I love history. If we didn’t have records of things that happened in the past, none of us would know anything about what happened before our time. I use it almost every time I write a column. Sometimes tracing down a historical bit of information isn’t easy.
Occasionally I get questions about some special event of past years and other times I get little tips about the past from emails sent by friends. A while back this one came from one of my long-time Press Women of Texas friends, Clara Clay, who lives in Houston. When she sent it, she was recovering from surgery so she has lots of time at home to think. I don’t think she originated the email, but evidently whoever did had a lot of free time.
I’ve often thought that some of these email “authors” need something to do, but thoughts here are interesting to me and I think we all might learn something from them.
This first one I had not heard before and wondered if it was real. You be the judge. “Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June. This must have been a VERY long time ago. However, since they were starting to smell, brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence came the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married. Also the custom of June weddings being traditional began here.
Baths in the early days before water was piped into the house and heated in a “hot water heater” consisted of a big tub filled with water heated on a wood stove. 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 were the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it — “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”
In the early days, houses, especially in England, had thatched roofs of thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. That’s where animals would go to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs etc.) 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.”
Since there was no wood underneath all that straw, 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 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.
In the early days, most floors were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence: “Dirt poor.” The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when they got wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a thresh hold.
I wonder how many of these our readers have heard before.
In those same old days, people cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire in the giant fireplace. Every day they would light the fire and add 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 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.
I actually knew someone who did that until his family learned what he was doing. Then his favorite soup became a has-been and he ate more carefully to keep from getting sick.
Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel 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.
If you had a little money you might have had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burned bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the “upper crust”.
Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers 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. That is said to be where the custom of holding a wake began.
Most of these customs came from England, which is old and small. Local folks started running out of places to bury people, so they would dig up coffins and take the bones to a “bone-house” and reuse the grave.
Now, this one is a little far-fetched, but who am I to say it didn’t actually happen. This was a long-long time ago.
It is said that when the coffins were reopened to reuse them, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized that they had been burying people alive. So 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 sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell. Then, someone could be saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.
Who was it who said that history is boring?
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.