|Colonial Williamsburg interpreter Karen Clancy|
demonstrates the use of the 18th century pillory.
Or maybe this: One of the leading causes of death among colonial women was having their long skirts or petticoats catch on fire.
And you’ve undoubtedly heard this – I have: Itinerant portrait artists only painted clients’ heads because they had already painted stylishly clad headless bodies. They merely added the rest. It saved time.
To all of this, and much more, Mary Miley Theobald, a writer who once gave tours through Colonial Williamsburg buildings, adds a carefully researched answer: It’s mostly bunk.
In Death by Petticoat, American History Myths Debunked, Theobald takes up each of more than 100 articles of faith from the country’s early days and succinctly demolishes them.
As for colonial-era women being pilloried for showing a bit of ankle, she points out that clothing styles of that time permitted not only ankles to be shown but a bit more besides. Formal wear may have involved longer skirts but, “Work clothing was nearly always shorter for practical reasons.” What’s more, a hard-working woman “might hike up her skirt and tuck the hem into her waist to get it out of her way.”
Likewise, if women did wear long skirts and petticoats, they rarely came in deadly contact with hearth fires. It probably did happen a bit, but it was certainly not one of the leading causes of death, as some accounts have it. “The Death by Petticoat myth is a huge exaggeration,” Theobald writes.
As for the third example, I’ve seen portraits of some colonial folk that seemed to have heads stuck onto larger-than-life bodies, and I’ve been informed that these were pre-painted. The torsos were sometimes grotesque, that’s for sure, but I’ll bet the artists just weren’t very good when it came to anatomy.
Theobald adds that “no physical evidence, such as overlapping paint layers at the neck or head has been detected on existing portraits.”
There are some bizarre myths, like the one about corseted Victorian women having such painfully slim waists because they had a couple of ribs removed. Knowing what we know about the dangers of surgery, not to mention the lack of anesthesia in those days, Theobald makes short work of this one.
And, oh, daybeds were not designed to catch women who fainted from corsets being so tight.
Then there’s this favorite explanation for beds in historic houses being so much shorter: The people were!
Well, that’s partly true and partly false, it turns out. Studies comparing soldiers in the American Revolutionary War and the Korean War almost 200 years later found little difference, an inch maybe. On the other hand, the average height of men today is more than three inches greater than soldiers in the Civil War. Chalk that up to vitamins and antibiotics, she says.
Speaking of which, Civil War buffs, here’s a test. What was the most poignant moment during Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox? Was it Lee’s offer to surrender his sword and Grant’s gallant refusal?
“Didn’t happen,” Theobald writes. “Lee never offered his sword, Grant never asked for it. The subject didn’t come up.” She sites Grant’s own memoirs to help squelch this one. “The much talked of surrendering of Lee’s sword and my handing it back,” Grant wrote, “this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance.”
But we love our myths, and will probably hear them and repeat them as long as there are historic places – especially those with public squares and pillories.
In olden days a glimpse of stocking. . . .