Friday, June 3, 2011

More Myths told by Tour Guides

Your's truly, with
family from Spain
on a Boston Duck Tour.
Yes, really!  I did this.
(and it's good they don't
speak much English!) 
This is a continuing series of blog posts for me, and one of my pet peeves. I really don’t need a tour guide to take me around Boston anymore, but I often take guests on tours of historical sites, and I’m shocked at some of the stories I hear. Fascinating myths and authoritative, fanciful facts appear to be great entertainment when tour guides pull them out of thin air. And they are repeated everywhere in New England.  Here are a few more myths I heard this past year:

Low ceilings were installed in old houses because people were short

(This is also heard in reference to antique beds in museums and historic houses)  This was debunked for me when a museum docent actually pulled out a yard stick and measured a short-looking bed, and it measured slightly longer than a modern queen sized mattress. Bed hangings and the height of the beds make them look short, which is an optical illusion.

Records show that soldiers in the American Revolution were only 1 inch shorter than draftees in World War II.  Not enough difference to really matter, is it?  And low ceilings in places like Paul Revere’s house (in Boston’s North End) or the House of Seven Gables (in Salem, Massachusetts) were designed to keep the rooms warm.


There were no closets in homes because people were taxed on doors.

Closets were any small room used for privacy in the 17th century, for reading or viewing a personal work of art. i.e. Cabinet. They were available in the 17th century, but rare. It was easier to just hang clothes on hooks or store them in trunks during this time period.

There was a tax on doors and windows which spurred on the French Revolution- but that was France, not New England. Actually, there was an English tax on windows levied in 1697 by William III, which included the colonies, and it wasn’t repealed until 1852. (See the Encyclopedia Britanicca, 1911 “Window Tax”)


Pineapples were symbols of hospitality, stuck on fence posts or over doorways by sea captains to signal that they had arrived home safely from the tropics and were now entertaining guests”

from  “English called the fruit a “pine-apple,” a word heretofore interchangeable with “pine-cone,” because it resembled the pinecones they knew. The pinecone had strong and ancient ties to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine—Bacchus to the Romans—who carried a thyrsus, a staff entwined with grape vines and topped by a pinecone. That association relates to the use of pine resin in wine making. Since classical times, the pinecone has symbolized fertility and regeneration and has been used as a decorative motif. It is the pinecone that the colonists were using in their decorative arts, evoking the classical symbolism that they, educated in the classics, would have understood well. Amateur historian Melvin Fulks, who has spent decades gathering information about origins of pineapple/pinecone symbolism, says that the earliest incidence of the pineapple-as-hospitality story he has found is in a 1935 book about Hawaii.”

The pineapple was used in carvings, but colonists never actually stuck the fruit on their fence posts. Such a valuable, imported food would have been eaten, not used for decoration. Sorry, Martha Stewart!


Boston Streets were former cowpaths

The windy, confusing streets of Boston are laid out that way because “they are colonial era cowpaths.” I hear this all the time, especially when the tour busses are stuck in traffic. Or when your taxi is late. This is nonsense. Cows weren’t allowed to run willy-nilly throughout the village or town of Boston. The Puritan settlers set up a very handy common just for the purpose of grazing milk cows.

So why are the streets so narrow and crooked? It could be due to natural trails used by Native Americans before European contact. It could be because of natural obstacles, such as marshland, brooks, etc. back when Boston was a soggy peninsula. But the cows did not lay out the street designs. There is, however, some evidence that High Street was previously called “Cow Lane” on old maps.


For more information: An article from Colonial Williamsburg about myths told in museums and historical homes  The truth about Boston Cow Paths

Previous blog posts about tour guides and their myths:

and some good lobster myths repeated on tours:


Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Heather,

    Great stuff really :) Thanks for clarifying.

  2. Amazing how all these stories take on a life of their own are taken as fact.