Stuff and Nonsense
Myths That Should by Now Be History
by Mary Miley Theobald
Photos by Dave Doody
One of the closets that some people believe didn’t exist in colonial times can be found in a Wythe House bedroom.
Hand in vest, George Washington was not trying to save the artist’s fee for painting fingers when he struck such poses.
Colonial Williamsburg master carpenter Garland Wood attaches an HL hinge, designed for strength and not for piety.
A quilted petticoat in the Colonial Williamsburg collections. Undergarments catching fire were not a leading cause of death.
Petticoats did not catch fire often, but some hardy myths about the colonial period are put to the match at the DAR Museum.
The decorative “pineapple” was really a pinecone, seen here at Tidewater’s Westover Plantation. It did not signify hospitality.
Every day, stories about people or objects are told in museums that are not true. Some are outright fabrications. Others contain a kernel of truth that the years have embellished. Still others could be true, but lack the proof of documentation. Because they are catchy, humorous, or shocking, the stories stick in our memories when information less sexy slips away.
Curators at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington, DC, decided to tackle the subject in a 2006 exhibit. “We sent letters to museums all over the country,” museum director Diane Dunkley says. “We asked them to tell us the historical myths they could not stamp out, the ones their docents kept repeating, and we did our best to debunk some of them, once and for all.
“Some of the weird things we hear are actually true,” Dunkley says. “Hat makers really were driven ‘mad,’ or more accurately, they were poisoned by the mercury they used in making hats from furs. The symptoms—hallucinations, tremors, and twitching—looked like insanity to people of the eighteenth century and the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ came about.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces printed use of the phrase to the second quarter of the nineteenth century, which suggests that by then the trope was conversationally common.
It is hard, however, to visit a history museum without encountering at least one myth. How many have you heard? How many do you believe?
FIRE SCREENS WERE PUT BETWEEN A WOMAN AND THE FIREPLACE TO PREVENT THE HEAT FROM MELTING HER WAX MAKEUP
Colonial American women wore little or no makeup. Europeans noticed and commented on that when they visited America because, where they came from, makeup was common among upper-class ladies. An examination of eighteenth-century recipes for skin care reveals a few concoctions, but these are more skin treatment, intended to be applied and washed off. None of them call for wax. An example of a waxless skin-care recipe is found in Delights for Ladies by Sir Hugh Plat, 1644:
Paste of dried Almonds to cleanse the Skin. Beat any quantity you please, of Sweet and Bitter Almonds in a marble mortar, and while beating, pour on them a little Vinegar in a small stream to prevent their turning oily; then add 2 drachms of storax in fine powder, 2 drachms of white Honey, and 2 Yolks of Eggs boiled hard; mix the whole into a paste.
At all events, studies of inventories—lists of household possessions made after a person’s death for legal purposes—show few fire screens in American homes. An expensive accessory, they often were decorated with needlework and placed near the fire for use by men and women to shield them from direct heat, but no one’s face was in danger of melting.
BEDS WERE SHORTER IN THOSE DAYS BECAUSE PEOPLE WERE SHORTER
Eighteenth-century beds were made individually; there was no standard size. Some beds are shorter than today’s and some are longer. Some people may have slept propped up on pillows, but beds were not made shorter because of that. Guests are often surprised when the guide takes a measuring tape to a “short” bed and they find it is as long as or longer than today’s standard seventy-five-inch double bed. In 1981, Colonial Williamsburg curators surveyed antique beds in the exhibition buildings and found that those in the Peyton Randolph House, the Wythe House, the Brush House, and the Governor’s Palace all equaled or exceeded six-foot-three, the standard today. Some are as long as eighty inches, the length of today’s king or queen size. Curators think that the high bedposts, fabric hangings, canopy, and pillows make beds appear shorter than they are.
Heights varied in the eighteenth century, as they do today. But overall, eighteenth-century people were not dramatically shorter than the twenty-first’s. When Colonial Williamsburg historian Harold Gill compared the average heights of white male soldiers during the Revolutionary War in the 1770s with those serving in the United States Army in the 1950s, the difference was about two-thirds of an inch. Similar studies show similar results: little or no difference. The average height of American males does seem to have been significantly greater—up to two inches—than the average height of European males of the same time, a result ascribed to better nutrition and healthier living conditions in the New World than in the Old.
HOUSES DIDN’T HAVE CLOSETS IN COLONIAL DAYS BECAUSE PEOPLE WANTED TO AVOID PAYING THE CLOSET TAX
Inventories and floor plans of the period show that many houses had closets. Typically found on either side of a fireplace, they were used for general storage. Clothing was usually kept in such furniture as a chest, a clothespress, or a chest of drawers, not hung on hangers in a closet.
“When people today think of a closet, they are thinking of a clothes closet,” says Patrick Sheary, DAR curator of furnishings, “so when they come across a closet in the dining room, they call it a cupboard.” The myth regarding the closet tax, he says, “probably results from a misunderstanding of how closets were used in the eighteenth century, and the fact that they were not always located in every bedroom, as they are today.” Taxes varied colony to colony, but research has turned up no examples of a tax on closets in any of the thirteen colonies that broke with Britain in 1776.
“People didn’t have as much stuff in those days,” says Alden O’Brien, curator of textiles and clothing. “They didn’t need to call California Closets to come organize their stuff in big, walk-in closets. Even a well-to-do colonial woman would have had just a few dresses.”
The myth of the second story tax is a variation on the closet tax story. The claim is that people in the eighteenth century built story-and-a-half houses to avoid the tax on the second story. Historians are aware of no building taxes in, for example, Virginia, where during the colonial period story-and-a-half houses were common. The story-and-a-half house with dormers was simply a popular style.
MEN POSED WITH ONE HAND INSIDE THE VEST TO SAVE MONEY BECAUSE PORTRAIT PAINTERS GAVE A DISCOUNT IF THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO GO TO THE EXTRA WORK OF PAINTING THE FINGERS
This is a variation of the “arm and a leg” myth: that the expression about something costing an arm and a leg came about because portrait painters charged more if they had to paint the subject’s arms or legs. There is no historical verification for either tale. Standing with one hand tucked inside a vest or jacket was a popular, dignified pose for gentlemen of the era. It is not likely that Napoleon, King George III, or George Washington was concerned about getting a discount from his portrait painter.
A SILVER ITEM STAMPED “COIN” WAS MADE FROM MELTING DOWN SILVER COINS
Occasionally coins were used as a source for silver: the curators point to the example of Washington having a dozen small silver camp cups made from sixteen silver dollars. But the word “coin” stamped onto silver objects usually means that the silver was the same proportion as that used for coinage, or 900 parts per 1,000 as opposed to the higher 925 parts per 1,000 for the sterling standard. The remaining portion was usually copper, to strengthen the otherwise too-soft pure silver.
When the colonies belonged to England, they followed English laws for marking silver, but after independence, standards varied. In 1837, Congress passed a law that established 900/1000 as the official standard for coin silver. Most silver objects stamped “coin” were not made from melted coins.
THE COLONISTS WERE SO RELIGIOUS THAT THEY PUT HL HINGES ON THEIR DOORS, WHICH STOOD FOR HOLY LORD
An extension of this story—that the Holy Lord hinges protected the house from witches—regularly makes the rounds, even in hardware stores. These two tales are related to a third, about the paneled doors having been styled to resemble an open Bible, or a cross, or in the form of two H’s to stand for Heaven and Hell, again because of the colonists’ fervent religious beliefs.
HL hinges are a stronger version of simple symmetrical H hinges. They are useful for supporting the weight of a heavy wooden door. The key is the extra supporting arm that fastens to the door. This piece can be on top, in which case it would look like an HL, or on the bottom, where it resembles HG. Or it can be mounted on the other side as the mirror image of the two. Many colonists had little or no interest in religion, and no documentation supports the belief that their hardware or door panels had symbolic value.
SOME PIECES OF FURNITURE HAVE DOORS WITH THIRTEEN PANES OF GLASS TO REPRESENT THE ORIGINAL THIRTEEN STATES
Objects were designed to represent the thirteen states, such as the American flag and the dollar bill, but glass-paned doors are probably not another example. Some furniture made in England and France in the Chinese style had doors with thirteen glass panes, and they weren’t celebrating America’s independence. The furniture design book of Thomas Chippendale, published twenty-three years before the American Revolution, shows case pieces with doors that have thirteen panes of glass. It’s a nice story but unsupported by fact.
BURNING TO DEATH FROM THEIR LONG PETTICOATS’ CATCHING FIRE WAS THE LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH FOR COLONIAL-ERA WOMEN, AFTER CHILDBIRTH
Historians who have studied death records have determined that the leading cause of death for colonial men and women was disease. Childbirth took a shocking toll on women by today’s standards, and an unfortunate few probably did die when their clothing caught fire. The “death by petticoat” myth, however, is an exaggeration. Curator Alden O’Brien says that “the horrific nature of the accident may have made the rare incidents more famous and memorable, making them stick in people’s minds and seeming more common.”
WHEN MEN SMOKED, THEY OFTEN SHARED THE SAME WHITE CLAY PIPE. FOR SANITARY REASONS, THEY WOULD BREAK OFF THE TIP OF THE LONG STEM BEFORE PASSING ON THE PIPE.
It makes sense to us today, with our knowledge of germs and communicable disease. But colonists didn’t know about germs and could not more than suspect that sharing a pipe or cup was unsanitary. Yet this myth has survived for decades, probably because someone applied modern logic to understand why historical archaeologists were unearthing thousands of bits of broken pipe stems. The long slender stems of white clay pipes are fragile, as anyone who has handled a reproduction carelessly can attest. They had to be long so that the heat from burning tobacco in the bowl of the pipe would not be conducted as far as the lips.
FROM THE ERA OF THE ANCIENT GREEKS TO THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, PINEAPPLES HAVE BEEN A SYMBOL OF HOSPITALITY, WHICH IS WHY THEY WERE FREQUENTLY SERVED TO GUESTS AT MEALS AND USED AS A DECORATIVE MOTIF
The myth of the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality is powerful. The usual story goes that the pineapple was served to guests as an expression of hospitality because it was so rare. Rare it was, and relatively expensive, coming from the West Indian tropics to American colonial ports—the pineapple would have been a treat on any colonial table. But there is no evidence that anyone at the time thought of the fruit as a symbol of hospitality.
Early Spanish and Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to notice the fruit, called na-na by the natives. The Portuguese ananaz and the Spanish ananas may derive from that word, but the English called the fruit a “pine-apple,” a word heretofore interchangeable with “pine-cone,” because it so resembled the pinecones they knew. The pinecone had strong and ancient ties to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine—Bacchus to the Romans—who carried a thyrsus, a staff entwined with grape vines and topped by a pinecone. That association relates to the use of pine resin in wine making. Since classical times, the pinecone has symbolized fertility and regeneration and has been used as a decorative motif. It is the pinecone that the colonists were using in their decorative arts, evoking the classical symbolism that they, educated in the classics, would have understood well. Amateur historian Melvin Fulks, who has spent decades gathering information about origins of pineapple/pinecone symbolism, says that the earliest incidence of the pineapple-as-hospitality story he has found is in a 1935 book about Hawaii.
How do these myths come about? In some cases, like the pineapple story, the old sense of a word has been forgotten, and something else logically suggests itself. Sometimes, people attribute greater frequency to an infrequent occurrence, such as thinking that burning petticoats were the leading cause of death among women, or that because a few silver objects marked “coin” were made from melted coins, they all were.
Often there is a nugget of truth innocently embellished to improve the story. That was the case with the high-waisted jacket that came to the DAR from descendents of John Adams with the story that Abigail Adams wore it. Research showed that the style dated to 1817–19 and that it was made for a slight, underdeveloped figure, possibly a teenage girl. Abigail Adams died in 1818 at the age of seventy-four, neither slight nor underdeveloped. “What probably happened,” O’Brien says, “is that the family, knowing the piece to be quite old, possibly dating to Abigail’s lifetime, wishfully ascribed it to the most illustrious woman of their family.”
There are many more historical myths that refuse to retire. Passed along like a legacy from one museum docent to another, they defy the best efforts of historians to debunk them. Perhaps if they were taxed, the way the government used to tax closets. . . .
Stuff and Nonsense Crossword Puzzle
The author welcomes examples of museum myths that readers may have heard. She may be addressed at:
Mary Miley Theobald, c/o
Colonial Williamsburg:The Journal of Colonial Williamsburg
Post Office Box 1776
Williamsburg, Virginia, 23187-1776