas for good luck at new years.” 

So . . . as we enter the new year, let’s view this myth with some skepticism. The association of black-eyed peas and good luck seems to date back before the American Civil War, and it seems to have existed in at least two distinct societies: northern English and Jewish. I can’t provide definitive proof that it is a myth, and you needn’t be convinced, however, I am. (Pass the wine bottle.) And may the new year bring you good health and much happiness! Cheers!

 

6 previous Responses to Myth #139: The association of black-eyed peas with good luck comes from Sherman’s March to the Sea during the the Civil War.

  1. Pat McMillion says:

    Thank you so very much!!! I knew that logically this was a myth but just didn’t have the proof! I hope to meet you some day so I can give you a hug of thanks for all you do!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Thank you, ma’am. Your blog is always a good read. I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia (which is a lot further South than it looks on a map), and I have never heard that Sherman story. Is it really that widespread?

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’m in Richmond too, and no, it isn’t THAT widespread. Mostly in Georgia, I expect, with that General Sherman angle. I hadn’t heard it myself until a couple readers sent the story to me. One reader said she had heard it as a youngster and she was from Mississippi.

  3. Hanley, Kevin says:

    Actually, Mary, they could very well have referenced silos! Though, as you state, the modern silos as we know wasn’t invented until the 1870’s in Illinois, aboveground silos were known before that. In the 1850’s, in France, they built some of masonry, lined with sheet iron. Prior to that, underground silos, were all the rage, going back to Greek (siros) and Roman (sirus/syrus) times. Both early terms referred to pits for storing grain. Its from those roots that the term “silo” evolved from. Remember the scene in the “Ten Commandments” when Charley Heston a/k/a Moses breaks open the Egyptian priests granary. Those mud brick storage bins were silos. So those southerners may have had underground “silos” on their farms. Civil War texts refer to the Georgian crowd, as with many southern farmers, burying their goods: crops, the good silver, etc., underground to hide them from those da*ned Yankees.

    BTW, no I’m not a silo historian. In the research for info about the Wick and Ford family farms here at Morristwon NHP, I wondered if they may have had such “silos”, and came across a whole bunch of neat stuff about silos (especially an 1880’s British book about the proper storage of their fodders. Those Brits really dug their agriculture! Course, what they did with their mudders we’ll never know. Sorry, couldn’t resist!)

    Kevin Hanley Park Ranger, MORR

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the information, Kevin. I’m afraid my brain leaped directly to tall, cylindrical silos when I read this term. Of course other grain storage facilities have been around for millennia, and I’m sure that’s what the story was referencing.

  4. i know I’m rather late, but the other factor people tend to ignore or just flat out miss is that Sherman had contact with Federal units from Tennessee and Kentucky at least during the battle of Atlanta, so I’m sure that he was well informed about black-eyed peas.


Revisited Myth # 138: Women in early America didn’t play the violin or flute because they would have to raise their arms, revealing their elbows.

January 7, 2018

Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, England 1835

This well entrenched myth is trickier than I suspected, but when one digs into the details (“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say), it seems there is no evidence to back up the belief that the reason women and girls didn’t play the violin or flute was because they would have to raise their arms and reveal their elbows. This statement has long been made by historic interpreters and volunteer docents at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites and is still found in some CW podcasts.

The idea that elbows were indecent seems to have no historical foundation. Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and an expert on 18th-c. costume, expressed surprise and dismay that this was still being said by CW interpreters. “Almost all gowns of the 18th century typically did cover women’s elbows, because that was the fashionable silhouette. . . I have not seen period sources stating that women’s elbows were considered indecent. In fact, working women did not hesitate to roll their sleeves up when work demanded it. When fashions changed at the very end of the 18th century and early 19th century, most women readily adopted the new short-sleeved styles. Again, I have not found any period sources [such as manuals of manners and deportment] saying that women found the visible elbows to be shocking.”

18th-c female with typical sleeves and exposed elbows

For more information see the article at http://www.history.org/search/google_search_results.cfm where it states, “The concepts of comfort and modesty have always been relative and subject to the influence of fashion and the needs of the occasion. Like us, eighteenth-century people needed clothing for warmth and comfort, but they quickly abandoned those needs if fashion or the occasion dictated. During much of the eighteenth century, 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.”

But is it true that women did not play the violin or the flute? John Watson, conservator of instruments and associate curator of musical instruments for Colonial Williamsburg, says that few women played these instruments because, in general, they were not considered ladylike instruments. In Music and Image: Domesticity, ideology and socio-cultural formation in eighteenth-century England, author Richard Leppert contrasts the English guitar (a strongly female-associated instrument) to the violin. He points out that the guitar “was never an instrument of high musical caste…There was no ‘art’ music for the instrument… Men by contrast took up the violin, archetypal instrument of the ‘best’ music from the European Courts” (p.167) Leppert goes on to say (p.168) “There is no ‘natural’ reason why women should not have taken up the violin; indeed, they would have had far more time available to learn how to play it well. That they did not do so was a cultural or ideological matter involving the instrument’s appropriation by men, as the musical enthusiast Hester Lynch Piozzi understood perfectly and so stated in the silence of her diary [1789]: ‘How the Women do shine [in music] of late! . . . Madame Gautherot’s wonderful Execution on the Fiddle; — but say the Critics a Violin is not an Instrument for Ladies to manage, very likely! I remember when they said the same Thing of a Pen.’” [Ouch!]

Colonial Williamsburg’s Research Librarian Juleigh Clark sheds further light on the subject with her discovery of a 1722 London publication by author John Essex, The young ladies conduct: or, rules for education, under several heads; with instructions upon dress, both before and after marriage. It seems there were several instruments that were “unbecoming the Fair Sex.” Essex writes, “The Harpsicord, Spinnet, Lute and Base Violin, are Instruments most agreeable to the Ladies: There are some others that really are unbecoming the Fair Sex; as the Flute, Violin and Hautboy [oboe]; the last of which is too Manlike, and would look indecent in a woman’s mouth; and the Flute is very improper, as taking away too much of the Juices, which are otherwise more necessarily employ’d, to promote the Appetite, and assist Digestion. Musick is certainly a very great Accomplishment to the Ladies; it refines the Taste, polishes the Mind; and is an Entertainment, without other Views, that preserves them fron the Rust of Idleness, that most pernicious Enemy to Virtue.” Interesting logic, huh? Women need to conserve their saliva for digestive purposes, but men don’t. 

John Watson suggests that it is also worth considering whether the “female” instruments (keyboards and guitar) were considered suitable for women because they were seen as more for accompaniment for the voice and less soloistic.

It isn’t so hard to imagine that some instruments were considered feminine and others masculine. The same is true today–although the instruments have sometimes switched sexes! I interviewed a retired, female violinist who played for the Richmond symphony for decades who told me that over the past 60 years, certain instruments have been played predominantly by one sex or the other. It is mostly men, for example, who play percussion, horns,  double bass, tuba, and saxophone; while women are almost exclusively in possession of the harp. Considerably more women than men play the violin today, she said. A cursory glance at contemporary music shows that it is mostly men who play the guitar nowadays, an instrument considered feminine in colonial times. So the guitar, a female instrument in the 18th century, and the violin, a male instrument, changed sexes in the 20th century! 

Long story short: the violin and flute were among the instruments considered unsuitable for women, but not because of their elbows. 

 

 

Previous comments.

  1. James Meek says:

    As to whether the violin was unsuitable for women in the 1700’s, maybe in America.

    But tell that to Anna Maria from Venice, (1696-1782) for whom Vivaldi wrote numerous violin concertos.

    There’s a wonderful book about this

    http://www.barbaraquick.com/annamaria.html

    and a superb BBC4 video (both visually and musically).

    The full documentary is here:

  2. Jake Pontillo says:

    Another great and informative posting!

  3. Ha! I was hassled by a very entertaining interpreter a year and a half ago at a tavern in CW, and she rebuked me for showing my elbows. I raised my eyebrow but didn’t challenge her. Vindicated in retrospect!

  4. Lisa D says:

    Perhaps at least with instruments that required a certain lung capacity wearing a corset could make it more challenging

  5. Stephen Herchak says:

    Enjoy these very much — just yesterday I was thinking about something I might as well pass along to you now.

    I know you’ve addressed the notion of “sleep tight” and the ropes supporting mattresses but something I often hear also associated with Colonial furnishing and in the Heyward Washington House where I used to volunteer here in Charleston, is the expression “to square a room away” comes from the practice of moving the furniture against the walls and out from the center of the room when not in use.

    Is that the origin of the term, or is “squaring” something just like “tight”, be it sleep tight, sit tight, just hold tight a minute — and so forth?

    Thanks once again for the great posts, Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      I’ve never heard of that phrase, Stephen, but since furniture was often pushed to the edges of the room when it wasn’t being used, I imagine the origin might have come from that practice.

  6. Deborah Brower says:

    Up until your post I had seen a woman playing fiddle in two other 18th century images. One was Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment and the other was a French print. Thanks for tackling this question.
    Big thank you to James Meek for his comments and link. That documentary is stunning, it gave me chills.

    Mary, thanks many times for keeping this blog going. You add so much to our understanding of myths by providing a forum where the weirdest statements can be put under the microscope.


Revisited Myth # 101: Colonial Americans decorated their homes at Christmas.

December 16, 2017

  I had to find a Christmas myth for this time of year . . . so let’s look at the idea that colonial Americans in general celebrated and decorated for Christmas. First it must be said that many early European-Americans didn’t acknowledge Christmas at all, let alone celebrate or decorate for it. These included the Puritans in New England and various denominations throughout the middle and southern colonies like Amish, Baptists, Congregationalists, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quakers. But for many in the central and southern colonies, Christmas was a holiday season. 

     Let’s go to the biggest decorating myth in American Christmas history–the idea that our colonial forebears decked their homes with fruited wreaths.

     The idea of decorating the doors with rare fresh fruit where it would hang until it rotted or was eaten by squirrels would have horrified every human being in colonial America, no matter how wealthy they were. Fresh fruit was rare to nonexistent during the winter, and if one were fortunate enough to have some imported oranges from the Caribbean or late apples from New England, one ate them.

 This myth originated with the DellaRobbia-style decorating that began in Williamsburg in the 1930s (when the town was being restored with Rockefeller money) as a compromise with its residents. As far as we can tell, colonists did not decorate the outside of their houses at all, but Americans in the 1930s most certainly did, and Williamsburg residents were not happy to be told that authenticity demanded they forego all Christmas decorations. Nor did the Colonial Williamsburg executives relish the thought of blinking colored lights and reindeer glowing from the rooftops of the restored town. It was decided to encourage natural decoration with materials that would have been available to the colonists, such as greenery, dried seed pods, fruit, pinecones, gourds, oyster shells, and so forth. But no matter how often Foundation executives stressed that this was NOT a colonial decorating method but a modern-day compromise, the erroneous impression spread.

So how did colonial Americans decorate for Christmas? (If they decorated at all.) We have documentation for English decorations that can logically be assumed to have transferred to the English colonies, documentation that shows sprigs of holly in tavern and store window panes, clumps of mistletoe hanging from tavern ceilings, vases or greenery with red berries on the mantel at home, garlands around the portraits and stuck to walls, small branches of holly or greens stuck around the kitchen, churches strewn with fresh-scented greenery, and tables set with elaborate fruit pyramids and etageres laden with fruit, nuts, and sweetmeats. No wreaths on doors, no decorated trees. 

 

Previous comments:

  1. Diane Thornton says:

    I totally enjoy all of your posts! This one was especially interesting. So interesting how “traditions” don’t necessarily go back as far as people assume.

  2. janice says:

    thank you for this information. much appreciated.

  3. Deborah Brower says:

    Good food for thought. We have come to picture the celebration of the holidays in a certain way and that’s people want to see. It evokes their vision of the past right or wrong.

    I sing carols during the Christmas season at a historic site and people will ask did they do that then. I have to answer not exactly. The carols like the decorations provide a setting for the visit and without it the site would lose a significant revenue opportunity, not unlike the Grand Illumination at CW. As one of the pervious posts said it is amazing how quickly some thing becomes traditional.

  4. janice says:

    so if they didn’t celebrate christmas, what about other holidays, such as easter and birthdays?

  5. Lynn says:

    I know this is getting away from the myth part, but does anyone have any sources for how those who celebrated might have decorated? Thanks!


Revisited Myth # 137: “Sleep tight” refers to tightening the ropes on a bed.

December 9, 2017

Urban legend has it that “sleep tight” referred to tightening up the ropes on the old-fashioned bed, but this is a myth perpetuated by historic house guides and visitors alike. The meaning of “tight” was a little different in the 18th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one of its meanings was “soundly.” Another is “securely.” So “sleep tight” really just meant “Sleep well.”  

Think about the expression “sit tight”–it doesn’t have anything to do with tightening the ropes on a chair, does it? 

 

Previous comments

  1. Do you have any other source for this than that “tight” can mean soundly or securely? And how does it relate to “sit tight”? I have never heard “sit tight” nor understand its relation to sitting securely or soundly. Just the sound of it would make me think it was related to “hold your horses” or sit still or be patient. I can vouch that if your ropes on your bed aren’t tight, you don’t sleep well. Just wonder if there is more proof for your reasoning.

    • Mary Miley says:

      No, historians pretty much defer to the OED, although there is some more information from England at http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/sleep%20tight.html

      As for the “sit tight” reference, I probably shouldn’t have thrown that in, but I meant to show that this other use of the word tight did not mean anything to do with ropes, it meant securely, in other words, sit still.

      • Evelyn Noyoga Zak says:

        Interestingly I just was binge watching a bedroom series by Lucy Worsley on History of the Home the Bedroom. and they reference this very phrase tightening the ropes and also don’t let the bed bugs bite using wormwood sprinkled on the straw “mattress”. Could it be our friends across the pond have it wrong? (or right)

      • Mary Miley says:

        I clicked on your link and enjoyed watching the show. A wonderful British series! At around minute 10, the museum docent told Lucy that “Sleep tight” meant tighten the ropes. I believe they are mistaken, and that it sounds so logical that no one bothered to check with the OED on word origin.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      ‘Sit tight’ was a phrase my mother used when we were children to mean ‘sit in this spot and don’t get up until I tell you you can.’

  2. Uh, oh I told that to someone a few days ago. I was told it meant to make sure the ropes were tight when I was on a tour of an historical home years ago. Guess I’d better tell my friend it’s an urban legend! Thanks for this blog. It’s really very interesting!

  3. Stephen Herchak says:

    Hi, Mary– loved the bed post (little pun, there) and while I always took it in the sense you mention (sit tight) when I was growing up I began hearing the tight rope version from docents when I was a volunteer at a Colonial home, so thanks for setting that one straight.

    Speaking of which (sort of), it immediately reminded me of another one I heard having to do with Colonial home furnishings — that the rooms were more multipurpose back then than they are now, furniture would be moved from room to room as needed and when a room was not in use would be pushed back against the walls (leaving the center of the room clear) and it is from that moving of chairs/furniture against the sides of the room after using it is where we get the expression and notion of “squaring a room away”.

    Other than the general notion we carry of four corners indicating order and having “everything covered” (going to the four corners of the earth even when it is not rectangular) no other connection jumps to mind for me so my natural inclination of giving the benefit of a doubt to a plausible story wants to believe this one is so.

    Your thoughts?

    Thanks again so much — hope you have a great weekend.

    Stephen Herchak

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hi Stephen! Thanks for the comments.
      You are aware, I’m sure, that the pushing-furniture-against-the-walls story is long established as true. But I’ve never heard the expression “squaring a room away,” so I can’t comment on whether or not it stems from this practice. I think looking that up in the OED is unlikely to help . . . what word would you look up? Room? Square? I tried to look the phrase up in my two slang dictionaries, English Through the Ages and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, but nothing resembling “square a room” was there. Even checked Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Then I googled the phrase and came up with no hits. Sorry I can’t help.

  4. Dave E. says:

    Words and sayings from history usually have a practical background to them. Therefor to wish someone to sleep well would possibly refer to the bed set up properly, such as having the ropes properly tightened. A simplified dictionary definition often leaves out the historic and practical reason for the saying or term.


Revisited Myth # 136: Women married very young in “the olden days.”

December 3, 2017

(Thanks to Katie Cannon, assistant curator of education at the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, for tackling this myth. I’m sorry I couldn’t reproduce her two charts, but I’ve transposed the information they contained.)

There is a phrase that I always find myself repeating whenever a general statement is made about the past: “It’s more complicated than that.” This is one of those myths that is sort of true… in some times and places… but tends to get overgeneralized. Yes, some women were married as teenagers in early America. However, this was not always true everywhere… or even most of the time!

There are many factors you must consider when talking about typical ages at marriage:

Geographic Location & Economic Situation. Not all times and places are the same. In the early years of New England, 1650-1750, most women married and most around the age of 20-22, with men four or five years older. By contrast, at the same time in Europe (where many of those women or their parents came from) about 10% of the population did not marry at all.(1) In his book From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, Alan Kulikoff makes the argument that marriage age in 18th-century America was directly tied to land availability. The more land is available to start working and providing for a family, the sooner a person (male or female) can marry. Here is what he found: The English and their colonists assumed that men could not marry until they could support a household. This was easier in America where land was plentiful than in England where it was not. Benjamin Franklin observed that “Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a labouring Man, that understands Husbandry, can in a short time save money enough to purchase a Piece of new land sufficient for a Plantation, whereon he may subsist a Family.”(2) 

Even in America, marriage age fluctuated with availability and cheapness of land, which varied between regions and decades. Here is a chart summarizing Kulikoff’s findings. The numbers indicate average age at first marriage.(3)

England, 1700s; Women: 25-26; Men: 30

New England, early 1600s; Women: Teens; Men: 26

New England, late 1600s; Women: 20; Men: 25

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1600s; Women: 22; Men: 26

Pennsylvania Quakers, 1700s; Women: 23; Men: 26

Rural South Carolina, 1700s; Women: 19; Men: 22

For comparison, here is the U.S. census data showing the median age of marriage for selected years in  the more recent past:(4)

1900 Women: 21.9; Men: 25.9

1950 Women: 20.3; Men: 22.8

1975 Women: 21.1; Men: 23.5

2000 Women: 25.1; Men:  26.8

As you can see, the age at first marriage in the 20th century is not that different from the 17th or 18th, depending on exactly where and when you are talking about. While there is a variety, they are all within the same general range rather than the drastic difference many imagine.

Widows & Widowers: Sadly, disease was much more prevalent and you could do less about it than today. Second marriages and stepchildren were rather common, because both men and women regularly took ill and died before reaching old age. If we look for example at the first ten presidents and their wives, four of the wives had been married previously and one of the presidents married again when his wife died. So, the marriage ages often get skewed when an older person who has lost a spouse remarries. To illustrate this, consider President John Tyler, who married Letitia when they were both 23. When Letita died, John remarried, this time to Julia who was 24… although by that time he was 54. You might look at that second marriage and be delightfully scandalized that a man married a woman who was 30 years younger. But remember, in his first marriage, he and his wife were exactly the same age.

Personal Circumstance People still get married as teenagers in America. And some wait until their 40s… or never. It was the same in early America: not everybody fit into a tidy generalization. 

 

1 Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in Northern New England 1650-1750, published 1983, page 6.

2 Quoted in Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, page 228.

3 Allan Kulikoff, From British Peasants to Colonial American Farmers, published 2000, pages 227-229.

4 http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/hh-fam/tabMS-2.pdf


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