18th Century Love
Some 18th Century Myths
  • George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree. The story was invented by Parson Mason Weems who wrote a biography of Washington shortly after his death. Since so little is known about Washington’s childhood, Weems invented several anecdotes about his early life to illustrate the origins of the heroic qualities he exhibited as an adult.
  • George Washington did not have wooden teeth. He had a large collection of false teeth, made of everything from elephant ivory, walrus tusk, hippopotamus tusk, and one of human teeth. But none were made of wood.
  • George Washington did not wear a wig, nor did Thomas Jefferson. Even though wigs were fashionable, they kept their own hair. Both wore theirs long and tied back in a queue, or ponytail. George did, however, powder his hair as was the custom of the time, and as a lawyer Thomas would powder his hair for a trial.
  • Betsy Ross did not sew the first American flag. In 1870 Ross’s grandson, William J. Canby, presented a paper to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in which he claimed that his grandmother had “made with her hands the first flag” of the United States. Smithsonian experts point out that Canby’s romantic tale appealed to Americans eager for stories about the Revolution and its heroes and heroines, but is a myth.
  • Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.” It was a phrase used to describe the selfishness of the French monarchy long before Marie Antoinette was even alive and in 1766, Rousseau wrote that he was quoting the famous saying of “a great princess”, which was incorrectly attributed to Marie Antoinette. She couldn’t have made the statement because in 1766, she was only 11 years old and still in Austria.
  • Benjamin Franklin did not discover electricity when his kite was struck by lightning in 1752. In fact, electricity was already well known at the time. Instead, Franklin was trying to prove the electrical nature of lightning.
  • Paul Revere did not single-handedly ride on horseback to warn residents of the British attack. There were 60 riders who spread the word that night. One man alone could never have covered such a distance, especially on horseback.
  • Paul Revere did not say “The British are coming!” In 1775 the colonists still thought of themselves as British. British soldiers were called “the regulars”. When Revere came galloping along in the middle of the night, the guard told him to stop making so much noise. Revere responded by saying “Noise? You’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are out.”
  • The phrase “L’État, c’est moi” (“I am the State”) is frequently attributed to King Louis XIV, though this is more likely to have been conceived by political opponents as a way of confirming the stereotypical view of the absolutism he represented. Quite contrary to that apocryphal quote, Louis XIV is actually reported to have said on his death bed: “Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours.” (“I am going away, but the State will always remain”).
  • Admiral Lord Nelson did not wear an eye patch. The nearest he came to it was a peaked eye-shade which he had built onto his naval hat, but that was there to protect his good eye from the sun, not to hide his bad eye. Nelson had no need to wear an eye-patch, because there was no disfigurement to hide.
  • While many sources claim that the Quartering Act of 1774 allowed troops to occupy private homes, this is a myth. The act only permitted troops to be quartered in unoccupied buildings. The freedom from having soldiers quartered in private homes was a liberty guaranteed since 1628 by the Petition of Right. Although many colonists found the Quartering Act objectionable, it generated the least protest of the Intolerable Acts.
  • Concerning the Boston Massacre, it was certainly not a massacre but rather a moment of self-defense. The mob had grown to over 100 people and was pressing around the soldiers. They harassed and threw small objects at them, one soldier was struck down with a club, and many were taunting the soldiers by shouting “Fire!”. In the trial of the soldiers, which opened November 27, 1770, John Adams argued that if the soldiers were endangered by the mob they had the legal right to fight back, and so were innocent.
  • A final copy of the Declaration of Independence was produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress, on August 2, 1776, at which time most of the delegates signed it. Because it is dated July 4, 1776, many people falsely believe it was signed on that date.
  • The Liberty Bell was not rung to celebrate independence, and it certainly did not acquire its crack by doing so: that story comes from a children’s book, Legends of the American Revolution, by George Lippard. The Liberty Bell was actually named in the early nineteenth century when it became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.
  • You’ve probably heard that colonial houses locate the kitchens separate from the main area of the house due to the fear of causing a fire. While fear of fire may have been the reason for some, separate kitchens were not a common feature in northern homes but they were common in the South. The location of the kitchen had to do more with heat and odor, which in the South was unwelcome most months of the year.
  • Some sources will claim that Marco Polo brought ice cream back from China, or that the first ice cream was made by Martha Washington or brought back to America from France by Thomas Jefferson, but these are all untrue. Most of these stories were created during the 19th century by ice cream sellers who were looking for a way to sell more ice cream. Ice cream is an ancient invention, and has no single origin, as many would discover the endothermic effect of combining salt and ice.
  • Colonial guns weren’t heavy at all. A standard British military gun of the 18th c. weighed about the same as the U.S. Army’s WWII M1 Garand. The weight of most colonial guns ranged from 6-10 pounds.
  • It is also untrue that beds were shorter back then because the people sleeping in them were short. This is wrong in two ways: 1.) Some beds were made short, not because the person was short but because some enjoying sleeping sitting up with their heads propped on pillows. This was done because some believed it would help prevent sickness and keep the nasal passages open. 2.) Some beds aren’t as short as they appear. In 1981, historians surveyed various 18th c. beds and found them to all equal or exceed 6’ 3”, some the length of today’s king or queen size beds. It is because of the high bed posts, canopy, etc. that make beds appear shorter than they are.
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    It really amazes me how much absolutely false “information” is still taught as fact in schools. It was taught to me in...
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    I thought Jefferson wore a wig during his French days? There’s an earlier portrait of him in Ron Chernow’s Hamilton...
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