Friday, October 1, 2010

Say It Ain't So: Seven Stories for Suckers

Common Mythconceptions

Pirates made me mean. I worked as an educator at a maritime history museum for a year, a job that allowed me to enthuse about 19th century cod fishing and proper harpoon-throwing technique with kids on a regular basis. I generally enjoy the company of third graders, both because they have a lot of silly bands to offer and tend to share my interests (namely, space and dinosaurs). Yet I knew that every tour was bound to get awkward: it was only a matter of time until I got a question about pirates.

I enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean as much as the next girl- probably more than the next girl, really. While guyliner does nothing for me, I have a thing for Captain Norrington and an affection for krackens. Even as the trend has gotten to be a bit stale (let’s, as a nation, agree to give pirates, bacon, ninjas, and zombies a rest already), I have maintained friendly feelings towards the series. That being said, field trips to major American history museums are meant for education and wearing matching tee shirts with forty of your peers. Johnny Depp always got in the way.

Kids wanted everything to be about pirates, and I wasn’t having it. Call me crazy, but something about ten year olds glorifying robbers and gangbangers makes me uncomfortable. Kids would constantly ask if the whaling ship was a pirate ship, or if pirates ever ate at the cafeteria, or if pirates had designed my stylish uniform polo. I had no problem explaining actual pirating history, but most of it is not G-rated. Trying to maintain historical integrity without making young children cry was a constant struggle.

Sometimes I could take the queries in stride. “Good question!” I would say. “Pirates actually did not work in this blacksmith shop, but they would have needed the kind of materials made here to operate their ships. Let’s look at this jib hank, for instance.”

Sadly, this approach would only get me so far. “No, they didn’t not work here because their beards would catch on fire. You shouldn’t really be close enough to the forge for that to happen, pirate or not. Who wants to work the bellows?”

Then things would get desperate. “Oh, no, it wasn’t because their eye patches made it hard for them to see what they were doing, either. It’s just that pirates didn’t really have steady land jobs. They were too busy KILLING AND RAPING PEOPLE TO DO THEIR OWN METAL WORK.”

Crushing beloved delusions is not my favorite pastime, but sometimes duty calls. Today, I’m going to do my part to crush your historical dreams. You can thank me later. Without further ado, here are seven myths of America history: busted.

1) Blazin’ Brasseries

Myth: During the 1960’s, feminists burned their bras at public rallies.

Busted: It was the sixties, man! It was the crazy decade of Woodstock, Vietnam, foxy presidents (we’re all talking about LBJ here, right?) sit-ins, space travel, and more tie dying than a middle school summer camp. It was not, however, a decade of bra burning.

The image of angry feminists tossing their bras into bonfires is pretty solidly ingrained into the public memory. Indeed, the late 60’s did see the rise of radical feminism and other dramatic protest tactics. Provocative “zap actions” were designed to raise public awareness of the movement and catch the media’s attention. A feminist group named WITCH (‘Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell’), for instance, staged a Halloween ‘hex’ on the New York Stock Exchange to draw attention to women’s financial inequities. The costumed ‘witches’ danced into the Federal Reserve Treasury Bank behind a ‘High Priestess.’ She carried a paper-mache pig head, lying atop a bed of “greenery plucked from the poison money trees indigenous to the area” on a golden platter. The whole thing wrapped up with a press conference on money, the theatre, media, and the movement. Sounds like my average Tuesday.

This was the cultural atmosphere around September 1968, just as Atlantic City was gearing up for the Miss America pageant. The NYRW (New York Radical Women) rounded up around a hundred ladies from all over the country to protest the pageant. They gathered on the boardwalk to perform guerilla theater and crown a live sheep Miss America (to be fair, she was really baaaaaaahhhh-eautiful). Part of the performance involved throwing “instruments of torture to women” into “Freedom Trash Cans.” They tossed high heels, curlers, false eyelashes, copies of Playboy, and bras into the bin. While the protesters initially planned on setting the stuff on fire, the city told them they were worried about the boardwalk going up in flames. Since the NYRW didn’t have the money to pay for legal fees, they abided by the city’s wishes. "We were radicals, but we were very elegant," NYRW member Robin Morgan recalls. "Burning rubber smells dreadful!"

In 1992, Ms. contributing editor Lindsay Van Gelder confessed that she was probably behind the public misconception. As a young writer for The New York Post, she had attempted to link the protests to Vietnam draft-card burning, which were taken a lot more seriously. Her spin caught the public attention, and the myth has run wild ever since. No bras were harmed in the writing of this post.

2) Hang It Up

Myth: In the seventeenth century, accused witches were burned at the stake in Salem, MA.

Busted: “Burn them at the stake!” has become a part of our national vernacular, a phrase that gets tossed around when politicians say something dumb, tattooed motorcyclist reality stars cheat on America’s sweetheart, or when I move and start a new job and fail to post on this blog for like three weeks (sorry about that).

The expression comes from the Salem Witch Trials, when suspected witches were strapped up to poles and set aflame. Unfortunately for those of you who like your idioms to be historically accurate, this one falls short. While some accused witches were burned during European witch trials, no such thing happened in the states. Of the men and women convicted of witchcraft in Salem’s 1692 trials, none of them were forced to become an overdone campfire marshmallow in their final hour. Most died by hanging, some died of natural causes before execution, and one poor guy was pressed to death by large stones.

I guess “Man, the press sure pressed Joe Biden to death with large stones this week” doesn’t really roll off the tongue the same way.

3) Now Wait a New York Minute

Myth: The Dutch bought New York for some beads

Busted: If you believe this one, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

According to the story, Dutchman Peter Minuit bought the island of Manhattan from the Canarsee Indians for twenty four bucks worth of beads and mirrors in 1696. In actuality, Minuit did give some beads, knives, axes, and rum (or 60 guilders cash, depending on your source) to the chief for the Canarse tribe in exchange for his permission to “live among” them with the Dutch on Manhattan island.
Still, this story is mostly bull. There are two major issues here. First, the Canarsee had no tradition of buying and selling property, believing it was not possible for a man to own the earth. They did believe in receiving payment for favors, however, and it is likely that the tribe did not see this interaction as a purchase so much as a courteous gesture.

Secondly, even if Minuit had bought the island, he'd have been bargaining with the wrong crowd. The story’s punch line is usually that Chief Seyseys made a huge mistake, but the joke’s on those of us who believed it. The Canarsee tribe didn’t even OWN Manhattan, so turns out they just played Minuit for some sweet bead action. The tribe actually lived over in Brooklyn, visiting Manhattan only to fish and hunt. The island was largely inhabited by the Weckquaesgeeks tribe, who were straight-up mad when they found out what had gone down. The Weckquaesgeeks fought with the Dutch for years afterwards, until finally they got paid off, too. You just got punk’d, Minuit.

3) I Cannot Tell a Lie, But Your Fourth Grade Teacher Probably Did

Myth: George Washington wore wooden dentures.

Busted: As a kid, I remember being fascinated by the idea of Washington’s wooden dentures. Wouldn’t he get splinters? In his GUMS?” I wondered. Little Kate has that smart look on her face because she is both tripping on Pixie Stix and a total historical genius. George Washington did sport an uncomfortable-looking set of false teeth, but they weren’t made out of wood.

Washington started to lose his teeth in twenties (considering the fact that I regularly have nightmares about something happening to my teeth, it would be difficult for me to overstate how terrifying I find this). He called up a dentist named John Baker, one of the first certified dentists to practice in America in 1772. Baker introduced Washington to toothbrushes (oh, dear God) and pulled some of this aching teeth.

He got more pulled throughout the years. In fact, by his inauguration, he was left with only one. That straggler served as the base for a set of hippo-tusk dentures he had made the following year, providing an anchor for the set of false teeth. When that tooth caved under pressure and fell out too, several new pairs were made.
These were even less comfy, since they were held in his mouth by springs and bolts.

Washington’s many sets of chompers were made from gold, ivory, lead, human, and animal teeth. They were held together by bolts and springs, and generally look even worse than the braces with those little rubber bands attaching my bottom and top jaw that I wore until the 10t grade. The dentures now reside all over the place, with everywhere from the National Museum of American History to the Medical College of the University of London laying claim to a set.

Wait a second… the Medical College of WHERE?! What the hell are those Tories doing with Washington’s teeth?! This is more intolerable than the Intolerable Acts.

I hope GW can stop rolling over in his grave long enough to take a look at this:

4) “Is Your Name Angelwincyzk? Because I think Poland is Missing a Blah Blah Blah, You Get the Point.”

Myth: Immigrants had their names changed at Ellis Island

Busted: Ten bucks says at least one of my five readers has been going around telling people that their family’s last name was changed at Ellis Island. The story is always the same: your great-grandfather came over an ocean liner from mother Poland, sporting a solid name like Olaf Adamczykinski. As he made his way through the entry gates at Ellis Island, a harried immigration official hastily abbreviated his name, turning granddad into Olaf Adams with the stroke of a pen.

It’s a good story: a quick, funny piece of family folklore that builds upon our memories of the legitimately whirlwind experiences had at Ellis Island. However, chances are super slim this ever happened. Passenger lists for vessels headed to the states were made not at Ellis Island, but in their country of departure. Immigrants needed proper documentation to pass through immigration, and it was in shipping companies’ best interests to make sure that the paperwork was in order. If passengers were rejected at Ellis Island, the shipping company had to pay to send them back home on their own dime.

At Ellis Island, immigration officials went over that precious paperwork with a fine-tooth comb. These inspectors were usually foreign-born themselves, and fluent in several languages. If they could not properly communicate with an immigrant, they found a coworker who could The staff was instructed not to change any new arrivals’ identifying information unless the original paperwork was somehow in error. There would have been no reason for an immigrants’ last name to get ‘Americanized’ at this gateway to the Land of Opportunity.

Of course, this is not to say that great-grandpa Adamczykinski didn’t go through a name change. Some new Americans found that their names were inevitably changed by the teachers or bosses who couldn’t manage their original tongue-twisters. Still others made that choice for themselves, chopping down their name in an effort to fit in their new home.

See? Your grandma wasn’t totally a liar. Just mostly.

5) The Only Place Anyone Has Seen that Sign is on the Sale Rack at the Cracker Barrel Gift Store

Myth: America cities were once covered with “No Irish Need Apply” signs

Busted: As an Irish-Italian girl from coal country, PA, I am as proud as anyone of my ancestors’ ability to make it work, Tim-Gunn-style, in a land totally foreign from what they ever knew. They had huge, legitemete struggles to overcome: finding work, negotiating religious and language differences, separation from family members who could not make the trip. Since there are enough things for us all to be impressed by, I’m not sure why we’re making stuff up.

Every Irish-American has heard it. "I remember 'Help Wanted' signs in stores when I was growing up saying 'No Irish Need Apply,” Senator Ted Kennedy told Congress in 1996. He's not the only one with what seems to be a false memory of a non-existent trend. The idea that 19th century America was crowded with “No Irish Need Apply” signs is so pervasive it seems like it must be true. It’s not.

The myth seems to have grown out of several sources. First, the phrase was indeed commonly used in 1820’s London. By 1862, there was a popular English song called “No Irish Need Apply.” The tune made it to the states, the lyrics modified to tell the story of an Irish immigrant who beats up a businessman who dares to post such a sign. This catchphrase seems to have caught our historical imagination, building a collective memory of “NINA” signs crowding American streets between 1830 and 1870.

Way more intense historians than myself have really done their homework on this, and they have managed to dig up only a tiny number of these ads. From 1851 to 1923, the New York Times used the expression in only two want ads. A somewhat larger number of want ads did specify that only Protestant women need apply for maid jobs, probably because the Protestant women placing the ad were uncomfortable having a heathenish Catholic in her home. Still, Richard Jenson, a retired professor at the University of Illinois who has done extensive research on this myth, estimates that this was true for only about 10% of domestic servant ads.

No “Irish Need Apply” signs have ever been found outside of kitchsy modern shops, and no contemporary sources record seeing them in the first lace. While it’s possible handwritten signs existed, were never mentioned by anyone, and then lost to the sands of time, this seems pretty unlikely.

Naturally, this is not to say that Irish immigrants didn’t face any discrimination. The Irish had a reputation for hard-drinkin’ ways (Scranton’s St. Patrick’s day parade does its best to keep this image going), rowdiness, and vulgarity. Irish women were both an extremely popular and much ridiculed choice for domestic servants. The popular 19th century stereotype of the “Irish Bridget” painted these women as inept, superstitious, and lazy, but their English-language skills made them desirable all the same.

A lot of prejudice seems to have been more focused on Catholicism- be the Catholics Irish, Italian, or German- than specifically at the sons of Ireland. Whatever the case, all immigrant groups suffered through legit struggles as they transitioned to the states. Job discrimination undoubtedly happened, but these signs weren't really part of the equation.
7) One Small Step for Man, One Giant Step for Hoaxes

Myth: Americans landed on the moon

Busted: We all know the moon landing didn’t happen, right? It was all part of a vast conspiracy pulled off with soundstages, funded by the Disney corporation and directed by Stanley Kubrick. I hope I didn’t even need to include this one, but some of you sure seem gullible.*
You stand corrected. Now get back to doing your hilarious pirate impression- no, it’s so funny! Really original. I’ve never seen someone do that before!

Works Referenced:
* Kidding! I’m kidding.
AP. “George Washington’s Teeth Not Wooden. MSNBC. 27 January 2005.
Dever, Carolyn. “Skeptical Feminism: Activist Theory, Activist Practice.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Echols, Alice. Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism, 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Geheugen, Het. “The Purchase of Manhattan.” Memory of the Netherlands.
Grizzard, Frank E. George Washington: a Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2002.
“I’ll Take Manhattan” The Public I. 18 August 2009.
Jenson, Richard. “No Irish Need Apply: a Myth of Victimization” Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002) 405-429
Kantrowitz, Barbara. “It’s Ms. America to You.” Newsweek. 10 November 2007.
Mikkelson, Barbara. “Bra Burning.” Snopes.
Monroe, Bob. “One Bra was Burned; Another Just Smokes.” Tuscaloosa News. 12 April 1973.,2156033&dq=bra+atlantic+city&hl=en
Powell, Kimberly. “My Ancestor’s Name was Changed at Ellis Island.”
Shenkman, Richard. Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History New York: William Morrow and Company, 1988.
Smithsonian. “Do All Indians Live in Tipis?”


  1. People used to think we worked at a pirate museum, now everyone thinks I'm colonial. Museums are tough. By the way, I would like to see a picture of George Washington's toothbrush.

  2. Thank you for correcting us all about that moon-landing hoax. There really wasn't any good reason to go there to begin with as we can make as much green cheese as we need right here. P.S. If we ever do go there, maybe something could be done about that annoying "man in the moon". Isn't it time for there to be a "Kate in the moon"?

  3. So good to see another post! Hope your new job's going well, Kate!
    And that video of kids reenacting the American Revolution--priceless!

  4. I read this until the end and was rewarded with a joke. Positive reinforcement: received.