Revisited Myth #2: Burning to death from their long petticoats catching fire was the leading cause of death for colonial American women, after childbirth.

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Burning to death sounds gruesome, and there were certainly some instances where women died of burns when their long skirts, or petticoats, came too close to fire. And by today’s standards, childbirth did take a shocking toll on women right up until the twentieth century.

      But historians who have studied death records from the first couple centuries of American history have determined that the leading cause of death for both men and women during this era was disease. The Death by Petticoat myth is a huge exaggeration (although it certainly made a great title for my book!) How did the myth come about? DAR Curator Alden O’Brien speculates that “the horrific nature of the accident may have made the rare incidents more famous and memorable, making them stick in people’s minds and seeming more common.” 

     Julie H. who works at a living history museum in the Valley of Virginia points to a possible origin of this myth, “a page in an 1850s Godey’s Lady Book magazine, telling ladies to be careful around fires. The sheer cotton dress became all the rage in the 1850s, and was worn by non-working-class people (i.e., women who had a servant or slave tending the fire for them since a young age). Godey’s warns that some young ladies burned to death, because they got their sheer cottons too close to the fire, and it caught. They didn’t seem to know Stop, Drop, & Roll at the time, so as the ladies threw open the door to run outside, the gust of air that greeted them fed the fire its much needed oxygen, and made the lady go up in flame more quickly.”       

    Several readers wrote to say that their great-great grandmother or some ancestor burned to death when her clothing caught fire. No one doubts this happened. Men and children also died when their clothing caught fire; sometimes the burn was relatively minor but the infection killed them (pre-penicillin). Often such incidents involved alcohol. Julie H. wrote, “Our museum did some research on death-by-petticoats, and found a few instances of women catching on fire and dying. Two of the women were drunk and fighting each other. Another came home drunk and passed out in the fire. Visitors liked the truth more than the myth!”     

     Skirts made of natural fibers (linen, cotton, wool) do not catch fire that easily. Several readers who work in costume around hearth fires or candles wrote of occasions when a hem or sleeve came too close to a flame and the fabric smoldered or became singed. Their clothing did not burst into flame, as some man-made fabrics today do. In the 1970s when polyester became widely available, many museums began using these cheaper, “improved” fabrics for their historical costumes. They soon switched back. Polyester brought several unexpected problems, one of which was its tendency to melt or burn very quickly when it came into contact with candle flame, hearth fires, or camp fires. Traditional fabrics–cotton, linen, and wool–do not easily burst into flame, which is probably why there were not more instances of death by petticoat.

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     What about the other claim–that childbirth was the leading cause of death for women? Poor records make it difficult to quantify deaths in childbirth. A recent study of 17th-century Plymouth (Catherine Scholten, Childbearing in American Society 1650-1850) says fewer than 20% of women died in childbirth. (NB: that is not 20% of births killed the mother–a woman might, like Martha Jefferson, have 6 children and die after the 6th). The author also mentions Maine midwife Martha Ballard who, from 1778-1812, wrote in her diary that she delivered 996 babies and lost 4 mothers. The Rev. Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, tracked childbirth deaths from 1760-1764 and found that 900 women had 1600 babies during those years and 10 women died. These are all snapshots, of course, but they do suggest that women were not dying in childbirth at rates that would have made it the leading cause of death. 

 Conclusion: disease was the leading cause of death for women in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, not burning petticoats or childbirth. 

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12 Responses to Revisited Myth #2: Burning to death from their long petticoats catching fire was the leading cause of death for colonial American women, after childbirth.

  1. jimrada says:

    Interesting article, although I had never heard of this belief before.

  2. Statistics can be misleading. We don’t know, for example, if midwife Ballard followed her
    patients for two weeks to check for puerperal fever. She may or may not have washed her hands,
    unlike the doctors at big city hospitals like Vienna, where mortality reached 40% of childbirths
    at certain times before the development of antisepsis. She probably had much better success!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_mortality_rates_of_puerperal_fever

    • Cassidy says:

      From reading A Midwife’s Tale, it does sound like she was present in her mothers’ lives for some time after the birth. Plus, they were all relatively local to her, and she would have heard about their deaths.

  3. janice says:

    i wonder how that compares to how many babies died when being born. this is quite interesting esp. compared to the response from friendsoffortcasimir.

  4. Dori says:

    At least one of the mothers in A Midwife’s Tale died from symptoms very closely resembling puerperal fever. I’m wondering the same thing about secondary infections, but weren’t those often known collectively as “childbed fever” and might have been counted the same as a mother who died sooner? I dunno…

  5. Katherine Louise says:

    Thank you for starting over from the beginning! Once upon a time I worked in costume at Plimoth Plantation–natural wool outer skirts will singe or smoulder, but not burst into flames, nor will good linen. This may have something to do with the density of the woven fibers?

  6. Ted T. Edgar says:

    People like a simple story that has a easy conclusion. Especially one that makes their ancestors out to be heroes and their own lives as being magical.

    Unfortunately, there also is a disconnect from what is said & what is heard as well. When one is on vacation and in a new place with different smells and many things to see you are distracted. Tours are not lecture halls and no one is expecting a test at the end. So you must when working in a museum remember only a portion of what you say is heard and less remembered. So the gruesome, weird or disgusting things stick. Its human nature. So if you say, Women faced more risk in their lives then the average man. Both worked near animals and tools; both a major source of severe injuries and they generally were around sick children most of the day. But they also had a better chance of being a victim of crime (rape, etc), fire threats: scalded or burnt or getting an infection from 18th C. child-birthing non-sterile procedures and the ultimately ignorance of the female body and its workings by doctors of the day. Its heard & later processed as All women died of burns or childbirth.

    I think we can also blame the over played “Witch-burnings” and Dr. Rush’s quote that 20% of all children died by 10 and 40% by age 28. Seriously, would anyone go back to a doctor with that sucess rate???

    I think the percentages stated in the article could be a touch low (as stated they are based on only a few period statements) but to far off the mark. You can look at 3rd World numbers today to compare.

    Much like 18th Century Europe/America many of these places make women second rate in the eyes of the law or just property. There is willful ignorance of women’s rights and health issues. Lack of vaccinations and proper diet and medicines.

    Of course in the 18th Century there wasn’t Doctors without Borders, the UN or foreign aid.

    Great article! Enjoyed reading it!

  7. Mark M says:

    No, petticoats or crinolines were not the leading cause of death – but, like anything, they could be hazardous under certain circumstances. The Penny Newsman, another history blog, has a collection of a number of news articles from the year 1861 about accidents and injuries involving crinolines.

    http://diarmidmogg.tumblr.com/post/15563631531/a-chronology-of-crinoline-tragedies-from-1861

  8. Bess says:

    Um, having experienced a linen skirt ignite when I was cooking over a Tudor brick stove burning charcoal, I would argue about linen not easily catching fire. There is a reason why linen pieces are in a flint kit to start a fire! It can go up VERY quickly. A tiny drop of ash with a spark in it caught on my linen (thick, heavy textured linen) and ignited quickly. Seeing flames licking up one’s skirt is not a nice experience. I was lucky and put it out quickly with no injury to myself, but I lost a 9inch x 2 inch length of hem.

    Wool is the best fibre to be wearing when cooking around open fires. It just smoulders and doesn’t ignite.

  9. Jane B. says:

    I’ve set my cotton skirt on fire once, when hearth cooking. Fortunately, I always wear a wool petticoat, so just used it to smother the fire. I know several women who have accidentally set a skirt on fire, while doing living history, but put it out immediately. I suspect this was the standard case.

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