I was recently allowed to borrow a recommended book from a friend. She thought I would enjoy it, given my interest in antebellum architecture. I’ve visited so many historic homes throughout the south that, after a while, the stories told by the docents and tour guides become somewhat repetitive. Others have ben conflicting and contradictory to true history. The exclusion of the enslaved narrative is a big pet peeve of mine, but another is exaggerated tales or “ghost stories.” Reality is often stranger than fiction and dipping into the supernatural or playing on false superstitions can be harmful to the efforts of public historians. Dark tourism has kept a lot of doors open for historic homes, like Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Other locations will be true to history, but add “ghost tours” after dark to draw a specific audience, like at Colonial Williamsburg. But, I digress.
The book she loaned to me is titled “Antebellum Myths and Folklore: A Search for the Truth” by Andrew and Greta Sharp of Mobile, Alabama. In their short book, they debunk some common myths regarding antebellum architectural design, backed by historians from Mobile, Vicksburg, and Natchez. Such things covered are the use of jib windows, exterior staircases, and the utter lack of closets within a historic home. For decades, tour guides and docents have sought to explain these features using the fallback excuse of property taxes. Sharps’ book goes into documenting the true reason for these features, citing tax records and cultural/social explanations, combined with primary sources.
Half of the book is dedicated to explaining the myths and untangling them, while the other half is taken up by the notes and bibliography, which I appreciate. The book is short. One can read it within a couple of hours, if uninterrupted, but that’s not an indicator of poor quality. The Sharps, one part accountant historian and the other part a liberal arts major, have enjoyed touring historic homes as much as I have, and their dedication to setting the record straight is admirable. I’d love to see more research from them in the coming years, and perhaps expand their focus to homes in the New Orleans area, Savannah, Atlanta, or Charleston. Many of the points they cover are things I’ve heard and often accepted during tours – taking for granted that everything that has been said by docents has been fact-checked by the historical foundations that hire them. I’ll be going in with a healthy dose of skepticism, thanks to this great contribution to public history.