March 17, 2012

Review - Death By Petticoat (Mary Miley Theobald)

Every day stories from American history that are not true are repeated in museums and classrooms across the country. Some are outright fabrications; others contain a kernel of truth that has been embellished over the years. Collaborating with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Mary Theobald has uncovered the truth behind many widely-repeated myth-understandings in our history including:
·Hat makers really were driven mad. They were poisoned by the mercury used in making hats from furs. Their symptoms included hallucinations, tremors, and twitching, which looked like insanity to people of the 17th and 18th centuries—and the phrase “mad as a hatter” came about.
·The idea that portrait painters gave discounts if their subjects posed with one hand inside the vest (so they didn’t have to paint fingers and leading to the saying that something “costs an arm and a leg”) is strictly myth. It isn’t likely that Napoleon, King George III, or George Washington were concerned about getting a discount from their portrait painters.
·Pregnant women secluded themselves indoors, uneven stairs were made to trip up burglars, people bathed once a year, women had tiny waists, apprenticeships last seven years – Death by Petticoat reveals the truth about these hysterical historical myth-understandings.

Were long skirts and petticoats likely to catch fire thus being a leading cause of death in woman of Colonial America? In Death By Petticoat Mary Riley Theobald sets out to expose historical myths which are apparently still widely believed in today.
Presenting a wild collection of myths - all set in Colonial up to Victorian times on the North American continent - it was interesting to see how some of them are also familiar in European context while others have been completely new to me. While a quick and light read can be like a sweet treat every now and then, unfortunately this compilation lacks when it comes to really explaining where certain myths originate. Each of the myths is presented in a very brief format, often no more than a paragraph - often accompanied by a photo or illustration - consequently lacking details that would have been of interest, and even more so, neglecting thorough explanations in many cases. Even though the content of this book can be seen as history fun facts I would have expected a bit more substance.
I'd also like to add that as fascinating as some of the myths here are, quite a number made me wonder where on Earth the author dug them out as they are utterly ridiculous (on second thought, maybe I'm just too well educated). History buffs beware - this isn't the book for you!
In short: Nice little book for museum shops!

2/5 stars

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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