Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Here's a quickie quiz for all of you fellow history-nerds. Which of these statements about the past are true?
• Beds in the 18th c. were shorter because people slept sitting up.
• Venetian blinds were invented in Venice.
• Some women in the 19th c. had their lower ribs surgically removed so they could achieve fashionably smaller waists.
• So many early American women died from burns when their long petticoats caught fire from open hearths that it became the second-most common cause of death among women - second only to childbirth.
Now a confession: I've not only accepted all of those statements as truth, but I've also repeated them as the truth, fascinating historical facts. Like many history-loving people, I long ago (and long before I was a writer) volunteered as a guide at a local historical site. Like many such sites, this one was sadly underfunded and operating on good intentions and the proverbial shoestring. Most of my training came in the form of following other guides, listening, learning, and repeating their authoritative tour-speeches. Some of what they said sounded a little peculiar to me even then, but the other guides were all older and presumably wiser than I, and so I began telling the same speeches – including all four of the statements above, which, as I later learned, are false.
If only I'd had this charming little book back then! Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked by historian and history teacher Mary Miley Theobald grew from an article which grew into a blog (here is the link) devoted to finding the truth behind many of our most determined history myths. Myths like these are seldom created as deliberate deceptions, and like the more popular urban myths, there's often a grain of truth behind them. But somewhere along the line the truth became muddied with supposition, guesswork, scandal, repetition, and the almost-irresistible human desire to "improve" a story in the telling. After a few years (or a few hundred), the myth is ingrained as truth, found in house-museum tours, articles, textbooks, and even ::shudder:: Wikipedia.
Working with the historians of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (who are credited as collaborators), Ms. Theobald collected over 120 of the most popular myths from American history - including the ones above - and set the historical record straight. It's not a scholarly tome (no citations or references, alas), but it is a fun, light book with many pictures, to skim or read straight through, and it's entertaining enough to share with a budding nerdy history girl or boy in middle school.
No need for a FTC disclosure; I bought this book myself at the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore.