Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

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Mythbuster Friday: Catching on Fire was the Number Two Cause of Death for Colonial Women

Myth: In Colonial America, the leading cause of death in women was childbirth. And the second leading cause of death was burning to death from their long skirts catching on fire.


It is common knowledge that women would wear long skirts, and several layers of them, in Colonial America. And it is true that one of their main duties as housewives was cooking by the open fire. These floor length skirts could conceivably fall into the open hearth and catch fire. There have been recorded cases of women dying because their clothes caught fire. However, this was not the norm, and definitely not the second leading cause of death for Colonial women.

This was the common skirt length for women of the 1700s

This was the common skirt length for women of the 1700s

First of all, women in the 1700s were used to wearing long skirts all year round, and also had practically spent their whole lives around open fires. If they caught fire as easily as the myth suggests, they would be used to it and so prepared to put out the fire. These women would also be used to avoiding the flames, having grown up in long skirts. The typical fabrics that were used in Colonial America were linen and wool, which naturally do not catch fire as easily as the man-made fibers used in today’s clothing. And these fabrics do not burst into flame, like the myth seems to imply, but rather only smolder. This myth definitely errs when it claims that one of the leading causes of death for colonial women was catching fire and burning to death. Some suggest that this claim perhaps came from Colonial reenactors, who may have substituted highly flammable fabrics for the more flame-resistant wool and linen.

The other aspect of the myth that is false is the claim that the leading cause of death for Colonial women was childbirth. Dying from childbirth was a lot more common in the 1700s than it is today, but the record has been exaggerated. Many women did die from giving birth in Colonial times, and this is almost unheard of today, due to modern medicine.  Because of this, many believe dying from childbirth was a much more common form of death than it was in reality. It was far from being the first cause of death for women.

The actual leading cause of death in the 1700s was disease. This was mostly due to lack of understanding of germs and sanitation. But disease was also spread because of environment and dietary deficiencies, especially with the early settlements. Everyone was in danger of catching a deadly disease to a certain extent, but Native Americans were extremely susceptible to the diseases brought by immigrants and many tribes were wiped out because of this. The main diseases that plagued Colonial America were smallpox, measles, influenza, scarlet fever, and yellow fever. Immunizations were almost unheard of in the 1700s and so many died from disease. In fact, whole cities were quarantined to prevent the spread of deadly sicknesses.

So while childbirth was a common cause of death for women in Colonial America, the leading cause of death for everyone, including women, was disease. And as for women burning to death on account of their petticoats, this death was nearly unheard of in the 1700s, and most definitely not the second most common cause of death.


Mary Miley Theobald, Death by Petticoat with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2012).

Photo Credit:

Colonial kitchen with woman spinning, an engraving, 1885, A Brief History of the United States by Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Baker Steele, 1885

“Le Bénédicité” by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, c. 1740

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Mythbuster Friday: “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater”

Myth: The phrase “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater” originated in colonial times, and it referred to the bathing practices of the time. In a household, the father would bathe first, then the mother, and then the children, oldest to youngest. Everyone would use the same water, thus by the time the baby got its bath, the water would be so filthy that there was danger of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”


Many quote this phrase when talking about bathing habits of the American colonists and assume that the phrase “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater” came from this time period. It is commonly believed that a typical colonial household would not bathe more than a few times every year. Thus, when the household did bathe, they would go in order of oldest to youngest, and eventually make the water so dirty that the baby could easily be lost in it.

It is true that indoor plumbing wasn’t even invented until the nineteenth century, and therefore, up until that time, people did not take baths very often. It was too much work to haul all the water up, heat it up, and then dump it at the end of the night. Because of this, American colonists most likely did not bathe more than twice a year. However, this does not mean that colonists did not wash themselves. Many households from this time period did have washbasins, as shown in their inventories. Colonists would therefore have taken sponge baths, and most likely have done so daily. It’s not that they did not care about cleanliness, but rather it was simply much more difficult to attain than it is for us today.

Murner.Nerrenbeschwerung.kindPerhaps people did bathe from oldest to youngest, like the myth states. However, it is unlikely that the water would be so dirty you could lose a baby in it.

The real problem with the myth, though, is that the phrase “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater” was around even earlier than the 1500s. The phrase was a common German proverb and used by many well known writers.  The earliest known reference to the phrase is in Thomas Murner’s Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools), which is dated 1512.  The phrase was also first used in English by Thomas Carlyle in his essay against the evil of slavery entitled Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, from 1849. He used it to make the point that while we must get rid of slavery (the dirty bath water), we must not forget the wellbeing of the slaves (the baby) as we do so. After the late 1800s, the phrase was well known and commonly used.  Unfortunately for the myth, it is clear that the phrase “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater” did not originate from colonial times, and did not even originate from America.

So this myth does not have much truth to it, as neither the history of bathing nor the history of the phrase back it up. However, the myth does provide an amusing (though fictional) story, and reminds us how fortunate we are for the invention of indoor plumbing.


Photo Credit:

Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner, 1512

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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Mythbuster Friday: “The First Thanksgiving was in 1621 in Plymouth”

Myth: The First Thanksgiving in America was celebrated in Plymouth in 1621. It was a day of thanksgiving, celebrated by a feast between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. It is because of this we have the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

Truth: We all know the story behind the first Thanksgiving, right? The pilgrims were starving because they did not know how to plant crops or build shelter when they arrived. Thanksgiving-BrownscombeThe Indians, led by Squanto, saved the pilgrims by teaching them how to survive and how to successfully grow crops. By the fall of 1621, the pilgrims held a harvest feast, invited the Wampanoag Indians, and declared it a day of Thanksgiving.

This is a nice story, and one that has inspired the national holiday Thanksgiving, but it is not very accurate. For the pilgrims, a day of thanksgiving equaled a day of solemn prayer, not a feast with “non-believers.” The feast most likely did take place in 1621, but the first official day of thanksgiving declared by the pilgrims wasn’t until 1623.

Thanksgiving itself was only made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln many years later in the mid 19th century. Although there are some disputes about the accuracy of the reports of the 1621 feast, most people agree that the feast did happen and that it was the first Thanksgiving in America.

However, the first actual “Thanksgiving” feast was held in 1565. And it wasn’t the English pilgrims; instead it was the Spanish Catholic missionaries in St. Augustine, Florida. They celebrated a day of thanksgiving on September 8, 1565, the day they came ashore. Their head priest, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, offered a Catholic Mass, followed by a feast celebration shared between the Spanish settlers and the Timucua Indians. For Catholics, Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, a word that literally means “thanksgiving.” Years later, another group of Spanish settlers in Texas declared their own day of Thanksgiving on April 30, 1598. Therefore, the Spanish preceded the English pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts in declaring the first official Thanksgiving feast in America by over twenty years.


The Thanksgiving we all know in Plymouth is what we think of when we celebrate this holiday. But this feast barely resembled our well-established traditions, if at all. These traditions have been born over the years and did not originate from either the Pilgrims or the Spanish. For example, if we did get our traditions from the Spanish, we’d all be eating bean soup instead of turkey. Regardless of its origins, the “giving of thanks” has remained an integral symbol of the founding of this country, which is why we commemorate Thanksgiving Day as a national federal holiday each year.


Photo Credit:

“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

“A picture of the first mass said in St. Augustine, Florida,” unknown artist

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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Mythbuster Friday: “One if by Land, Two if by Sea”

MythPaul Revere rode his horse throughout Medford, Lexington, and Concord to warn the colonists crying “The British are coming!”   The patriots used the signal “One if by Land, Two if by Sea” by hanging lanterns in the Old North Church and this is how Revere knew how the British troops were planning to attack Concord.  He rode alone all throughout the night and made it all the way to Concord with his message.Paul_Reveres_Ride_BAH-p114

Truth:  We are all familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beloved poem, Paul Revere’s Ride.

He said to his friend, “If the British march

By land or sea from the town to-night,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–

One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Though this is an excellent poem that was created to instill patriotism in people on the verge of civil war, it unfortunately contains many errors that live on today.

Firstly, Revere was the one who arranged for the lantern signal.  The signal was by him, not for him.  It was to warn the people of Charlestown across the river, who the patriots were unsure of reaching in time.  Two lanterns were hung in the Old North Church, but this was two days before the famous ride.  The poem also states that there were dead bodies in the graveyard all around the church, but in reality there were no corpses there until after the Battle of Lexington.

J_S_Copley_-_Paul_RevereEveryone assumes that Revere was alone in his mission, that he was the only one who spread the alarm.  However, Williams Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott were two other patriots who joined him that night.

Another myth is that Paul Revere cried out “the British are coming!”  Everyone in the 18th century still considered themselves British; this was before the American Revolution began, so this makes sense.  It would not make sense for Revere to shout that “the British” were coming, so he most likely used the term “the Regulars” to describe the British troops.  However, it is also unlikely that he yelled at all.  We do know that Revere did make it to Lexington and successfully warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock, giving them enough time to escape the clutches of the British army.

The “midnight ride of Paul Revere” did not take place on one night.  It took a few days’ time from the night the lanterns were hung to the Battle of Lexington.  Also, contrary to Longfellow’s retelling, Revere only made it to Lexington, not Concord also.  After he warned Adams and Hancock, he and his companions were captured by the British patrol.  Prescott and Dawes escaped, but Revere was interrogated before he was released.  He returned to Lexington and witnessed a small part of the battle.

Though much of what is commonly believed about the famous ride of Paul Revere is false, we should remember that he and his companions did play an important role in the first stirrings of the American Revolution.  In fact, the Revolution began the very next day at Lexington with the “shot heard round the world.”

Read a letter from Paul Revere accounting his ride here.


Photo credits:

“Paul Revere’s ride” by Office of War Information – National Archives’ Pictures of the Revolutionary War — Beginnings in New England, 1775-76

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere in Montgomery’s The Beginner’s American History, 1904

John Singleton Copley, “Portrait of Paul Revere” 1768

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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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: “It Will Cost You An Arm and A Leg”

Myth: Men of the 18th century are often painted with one hand inside their vests to save money. This is because the artist would set the price based on how many hands, arms, or legs were in the painting. From this came the phrase: “It will cost you an arm and a leg.”

Truth: This is a widely circulated myth, one you might even hear from tour guides. The premise behind this myth is that, in order to save money, a gentleman may have slipped his hand inside his vest or agreed to have a piece of furniture painted over his leg. The hands were difficult to paint, so the artist would increase the price based on how many hands he was required to paint. Likewise, the more limbs included, the higher the price for the portrait. This practice was so common that the phrase, “It will cost you an arm and a leg” became a metaphor to mean that it will cost you a ludicrous amount of money.

This myth, though it attempts to provide an explanation for the peculiar pose of one hand inside the vest, is completely false. First, gentlemen of high stature and royalty used this pose. The most memorable instances of this trend are the portraits of George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, and King George III. These men were certainly not concerned about saving money from having their likeness rendered for posterity in these elaborate paintings. A more plausible explanation for this posture is the theory that classical orators in ancient Rome were immortalized with this pose and refined gentlemen sought to emulate them given the profound influence of Roman history, law and culture on their society.

George Washington King George III

The main reason the phrase “it will cost you an arm and a leg” couldn’t refer to paintings is that the exact phrase did not show up until around World War II, and this is when the phrase was most in use. It was most likely referring to the war veterans for whom the war literally did cost an arm or a leg. The metaphor, i.e. “I’d give my right arm for that,” can be found as early as the late 18th century, but it wasn’t popular until much later and there is no proof that it did refer to paintings.

The “arm and leg” theory also simply makes no sense. If you look at the above paintings, they are extremely elaborate and detailed. These clearly cost a lot of money, but it would make a lot more sense that the price was based on the size and detail versus the number of limbs included. This erroneous myth probably started because it is normal for the size of the painting to increase when more limbs are included, so people mistakenly assumed the price grew based on arms and legs rather than size.


Photo Credit:

“The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries” by Jacques-Louis David

“George Washington by Peale 1776” by Charles Willson Peale

“George III” by William Buchy

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