Pick and Sledge

Curious Stories from the American West

100 Years Ago Today: Magic Rope Wards Off Rattlesnakes

Herald Democrat, February 20, 1919
Two campers, who look like they rode a bike attached to boat, think this horsehair rope will protect them from rattlesnakes.
Popular Mechanics Magazine, Jan 1919

Myth alert! It doesn’t matter what kind of rope you put around your campsite, bedroll, naptime knoll, or burrow, if a rattlesnake is headed toward a rope and it wants to cross it, the snake is probably going to slither right on over. Regardless of whether it’s made out of horsehair, cow hair, sisal, unicorn hair, or dragon heartstrings (shout out to my Harry Potter heads), most snakes are not afraid of ropes.

Mythbusters shakes out the truth about snakes

The rope-averse-snake myth likely originates from a few theories:

  • Theory: Snakes are afraid of horses, and they’ll be able to detect that the rope hair is from a horse.
  • Busted: Snakes use their tongues to capture smells, but even if they do recognize the smell of a horse, they also have excellent vision, so they can clearly see this rope is not a horse about to stomp them.
  • Theory: Snakes have soft underbellies, so they don’t like going over rough surfaces, and the coarse horsehair will deter them.
  • Busted: Snakes’ underbellies are not human baby butts. They’re fairly tough, what with crawling over cactus, sand, and rocks.
  • Theory: Snakes will think the rope is a rival snake, so they’ll avoid it.
  • Busted: Not every snake is a rival to a given snake. Ever see a rattlesnake den?
Image result for rattlesnake den

Regarding the use of the term tenderfoot in the article, according to journalist and American English scholar, H.L. Mencken, the American origin of the word resides with cowboys of the West, who used the term to describe a cow that was new on the range. I appreciate the imagery of a hot stepping calf who walks like my dogs do when I put booties on them.

Tenderfoot was then applied to anyone who was new to the West and therefore inexperienced in the outdoors. The term became especially popular with miners and those who were new to working underground. The Boy Scouts picked up on the term, making the Tenderfoot Rank one rank higher than Scout rank and one rank lower than Second Class.

Image result for tenderfoot boy scouts
Tenderfoot Rank Emblem, Boy Scouts

Here’s the original Popular Mechanics article about magic ropes, from the January 1919 issue:

Popular Mechanics, Jan 1919 issue

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