Myth # 138: Women in early America didn’t play the violin or flute because they would have to raise their arms, revealing their elbows.

History Myths Debunked

Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, England 1835 Woman playing violin: Lewis Walpole Library, Yale, England 1835

This well entrenched myth is trickier than I suspected, but when one digs into the details (“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say), it seems there is no evidence to back up the belief that the reason women and girls didn’t play the violin or flute was because they would have to raise their arms and reveal their elbows. This statement has long been made by historic interpreters and volunteer docents at Colonial Williamsburg and other historic sites and is found in some CW podcasts.

The idea that elbows were indecent seems to have no foundation. Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and an expert on 18th-c. costume, expressed surprise and dismay that this was still being said by CW interpreters. “Almost all gowns of the 18th century typically did cover women’s elbows, because that was the fashionable silhouette…

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