“I heard that….”
“Yes, and I also heard that…”
Historical myths are common. Facts can be exaggerated out of proportions. However, to be able to effectively learn from our past, we must cling on to the truth, no matter how tempting fabrications may seem. That is why, in 2006, the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum have chosen to battle myths and set the record straight. Published by Mary Miley Theobald, “Stuff and Nonsense: Myths that Should Now Be History” delineates their results.
One of the most common beliefs is that people were shorter during the 18th century. This misconception stems from the fact that their beds look shorter than ours do today. Visitors to many historic houses, like the ones operated by the Chadds Ford Historical Society, naturally jump to the conclusion that people back then must be shorter.
With the lack of regulation and organization during colonial America, having standard sizes was unheard of. Beds were individually crafted, not manufactured in bulk in factories. However, most beds were made to seventy five inches, which is still a standard size bed today. However, the high bed posts and the way the pillows are placed often create the illusion that the beds were much shorter.
Another common legend is that women often died from their petticoats catching on fire. Yes, women had to wear long petticoats. Yes, women often worked around a fire. However, death by petticoats was not the norm. The leading cause of death was disease, thanks to a lack of understanding about medicine and hygiene. Women, having grown up around the fire in long dresses, have simply learned to live and adapt. Alden O’Brien, a Daughter of the American Revolution curator, explained that: “the horrified 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”.
The last common misconception is that people didn’t build houses with closet because of the closet tax. This myth has one simple explanation. People living in colonial America put their clothes in chests or drawers. Closets were built usually on either sides of a fireplace and were used for storage in general. The fireplace in the parlor of the Barns-Brinton House has these closets, and we still use them today! Visitors mistake these closets for cupboards, and then assume that people just didn’t have closets. We know from history that there has been a lot of taxation on the colonists by Britain, but a closet tax has yet to be discovered. In addition, people had fewer clothes back then. Therefore, they needed less space.
Myths are easy to fabricate. At times, it may be tempting to make history more fun by adding embellishments. However, the most important thing about studying the past is studying the truth.
All the information comes from Mary Miley Theobald’s “Stuff and Nonsense: Myths That Should By Now Be History”.