The Tallest Tales in the American History Book

You don't have to go as far back as the ancient Greeks for a source of great myths. Instead, just open your nearest textbook.

Betsy Ross and the First Flag


Betsy Ross presenting the Old Glory by Walter Haskell Hinton (1950)

Despite what they say at the Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia, there's no evidence to support the story that the beloved seamstress sewed the first American flag. That tale was originally told 93 years after the alleged fact - by her grandson. Ross was, however, one of the few real people ever to top a Pez dispenser. So, there's that.

Penn's Treaty with the Indians


Penn's Treaty with the Indians, by Benjamin West (1771-1772)

Popularized by Benjamin West's 1771 painting, the image of William Penn peaceably inking a land agreement with American Indians is a comforting and iconically American one. And while the Pennsylvania founder did cut deals with the locals, there's no evidence he was ever actually on site when the 1683 treaty happened. Add to that the fact that the painting depicts an older Penn (he was only 38 when it occurred) and that clothing looks awfully modern for the time. Artistically licensed, yes. Historically accurate, no.

Davy Crockett and the Alamo


The Fall of the Alamo, by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk (1903)

Oh Davy, Davy Crockett. You're the embodiment of the American spirit, and it's easy to understand why. You were the king of the wild frontier and the subject of a catchy ditty, and you died fighting gallantly in the 13-day siege at the Alamo. Or not. There are varying accounts of how Crockett met his fate, and some (including the controversial diary of José Enrique de la Peña) state that Crockett and other volunteers were captured defending the former Spanish mission and later executed. But at least one thing remains absolutely certain: The coonskin cap is still an undeniable fashion faux pas.

Feminism and Bra Burning

The image of militant 1960s feminists ripping off their brassieres and setting them aflame is burned into many Americans' brains. Which is funny, because it never actually happened. What did happen was a protest opposing the 1968 Miss America Pageant. A small group of women got together and dumped assorted cosmetics, girdles, and high-heeled shoes into a flameless "freedom trash can." Cameras clicked. Famous photos were taken. Myths burned like wildfire. Bras, however, did not.

[Image: an unidentified member of the Women's Liberation Party drops a bra in the trash barrel in protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 7, 1968. From Berry College archive]

The article above, written by Lou Harry and Todd tobias, appeared in the Scatterbrained section of the September - October 2007 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

Don't forget to feed your brain by subscribing to the magazine and visiting mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog today for more!


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