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History Magazine cover
The 1650s
Victoria L. King examines a decade of civil unrest and enlightenment in Europe.

Birth of the Boardwalk: A Sandy History
Russell Roberts looks at the illustrious beginning of the "walk of boards".

David A. Norris looks at the plastic of the Victorian Age.

The Battle of Cannae
Nicky Nielsen tells the story of the ancient battle between Hannibal Barcas and his sworn enemy, Rome..

Barter and Trade in Colonial America
Joanne Liu looks at the early history of Colonial America where currency as we know it was scarce.

Chroniclers & Scribes — Medieval Historical Writers
William Stroock chronicles some of the great medieval documents that have survived.

The Pedigree of Platinum
Steve Voynick relates the fascinating history of the "other" precious metal.

Pyramids and the Occult — Fact or Fiction?
Pamela D. Toller chronicles the search for the magical meaningn of the pyramids.

The Early Days of Radio
From the book With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1930, author LeRoy Ashby looks at the early programs that made radio so popular.

"The Storm": Killer Hurricane Devastates Galveston, Texas
Joanna Bostwick Backman tells the story of a killer hurricane.

Fire Below! The Devastating Reality of Coal Bunker Fires
Patrick McSherry chronicles the dirty and dangerous history of coal bunker fires and the men that fought them.

The Timeless Appeal of Clocks
Phill Jones chronicles the history of timekeeping and its impact on history.

Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Axe Murders
Daniel M. Hoenig describes the enduring interest in this case of murder most foul.

"Facts" About the 1500s?

by Halvor Moorshead

For the last couple of years an item has been circulating around the Internet about so-called Facts about the 1500s (sometimes 1600s). A quick search using the search-engine Google pointed to over 400 websites that were carrying this piece. Interesting reading. The problem is that most of it is completely invented. The original author is not credited in any of the versions we have seen. Here we present the original version and our attempt to correct the errors.

The phrase "raining cats and dogs" had nothing to do with animals living in thatched roofs.

Next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500s. Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor.
There is no evidence that June was a popular month to get married until the last 100 years. Flowers have been associated with weddings since the earliest times, probably as symbol of fertility.
Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children — last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it — hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the bath water."
This explanation makes no sense when you consider the expression and its meaning. Additionally bathing was so rare that there were no bathing tubs.
Houses had thatched roofs — thick straw — piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the dogs, cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof — hence the saying "It's raining cats and dogs."
A believable explanation is given in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: mythology associated the cat with rain and the dog with wind.

Canopy beds may have been designed to protect against insects, but they weren't designed to protect against droppings from the roof.

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.
Canopy beds may have originated as a means of keeping out flying insects but if you think about it, people rich enough to afford a canopy bed — a huge investment in the 1500s — would also be living in homes with proper ceilings.
The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying "dirt poor."
Probably correct — except that the expression is American — and from centuries later.
The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entranceway — hence, a "thresh hold."
The term threshold predates the 12th century according to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. And isn't wet straw at least as slippery as wet slate?

The phrase "peas porridge in the pot nine days old" had nothing to do with life in the 1500s.

In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while — hence the rhyme, "peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old."
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, this chant was not used before 1762.
Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man "could bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and "chew the fat."
We couldn't find a convincing explanation for chew the fat. One was that it was of US Civil War origin, another that it was from Cockney Rhyming Slang meaning "have a chat" — and rhyming slang came was not known until after WWI.
Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
It is true that tomatoes were thought to be poisonous until about 1830 — however tomatoes were extremely rare in Europe in the 1500s and in any case are not acidic enough to affect pewter.
Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale bread, which was so old and hard that they could be used for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy, moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth."
The expression trench mouth was first used during WWI.
Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."
This one may be true; the term upper crust does predate the 1500s.
Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up — hence the custom of holding a "wake."
A wake refers to what the visitors do, not what you expect the corpse to do! In this context a wake means a watch or a vigil. It originated from an all-night watch kept in church before certain holy days. It later became associated with fairs and revelries held at such times. Some towns in the north of England still observe local holidays called wakes. (Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable).
England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a "bone-house" and reuse the grave. When re-opening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the "graveyard shift") to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be "saved by the bell" or was considered a "dead ringer".
Saved by the bell is a boxing term dating from the 1930s and dead ringer is from horse racing about 1890 and refers to a horse — or somebody — who looks virtually identical to someone else.
And that's the truth — whoever said that history was boring!
History is not boring and the real explanations are just as interesting — and not hard to find either!

This article originally appeared in our February/March 2002 issue.