Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Nerdy History Girls Library: Death by Petticoat

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Isabella reporting:

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.


Laura Morrigan said...

How fascinating! It is amazing how many urban legends people believe these days, it is easy to see how such things could become exaggerated and become "truths" over time.

I will definitely be following the history myths blog, maybe getting the book when I have some money! Thanks!

Historical Ken said...

My only complaint is if there are no citations, where did the information come from? That has been the only thing preventing me from purchasing this book.
The author - just like too many so-called historians (accredited or not) could have just put her opinion as fact, and people will take it as fact (can anyone say Howard Zinn?), and the next thing you know, a whole lot of false (or misconstrued) information is considered truth and now we have another revision of history, and that's what bothers me.
Even Wikipedia (I agree - shudder) will have citations that one can check.
I am not saying there isn't truth written in this book - I would just like to know where the information came from.
Thank you - I'll get off my soap box now.
By the way, I really love your Colonial Williamsburg photos!

Anonymous said...

The book is great, and Mary is always looking for new myths to debunk on her blog on the same topic!

Cassidy said...

I don't know, Ken - while I generally prefer citations, the blog posts she's probably turned into the book do name the curators, etc. who provided the information, most of the time. They could be wrong, but it's usually not too hard to contact someone who works in a museum, so it's possible to ask them where they got their information. Which seems more straightforward than some of the citation chains I've gotten into (esp. the ones that end with an unsourced statement in another book, those are the worst).

Time Traveling in Costume said...

I've done fashion shows for the Women's History Museum in San Diego, and the director continually repeats those misnomers, and I have to keep correcting her. *No, corsets were NOT instruments of torture. Mine is very comfortable, thank you. My opinion is women back then would want to be comfortable in daily life like we do today, and the tight lacers were the more fashionistas of the era. But it was their bra at the time and wouldn't go without it anymore than women go w/o bras today*
I should buy this book for her.

Historical Ken said...

Cassidy -
I've never read her blog - I didn't realize that she listed the various curators in it as her sources so I will have to check it out. I was just going by the book itself.
Thank you for the tip.
I hope you understand my concern for citations - too many people tend to believe anything put before them without backing..."if it's in print , it MUST be true."
I will check out her blog.
Thanks again.

Eclectic Eccentric said...

The link is broken. Could you please replace it?
Thank you.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Sorry the Amazon link was broken - I replaced, and it should (fingers crossed!) work for everyone now.

Cassidy said...

Ken - I do understand your concern over citations. I fuss over them enough myself!

Hannah Howard said...

Mary Miley Theobald will be speaking on February 23 at the Rural History Confederation's conference. The conference will be at Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, PA. For more details, including the full list of speakers, you can visit Pennsbury's website (I think the registration brochure will be out soon): http://www.pennsburymanor.org/event/mythbusting-exploring-debunking-myths-at-historic-sites/

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Historical Ken ~ I'm generally with you about citations & sources, and am a total fanatic about primary sources. But my guess is that this book is meant to be accessible to even the most casual history-reader, which I suspect is why it's not peppered with footnotes. Consider it a starting-point book - if a fact or event catches your imagination, it's easy enough for us true history-nerds to find out more. And I'm glad you enjoyed the CW photos from the holidays! :)

QNPoohBear said...

I just listened to her podcast on CW's website. The book sounds really interesting. I've heard a lot of those myths repeated at historic sites. In the podcast she says she spoke with tradesmen and curators at Colonial Williamsburg to debunk some of the myths. My only concern is that she sometimes makes blanket statements which do not apply to everyone, everywhere, leaving people to believe that such a thing was NEVER true but it may have been true for some people somewhere.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Queen PoohBear, I agree. Wherever people are concerned, no matter the time or place, you can never say never or always, because SOMEONE has done it. :)

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