Myths and Museums
How many times have you been on a tour at a museum or historic site and heard that “people were shorter back then?” This has to be one of the most pervasive myths in the museum field. This one statement is used to explain why furniture is smaller, ceilings are lower and pant legs are short.
Sure it is “believable” and after all, if you hear it at a museum then it must be true, right?
Not always. Unfortunately this and other myths such as the closet and window tax myth have been passed down through generations of museum guides. It can be extremely difficult to set the record straight, but the first place to start is to look at the cause of these myths.
They usually happen for two main reasons:
1. Information that is generalized from one place to another. For example “It happened in England so it also happened in America.”
The window tax myth is an example of information being generalized from one place to another. The myth states that early houses have few windows because they were taxed. Or, because windows were taxed, some people had many windows to show off their wealth.
The truth is that there WAS a window tax in England from 1696-1851. In 1798 there was a property tax in America. It was in effect for one year. The assessor recorded land, dwellings, slaves and noted the number of windows. It was a property tax, but because the number of windows were noted, it may have been confused for a window tax.
There is no evidence that there was ever a window tax in the United States.
2. Observations of 21st century people who do not understand life in the 18th and 19th century.
The closet tax is a perfect example of modern people who just don’t “get” what life was like a century or two ago. The story is that because rooms were taxed, homes were built without closets so the tax would be lower.
The truth is that people living in the 18th and 19th century simply did not need closets. They owned fewer clothes than we do today, and what clothes they owned could be easily folded and placed in chests.
So how can these and many other myths like them be avoided?
· Question information—don’t believe everything that you hear.
· Thorough research using primary source material is imperative.
· Last but not least, always keep an open mind and adapt to new evidence if discovered.
Oh, and about that myth that “people were shorter back then.” The average height difference in men over the last 250 years is 2 inches, hardly enough to warrant such a blanket statement!
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