Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

Mythbuster Friday: Catching on Fire was the Number Two Cause of Death for Colonial Women

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Myth: In Colonial America, the leading cause of death in women was childbirth. And the second leading cause of death was burning to death from their long skirts catching on fire.

Truth:

It is common knowledge that women would wear long skirts, and several layers of them, in Colonial America. And it is true that one of their main duties as housewives was cooking by the open fire. These floor length skirts could conceivably fall into the open hearth and catch fire. There have been recorded cases of women dying because their clothes caught fire. However, this was not the norm, and definitely not the second leading cause of death for Colonial women.

This was the common skirt length for women of the 1700s

This was the common skirt length for women of the 1700s

First of all, women in the 1700s were used to wearing long skirts all year round, and also had practically spent their whole lives around open fires. If they caught fire as easily as the myth suggests, they would be used to it and so prepared to put out the fire. These women would also be used to avoiding the flames, having grown up in long skirts. The typical fabrics that were used in Colonial America were linen and wool, which naturally do not catch fire as easily as the man-made fibers used in today’s clothing. And these fabrics do not burst into flame, like the myth seems to imply, but rather only smolder. This myth definitely errs when it claims that one of the leading causes of death for colonial women was catching fire and burning to death. Some suggest that this claim perhaps came from Colonial reenactors, who may have substituted highly flammable fabrics for the more flame-resistant wool and linen.

The other aspect of the myth that is false is the claim that the leading cause of death for Colonial women was childbirth. Dying from childbirth was a lot more common in the 1700s than it is today, but the record has been exaggerated. Many women did die from giving birth in Colonial times, and this is almost unheard of today, due to modern medicine.  Because of this, many believe dying from childbirth was a much more common form of death than it was in reality. It was far from being the first cause of death for women.

The actual leading cause of death in the 1700s was disease. This was mostly due to lack of understanding of germs and sanitation. But disease was also spread because of environment and dietary deficiencies, especially with the early settlements. Everyone was in danger of catching a deadly disease to a certain extent, but Native Americans were extremely susceptible to the diseases brought by immigrants and many tribes were wiped out because of this. The main diseases that plagued Colonial America were smallpox, measles, influenza, scarlet fever, and yellow fever. Immunizations were almost unheard of in the 1700s and so many died from disease. In fact, whole cities were quarantined to prevent the spread of deadly sicknesses.

So while childbirth was a common cause of death for women in Colonial America, the leading cause of death for everyone, including women, was disease. And as for women burning to death on account of their petticoats, this death was nearly unheard of in the 1700s, and most definitely not the second most common cause of death.

References:

http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/winter08/stuff.cfm

https://historymyths.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/revisited-myth-2-burning-to-death-from-their-long-petticoats-catching-fire-was-the-leading-cause-of-death-for-colonial-american-women-after-childbirth/

http://www.earlyamerica.com/early-america-review/volume-11/early-american-epidemics/

http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-twoworlds/1689

http://www.understandingyourancestors.com/wea/death.aspx

Mary Miley Theobald, Death by Petticoat with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2012).

Photo Credit:

Colonial kitchen with woman spinning, an engraving, 1885, A Brief History of the United States by Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Baker Steele, 1885

“Le Bénédicité” by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, c. 1740

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