Revisited Myth # 105: Colonial women dipped their hems in water when they worked around fires to keep their skirts from catching fire.

kit_woman

Reenactors tell me they get this question all the time. As the women work around the campfire, on-lookers ask whether their hems are wet. Costumed interpreters also hear this question as they work in kitchens. It’s related to the myth about burning being the most common cause of death for women in “the olden days” because of their long skirts catching fire (see Myth #2).

800px-French_and_Indian_War_reenactment

Generally speaking, only formal wear was worn so long that hems skimmed the ground. While skirt length in America has varied throughout the past four centuries according to fashion, working women (which is to say, most women) were more likely to wear skirts that were several inches above the ground. Even then, they might hike up the hem and tuck it in their waist to get the skirt out of the way. “During much of the eighteenth century,” writes textile curator Linda Baumgarten, “women’s skirts were long and the sleeves covered the elbows; yet a woman would readily push up her sleeves and hike up her petticoats while doing laundry or working in the dairy, and, when fashion dictated it, women would shorten their skirts to the ankles, as many did in the 1780s.”

Another point worth noting, as many reenactors have discovered from personal experience, is that natural fabrics that are common in historically accurate clothing–wool and linen–don’t burst into flame when they come into contact with fire. They smolder.

Just for fun, here’s an old poem (1568) by Sir Philip Sidney that mentions young women hiking up skirts to play sports!

"A time there is for all, my mother often sayes, When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes." --Sir Philip Sidney, 1568

“A time there is for all, my mother often sayes, When she with skirts tuckt very hie, with gyrles at stoolball playes.” –Sir Philip Sidney, 1568

PREVIOUS COMMENTS:

Elizabeth (@leezechka) says:

February 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm (Edit)
Linen can still burn though it does not light up like cotton, wool has amazing fire resistant properties, which also is why it works well for military uniforms, which can easily come into contact with sparks and flames from guns and cannons.

Reply
Caroline Clemmons says:
February 4, 2013 at 10:35 pm (Edit)
Very interesting, and your point about fabrics hit home. Nylon melts to the skin. Sometimes, old ways were best. Not that I’d ever want to cook over an open fire. I prefer modern conveniences.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:55 am (Edit)
Amen, Sister! I’ll take mod-cons every day.

Reply
madamepdg says:
February 5, 2013 at 1:36 am (Edit)
A reblogué ceci sur La médiathèque de la Compagnie des Cent Associes and commented:
Un blog intéressant sur les “mythes historiques”. A suivre.

Reply
Beth says:
February 5, 2013 at 9:24 am (Edit)
Love the poem!

Reply
Petticoat Burns « Kitty Calash says:
February 5, 2013 at 6:47 pm (Edit)
[…] on an English site catering to reenactors. There’s a variation I’d never heard, about wetting petticoat hems to keep them from engulfing the wearer in flames. (OK, mild exaggeration: to keep the petticoat from igniting fully, thus… hat tip to Back […]

Reply
Pam says:
April 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm (Edit)
I have my doubts that it is a true “myth”. It seems like such common sense to me to wet long skirt hems when working near a fire. How would anyone now really know how each individual person would handle this?

Reply
Mary Miley says:
January 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm (Edit)
The Voice of Experience:
Alena who works in costume wrote me,

“Hi Mary,

I am a long-time reenactor who recently started working at a museum, and since starting I have twice heard about women wetting the bottom few inches of their skirts so they would not catch fire while cooking on the hearth. I believe this to be a myth for two reasons. One, as you know, skirts made of natural fibers don’t catch fire all that easily. I have stood too close to the cook-fire in my wool skirts, I got a scorch hole in my skirt, but no flames, I promise. The other reason I can not imagine this is true is the weight that a couple of inches of water add to a skirt. When reenacting outdoors we inevitably run into wet weather, and once the bottom few inches of our skirts soak up the moisture they get so heavy, they stick to the ankles and ultimately become harder to control. None of us would ever willingly soak our skirts then work over the fire. That would make hard work even harder!

Thanks, Alena

 

 

 

3 Responses to Revisited Myth # 105: Colonial women dipped their hems in water when they worked around fires to keep their skirts from catching fire.

  1. kris fox brown says:

    When I worked at the CW Apothecary for many years, I was always careful not to make “absolute” statements. There is no way of knowing what the BIGGEST CAUSE OF DEATH WAS. I researched many home remedy books from the 18th century and found that there were an abundance of burn ointments listed in these books, but was always careful not to say that BURNS and DEATH from FIRE were the biggest problem. One always has to be very careful about their wording and phrasing. Thanks, Mary for the info!!

    Kris Fox Brown (formerly Kris Dippre)

    • Mary Miley says:

      You are so right about avoiding absolute statements! One thing I learned 35 years ago, when I was starting to write for Colonial Williamsburg, was to shun words like NEVER and ALWAYS and to be very precise when using words like SOME, MOST, MANY, and OFTEN.

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