Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Three Widely Spread Historical Myths Debunked: Bathing, Death by Petticoat, and Pregnancy was Gross

Hey all,

I know I've been writing about some pretty heavy topics lately and today, I wanted to still keep to the subjects of what I've been doing but lightening it up a little (but I still want you to to keep Lie Spotting, Generalizing, and the first part of my Morality post in mind as you read these).

But before I do, I wanted to announce that I will be participating in another author blog hop starting on the 16th. And I might be raffling off another copy of Descent. So stay tuned...


Now, onto visiting and debunking a few historical myths, these three particularly popular.

In past postings, I've mentioned Mary Miley Theobald's book, Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked.

 She also has a website, History Myths Debunked, also dedicated to seeing that historical myths are stopped in their tracks. She is a historian who works for Colonial Williamsburg, has written many columns for publications including Virginia Living, The History Channel Magazine, and American Heritage. She also taught museum studies and American History at Virginia Commonwealth University for thirteen years. Death by Petticoat is one of four books she has written and it appears in many mercantile stores at historical sites.
While the book has been criticized for the lack of sources cited within the pages, Ms. Theobald has commented that she and her publishers wanted it to be more of a fun read, sort of an impulse type of buy in museum stores. However, if you visit her website, History Myths Debunked (where she also discusses the myths mentioned in Death by Petticoat), you will see several sources she likely used in her research.

So with that said, let's get on with it, shall we? :)

MYTH #1 (and a personal favorite of mine because it's just that hilarious): "People didn't bathe back then!" or "They only bathed once a year!"

Once upon a time, long ago, a group of people went about their daily lives, doing what they do best: frolicking about happily while caked in dirt and grime, shitting and pissing everywhere to their heart's content and without a care in the world.
Then something happened. One winters night on December 31 in the year 1899, the clock struck midnight and BOOM! It was the year 1900! The turn of the 20th century!

YAY! Happy New Year!

Everyone was partying!

But then...

"Good God!" one gentleman said. "What is that AWFUL stench?"
One of the ladies sniffed the air and cringed. "Gee...I don't know...but it sure is terrible...horrid...ungodly..."
"Wait a bloody second..." the gentle said, sniffing the air again before realization hit him like a ton of bricks. "Good Lord in Heaven...it's US!"
Another gentleman was standing nearby, a look of horror crossing his face. "Are you certain, my good man?" he said to the first gentleman.
The first gentleman looked around him and slowly nodded.
Silence engulfed the room and it became so quiet that a pin dropping would easily have been heard. Realization spread throughout the room and the stench that never seemed to have bothered them before (in fact they used to find the overpowering smell quite pleasant) was suddenly unbearable.
"My God..." the lady said. "We are FILTHY! And we smell so horridly! You mean all this time...?"
The second gentleman shook his head in disbelief, on the verge of collapsing to the floor in a fit of convulsions as the grease caking his hair was suddenly a bother to him. "Why oh WHY did someone not tell us!?"
The first gentleman placed a grimy, hand on the younger man's shoulder. "We didn't know, son...we just didn't know..."
With that sudden burst of enlightenment, everyone ran in a massive panic - dodging the festering piles of human excrement and pools of urine that also suddenly became repulsive in this moment - to the nearest river or anyplace they were able to get their hands on water (which they magically knew would serve in getting them clean) and scrubbed away the many, many, many years of filth.
And from that point on, human civilization finally started to bathe regularly and everyone lived happily ever after.


Okay, obviously that story is an exaggeration, but with the way some people talk, one would think that this is exactly how it happened. People went for centuries without bathing (or only bathed once a year, depending on who was telling the story) and then suddenly, the 20th century rolled around and people magically realized that they were dirty and smelled bad. And the "no bathing" myth is one that I'm sure everyone has heard as it is one of the more repeated stories.
In Death by Petticoat, Ms. Theobald explains that if "to bathe" means sitting down and fully submerging oneself in a tub of water and washing, then yes, the no bathing or only bathing once a year thing could be considered true. Back before indoor plumbing was a regular thing (SIDE NOTE: there is actually evidence of indoor plumbing systems in ancient Rome as well as many European medieval castles which I will get to in a later post), filling a tub of water was a very labor heavy task. If anyone did this even remotely regularly, it was usually the very wealthy since they had servants to carry buckets of water and boil it over a fire. But even then, the typical bath was not easy to do as often as it is today. And while indoor showers (or "shower baths") were invented during the mid 19th century, it wasn't very common to find them inside homes until the 20th century. So what was everyone to do?
Well, first of all, hygiene habits likely varied just as they do today (I'm sure we've all found ourselves standing beside someone that made us think "Okay, when was the last time you showered?") and I'm sure that gross people have always existed. But if anything, most people washed their hands and faces daily. In fact, look at a painting of a male figure from the 18th century. A lot of times, the man is clean shaven, which does involve at least washing one's face. To bathe all over, sponge baths were the typical choice, usually with a bowel of water and towel in the bedroom, powder room or washroom (typically any room or area that might offer some form of privacy).
And just how well did this work, you ask? Well, as the ladies of Frockflicks.com point out, if sponge baths are good enough for patients in medical facilities, then it probably worked pretty well hundreds of years ago.
So while people did keep themselves clean, it is true that full water immersion wasn't what was done on a regular basis. But saying that "people didn't bathe back then" gives the impression that not only was bathing not the norm but that no one even washed at all. Which is indeed false.

History Myths Debunked: "People only bathed once a year"
Frock Flicks: The Gross 18th Century, Calling Bullshit on Hygiene Myths
18th Century Hair Care

MYTH #2: "Many women died when their petticoats caught fire by standing too close to their fireplace, making it the second leading cause of death"

Because they didn't realize that fire was hot and had the ability to burn things...?

Seriously, let's think about this for a moment. Fire has been used as a light source, among other uses, since the dawn of mankind. Think of all the things used to light evening bonfires, cook meals over campfires and hearths. And burning a condemned person alive had also been a form of execution in much of the world at one time. So with all that, you're going to try to tell me that people were so horribly unenlightened and so naive that they didn't know that getting too close to a roaring fire was dangerous and could result in serious injury or even death?
While I, as well as others in the history world, are sure that horrible accidents such as this did happen, it wasn't nearly as often as many seem to make it out to be. For a couple reasons:

1. Just plain common sense! I mean, try placing your fingers too close to a hot stove or something cooking on a hearth or campfire. You're going to learn pretty quickly just how hot things can get over a fire.

2. Linen and wool (or cotton if you lived in the south) were the standard choices for material used to make clothing. Linen - spun from flax - is a very durable material and breaths quite well during hot summer months. Wool is also very durable and works amazingly at keeping a person warm during the cold winter months. And these two materials are so durable that they actually don't catch fire as quickly as many synthetic modern materials do. In fact, wool is even more fire repellent than linen, which is why some historical re-enactment books and sources recommend that female re-enactors wear a wool petticoat if working by a fire. Should a spark catch a linen or wool petticoat, the material will smolder but not burst into flame, therefore giving the individual time to put it out.

History Myths Debunked: "Burning to death from their long petticoats catching fire was the leading cause of death for colonial American women, second to child birth"

MYTH #3: "Women secluded themselves indoors during pregnancy."

My, my, we've come a long way, haven't we? Pregnant women are no longer seen as disgusting and vile creatures. Let us take a moment to revel in our 21st century superiority.

Now that we all feel more enlightened and holier than thou, I will say that I can give this one a slight pass. This is one of those myths that depends on things like time period, location/geography and the culture of a given area. However, back in the day, pregnant (or "expecting" or "with child") women did venture out a lot more than many in this day and age tend to believe, particularly in the American colonial and Victorian eras. There is little evidence to support the claim, but there were some women that did seclude themselves for a while following the birth of a child (though it seems that was mainly by personal choice) and there were clothing articles used to cover a 'baby bump.' But if you really think about it, poor and middle-class women had too much work to do that staying indoors and secluding themselves during pregnancy almost wasn't even an option. And wealthy women who  could afford it simply didn't want to, at least for a large part.
Yes, pregnant women did enjoy active social lives (ample evidence provided by letters and diaries of the times) and going about their daily business.

History Myths Debunked: "In the colonial era, women secluded themselves during pregnancy"

So there you have it. Three historical and often repeated myths. I will be returning with the next Vixen recap and part 2 of Our Oh So Moral Society.


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