Hi dear friends,
By accident, I came across this piece that I had tucked away several years ago. I don’t know who wrote it or how true it is, but it certainly makes for fascinating reading!
Piss Poor: Where did the phrase “piss poor” come from? Long ago, urine was used to tan animal skins; so families all peed in a pot, and once a day it was taken and sold to the tannery. If you had to sell your urine to survive, you were “piss poor.”
Worse yet were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot. They “didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were the lowest of the low.
June Weddings: Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June. However, since they were starting to smell, brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.
Family Baths: Family baths began with one big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of bathing first, in nice clean water.
Then, one by one, all the other sons and men took their baths in this same water, followed by the women, and finally the children – last of all, the babies.
By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it. Hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!”
It’s Raining: Houses had thatched roofs (thick straw piled high, with no wood underneath to support it). It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (such as mice and bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained, the thatch became quite slippery, and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof; hence the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”
The Canopy Bed: There was also nothing to prevent creatures from falling right into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom, where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.
Dirt Poor: For most folks, the floor of the house was simply dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt; hence the expression, “dirt poor.”
Slippery Slate: The wealthy folks had floors made of slate, which would become slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on the floor to help them keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more and more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the doorway to hold back the thresh – in effect, a “threshold.”
Pease Porridge: In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and didn’t often have meat, so peas were a staple.
They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving the leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. So sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. From this comes the rhyme, “Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.”
Showing Off the Pork: Sometimes they could obtain pork, which was a real treat. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show it off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests, and everyone would sit around “chewing the fat.”
Poison Tomatoes: Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing death from lead poisoning. This happened most often with tomatoes; so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
Bread: Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top layer, the upper crust.
The Wake: Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The potentially lethal combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up: “holding a wake.”
Saved by the Bell: England is old and small, and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins, take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. However, when they reopened these old coffins, they found that 1 out of 25 coffins had scratch marks on the inside; and they began to realize that they had been burying people who were still alive.
So they began tying a string on the wrist of the corpse, leading it through the coffin and up through the ground, attached to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell. This way, someone might be “saved by the bell.” If not, that person was “a dead ringer.”
Now, wasn’t that interesting?
P.S. If anyone knows who I can attribute this to, please let me know and I’ll post it!
Love this post Sue, so fun to read. Thanks hugs Deany
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Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
Very interesting! Thank you for sharing.
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You’re welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it!
I don’t know how you do it! It must have taken ages to read up on all those old traditions. I really enjoyed all the content and the pics. I’m sure we’ve all heard these old sayings, but most times haven’t questioned from where they originated. I don’t think I knew the source of any of these, and certainly didn’t know that tomatoes served up om pewter were poisonous. I’ve often wondered why we say ‘It’s raining cats and dogs!’ Thanks Susannah, great post, I’m still grinning! 🙂
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Confession: someone else did the digging; I just repeated it. But it’s fun stuff, eh? Thanks for the note! 🙂
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I was in a house with a dirt floor one time, never forgot it. I remembered when I was there that had the thought that the family truly was “dirt poor”.
Shared this with my 9-yr-old to explain the nursery rhyme. All so interesting!
Thanks for your note, Wayfarer! It is interesting, isn’t it. I’m a word junkie, and I do love learning where words and phrases come from. It never gets dull. 🙂
When we visited Scotland years ago, I visited a historical sod hut on the Isle of Skye. It was hard to imagine anyone living in that tiny, dark space. Dirt poor is right!
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