Historical myths are all around us. In films, in books, in TV series, they’re repeated by our teachers in school. They breed all kinds of misinformation and misunderstandings through their propagation, and this in turn can lead to mistakes and errors.
Here are ten more common historical myths which have, for one reason or another, stood the test of time.
1). Santa has a red suit because of Coca Cola
I’ve heard this repeated on so many TV shows, I’ve lost count.
The popular image of Santa Claus as a jolly old man with white hair, a beard, a prominent weight-problem, and a red, white-fur-trimmed suit has been part of many peoples’ childhoods for generations, but despite what you might think – he’s not red because of Coca Cola!
Santa’s red suit came about because of Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist from the second half of the 1800s. Nast was responsible for creating, or popularising many cultural icons which we take for granted today – one of them is Santa Claus. He was the first illustrator to read the poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ and to draw Santa Claus as he was described in the poem. While the poem gives a description of Santa, it doesn’t say what colour his clothes are – it was Nast who put in the finishing touches and painted the suit red.
It was this image which Coca Cola used during its advertising campaigns, spreading Nast’s vision of a red-suited gift-giver around the world.
2). During the First World War, soldiers spent weeks in the trenches!
Actually, no. Although it’s true that the trenches were often unsanitary, flooded, crowded, cold and uncomfortable, most soldiers did not spend a great deal of time in them. Even back in the 1910s, the top brass knew that soldier morale had to be kept high, and that the best way to do this was to keep them clean, fed and dry. As a result, it was actually very common to rotate soldiers in and out of the trenches on a regular basis. In the space of a month, a soldier wouldn’t spend more than a week or two in the trenches, if that. And if they did, then most of that time was spent in reserve or support-trenches, further back from the front line.
3). During the Second World War, the Royal Navy considered making ships out of sawdust…and ice!
This one is actually true. A mixture of sawdust (or more precisely, wood-pulp) and ice called pycrete was proven to be substantially stronger than good old-fashioned solidified water. It didn’t melt as fast, it was virtually bulletproof, and it floated. Because of these characteristics, the Royal Navy considered making ships out of it, or perhaps aircraft-carriers, in order to save on precious steel during the war. Unfortunately, the logistics involved in actually producing industrial quantities of pycrete just didn’t make it practical, and the idea was scrapped as a result.
4). The Sandwich was invented by the Earl of Sandwich
A popular myth since the mid-1700s is that John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich invented the sandwich which we have today. Right?
Yes, and no.
Whether or not Montagu ever really invented the concept of the sandwich itself is up for debate. What isn’t disputed, however, is that he certainly gave his name to the meal. Mongatu, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was in charge of running the British Royal Navy, which basically meant that he was chained to his desk sorting through papers, forms, documents and letters from dawn until dusk. And whenever he could get away from his desk, he indulged in his one main vice: gambling!
In order to save time during his work-day, and to keep his hands relatively clean while playing cards, it is said that he ordered his valet to bring him meat encased within two slices of bread, and this became the basis for the sandwich which we have today. Although he may or may not have actually invented the concept of the ‘sandwich’, it’s certainly true that he gave his name to the idea of a filling between two slices of bread. By the second half of the 1700s, and increasingly by the early Victorian era, sandwiches had entered the English language as a simple snack made with two slices of bread.
5). Punishment in the Royal Navy was Exceptionally Harsh
Men of iron, ships of wood! That’s what they used to say, right? And what made these men so tough was the brutal discipline practiced on board the ships of his majesty’s navy. Right!?
Yes, and no.
While discipline on board ships of the Royal Navy might seem excessive by modern standards, in the 1700s and early 1800s, it was actually seen as being significantly less-so.
England in the 1600s and 1700s operated a legal system which became known as the ‘Bloody Code’. Between the late 1600s to the 1790s, over TWO HUNDRED laws were punishable by death by hanging. This included everything from murder, to stealing a handkerchief, and absolutely everything in between.
Even at the time, laws such as this were seen as being wildly excessive – juries would often deliberately convict defendants of lesser crimes, in order to spare them the noose, while government officials tried to find more ‘humane’ alternatives, such as penal transportation, or indentured servitude.
The same applied to the Royal Navy. At a time when you could be hanged in England for stealing goods of a value over 1/- (one shilling, or twelve pence), punishment in the Royal Navy generally consisted of flogging or whipping. This was because at sea, to kill a man over what was really a petty crime, was seen as wasteful and excessive.
The Articles of War, which governed the rules and regulations of the Royal Navy from the 17th century, up until the early 21st, were updated several times, most frequently during the 1700s, when outcries were made by the public over the severity of punishments which could be meted out by the navy.
While to modern eyes, the punishments meted out in the Royal Navy were harsh, given the climate of the era, they were not as severe as they might have been, and even back in the 1700s, people were campaigning for change.
6). It’s Possible to Overwind a Watch or Clock
This is a really common myth for anybody who collects, owns, or repairs antique clocks and watches. I don’t know where it comes from, but apparently, it’s a thing.
The myth is that it’s possible to wind up a watch or a clock so much that you break the mechanism and the watch or clock stops working, as a result. Usually, what happens is that someone winds up a clock and once they’ve done winding it, the mechanism stops working. This clock has now been ‘overwound’.
Not really. All that’s happened is that you wound up the clock, and the clock refuses to run. This isn’t because you broke it, it’s because the clock is so filthy and dirty inside that the gunk, dust and grime wedged between the gears is preventing the mainspring from unwinding and driving the gear-train. In a clean clock or watch, this wouldn’t be a problem, but on timepieces which haven’t been cleaned properly for a very long time, the accumulated dust jams the gears, and causes the watch to stop. Sometimes shaking the watch or clock will get it going again, but the only serious long-term repair is to have the mechanism entirely overhauled.
7). The word ‘FUCK’ comes from ‘Fornication under Consent of King’.
Sorry folks. There is 100% absolutely NO evidence to back this up, or indeed, any other acronym of the word, and there never has been. The word ‘Fuck’ dates back as far as the 13th century, first appearing in text in the 1270s, and increasingly throughout the 13-and-1400s, by which time it had already acquired the sexual connotations with which we’re familiar today.
8). Thomas Crapper invented the Toilet…and the word Crap!
…no, he didn’t.
Crapper was a plumber, that is true, but he didn’t invent the modern toilet. He did invent a variety of toiletry improvements, such as improved cisterns, flushing-mechanisms and so-forth, but he was not the originator of the toilet itself. That honour goes to Sir John Harrington, a 16th century Englishman, and godson of Queen Elizabeth. In fact, it’s because of Sir John Harrington that Americans still call a toilet ‘the John’…today!
But what about the word ‘crap’?
Crap comes from the Dutch word ‘Krappe’, meaning anything unwanted, cast off, and considered a waste product. It evolved into the two English words ‘Crap’, and ‘Chaff’, as in “to separate the wheat (useful stuff), from the chaff (the leftovers)”.
9). You Couldn’t own Alcohol during Prohibition
1920! National prohibition sweeps across the United States, leading to bathtub gin, bootlegging, and a surge in organised crime! But of course it would! Where else are people going to get booze!? After all, it’s illegal to drink now and you can’t own booze! Right?
It was illegal to practice the MANUFACTURING, TRANSPORT or SALE of alcohol. During Prohibition, at NO TIME was it actually ILLEGAL to DRINK, or even OWN alcohol! You could own as much booze as you could hold, so long as you bought it before 1920. And you could drink as much of it as you wanted! What the law prevented you from doing was BUYING MORE booze, once you’d depleted your stockpile. That is where the bootleggers made their money.
10 The Great Wall of China is called the Great Wall of China!
By you, probably, yeah.
But not by the Chinese.
At no point in Chinese history, except for the modern day (and even this wouldn’t be true), did the Chinese ever call the Great Wall of China…the…Great Wall of China! It absolutely never happened!
The term ‘Great Wall of China’ was actually invented by the first Europeans who visited China in the 1600s and 1700s, and first sighted the wall during their trips around what was then the imperial capital of Peking.
In Chinese, the wall is named ‘Wan Li Chang Cheng’, which literally translates as: “The Wall of 10,000 Li“.
Well, what’s a ‘Li’?
Before you ask, it does not mean that the wall was made by, for, or out of, 10,000 guys named Li.
A ‘Li’ was a Chinese unit of measurement (sometimes still used today), which was equivalent to 500 meters, or half a kilometer.
So there you have it!