Note: What is the obligation of a public historian when the history you are presented at a historic site is not right? Do you smile and nod? Politely correct the presenter? The following is a real letter I sent off this week to the curators of a historic home in the American south. A few names have been changed to protect the well-meaning--my goal is not to shame the museum but to help it improve.
Thank you for the very enjoyable tour of the Baron Von Munchausen historic home today. The passion and commitment of your staff made for a terrific visit. As an academic and public historian I am fortunate to visit a lot of historic sites, and want to offer a few friendly comments, which I trust will not be taken amiss.
On our tour I was concerned about some of the historical "facts" presented by some of the staff. I would like to refer you to this article from the Colonial Williamsburg foundation, Stuff and Nonsense: Myths that Should be History, which dispels some of the historical myths that get passed down from one interpreter to the next and even published from time to time. Our guide repeated as fact five of the ten myths debunked by the article. Specifically:
- Fireplace screens were not used to prevent women's wax makeup from melting. Colonial women rarely wore makeup, and it was not made of wax. Accordingly, this is not where the expression "to save face" comes from.
- People were not shorter in the colonial period--they seem to have been almost exactly the same height as today.
- There was no closet tax in any of the colonies. If closets were uncommon it was because people had only a few changes of clothes.
- Colonial portrait painters did not charge extra to paint people's hands. Accordingly, this is not the origin of the phrase "to charge an arm and a leg."
- There is no evidence that pineapples were a symbol of hospitality in the colonial era.
Some additional questionable interpretation items from the (very nice!) person who gave us our tour include:
- The story that most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were singled out by royal forces and suffered disproportionatley is a myth that gets forwarded via email. See this Snopes page which takes the myth apart: http://www.snopes.com/history/american/pricepaid.asp
- Our guide said that most women married and 12 or 13 "back in those days." There are certainly cases of that in the 18th and 19th century, but it was very rare. In the Chesapeake region in 1750 the average age at marriage was 22 for women (and 27 for men) so it was probably about the same in your town.
- Our guide said that only the wealthy knew how to read and that there was no public education for women until the mid-19th century. Literacy was fairly widespread in colonial America--according to one recent textbook, "By 1760, New England's literacy rate was 70 per cent among men and 45 per cent amongst the female population. The south saw a lower rate of between 50 per cent and 60 per cent for men and 40 per cent among women." Public education was widespread in the north.
- Many of the "and that is where we get the saying" stories our guide shared were dubious. Bad books and websites on the origins of popular sayings are legion. You local library probably has the multi-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary which is a good source for the orignins of popular sayings.
The biggest problem with the interpretation at the Baron Munchausen House was the absence of slavery. There was no acknowledgment that Munchausen even owned slaves. Our guide referred to the slaves who ran the house as "servants" which is whitewashing history. Our guide used the word "slave" only once in passing. Slavery was at the heart of Munchausen's world. He owned many slaves and even advertised in newspapers for the return of his runaways. Slaves built the Munchausen fortune, cooked his dinner, and kept the opulent house running. A Google Book Search for "Baron Von Munchusen" + slaves provides some resources for specific information, including names and descriptions of some of Muchausen's runaway slaves. The interpretation at the Munchausen House would be richer and more interesting if you included stories of the slaves rather than omitting them.
Thank you for all you do to preserve and welcome the public to this historic treasure. The work you do has saved an important historic landmark and serves thousands of visitors. It is because what you do is so important and so good that I offer these small corrections. Feel free to contact me if you like.