Burning to death sounds gruesome, and there were some instances where women died of burns when their long skirts, or petticoats, came too close to the hearth 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. How did it 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.”
An interesting aside: 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.