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Early Americans thought tomatoes were poisonous. They thought window pane bottoms thickened with age because glass flows. And that spices helped mask food that spoiled. These are a few historical sound bites everyone knows—except guess what? None of them is true.
So how do such stories get started? “We look at history through the lens of the present,” says Mary Miley Theobald, author of Death by Petticoat (a book named for the dramatic but mistaken claim that Colonial-era billowy dresses frequently caught fire as women cooked near the hearth). “We put our values on the past, without knowing what the past was really like. Then when something doesn’t fit, we invent a solution.”
Like the popular belief that 19th-century artists painted generic portraits, and then added the faces later to save time. “More likely, those pictures look a bit cookie-cutter because the itinerant artists were largely self-taught,” says Theobald.
Like modern urban legends, misleading historical trivia also acquires a life of its own because a story sounds charming (“Popcorn was served at the first Thanksgiving”—not likely), or because it offers an exciting tale (“Quilts served as signals to runaway slaves”—there’s no historical evidence). “I hear these kinds of stories recited by visitors to historical sites all the time,” Theobald muses, “and occasionally, even by sincere, but untrained volunteer docents.”
So what’s a good way to avoid myth-takes like these, which might cloud your vision of your ancestors’ world? “If a story presents us today as being ‘better’ than earlier people, I’d get suspicious. Or if it makes you think, ‘How could they believe stuff like that?’” Theobald advises. “Remember, past people weren’t stupid. They just knew different things. Don’t underestimate them.”
Ancestor Myth-Busting Books and Websites
- Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked by Mary Miley Theobald (Andrews McMeel)
- Decennial Life Tables for the White Population of the United States, 1790–1900
- “Every Man Able to Read”: Literacy in Early America
- History Myths Debunked
- Life Expectancy by Age, 1850–2011
- Life Expectancy Graphs
- National Assessment of Adult Literacy: 120 Years of Literacy
- Snopes.com: History
- Stuff and Nonsense: Myths That Should By Now Be History
- The Use of Myth in History
From the July/August 2015 Family Tree Magazine