Book Review: Death by Petticoat. American History Myths Debunked by Mary Miley Theobald and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Prepared by Gena Philibert-Ortega.
I was excited to purchase and read "Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked" the moment I heard a colleague mention it at a conference. It's always interesting to read about history and especially when it comes to myth-busting. While I have a problem with this book, explained below, I would love to see more books like it.
Many familiar historical myths are explored here. Just a few examples:
• Men posed with one hand inside their vest to save money. Portrait artists gave discounts for not having to paint fingers.
• People were shorter back then.
• Early Americans thought tomatoes (or potatoes) were poisonous.
• The position of a horse's legs on an equestrian statue tells how the rider died.
• People didn't bathe back then.
There are a total of 63 historical myths explored in this book. I purchased this book through the Barnes and Noble bookstore to read on my Nook. This enhanced edition provided videos with some of the myths that could really help to encourage children to learn more about history.
This is a quick read and interesting though I will say I was really disappointed that none of the information was sourced. The author credits the historians she consulted but doesn't provide any information on what was verified or where the information came from. It's obvious that since the author is a museum tour guide and historian that she has heard many historical myths and she has the research qualifications necessary to write this book. My problem is that without source citations, we have no way of evaluating her "facts." She spends time at the end of the book crediting the sources of images but not of the content. My guess is that in order to appeal to a general audience it was decided not to include footnotes or endnotes of information about the research that went into the book.
So am I being picky? Well, here's an example of one of my concerns with the lack of source citation. Myth #29 says "Women ate arsenic to lighten their complexions." In this chapter she goes on to say that there is no evidence that women ate arsenic to lighten their skin, that it is simply a rumor. As I look at a reproduction of the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog for Fall 1909 that I own, there is an ad for arsenous tablets which promise to make your complexion "clear, dainty, transparent and altogether beautiful." Another ad for White Lily Face Wash promises to give you a better complexion without harmful ingredients like arsenic and mercury, which it says other preparations use. I found numerous other mentions of advertisements toting arsenic laced wafers for better complexions throughout the Internet. I even found books, including one where a man from 1889 remarked on the internal (and external) use of arsenic by women to achieve a pale complexion (Walter, et al. "Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History. "Guilford, Conn: Globe Pequot Press, 2011, page 208).
The author also claims that arsenic actually darkens skin so eating it would have been counterproductive. While I don't have first-hand knowledge of the effects of arsenic poisoning I did find a book written by a scientist that states that arsenic kills red blood cells thus destroying their ability to carry oxygen which in turn causes a person to look pale. Now while I hesitate to use him as an example, since he didn't cite his sources either, he does have a PhD in chemistry (Schwarcz, Joseph A. Dr. Joe's Brain Sparks: 178 Inspiring and Enlightening Inquiries into the Science of Everyday Life. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2010).
I could list many more instances of the use of arsenic as a beauty aid. A study of the history of beauty aids and makeup will find numerous examples of poisonous ingredients used in the name of beauty. While women may not have purchased arsenic in the same manner their husbands would have to use as a poison to kill the rats in the barn, evidence suggests that they did ingest arsenic to pale their complexions.
So with that being said would I recommend this book? I would but as with anything I would encourage its readers to look into what they learn more closely. Proper source citation makes it easier to check up on the validity of statements but with Google you can take a few minutes to look up keywords and read more about a topic. Unfortunately, the warning to not believe everything you read is applicable here, though I wish it weren't.
However, this book does what I think is vital in teaching about history, it makes it interesting and avoids everything that makes some history text considered dull and uninteresting. Perhaps an updated version of this book can include the facts that will continue to interest history buffs.
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