WASHINGTON, DC – "People were shorter then." "This is a 'Chippendale,' chair, named after the furniture maker who designed it." "George Washington personally gave this set of china to this family." Chances are, if you have visited a museum or historic house, you have heard one of these statements or something very similar. The DAR Museum exhibition "Myth or Truth? Stories We've Heard About Early America," which runs from October 6, 2006 - March 31, 2007, examines these types of statements and the reliability of history through word-of-mouth.
Stories about historic events, people and things are told every day, and many of these tales either have little documentary basis or are outright fabrications. This exhibit investigates how true facts of history become "tweaked" in order to better entertain museum visitors, become exaggerated while being passed down through family history, or even become fictitious due to a small museum oversight.
A common myth perpetuated at many historic homes and museums is that firescreens were intended to prevent women's wax makeup from melting. Is that true? Some sayings have become so ingrained in our culture that we don't even realize that they have changed the way we talk about everyday objects like "grandfather clocks." What did our ancestors call them? And what about other early American songs or sayings? We have all used the phrase "Good night, sleep tight," or sung the songs "Yankee Doodle" or "Pop Goes the Weasel." Where did they come from and what do they really mean?
Stories told over the years can take on mythic proportions and in many cases the embellishments are what keep the story alive from generation to generation. Many people grew up learning that Betsy Ross was the designer of the first American Flag or hearing tales of Sybil Ludington's heroic ride through the night to warn of the British coming. While no evidence has been found that proves the authenticity of these stories, it is just as intriguing to think about how such stories originate and to understand that tales like these are embraced as part of American history along with the facts of the founding of our country.
Some early American myths prove to be so lasting that they even repeat themselves in the context of contemporary society. Marvel at the tiny waist of a 19th century corset and your guide may tell you "some women had their lowest ribs removed surgically to achieve the fashionably thin waist." It may almost sound believable to you because you "heard Cher did it!"
Using period texts, graphics and antique objects, the DAR Museum looks at popular stories about the early years of our country and tries to pin down the origins of some of our favorite "history lore." "Myth or Truth? Stories We've Heard About Early America" explores what has been said, what we know, and the theories behind the origins of the story. It displays evidence that supports or refutes common tales that have persisted for centuries. Visitors are given the opportunity to examine the facts and come to their own conclusions about frequently repeated stories that have developed into unquestioned pieces of American history. After leaving this exhibition, think about stories or phrases you hear today that might one day become a myth.