There is something about bare feet that seem to generate myths. We’re all familiar with health department myths, and athlete’s foot myths, and warts myths, and that feet are supposedly these fragile things.
But it’s been going on for a long time.
I came across an item in the September, 1857 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine:
OUR EARLY LEGISLATORS.—In the year 1784, the legislature of Pennsylvania, to abolish a practice then prevailing, passed the following resolution, after considerable opposition: “That hereafter no member shall come into the chamber barefooted, nor eat his bread and cheese on the steps of the Capitol.”
Okay. But where did the story come from?
We can go all the way back to the July 13, 1816 issue of Niles’ Weekly Register to find a much earlier version of the story:
BLUE LAWS. The “Blue Laws of Connecticut” have often been a source of merriment to the citizens of the present day. But it is not generally known, that some of the early acts of the legislature of Pennsylvania are equally queer. About the year 1683 or 1684, the legislature of Pennsylvania passed a resolution that “no member thereof should come to the house barefoot or eat his bread and cheese on the steps.”
Hmmm. Between 1816 and 1857 the date of this resolution aged about 100 years. In 1816 it is claimed that the resolution was passed in 1684 and in 1857, it’s dated as 1784. That’s suspicious right there, and indicative that it might just be a myth that just keeps getting passing along.
But there’s more. In 1817, the March 22 of Niles’ has a letter to the editor debunking it.
In the 10th vol. page 336, I observe the following—”about the year 1683, or 1684, the legislature of Pennsylvania passed a resolution, that no member thereof should come to the house barefoot, or eat his bread and cheese on the steps”—I know not where thee could have got the information, but believe it to be utterly false. I have their votes and proceedings from the first to the revolutionary war, and know it is not to be found in them; nor is it probable that there were steps to the house—the rent of it annually was only £10—a rent for 24 members, very moderate even in those happy days of simplicity and frugality.
Members of assembly had at that time six shillings per diem—in 1683, the house met at 7 o’clock in the morning, in 1690, at 6 o’clock in the morning, all present, and in 1693, at 5 o’clock in the morning—if some of the information I give is not wanted, it can do no injury and will be cheap.
The letter writer seemed to know what he was talking about. The letter continues to give other detailed information about how the legislature operated in the late-1600s/early-1700s.
Here’s the excuse of the editor:
I do not recollect where the article alluded to first appeared. It was copied from some other paper, after running through the United States uncontradicted; having been originally published in apposition to some of the “blue laws” of the New-England states.
Copied from some other paper. Gotten from a friend of a friend of a friend. Paging Jan Harold Brunvand . . .
In fact, we can see how this same story kept appearing again and again (with certain minor changes) by looking at newspapers from the 1800s.
Looking through a bunch of newspapers, I found the story multiple times. (Obviously, one newspaper copied it from another one, or the story was shared over some sort of wire service.) About the only thing that seemed to change was the date that the legislature supposedly passed the resolution. Here’s a table I made up showing what I found.
(First column is the date of the newspaper; second column is the claimed date of the resolution—”<100" is shorthand for the phrase "less than 100 years ago"; third column is the state the newspaper appeared in.)
It’s interesting to see how the story started out with 1684 (or around 1684/1685). At some point, somebody added 100 years to the date (to make it seem more contemporary?). Or maybe it was just a typo that so many picked up on. And then by the end of its life, the story just settled in on “less than 100 years ago”.
Other barefoot myths probably developed the same way. Something vague that may have some basis somewhere gets repeated, errors creep in, people make assumptions, and next thing you know, it becomes unquestioned “common knowledge”.
And here you thought “fake news” was something new.
[For those who don’t quite get the title of this blog entry, it’s a reference to “turtles all the way down”. The story goes:
William James, father of American psychology, tells of meeting an old lady who told him the Earth rested on the back of a huge turtle. “But, my dear lady”, Professor James asked, as politely as possible, “what holds up the turtle?” “Ah”, she said, “that’s easy. He is standing on the back of another turtle.” “Oh, I see”, said Professor James, still being polite. “But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?” “It’s no use, Professor”, said the old lady, realizing he was trying to lead her into a logical trap. “It’s turtles all the way down!”
It seems barefooters debunk one myth only to find it standing on yet another one.]