- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007

Betsy Ross stitched the first American flag. “Good night, sleep tight.” Beds were shorter because people were smaller.

Dozens of sayings and legends like these are part of American folklore. However, time has muddied the facts and distorted the story so much that 200 years later, no one really remembers the real story behind the legend.

A visit to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Museum in Northwest can help separate fact from fiction. “Myth or Truth? Stories We Have Heard About Early America,” a temporary exhibit running through March 31, uses printed material, graphics and artifacts to explain some of the best-known myths with Colonial origins.

“This exhibit was an idea we had been kicking around for years,” says museum Director Diane Dunkley. “There are so many stories we hear when we visit a museum that we know are not true. We tried to come up with a number of legends that had to do with our museum objects, but even since we opened [in October] we have come up with five or six more.”

One myth provided the impetus for the collection, Ms. Dunkley says. The story was that fireplace fire screens were invented to keep Colonial women’s wax makeup from melting.

DAR staffers did some research and found that fire screens were not all that common in American homes. The fire screens were made of delicate fabric and were not practical to keep by a hot fireplace. Researchers also discovered that though European women wore makeup, most American women did not. Most important, wax is not among the ingredients in 18th-century makeup recipes.

So that story is, in fact, a myth, Ms. Dunkley says.

“Fire screens were used by many people to prevent their face from getting flushed when they sat by the fire,” she says. “They were really a means to display needlework.”

Here is another fireplace hazard put to rest by the DAR: that Colonial women often burned to death after their petticoats caught fire.

Not true, Ms. Dunkley says.

“The myth is that burning was the second leading cause of death, after dying in childbirth,” she says. “But the leading cause of death then wasn’t even childbirth. It was disease. There probably were a few cases of petticoat fires, so that makes them memorable, but not frequent.”

The exhibit has many stops that explain the origin of popular names or sayings. Take the grandfather clock, for instance. It wasn’t called that because it belonged to a grandfather or was the same height as a grandfather. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the clocks were called case clocks or tall clocks, the display explains. However, after an 1876 song called “My Grandfather’s Clock” was published, it became the common way to refer to the statuesque timepiece.

Also explained:

• “Good night, sleep tight.” This dates back to the days when mattresses were supported by ropes. The ropes had to be tightened regularly to be supportive. A small model of such a bed is on display.

m “Mad as a hatter.” Were hatters mad, another term for crazy? Well, maybe. Many hat makers of the 19th century did suffer from mercury poisoning as a result of a process they used to make a felted fabric from inferior furs, the display placard explains.

m “Put a feather in his cap and called it macaroni. …” This line from the song “Yankee Doodle” has long begged the question, why would someone put pasta on his head? The exhibit explains that macaroni was once British slang for someone who had exaggerated styles of clothing or speech. Yankee Doodle was fashionable and was not a noodle head, visitors will learn.

Many of the myths that are debunked at the exhibit have to do with houses and furniture from the 18th century. The myth of the “closet tax” is debunked here, as is the one that beds were shorter because people were shorter.

“That’s a myth,” Ms. Dunkley says. “We have examined beds in our collection, and many are longer than standard today. There was a wide range of heights back then, as there is now. George Washington was 6-foot-2. James Madison was barely 5 feet tall.”

Ms. Dunkley says the exhibit is meant to be fun, not absolute fact. A poster at the exhibit reminds visitors to take the information with a grain of salt.

When you go:

What: “Myth or Truth? Stories We’ve Heard About Early America,” at DAR Museum, 1776 D St. NW

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; and closed on Sundays. Exhibit runs through March 31.

Admission: Free

Parking: Meter and street parking nearby


• “Myth or Truth?” is a campy look at some popular sayings, stories and legends that originated in Colonial times. The myths are examined with a combination of museum artifacts and printed materials. The materials explain the legend in sections: “What we’ve heard,” “What we know” and “What we think.”

• The exhibit is appropriate for visitors of all ages, but school-age children and history buffs will particularly enjoy it.

Information: Click on www.dar.org or call 202/628-1776.

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