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.
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.