Death by Petticoat, by Mary Miley Theobald

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 5, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.

Thoughts: I’m always interested in historical trivia, so this book seemed right up my alley. It was simple, quick to read, and more than striving to explain the truth behind some of the myths, it also opened my eyes to some of the more ridiculous things that people actually believe about not just Colonial America, but North American history in general.

This isn’t the sort of book that a hardcore historian might want on their shevles, though. It breezes through things, relying more on dispelling eneral myths in the manner of a trivia book than really seeking to go into depth about where most of the myths came from and what life was really like at the time. It tells the facts briefly and with a sense of sarcastic humour, but leaves further research to the reader’s discretion.

The downside to this approach is that most people who are interested in history will already know the truth behind most of the myths mentioned, and those who aren’t interested in history probably won’t pick up the book to begin with. Which is a shame, really, since books like this are actually decent ways to learn a little without getting truly invested in the material. You read, you learn, you move on. But getting this book into the hands of the people who need it the most is usually a difficult task. Not impossible, but difficult.

Nevertheless, in reading death by Petticoat I did learn a thing or two, so I can’t and won’t consider it an evening wasted. This is the kind of book you can get through in an evening, after all. It was worth reading even just for the discussion it generated between my roommate and I. But mostly, I would recommend it to history enthusiasts who want to have a good chuckle at some of the more silly things that people believe about their history.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

2 comments on “Death by Petticoat, by Mary Miley Theobald

  1. Kelly, if you want a book that goes into wonderful depth about the history myths that get perpetuated in education, then I highly recommend “Lies my Teacher Told Me.” It's a wonderful book that not only goes into what the high school textbooks don't teach but also why they don't teach it, and what affect it has on people who study American history.

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