Monday, August 24, 2015

Bygone Eras: "But They Didn't Know That Back Then!"

Yes, 'tis a statement I hear quite often. And in some cases it is true while in others it is not. But when it's wrong, boy is it ever!

Recently, I read the book Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked by Mary Miley Theobauld of Colonial Williamsburg. The book is a fast, easy read and great for those just being introduced to historical studies, especially when it comes to really getting to know where such widespread myths came from. Myths like "People didn't bathe back then" (see this great article/rebuttal of that myth from the blog Frock Flicks) or "Women in colonial times were sent to the pillories for the crime of showing their ankles" or the old "Prudish Victorians 'dressed' their naked furniture legs in the name of modesty" or "men and women in the Victorian era had to used separate staircases in order to avoid indecent exposure of the ankles."
Seriously, what is it with our obsession with showing ankles? We seem to have more of an issue with it than our predecessors ever did. As a side note, the naked furniture leg thing seems to have come from - according to Ms. Theobauld's book and a couple of other sources - a satirical book written in 1839 by an Englishman by the name of Frederick Marryat. The book is titled Diary in America and Marryat wrote it while on tour in America (the book is rare but still available and I'm very tempted to check it out).
In the book, he laughs at America's use of the word "limb" instead of the more "vulgar-sounding leg." He also laughed at how when he visited a boarding school for young women in New York, he saw a piano that the mistress of the establishment had "dressed in all these four limbs in modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them!"
According to the books (along with my own research), searches of many black and white photos of Victorian interiors fail to turn up a single example of any piece of furniture with "dressed" legs. Yes, there were floor length table cloths, but those still exist and are used today. The few that might have done this likely did it out of the Victorian tendency for loving lavish ornamentation of their homes.
In another book, Catherine Beecher, said to have been the Martha Stewart of her day, also published the American Woman's Home in 1869 and supposedly mentions nothing about covering furniture legs (yet another book I intend to check out and read) for the sake of modesty. Besides, have you ever seen 19th century furniture? Who would even want to cover it up and have that fine craftsmanship go to waste?

I will say that many who do debunk historical myths acknowledge that said myths often begin with a kernel of truth. Which I most definitely agree with. And some myths aren't even necessarily historically inaccurate. Just a little mislead. Some are also said out of making ourselves feel superior (yet another obsession we seem to have). Many a time have I witnessed a piteous, condescending (even if well-meaning) "oh, but they didn't know any better back then...thankfully we've become much better." Again, I won't say that's completely false. But as I also always say, we do need to be mindful of sweeping generalizations and being a little too sure of ourselves. Because you never know what new information might come out of the woodwork.

In researching history for my books, along with my work at the Depreciation Lands Museum, I am amazed at how much I keep coming across. This passed Sunday, I was stationed in the schoolhouse at the museum. In between visitors, I like to read through the various old schoolbooks, especially the really old books that we have on display in the back. Out of curiosity, I chose a health book that seemed to have been used in schools from the mid-late 1800s. The book is simply titled The Human Body.

Now, when it comes to medicine, we often think of our predecessors as these simpletons. While it's true that certain medical breakthroughs had not yet been found, the average person would likely be surprised at how in depth and even complex the descriptions of the human anatomy are. And they seemed to have a good grasp on the various systems within the human body. While I wasn't too terribly surprised by this, what did catch me was the section on tobacco, alcohol, and opium (which was used both as a pharmaceutical and recreational drug at that time).
Of course, we always hear of how they thought that tobacco was good for them, how they didn't know the damaging effects of alcohol, etc. It is also said that even as recent as the 1950s and 60s, doctors were telling their patients to "smoke more." While I'm not going to sit here and deny any of that, I WILL say that in this particular health textbook used by school students in the 1800s that is on display in the schoolhouse at the Depreciation Lands Museum, detailed descriptions on the harm tobacco can do to the human body is detailed, including how addicting it can be and how "smoker's lung" is caused. The same with alcohol and opium.

Now, if it was known back then that tobacco and smoking was actually harmful, why would doctors still prescribe it? And why would people even entertain using it and then telling of "not knowing it was bad for them and that they just thought they were being suave and cool" after being diagnosed with a smoking related illness (as several from back in the day have)? As of right now, I can't really answer that, though I do plan to look into it more. But what I can say with confidence is that the research and information was most certainly there. Because I have seen evidence. Add to that, I'm certain many can attest to the idea that "just because a doctor prescribes it, doesn't necessarily mean it's the best thing to do." I mean, look at all the pharmaceutical commercials out there that spend at least half the advertisement time listing the potentially dangerous side affects that almost always includes death. Then six months later, you see another commercial for the same drug, only this time it's a lawsuit instead of an advertisement. And how many sources practically scream of how harmful artificial sweetener is while others sing its praises? Perhaps, maybe, our predecessors simply might have had the same mixed messages that we do today.  And perhaps peer pressure isn't such a new thing either.

I have also begun reading Norman F. Cantor's In the Wake of the Plague (a history on the Black Plague of the 1300s). So far it is a very fascinating read, and I plan to continue this discussion later as I look into it all more.

Til next time. :)

Sources to check out:
The Gross Eighteenth Century: Calling Bullshit on Hygiene Myths on
Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked by Mary Miley Theobauld
Diary in America by Frederick Marryat
American Woman's Home by Catherine Beecher
The Human Body, a 19th century school textbook on display at the Depreciation Lands Museum
In the Wake of the Plague by Norman F. Cantor


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