Book Review: Death by Petticoat – American History Myths Debunked

Here at Frontier Homestead, we thought we would, from time to time, share with you what we are reading. This month our review comes from one of our interns, Maureen Carlson. We encourage you to share with us your favorite reads as the year progresses.

Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked by Mary Miley Theobald is an American Historical book full of many historical myths told around the US in museums, historical books, and classrooms. This book, as the title states, debunks those myths, telling how they were or may have started, or even just stretched with a bit of truth, then giving the facts at the end of each myth.

Everybody has heard that the second most common reason for death for Colonial women, just under childbirth, was burning to death from a petticoat that caught fire, haven’t they (Myth #1)? Or, that the reason so many Colonial women used a fire screen was to protect their wax makeup from melting off (Myth #4)? Considering those are both incorrect, it is a shame that so many people seem to not only believe those myths, but that they continue to be told in history books, classrooms, and museums alike all around the country! The truth is that petticoats, being made of wool, cotton, and linen, burned very slowly, even if they did catch fire, allowing the women to stop the incident before it spread too far.

The fact behind women’s makeup melting is that Colonial women, in reality, hardly wore any makeup at all. If they did decide to wear makeup, women had to make it themselves using various ingredients. Not one of those ingredients was wax. The actual purpose for the fire screen, which wasn’t even a common household item, was to shield one from direct heat. Now that makes perfect sense, wouldn’t you think?

 Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked by Mary Miley Theobald holds quite a few of these little myths, tall tales, and stretched truths in her little book. Sixty-three of them, to be exact. It is a short, easy read and is quite informative. I admire the work and research that Theobald has put in to debunking so many tidbits that happened to get twisted and made up throughout the years. It is astonishing to me how much is taught as our history that isn’t even true!

One example in this book that really surprised me as being a fabrication of time is Myth #59: “Quilt designs were really secret codes meant to assist escaping slaves through the Underground Railroad”. According to Theobald, this myth began in the 1990’s and no one knows why. Since then, many have worked together to debunk it without much success, sadly, as it is still being taught. The book states that “there is no evidence or example of coded quilts” (117). I grew up with this story in elementary history classes and seeing it on TV shows quite often, so couldn’t believe when I saw it in this book. It is a nice story that made me feel good, which is one of the reasons it has stuck around. People like a good story that is either exciting or gives you warm fuzzies. But if it is false, no matter how it makes one feel, it should not be spread. That is how Theobald feels as well, and why she wrote this book and does the research that she does.

Death by Petticoat is an enjoyable book, for the most part. Many of these so-called myths within the book I have never even heard of myself. Reading through the stories, I found that I have actually been taught the truth or had common sense enough to realize the facts myself, as some of the myths seemed too far-fetched for anyone to believe. That being said, there were a number of good things that I did learn, and it is an interesting book. It is worth checking out if you want something quick and interesting to read. The contents might even surprise you!

Forgotten Chapters of History: Home Manufacture

Home manufacturers on the job.

Home manufacturers on the job.

During the 1950’s Cedar City historian and businessman William R. Palmer had a weekly radio program on local radio station KSUB. During his show, Forgotten Chapters of History, Palmer told tales of local history and sometimes covered other topics. Thanks to Special Collections at the Sherratt Library on the campus of Southern Utah University, many of these programs are available to listen to. On November 9, 1952, Palmer presented the story of Home Manufacture in Southern Utah.  Click the links and enjoy making something yourself as you listen to Forgotten Chapters of History.

Palmer’s audio broadcast “Home Manufacture” 11/09/52

Taking the sheep home.

Taking the sheep home.

Step one in the manufacturing process.

Step one in the manufacturing process.

Old Iron Town

Although discovered by Peter Shirts in early 1868 – the area known as Iron City blossomed under the investment of Ebenezer Hanks. In June of 1868 Hanks established the Union Iron Company, later known as the Great Western Iron Company.

One of the remaining charcoal kilns at Old Iron Town.

One of the remaining charcoal kilns at Old Iron Town.

The 1870 census indicates that 97 people, living in 19 households resided in Iron City. The iron works consisted of a furnace, with a 2,500–pound capacity, a pattern shop, molding shop, erastra, (grinding device) and two charcoal kilns.

The Great Western Iron Company needed large sums of capital to operate, and outside (non-Mormon) investors were sought. With new money came new labor. Many of these workers were not members of the conservative religion and Iron City soon became a place where drinking and swearing were commonplace. By 1871 Iron City had a post office, boarding house, a brick schoolhouse, butcher shop, and a general store.

At peak production the iron works produced 5-7 tons of pig iron per day. They supplied ore for the Utah Western Railroad, mining companies in Pioche, Nevada, and also provided the iron used in the 12 oxen that support the St. George LDS Temple baptismal font.

The Great Western Iron Company could not survive financially selling small items to cash- strapped Mormon settlers and could no longer afford the shipping costs for their larger contracts. The iron works closed in 1876.

Ruins at Old Iron Town.

Ruins at Old Iron Town.

Now known as Old Irontown State Park, this area has been preserved for its distinctive structures and historical presence.  In May of 1951 William R. Palmer as part of his radio broadcast “Forgotten Chapters of History” produced a program about Iron City. You can listen to that broadcast here.

Cedar City’s First Halloween Party

William R. Palmer

William R. Palmer

During the 1950’s Cedar City historian and businessman William R. Palmer had a weekly radio program on local radio station KSUB. During his show, Forgotten Chapters of History, Palmer told tales of local history and sometimes covered other topics. Thanks to Special Collections at the Sherratt Library on the campus of Southern Utah University, many of these programs are available to listen to. On October 26, 1952, Palmer presented the story of Cedar City’s first Halloween Party.  Click the links and enjoy your holiday as you listen to Forgotten Chapters of History.

Cedar City Halloween Party

Text of Radio Broadcast

 

National Geographic comes to Cedar City

Angels Landing

Angels Landing

“Utah blazes with color.” This sentence opens the May 1936 article in National Geographic “Utah, Carved by Winds and Waters.”In early 1936, writer Leo A. Borah visited southern Utah and toured with local tourism booster Randall L. Jones. Thanks to local Cedar City resident Scott Truman, who recently donated this issue to the museum, we now have access to this forgotten piece of writing.  Borah notes many unique features of our community, especially the golf course:

“Cedar City, gateway to the southern Utah parks, has a golf course which symbolizes the Utah pioneer spirit. Several miles from town it lies, in an arid valley crowded by craggy hills. Its ‘greens’ are a mixture of sand, sawdust, and oil; its teeing places bristle doormats set in wooden frames; its fairways barren stretches from which sagebrush has been laboriously dug.

Randall Jones and I went out to the course with a club member, who explained with a chuckle as we jounced over the rough trail from the highway to the links that the jolts were ‘warming-up’ exercises for the game. In front of the ‘shake’ clubhouse beside a clump of scraggly juniper trees an iron mine owner and a West Point cadet were toiling in the hot sun to set an additional doormat for teeing.

The sand, sawdust, and oil putting "green"

The sand, sawdust, and oil putting “green”

The course lacks nothing in ‘rough.’ As if the hazards of cliffs, gullies, sagebrush, and thickets were not sufficient, there is an occasional rattlesnake for the player to kill with his club, or an inquisitive deer to chase out of the way with his shots.  That wild valley looks as little like a possible place for a golf course as the trackless desert the pioneers settled looked like farmland.”

Following is a sampling of the many photos from the article:

The rock church

The rock church

 

The aspens of Cedar Mountain

The aspens of Cedar Mountain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zion singaway

Zion singaway

A 1936 Cedar Breaks view

A 1936 Cedar Breaks view

A Cooperative Effort

As the Cedar City community sheep herds increased in number, a cooperative organization was established to aid those stockholders in more effectively distributing and marketing the growth of the herd. The Cedar Sheep Association became a well managed, dividend paying company that provided a measure of security during the community’s lean years.  By 1879 there were more than five thousand sheep in the cooperative herd and shareholders had sufficient wool for the women to card, spin, and knit and sufficient mutton for home use.

The Cedar Sheep Association

The Cedar Sheep Association

To supply fresh meat for the community, the sheep association drove twenty-five to thirty fat old ewes to town each week where they would be dispatched by the local butcher, Charles Ahlstrom.  William R. Palmer writes, “Early Saturday morning, before the flies became too active, the people rushed to the butcher shop on Main Street to buy a leg or front quarter of mutton. It was never cut up smaller than that. Plucks (the heart, liver, and lungs) were given away at the slaughterhouse to the kids who swarmed there like flies on killing days.”

After the wool needs of the town were met, the balance was sacked up and freighted to Provo or Salt Lake City and traded for groceries and hardware. These goods were transported back to Cedar City, and sold at the co-op store. The stockholders would draw their dividends in the form of merchandise instead of hard currency.    The Cedar Sheep Association disbanded in 1917.  The Cedar Sheep Association building is currently the home of Bulloch Drug on Main Street.

The Cedar City Co-op - "The Old Reliable"

The Cedar CIty Co-op –
“The Old Reliable”

Another Co-op venture was the Cedar City Co-op, otherwise known as “The Old Reliable”.  William R. Palmer worked in this co-op and shared the following story:

“Dealing all the time with people, the clerks came to know their vagaries. Aunt Manie was one who always expected the clerk “to throw something in.” She came early one year to do her Christmas shopping, and I waited on her. On her list was a pound of peanuts. I opened the drawer and there was a big mouse in the bin. I scooped it with the nuts into her sack. She said, “Now what are you going to throw in for a Christmas gift.” I said, “I have already thrown something in, you’ll find it soon.” I expected to have her in my hair any day, but time went on to the end of January before I saw her again.

1915 Cedar City Co-op ad.

1915 Cedar City Co-op ad.

She was back to trade, and at the end as usual, she asked me to throw something in. I said, “Aunt Manie, I threw something in the last time we traded, and you have never thanked me for it. It was when you bought some peanuts.” “Oh!” she cried, “I never got one of those nuts. I put them in my trunk to keep for Christmas, and when I opened it to get them on Christmas morning a pesky mouse had got in and ate them all. It also ate holes in some of my clothes.” I lacked the courage to confess my sins, but I made the peanuts up in full to Aunt Manie and gave her a sample package of a new tea to pay for her darning. After that Aunt Manie would trade with no other clerk . . . .”

 

Early Iron County Sheep Stories

In going along with recent posts, we thought we would share some interesting tales taken  from the 1940’s radio addresses of William R. Palmer. The following excerpts were compiled  from a 1974 Utah Historical Quarterly article. If you want to read the entire article, it can be found here: Utah Historical Quarterly Spring 1972 Spelling and pronunciation have been left as Palmer intended. Enjoy.

Most of our early pioneers came from the shops and factories of foreign lands. The Americans among them were but little better prepared for pioneering. All of them knew little or nothing about sheep, and no one was available to advise them of the range conditions that their animals must face. So, in trying to build up their cherished flocks and herds, they did many things that seem humorous to the experienced growers of today.

Sheep on the summer range.

Sheep on the summer range.

Sheep were first brought to the Cedar City area in November 1862 by the Willden family, who later moved to Beaver. They had ten head. As fast as others could get hold of them, every family acquired one or more to produce the wool that was needed to spin the family clothing. They were valued as high as thirty dollars a head. To avoid loss they were kept in a pen at home and fed by hand like pigs.

As the years went by, the sheep increased until the families were supplied with the wool they needed. The animals by now were becoming troublesome to care for, and ways were sought to get them away from home where they could pick their own living. At first they were driven out in the morning and brought back at night. Then neighbors put their flocks together and took turns in herding them. Finally a community herd developed and they were brought home only once a year to be shorn.

Sheep in their pens.

Sheep in their pens.

To breed up the quality of their sheep, the company brought in a few head of purebred merinos. They were run on the best ranges and given every advantage that they might increase more rapidly. Everyone thought they were wonderful sheep until shearing time came. The natives had light, fluffy fleeces and sheared only three or four pounds each. Shearers were paid five cents per head and with the crude appointments they had, men sheared only from fifty to seventy head per day. The merinos were wrinkly bodied, tight, greasy-wooled fellows that almost defied the shear blades. The coming in of the merino herd was always occasion for groans and profanity on the part of the crew.

Early shearers.

Early shearers.

It was the manager’s custom to call the men together for prayers every night and morning. And always a blessing was invoked upon “our flocks and herds.” There was a newcomer from England in the crew one spring, and he could not get the knack of using the shears. He snipped and snipped all day. If he was lucky enough to get a good run of bare-bellied natives he sometimes got up to fifteen or twenty head in a hard day. When the merinos came in his count dropped to a third of that number. After wrestling with the merinos one hard, hot day the manager called upon Dick to lead in prayer. He made a good and fervent start but when he came to the blessing of the flocks and herds he truly told the Lord how he felt about the matter. He said, “Lord bless all our flocks and ‘erds, but this ‘ere bloody, greasy ‘erd we don’t care whether Thee blesses urn or not.” It was a long time before proper reverence and decorum could be restored at prayer time.

In those days the housewives carded and spun the wool, and wove the cloth and knitted the stockings for the needs of their families. So the first market to be supplied was the townspeople. The sheep company declared a wool dividend every year, and the women brought their sacks to the Tithing Office to receive it. The women came generally because they knew wool better than the men, and they wanted to select their own for they would have to work it up. If the family needed more than twenty, thirty, or fifty pounds of dividend wool that was theirs, or if they were not stockholders, they bought it from the company or from a shareholder who had more wool than he needed. After the town was supplied, the balance was sacked up and hauled to Provo or Salt Lake and traded to ZCMI for groceries and hardware. These goods were brought home to Cedar City and sold over the counters of the Co-op Store. ZCMI found a market for most of that wool among the women of Salt Lake City who still were carding and spinning and weaving their own cloth.

Happy Thanksgiving from Frontier Homestead

To celebrate this wonderful holiday, we thought we would give you a few little treats. First this photo of Zion National Park taken on Thanksgiving Day 1923 by William Louis Crawford.

A snowy Thanksgiving in Zion.

A snowy Thanksgiving in Zion.

Second, during the 1950’s Cedar City historian and businessman William R. Palmer had a weekly radio program on local radio station KSUB. During his show, Forgotten Chapters of History, Palmer told tales of local history and sometimes covered other topics. Thanks to Special Collections at the Sherratt Library on the campus of Southern Utah University, many of these programs are available to listen to. On November 23 and 30th, 1952, Palmer presented parts one and two of his Thanksgiving Day program. Click the links and enjoy your holiday as you listen to Forgotten Chapters of History.

Thanksgiving Part I 11-23-1952

Thanksgiving Part II 11-30-1952