Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

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Mythbuster Friday: “Girls Were Not Allowed to Play Violin or Flute in Colonial Times”

A woman's elbow would typically have been covered by her sleeve.

A woman’s elbow would typically have been covered by her sleeve

Myth: Girls weren’t allowed to play violin or flute, because their elbows would then be “on show,” and this was considered immodest.


Is it true that girls were forbidden to play the violin or flute in the 1700s? It is commonly accepted that women never showed an elbow, for that would be immodest. In order to play the violin or flute, it is necessary to raise one’s elbows, putting them in plain view and revealing this scandalous joint. Also, men overwhelmingly outnumbered women as violinists and flutists in colonial times, further implying that women were never allowed to play these instruments.

However, it is actually not true that elbows were considered scandalous. It was merely the fashion of the times to cover them up with longer sleeves, and this fashion was quickly changing. Working women wouldn’t have hesitated to roll up their sleeves in order to protect them from the dirt and dust of colonial life. As a matter of fact, this goes for ankles as well. Women sometimes would hike up their skirts and tuck them up away from the ground. Since females were involved in some grimy crafts such as brick-making, and since most women at the time only owned a few outfits, it makes sense that they would go to lengths to protect the clothes they owned.

Shorter sleeves became the fashion in the 1790s

Shorter sleeves became the fashion in the 1790s

Clearly, girls were not forbidden to play violin or flute because of their elbows being deemed “scandalous.” In some countries in the 18th century, we know for a fact that young girls did play the violin. The most notable example of this is the orphanage of girls taught by Antonio Vivaldi in Venice. They grew to be extremely skilled in violin. Women violinists do not seem to have been the case in America, however. Men definitely made up the majority of violinists and flutists. The most plausible explanation is that the violin and the flute were considered masculine instruments, and therefore women would never learn to play these unladylike instruments. Perhaps these two instruments prevented one from singing, a very popular skill for 18th century women, and thus something like a guitar was considered more suitable. Whatever the case is, it is true that particular instruments are identified with a certain gender, even in today’s society. Curiously enough, the violin and the flute are both played by mostly women today. It is doubtful we shall ever know the reasoning behind this, but we can conclude that it wasn’t those “scandalous” elbows that kept colonial women from playing the violin or flute.


Photo credits:

The Wiley Family by William Williams, 1771

Self Portrait with a Harp by Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux, 1791

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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Mythbuster Friday: “Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite”

Myth: “Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite” found its origin in the early 1700s, and it is a reminder to tighten the ropes on the bed before sleeping. The “bedbug” is the bed wrench, so “don’t let the bedbugs bite” means to be careful and don’t pinch your fingers on the wrench.


The phrase is a reminder to fasten your nightgown around you tightly, so the bedbugs will be unable to climb through them.

Truth: This is a very common myth, but it is ultimately a myth, and it is one we are often asked about on our tour of the John Chad’s house. The two main faulty interpretations of this phrase are stated above. The idea is, in order to sleep well on a rope bed, the ropes must be tightened on a regular basis. If the ropes became too slack, the occupant would have a very uncomfortable night’s sleep. So one of the household chores, normally given to small children, was to use the bed wrench to tighten the ropes every day so they remained taut.


Some even believe that a passive aggressive way to get rid of unwanted guests was to let the ropes sink lower and lower, until the bed became so uncomfortable that the guests would leave. But that is a myth for another day.   Bed bugs were common, lived in mattresses, and would bite the bed’s occupant. So this myth does hold up to a certain extent, showing how beds needed to be regularly tightened and bugs were likely to bite you in your sleep. However, this phrase couldn’t plausibly refer to a tight rope bed, because the first known citation of “sleep tight” was in the late 19th century, long after rope beds were in common use. As to the need to keep your nightgown fastened tightly, the bedbugs would live in the mattress and would be undeterred by nightgowns, fastened tightly or not.

The truth of the meaning behind “sleep tight” is that it is really more of a prayer than anything else. To sleep “tight” meant to sleep well or soundly, to sleep safely until morning, and has been listed in the dictionary as such. So when I wish you a good night, “sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite,” I am wishing you a good night’s sleep and I hope you remain safe till morning. And here’s hoping those bedbugs don’t bite you during your sound sleep.

Come see our rope beds for yourself at the Chadds Ford Historical Society; we are open every Saturday for tours. Hope to see you there!


Post by Anne Ciskanik

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The Clothes that Make the Colonists

There’s the saying, “it’s the clothes that makes the man”.  Today, we can assume learn a lot about a person from their outfit.  It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure that out.

The same goes with studying history.  There’s a lot to be learned about people judging from the clothes they wore.  However, there is one prominent hitch in this method.  During colonial times, which is the period we are concerned with, fabric is hard to come by.  It takes years of work to make a new petticoat.  Thus, clothes were worn until they could not be worn anymore.  Or, if they were outgrown, they were taken apart so the fabric could be reused.  Few every day outfits were preserved, therefore, for our study.  As Eliabeth Ewing wrote in “Everday Dress”, clothes “were refurbished, altered, given new trimmings of lace, ribbon, frilling, brought to date, eventually cut down to for a smaller member of the family”.  Because of this, museums tend to have only fancy attire (worn maybe twice a year) and baby clothes (too small to be reused and not worn as hard) to exhibit.  The problem with studying the fancy attire is that they are fashion based.  Ewing explained that fashion was used to create a certain kind of image and reap attention.  However, clothes are what is “worn by the man or woman in the street”.  A modern example.  We have fashion trends, such as high-waisted shorts or beanies, but we wouldn’t wear a Versace gown to the mall.

Baby clothes tell us a bit more.  The colonists swaddled their infants, in the hopes of making them grow straight.  Also, the tight swaddling clothes made squirming impossible, turning the child into “a neat manageable bundle that could be hung on a peg on the wall out of harm’s way” (Kidwell & Steele, Dressing the Part).  As they are learning to walk, they would often wear puddings, which were hats made to cushion their heads should they fall.  Children also had leading strings attached to their dresses.  The strings were used for walking lessons and as leashes to grab them if they wandered too far. Both genders wore dresses.  Claudia Kidwell and Valerie Steele wrote:  “The 18th century child was not generally thought of as having a personality, much less a gender”.  Indeed, it was a very big moment when sons graduated to breeches, a time determined by their mothers.

 Luckily, we do have enough information to gain a myriad of insights into the every day outfits of the thirteen colonies.  People in cities could buy clothes from tailors.  However, those living in the countryside, such as our own Chadds and Barns families, relied more on peddlers and travelling salesmen.  As each colony had their own currency, those peddlers and salesmen often operated on a barter system.  Another method of buying clothes is the secondhand market, which really grew by the 17th century.  It was cheap, resourceful, and not only used by the poor.  It became that well-off people would pass on unwanted clothes to their servants, who preferred to sell rather than wear them.  

We also know some things regarding fashion.  Around 1790, simpler clothes were vogue.  Petticoats were very minimal.  Muslin, which are light, were preferred.  Shawls came into fashion.  And men’s formal attire came to be more evocative of country clothes.  Part of that shift in fashion can be attributed to national prejudices.  Fancy attire came to be associated with the outrageous lavishness of the French court under the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Hoping to move away from that association, colonists started to prefer the image of a country gentleman as ideal.  However, around the 1820s, entering into the Victorian Age, fashion became elaborate once more.  “It was gradually becoming fuller-skirted, with puff sleeves reappearing and increasing in size, corsets becoming once again formidable figure-controllers, waists nearing their natural place” (Ewing).  Just like today, fashion is ever changing.