Friday, November 30, 2012

Patent Malarkey

This one is usually told at tech conferences, to get chuckles from the audience. That in 1899 the Head of the American Patent Office said that the patent office should be closed because everything that could be invented had been invented.

Charles Holland Duell was the the "head" of the "American Patent Office" in 1899 --  in that he was the Commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

You know the myth is going south when they 1) can't get the title right, 2) can't name the person who supposedly did whatever the myth is about, and 3) don't even know the name of the department. 

In actuality, Commissioner Duell said no such thing. If you'd like to have an actual quote he said, a good choice may be, 

"In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold." *

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sir Beef

Wikipedia says this is a sirloin. I'll have to take their word for it.

I heard this one the other day and I had to rush home and look it up, because I'd never heard it before. To be fair, that may be because I don't really know a lot about meat or preparing it (not something I do much, being unable to digest it).

What is this myth? That the cut of beef called sirloin got its name because an English king once knighted a piece of meat and called it "Sir loin."

Sadly, as cute as the story is, it's not at all true. 

It's French. "Sir Loin" is actually "sur longe" ... Longe was French for loin, and sur simply means "above." So it is literally the cut "above the loin." *

Where is that? Well, that depends on where you live.

If you're American, it's this lime green spot:

If you're British, it's practically a quarter of the cow:

If you're Dutch, it's this long peach colored area:

And if you're Brazilian, it's a slim area between the tenderloin and it's skirt (and your cows have this funny hump too):

Friday, November 23, 2012

Doomsday 2012

It's that one that everybody knows, but nobody will quite admit to believing -- that the world is going to end on 21 December 2012. 

The usual story is that it's because of some Mayan Prophecy and an asteroid hitting the earth. Or the magnetic poles flipping. Or the sun going supernova and flame broiling all life on earth. Or something.

So what's it all about?

Usually it's seen with something that looks like this:

But that's not even Mayan -- it's the Aztec "Stone of the Sun". You've got to take anything with a grain of salt when they can't even get the culture right for their pictograph proof. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Feast

For those who aren't USians, this up coming Thursday is Thanksgiving. 

What this means is that USians around the country will be sitting down to eat turkey and pumpkin pie. 

Why? Because that's that traditional food that was eaten at the first Thanksgiving. And every Thanksgiving since. 


Well, no. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

It's all still paper in the vernacular

The United States Constitution. 

There are a lot of myths about the US Constitution says, but that's not the kind mythbelief we're dealing with today. Instead, it's what the US Constitution is physically written upon.It's a common belief that the US Constitution is written on hemp paper. 

It's written on parchment. Parchment isn't made from plants, but from cured animal skins.

Hemp paper was popular at the end of the 1700s. It's probable that drafts of the Constitution were penned on hemp paper, and that the founding fathers may have taken notes on hemp paper, but parchment lasts longer and they wanted the document to last. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


I suspect that with the USian Thanksgiving right around the corner, there's going to be talk and pictures of the Pilgrims.

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, here's a quick rundown of the usual story: Thanksgiving (AKA "Turkey Day") is an American holiday which is a feast of Thanksgiving, given in remembrance of the First Thanksgiving where the Pilgrims had a big feast to celebrate not starving to death though their first winter in America. It's traditionally celebrated with eating of turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie (traditionally "pilgrim food") and pictures of people who look like this:

Because Black, White, and Buckles were totally the style in 1620.

I'm not tackling Thanksgiving today (maybe a little closer to the actual holiday) but let's talk about the Pilgrims! Common ideas include:

1) They dressed.. well, like Pilgrims.

2) They landed at Plymouth Rock.

3) They can also be called "Puritans."


I'm afraid, as per the usual, we're 0 for 3 for actual facts in that list.

Friday, November 9, 2012


I apologize, but I've not written most of this post. 

Mostly because I've been dealing with an attack of the allergies that has left me a whimpering mass of red itchy welts.

It's more than mildly uncomfortable. Especially the backs of my ears.

But since in the US this was election week, I thought I'd share a quick video that has been one of my favorite history videos ever since I first saw it: Attack Ads, Circa 1800.

(And if the embedded video isn't working for you, the link in the title should take you right to the YouTube page proper.)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bonfire Bright

This one I suspect many (if not most) USians became familiar with the name Fawkes from the character in Harry Potter. I recall one English friend of mine being very surprised to discover that Bonfire Night isn't celebrated in the US. So for those of you who don't know what Bonfire Night is all about, here's a really quick, dirty, rundown:

In the early 1600s, Guy Fawkes was involved in what was called the Gunpowder Plot. It was basically a failed assassination plot to kill James I of England VI of Scotland (the guy who was King of England after Elisabeth I). He was caught on 5 November, and  people lit bonfires in celebration. The tradition continues to this day as Bonfire Night. 

There's a couple things I've heard about both the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes, that I'll tackle here:

1) Guy Fawkes was a lone conspirator. 

2) He piled barrels of gunpowder in the Parliament basement.

3) The gunpowder was old, so there was actually no danger. 

So are those true?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Pens In Space

Gotten from Tumblr. Source hidden to protect the guilty.

This is one that seems to be making the internet rounds lately. 

American astronauts actually started off using pencils when they first went into space. But they quickly realized that the higher oxygen content in the capsule make the highly flammable carbon in the graphite of the pencil even more... flammable. Which isn't really a good thing.

The tip of the pencils would also break off and float though the cabin. This was more than just a small hazard from potentially inhaling a small piece of sharp graphite -- the bits of pencil got into the equipment and caused shorts. 

NASA didn't actually invest any money into the Space Pen -- it was done by Paul C. Fisher, with his own money.* He was successful, creating the Fisher Space Pen used today by both the Americans and the Russians. ** He sold his pens to the Space Agencies for $2.95 apiece

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Apple Edge

I found this image everywhere, but never with a source. So if you know it, please send me info on who to credit!

This one is a little more recent than most of the things I've covered here. I don't want to date myself here, but when I was a kid Halloween was kind of the Biggest Day of the Year. Mostly because it was a holiday we could celebrate at school, and was thus exempt from the "no celebrating holidays" tradition at home. 

I never got to go trick or treating though, because there wasn't really much point in trying to do that through a school, and my parents were convinced that the candy being handed out to children were laced with things like razors and hypodermic needles. Every parent "knew" that it happened to a ton kinds just last year somewhere out there. 

Except it totally didn't. 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Vomeo, Vomere, Vomitum

This one isn't particularly complicated, but it's pretty prolific. 

The idea is that the ancient Romans, with their great love of feats, would have a room set aside so that guests could go and vomit what they've eaten, so they could resume feasting with a freshly emptied stomach. This room was supposedly called a "vomitorium."

Except, no, they didn't. And while Romans did have vomitoriums, they didn't actually have anything to do with vomit

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fe Lady

The Iron Maiden. Usually this brings up one of two mental images for most people. One's a band.

That's not the one this post is talking about. 

This is about this one:

This is one you'll hear a lot. Medieval Torture Instrument # 1. The Iron Maiden. 

There's only one problem. It's not medieval. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Apple and Tree

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1507)

This particular myth has been perpetuated in western art for centuries. That the narrative given in the Bible, the Qur'an, and the Torah says that the forbidden fruit was an apple. 

Do they say apple?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cleo Myths

Cleopatra is one of the most famous women in the historical record. Pretty much everyone recognizes her name, and is usually able to spout of some information they've heard about her. 

1) She was an Egyptian Queen.
2) She had two husbands/lovers -- Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony.
3) She was black.

Let's see... that's a quasi right, a nope, and a.... nope.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ages of Old

Georg von Rosen - Oden som vandringsman, 1886 (Odin, the Wanderer)

It seems to be a common belief that the current generation of people below the age of 20(ish) will be the first generation to live a shorter lifespan than their parents. It's often paired with the belief that every generation BEFORE this generation has lived a slightly longer time than the one before them (with a few exceptions due to massive wars).

So much so that I've heard people say that people died of old age in Ancient Egypt while in their mid-20s. And that you were "ancient" if you made it to 30. Now, obviously this can't be true for all of human history, or else people would have been dying of "old age" while they were still infants. [*]

But how much younger was "old age" back in "the day"?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Columbus is probably another one of those "American Continent  history people that get a lot less attention in Europe. Since "Columbus Day" was just yesterday in the US, I figured we'd tackle some Columbus myths. I'll admit that Columbus is a bit of a sore subject for me, (I don't think you'll find many people with even a fraction of a percentage of Amerindian decent singing his praises), so I'm not going to go on about what he actually did once he got here, these are just going to myths about his first trip.

1) He proved the earth was round, when everyone in his time thought it was flat.
2) His ships were named the "Nina," the "Pinta," and the "Santa Maria."
3) His trip was the only big thing to happen in 1492. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Medieval Food

When asked to list what foods people ate in the middle ages, most people think of huge feats of meat, bread, and copious amounts of alcohol. 

Something like this, really:

But when pressed for details, those details can get a little... odd. 

The most common "fact" to crop up was that people ate a lot of meat, but the meat was usually spoiled, but seasoned with a lot of spices so you couldn't taste it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Wooden Washington

One of the more common things I hear when people start talking about myths and George Washington is that they know that Washington didn't actually chop down a cherry tree, and then they  go on to inform me that Washington did have wooden teeth -- occasionally with the elaboration that the teeth were made from cherry wood, and thus the origin of the tree chopping myth. 

So did George Washington have wooden teeth, cherry or otherwise? 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Turkish Delight

This myth made me smile. And not only because it's about one of my favorite treats (if you're ever overcome with the desire to get me something, I'm particularly partial to rose, lemon, and bergamot flavors). 

The myth is quite simple: That C.W. Lewis invented a candy called "Turkish Delight" that later enterprising candy makers made into a real treat. Much like how one can find recipes for Butterbeer from the Harry Potter series today. 

Fortunately, the world did not have to wait until 1950 to enjoy the deliciousness that is Turkish Delight. Turkish Delight as we know it today was invented in 1777 by Bekir Effendi who owned a confectionery shop in Istanbul.[*] The family still owns the shop and it still makes Turkish Delight. The confectionery is called Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir Confectioners today (the link takes you to their website. I suggest you check it out!)

I suspect C.W. Lewis simply gets the credit (or the blame) because today it's not a common candy, so most people's first brush with it comes from reading about it in his novels or from watching the movies based on his novels. 

If you'd like to try to make it yourself, you can find a recipe to make Turkish Delight here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

It's like posting First! in comments...

George Washington, by Gilbert Stuart (mostly). 

Ask anyone who the first president of the US was, and they'll either look at you blankly and have no idea, or they'll tell you that the first president was George Washington. 

Ask them when his presidency started, and most people will tell you 1776.

... Unfortunately, that's a myth. George Washington didn't become president until 1789.

Yes, that means there's a 13 year gap between the kick-off of the Revolutionary War / American War of Independence and Washington's presidency. 

So what happened? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Ich Bin Ein Schmeckty

It's one of the few non-girlfriend related instances where the former US president JFK still gets ribbed -- his speech in Berlin on June 26, 1963.

It's said that in his speech he claimed to be a jelly doughnut. 

While I'm pretty sure we all know that he wasn't actually a jelly doughnut, did he actually make such a gaffe? 

Long story short, no. No he did not.

If you'd like the longer version, read on.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Spanish Flu

After the slog that was researching Custer myths last time, this one is going to be short and simple. 

You may be familiar with The Spanish Flu. Also known as The Great Influenza and/or La Grippe.

If you're not, I'll give you a very quick rundown:

The Spanish Flu was a highly contagious strain of Influenza (aka "the flu") that rampaged around the world starting around March 1918 and ending sometime June 1920. From Mid-1918 to late 1919, the United State's death toll was  675,000 people. [*] World wide estimates start at about 50 million fatalities world wide -- on the low end. [**] Higher estimates are closer to 100 million deaths.

But that's not the myth -- because it most certainly did happen. 

The myth is the name, the "Spanish Flu." 

You might have noticed from the dates that the flu coincided with World War I. This meant a lot of censors in the news media, and the countries involved in what was known then as The Great War didn't report anything about influenza epidemic. 

Spain was neutral in the war, and didn't censor its news. Thus, it was the only large European country reporting the outbreak. Since it was only appearing in Spanish papers, people assumed it was a Spanish disease. For the record, Spaniards  called it "The French Flu." [***]

Yep, they got the blame because they were honest. 

For the record, we still don't know for sure where the strain of influenza came from. The three most likely sources are China, Austria, and Kansas USA. [****]

Friday, September 14, 2012

Custer myths

Custer in 1875

This may be another mostly USian myth. For those who aren't inundated with tons of United States history, I'll give you some brief context.

George Armstrong Custer was in the US Army from 1862 though 1876. He died at what is called by the US government "The Battle of Little Big Horn", and what the LakotaCheyenne and Arapaho call "The Battle of the Greasy Grass." It's more popularly known as "Custer's Last Stand." 

There are a lot of myths about Custer. I'm not going to cover all of them, but some of the popular ones are: 

1) He was a general who was very popular with his troops.

2) The battle he died in was a trap sprung upon the US troops, after a heroic last stand.

3) There were no US troop survivors /  there was only one survivor and he was Custer's horse.

4) The Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Lakota refused to desecrate Custer's body because of their great respect for him. 

I'm afraid that's going to be a no, no, no, and a no.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mona Lisa Myths

It's arguably the most famous painting in the world. Leonardo da Vinci's painting Mona Lisa is instantly recognizable -- even people who have no interest in art can still identify it. 

For all of its fame though, (or perhaps because of it) there are a lot of myths about the Mona Lisa. I'm not going to list all of them (we'd never get done here!) but some of the main ones are:

1) The identity if the woman in the painting is unknown or is Leonardo in drag. 

2) Leonardo carried the painting with him for the whole of his painting career. 

3) The woman in the painting has no eyebrows or eyelashes because women in her time removed them for being "too sexual."

For the record, I never thought I'd have "eyebrows" and "sexual" together on this blog.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tall Tales of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is arguably the most famous of Henry VIII's wives. She's one of the few queens of England that most people can name who never reigned in her own right. 

When pressed most people can list a few things about her:

1) She was a wife of Henry VIII.

2) She had six fingers.

3) She had red hair.

4) She was executed for witchcraft. 

For once, they're not all wrong! Just... three out of the four. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Off With Their Heads

The guillotine. 

Most people know a handful of things about this particular device, mostly (I'm guessing) because of its shock value. It's not exactly something one encounters every day.

Most people are able to confidently tell you that: 

1)  It got its name from its inventor, Mr. Guillotine.

2) It's how the French killed people during the French Revolution, after which it fell out of used because of its Revolution connections. 

Well, zero out of two isn't too bad... 

Friday, August 31, 2012


Since this weekend is the Portland Pirate Festival, (which, oddly enough, isn't in Portland, but in St Helens), and Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming up on 19 September, today I'm going to tackle some pirate mythbeliefs. 

Because, you know, pirates

So here's some big ones: 

1) Pirates talked... piratey-like.

2) Pirates buried their treasure.

3) They had awesome black flags with skulls and stuff.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Richard III

For most people, England's King Richard III is a character in a play that was required reading (or viewing) in  High School. With his recent appearance in the news, suddenly Richard III references are popping out of the woodwork. 

From what I've seen (using an exhaustive search of during-my-morning-coffee on Twitter and Tumblr) most people seem to know three things about him.

1) Shakespeare wrote a play about him.

2) He was a hunchback.

3) He murdered at least one kid, possibly two, and they were either his sons or nephews.

Is it bad that I'm so excited that my list was as high as three things about a man who has been ignored for so long?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cagey Dresses

Just to give you a heads up, this Mythtory post is SUPER heavy on pictures. 

This is a picture that's been floating around the interwebs lately. It's usually claimed to be either a woman getting dressed for a party, or a rich woman preparing for her regular day, or sometimes she's a bride getting dressed for her wedding. 

So what is shown in this picture, really? 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Enstein's Math Fails

As a child I believed that math was the study of what, exactly, it takes to break the hearts, minds, and souls of children.

 It nearly killed me to get though Math 111 in University. Never have I studied so hard for a B... and I say that as someone who took a medieval French literature class in French. (In complete honesty, I'm not that bad at math, I just have severe text anxiety and all of my math classes were graded entirely via exam performance.)

So I always derived some comfort from the fact that Albert Einstein had also struggled in math at school. This was, in my young opinion, proof of how messed up the school curriculum of judging one's ability to do something in a high stress environment (and the dreaded "answer as many questions as you can in 5 minutes" mini-quiz torture). His failure was my validation that math as it was taught in school was utterly useless.

You can imagine my disappointment when I learned that Einstein had never actually had any problems with math in school.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Dirty History

Memegenerator has references to everything.

This is one that I've heard ever since I was little. People who lived before the Victorians were dirty. Except for maybe the Romans, but public baths are pretty dirty, so they were probably still dirty except for the rich. The Victorian rich revolutionized the world with their ideas of cleanliness, but it didn't really spread until the mid 1800s. 

Which means it should be simple to give the exact date of the invention of soap, right?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Curse of the Pharaohs

Canopic coffinette, from the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Thanks to having a honking huge amount of press, King Tut's one of the most famous people ever for being dead. He's really famous for two things. Lots of gold, and for having a cursed tomb that killed those who violated it. 

The story is that everyone who was present at the opening of Tut's tomb died shortly after, and usually in bizarre or freakish ways. 

Common additional examples given as proof of the curse are:

  • Carver's pet canary was eaten by the same kind of cobra as was sacred to the Egyptians.
  • The moment Lord Carnarvon  died, all the lights in the city of Cairo went out. 
  • Somewhere in the tomb was the curse: "Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh." 

So where the people who opened the tomb cursed?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Growing Though the Ages

Let's face it. Everybody knows that everyone who lived before us was shorter than the current generation. People get a little torn on if you ask them if we-the-living-right-now have maxed out on that height, or if the next generation to come is going to be even taller than we are, but pretty much everyone agrees that people who lived 100 years ago would be dwarfed by our current towering stature. 

We'll just have to use the late He Pingping (left) and the still-with-us Sultan Kosen (right) for an example of what it would look like if an average man today were to meet his great-great-great-great grandfather's grandfather. 

But it's obvious people before were shorter. Just look at their short little beds and low ceilings in their houses!

Sadly, such things lie. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Pontiff Ponderings

This one comes up pretty much any time someone finds out that I spent a lot of time studying the Medieval period when I was getting my degree. The conversation usually goes something along the lines of, "Oh, you studied Medieval church politics. Did they cover Pope Joan?" *smirk* *wink wink* You know, because we only studied *Catholic Church Approved* history at my... secular... state... university. 

For those of you who haven't heard of this one (it seems to be favored in the "I watch Game of Thrones so now I'm a Medievalist crowd" {no offense to the people who like Game of Thrones, but it's not exactly a shining example of Middle Ages accuracy}), Pope Joan is supposed to be a woman who managed to hide her sex and reign as Pope for a period of a little over 2 years. But she got pregnant and delivered a baby in the middle of a parade of some sort and then was stoned to death by the crowd. Or something like that, there are a few variations of the tale. 

The story often goes on to elaborate that the entire world has covered up her existence conspiracy-style because it would be embarrassing to the Catholic Church to admit her existence, so it's a secret known by a select few and the person I'm talking to just happen to be one of the few in the know. 


Friday, August 3, 2012

Mort Mortification

No source to protect the guilty. It's also all over Tumblr.

In case you can't read the text, it says:

"This is a grave from  the Victorian age when a fear of zombies and vampires was prevalent. This cage was intended to trap the undead just in case the corpse reanimated."

Is it?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ring around the noises

You all know the poem. 

Ring around the Rosie,
Pockets full of posy,
Ashes, Ashes, 
We all fall down. 

Or some version of it anyways. 

Pretty much every-time this rhyme comes up, someone points out that it's all about the Black Death. Or the Plague. Or something similarly quasi-disease related. 

Because children's rhymes are totally the best source of historical accuracy. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Shakespeare's pen

Cobbe Portrait of William Shakespeare

This one I don’t even. It’s come up a couple times and I’m still baffled every time it comes up. Most mythbeliefs I can kind of see the quasi-logic behind, but with this one I really can’t.

So what is this mythtory? That William Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays. Edward de Vere is the usual “true” author given when pressed for an alternate author, but I’ve seen other names tossed out as well, like Christopher Marlowe.

So did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Princess of the Powhatan

This particular Mythbelief is probably one that’s pretty much exclusive to USians, and possibly Canadians. Until the Disney movie came out, that is, then Pocahontas got a little more worldwide recognition.

 The story it pretty basic, and most people know a couple things about her:

1) She was an Indian Princess.
2) She saved her friend/lover John Smith’s life.
3) She brought the White People and the Indians together.

That can’t be too off base, right? 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Leaps of 1929

Panic of 1907, Outside U. S. Subtreasury building at Wall and Broad St. in October 1907

The Great Depression wasn't the first depression for the US economy, but it's certainly the best known. The most famous story is that on Black Tuesday, 29 October, 1929, that stock investors, realizing that they were financially ruined, threw themselves from their office windows down to the pavement below. 

I was taught in high school that when the stock investors realized that they'd lost so much money they'd never be able to get out of the debt, they jumped from the windows of their high office buildings 

It wasn't even 100 years ago, so how wrong could it be?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

War of the Panic

Artwork from the 1906 Belgian edition of The War of the Worlds by Henrique Alvim Corréa

Everyone knows that people who lived before now were stupid.  That’s why they couldn’t tell the difference between a real news program and the radio drama by Orson Welles, The War of the Worlds. Then everyone read about it in the newspapers the next day and realized how stupid they were – but felt better when they realized that everyone in the nation had panicked.

Really, how much of that is there to get wrong?

More than it would seem, apparently.