July 05, 2012
Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked. By Mary Miley Theobald with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.
Here’s a great idea that is somewhat undermined by some too-sober writing. The idea: list 63 myths about the history of the United States and explain why they are wrong and (if possible) how they got started. So far, so good. But writing down the myths and debunking them takes only a few sentences, so every other page contains an illustration related in some way to Colonial Williamsburg, the Virginia “living history museum” that explains about early American settlements and uses actors to show some aspects of life in the 17th century. Well, that’s fine, too, although a number of the illustrations here are not particularly interesting (a tub, a wardrobe, a room, some nails).
What is missing here is a greater sense of fun in unraveling the myths. Mary Miley Theobald, who works for and frequently writes about the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (which operates Colonial Williamsburg and several museums), does not want to (or is not permitted to) write consistently entertainingly about the rights and wrongs of American history. So, for myth #24, “Apprenticeships lasted seven years,” she says “there was no set time span for an apprenticeship in colonial America. Some contracts specify a certain number of years, such as four, six, or seven. Others say the apprentice will work until he has reached twenty-one, no matter his age at the start.” For myth #39, “A silver item stamped coin means it was made from melting down silver coins,” she explains that “the word ‘coin’ stamped onto silver objects means the silver was the same proportion as that used for coinage, or 900 parts per thousand, as opposed to the higher 925 parts per thousand for sterling silver.” For myth #50, “Stairs were sometimes built with one riser noticeably shorter than the rest to trip up burglars,” she writes that “stairs were built from the bottom up, one riser and tread at a time. Invariably, error crept in as more treads were installed, which meant that the final riser was probably a little taller or a little shorter than the rest.”
There is nothing wrong with any of this information – it is historically accurate and sometimes quite interesting. But it is usually not presented in the sort of breezy, involving way that would capture readers (or museum visitors) and make them want to learn even more. In fact, some of Theobald’s writing is bright, making the portions that are not seem duller by comparison. Regarding myth #26, “Venetian blinds were invented in Venice,” she says, “Sounds like a slam dunk, doesn’t it?” For myth #5, “Men posed with one hand inside the vest to save money, since portrait artists gave a discount if they didn’t have to go to the extra work of painting the fingers,” she asks, “Do you really think that the Emperor Napoleon, King George, or President George Washington was particularly concerned about getting a discount from a portrait painter?” And for myth #33, “Wearing blue- or green-tinted eyeglasses meant the wearer had syphilis,” she reasonably inquires, “Honestly, now, if someone had syphilis, would he or she want to advertise it to the world?” This sort of writing is a pleasure to read; more of it would have been better.
More thinking about the sequence of the myths would have been better, too: there doesn’t seem to be any reason for them to appear in this order. For example, #16 is “Potatoes were considered poisonous by early colonists,” #17 is “The Dutch bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24 worth of worthless beads,” and #18 is “The Good Friday Massacre of 1622 took place on Good Friday.” These are all worthy myths to explore and expose, but the order in which they come up is odd, and the illustrations compound the oddity – a young child reading this book will first see a picture of just-harvested potatoes, than a 19th-century impression of Dutch traders with American Indians, and then a rather gruesome print of the Jamestown Massacre from a 17th-century book. One never knows quite what to expect from Death by Petticoat either in the writing style or in the visual material – a fact that sometimes works to the book’s advantage but sometimes to its detriment. Still, there are quite a few very common myths here, along with some that are much less familiar, and the book gets high marks for the quality of its information; it is only the presentation of the material that falls a bit short.