Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

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

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.


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.


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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Mythbuster Friday: “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater”

Myth: The phrase “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater” originated in colonial times, and it referred to the bathing practices of the time. In a household, the father would bathe first, then the mother, and then the children, oldest to youngest. Everyone would use the same water, thus by the time the baby got its bath, the water would be so filthy that there was danger of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”


Many quote this phrase when talking about bathing habits of the American colonists and assume that the phrase “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater” came from this time period. It is commonly believed that a typical colonial household would not bathe more than a few times every year. Thus, when the household did bathe, they would go in order of oldest to youngest, and eventually make the water so dirty that the baby could easily be lost in it.

It is true that indoor plumbing wasn’t even invented until the nineteenth century, and therefore, up until that time, people did not take baths very often. It was too much work to haul all the water up, heat it up, and then dump it at the end of the night. Because of this, American colonists most likely did not bathe more than twice a year. However, this does not mean that colonists did not wash themselves. Many households from this time period did have washbasins, as shown in their inventories. Colonists would therefore have taken sponge baths, and most likely have done so daily. It’s not that they did not care about cleanliness, but rather it was simply much more difficult to attain than it is for us today.

Murner.Nerrenbeschwerung.kindPerhaps people did bathe from oldest to youngest, like the myth states. However, it is unlikely that the water would be so dirty you could lose a baby in it.

The real problem with the myth, though, is that the phrase “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater” was around even earlier than the 1500s. The phrase was a common German proverb and used by many well known writers.  The earliest known reference to the phrase is in Thomas Murner’s Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools), which is dated 1512.  The phrase was also first used in English by Thomas Carlyle in his essay against the evil of slavery entitled Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question, from 1849. He used it to make the point that while we must get rid of slavery (the dirty bath water), we must not forget the wellbeing of the slaves (the baby) as we do so. After the late 1800s, the phrase was well known and commonly used.  Unfortunately for the myth, it is clear that the phrase “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater” did not originate from colonial times, and did not even originate from America.

So this myth does not have much truth to it, as neither the history of bathing nor the history of the phrase back it up. However, the myth does provide an amusing (though fictional) story, and reminds us how fortunate we are for the invention of indoor plumbing.


Photo Credit:

Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner, 1512

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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Mythbuster Friday: “The First Thanksgiving was in 1621 in Plymouth”

Myth: The First Thanksgiving in America was celebrated in Plymouth in 1621. It was a day of thanksgiving, celebrated by a feast between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. It is because of this we have the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

Truth: We all know the story behind the first Thanksgiving, right? The pilgrims were starving because they did not know how to plant crops or build shelter when they arrived. Thanksgiving-BrownscombeThe Indians, led by Squanto, saved the pilgrims by teaching them how to survive and how to successfully grow crops. By the fall of 1621, the pilgrims held a harvest feast, invited the Wampanoag Indians, and declared it a day of Thanksgiving.

This is a nice story, and one that has inspired the national holiday Thanksgiving, but it is not very accurate. For the pilgrims, a day of thanksgiving equaled a day of solemn prayer, not a feast with “non-believers.” The feast most likely did take place in 1621, but the first official day of thanksgiving declared by the pilgrims wasn’t until 1623.

Thanksgiving itself was only made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln many years later in the mid 19th century. Although there are some disputes about the accuracy of the reports of the 1621 feast, most people agree that the feast did happen and that it was the first Thanksgiving in America.

However, the first actual “Thanksgiving” feast was held in 1565. And it wasn’t the English pilgrims; instead it was the Spanish Catholic missionaries in St. Augustine, Florida. They celebrated a day of thanksgiving on September 8, 1565, the day they came ashore. Their head priest, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, offered a Catholic Mass, followed by a feast celebration shared between the Spanish settlers and the Timucua Indians. For Catholics, Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, a word that literally means “thanksgiving.” Years later, another group of Spanish settlers in Texas declared their own day of Thanksgiving on April 30, 1598. Therefore, the Spanish preceded the English pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts in declaring the first official Thanksgiving feast in America by over twenty years.


The Thanksgiving we all know in Plymouth is what we think of when we celebrate this holiday. But this feast barely resembled our well-established traditions, if at all. These traditions have been born over the years and did not originate from either the Pilgrims or the Spanish. For example, if we did get our traditions from the Spanish, we’d all be eating bean soup instead of turkey. Regardless of its origins, the “giving of thanks” has remained an integral symbol of the founding of this country, which is why we commemorate Thanksgiving Day as a national federal holiday each year.


Photo Credit:

“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

“A picture of the first mass said in St. Augustine, Florida,” unknown artist

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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Mythbuster Friday: “One if by Land, Two if by Sea”

MythPaul Revere rode his horse throughout Medford, Lexington, and Concord to warn the colonists crying “The British are coming!”   The patriots used the signal “One if by Land, Two if by Sea” by hanging lanterns in the Old North Church and this is how Revere knew how the British troops were planning to attack Concord.  He rode alone all throughout the night and made it all the way to Concord with his message.Paul_Reveres_Ride_BAH-p114

Truth:  We are all familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beloved poem, Paul Revere’s Ride.

He said to his friend, “If the British march

By land or sea from the town to-night,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–

One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Though this is an excellent poem that was created to instill patriotism in people on the verge of civil war, it unfortunately contains many errors that live on today.

Firstly, Revere was the one who arranged for the lantern signal.  The signal was by him, not for him.  It was to warn the people of Charlestown across the river, who the patriots were unsure of reaching in time.  Two lanterns were hung in the Old North Church, but this was two days before the famous ride.  The poem also states that there were dead bodies in the graveyard all around the church, but in reality there were no corpses there until after the Battle of Lexington.

J_S_Copley_-_Paul_RevereEveryone assumes that Revere was alone in his mission, that he was the only one who spread the alarm.  However, Williams Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott were two other patriots who joined him that night.

Another myth is that Paul Revere cried out “the British are coming!”  Everyone in the 18th century still considered themselves British; this was before the American Revolution began, so this makes sense.  It would not make sense for Revere to shout that “the British” were coming, so he most likely used the term “the Regulars” to describe the British troops.  However, it is also unlikely that he yelled at all.  We do know that Revere did make it to Lexington and successfully warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock, giving them enough time to escape the clutches of the British army.

The “midnight ride of Paul Revere” did not take place on one night.  It took a few days’ time from the night the lanterns were hung to the Battle of Lexington.  Also, contrary to Longfellow’s retelling, Revere only made it to Lexington, not Concord also.  After he warned Adams and Hancock, he and his companions were captured by the British patrol.  Prescott and Dawes escaped, but Revere was interrogated before he was released.  He returned to Lexington and witnessed a small part of the battle.

Though much of what is commonly believed about the famous ride of Paul Revere is false, we should remember that he and his companions did play an important role in the first stirrings of the American Revolution.  In fact, the Revolution began the very next day at Lexington with the “shot heard round the world.”

Read a letter from Paul Revere accounting his ride here.


Photo credits:

“Paul Revere’s ride” by Office of War Information – National Archives’ Pictures of the Revolutionary War — Beginnings in New England, 1775-76

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere in Montgomery’s The Beginner’s American History, 1904

John Singleton Copley, “Portrait of Paul Revere” 1768

Post by Anne Ciskanik

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The Clothes that Make the Colonists

There’s the saying, “it’s the clothes that makes the man”.  Today, we can assume learn a lot about a person from their outfit.  It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure that out.

The same goes with studying history.  There’s a lot to be learned about people judging from the clothes they wore.  However, there is one prominent hitch in this method.  During colonial times, which is the period we are concerned with, fabric is hard to come by.  It takes years of work to make a new petticoat.  Thus, clothes were worn until they could not be worn anymore.  Or, if they were outgrown, they were taken apart so the fabric could be reused.  Few every day outfits were preserved, therefore, for our study.  As Eliabeth Ewing wrote in “Everday Dress”, clothes “were refurbished, altered, given new trimmings of lace, ribbon, frilling, brought to date, eventually cut down to for a smaller member of the family”.  Because of this, museums tend to have only fancy attire (worn maybe twice a year) and baby clothes (too small to be reused and not worn as hard) to exhibit.  The problem with studying the fancy attire is that they are fashion based.  Ewing explained that fashion was used to create a certain kind of image and reap attention.  However, clothes are what is “worn by the man or woman in the street”.  A modern example.  We have fashion trends, such as high-waisted shorts or beanies, but we wouldn’t wear a Versace gown to the mall.

Baby clothes tell us a bit more.  The colonists swaddled their infants, in the hopes of making them grow straight.  Also, the tight swaddling clothes made squirming impossible, turning the child into “a neat manageable bundle that could be hung on a peg on the wall out of harm’s way” (Kidwell & Steele, Dressing the Part).  As they are learning to walk, they would often wear puddings, which were hats made to cushion their heads should they fall.  Children also had leading strings attached to their dresses.  The strings were used for walking lessons and as leashes to grab them if they wandered too far. Both genders wore dresses.  Claudia Kidwell and Valerie Steele wrote:  “The 18th century child was not generally thought of as having a personality, much less a gender”.  Indeed, it was a very big moment when sons graduated to breeches, a time determined by their mothers.

 Luckily, we do have enough information to gain a myriad of insights into the every day outfits of the thirteen colonies.  People in cities could buy clothes from tailors.  However, those living in the countryside, such as our own Chadds and Barns families, relied more on peddlers and travelling salesmen.  As each colony had their own currency, those peddlers and salesmen often operated on a barter system.  Another method of buying clothes is the secondhand market, which really grew by the 17th century.  It was cheap, resourceful, and not only used by the poor.  It became that well-off people would pass on unwanted clothes to their servants, who preferred to sell rather than wear them.  

We also know some things regarding fashion.  Around 1790, simpler clothes were vogue.  Petticoats were very minimal.  Muslin, which are light, were preferred.  Shawls came into fashion.  And men’s formal attire came to be more evocative of country clothes.  Part of that shift in fashion can be attributed to national prejudices.  Fancy attire came to be associated with the outrageous lavishness of the French court under the Sun King, Louis XIV.  Hoping to move away from that association, colonists started to prefer the image of a country gentleman as ideal.  However, around the 1820s, entering into the Victorian Age, fashion became elaborate once more.  “It was gradually becoming fuller-skirted, with puff sleeves reappearing and increasing in size, corsets becoming once again formidable figure-controllers, waists nearing their natural place” (Ewing).  Just like today, fashion is ever changing.  


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The Other September 11: the Battle of Brandywine

On September 11, 2001, the world witnessed the tragic events that unfolded in New York City’s skyline. However, 224 years ago, a different scene was playing out in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. 

British general William Howe came down with his army from New York and met General George Washington’s at Chadds Ford. However, before contact was made, Howe sent a strong portion of his men to sneak up on the colonists from the side.  That division took a roundabout route, crossed the Brandywine Creek, and then came down from the north.  One scout ran to warn Washington about the other attack, but he was ignored.  Two more scouts came, and Washington readjusted his plans to suit the two side force.  However, the redcoats won out. Washington’s forces retreated under the direction of Lafayette, one of the most famous generals to come out of the Revolutionary War and after which Lafayette College was named.  

Soon after the battle, the British marched to and occupied Philadelphia, which had recently been deserted by the Continental Congress.  Washington’s forces proceeded to winter at Valley Forge.  

The Battle of Brandywine claims three big names:  Howe, Washington, and Lafayette.  It also claims two well known Revolutionary War events:  the occupation of Philadelphia and the wintering at Valley Forge. 

However, for those of us at the Chadds Ford Historical Society, we have a more personal connection with the Battle of Brandywine. 

For example, Jacob Ritter, a Bucks County resident, was one of the soldiers who stood in that battle.  He heard Washington’s order to retreat and hid, but was captured by the Hessian soldiers under Howe’s command the next day.  He was then taken to be a prisoner in Philadelphia. Eventually, he became a Quaker minister, partially due to his traumatic experiences during the war.  

Along the same strain, the Battle of Brandywine was fought near a Quaker meeting house, which was in use that day.  Their records mark that they could hear the sounds of battle from outside, but “all was quiet and peaceful within”.  

Elizabeth Chadds, of our John Chadds House, could also hear the din of war.  The sixty seven year old widow hid her silver spoons in her pocket as a precaution.  She never filed a property damage claim with the Continental Congress.  In fact, in Chadds Ford, only forty seven claims, less than nine percent of the population, were filed.  However, that could have arisen from her Quaker beliefs rather than lack of damage.  Quakers, as pacifists, would’ve hesitated to try to gain money from the war. We do know, however, that no civilians were killed during the battle. 

Happy fourth of July, everyone! 

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Just a little add-on

Forgive the cliche, but pictures really are worth a thousand words.  My last post about colonial herbs was hopefully informative and helpful, but y’all would be better served if the facts came with some photographs.

So here they are!

Calendula the calendula

Chives chives

Creeping Thyme creeping thyme


Lettuce lettuce

Mint mint

Spade & Trowel Garden Club of KS a tribute to our wonderful founders, the Spade and Trowel Garden Club of Kennett Square!


Those photographs are all of our lovely garden at the Barns-Brinton House.  Mrs. Elizabeth Barns and her only daughter, also named Elizabeth, would’ve grown a garden very similar when they were still alive and used the results for various purposes, including food and medicine.

Of course, if you haven’t seen my tidbit on Herbs of Colonial America, please do check it out.  And definitely definitely definitely come see our Barns-Brinton House (Sundays and Saturdays, 1-5) to see the herb garden in person!


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Revoking Vows: A Glimpse at Marriage and Divorce in colonial Pennsylvania

“Husbands explained their arguments with logic and patience, and wives attempted to persuade their husbands by good examples and moral certainties, but submitted to their requests if they could not.” 

So wrote Dr. Merril Smith, formerly a history professor at Temple University, regarding marriage expectations during the very first years of American colonization.  However, as ideas began to change and the threat of a war against Mother England loomed, so did approaches to marriage.  

The traditional way held its ground in the face of rapid changes.  Love was seen as a result of years of marriage, not a factor in choosing a spouse.  Husbands must act with love and gentleness towards their wives, but ultimately they were the leaders of families.  Wives should guide their husbands by their virtue and grace, while submitting to the men’s decisions.  Of course, certain societal mores act as inhibitors on the husbands’ power.  Neighbors and family members often became involved when a marriage grew physically abusive, sometimes by interfering directly or acting as witnesses in courts.  For example, neighbor John Lewis once had to restrain John Evans from kicking and beating Evans’s wife, Sarah.  

However, flaws in this traditional approach soon arose.  Since the men were the heads of the family, they had ultimate say over all matters, including management of finances.  However, in poor families, the women often worked as well, leading some wives to want a say in budgets.  Many husbands also wasted money on alcohol, impoverishing his family.  In other cases, it might simply be that the wife could do a better job.  

Aided by revolutionary propaganda, a second viewpoint gained popularity.  The Quakers have always seen marriage as a partnership of equals, and the Revolution encouraged the same thinking.  The choosing of one’s own spouse is a statement against tyranny and a fight for individual liberty.  An advice column in 1774 advised a woman, who found herself having to choose between two suitors, to marry the man she loves, as long as he is financially sufficient.  Here, one sees a growing emphasis on personal feelings, but only as long as he can provide.  It seems that pass a certain threshold, the importance of wealth gave significant ground to affection.  

During the late 18th and early 19th century, both views of marriage often came to head, especially when one spouse holds one mindset and the other believes the other mindset.  In those cases, the two must learn to live together, compromise their values, and work as one despite their competing ways of thinking.  While divorce was available, it was uncommon.  Many, when in an unhappy marriage, either gritted their teeth and bore it or simply abandoned their spouses.  In colonial America, it was much easier for men to desert their wives, as they had more means and were less noticeable traveling alone.  However, some women did manage to find help with family members.  After a wife deserts her husband, he may, as many husbands did, put a notice in the newspapers.  The notice served two functions.  One:  it was a way for him to portray himself as the blameless victim.  Second, it told the world that he no longer had any duties to maintain her.  She had left him.  She chose to give up on his support, both legally and financially.  He was free from any obligations to her.  

Yet many did sue for divorce.  236 women and 131 men filed for divorce before the Supreme Court from 1785 to 1815.  The majority of men (64%) cited adultery as grounds for divorce, no doubt influenced by the Great Awakening’s championship of the ideal “passionless” wife.  The higher rates of wives is surprising since divorce was riskier for women.  There was always the danger that if a woman lost her divorce case, that her husband would either refuse to take her back or mistreat her even more than before the case.  Even if she did win, a woman’s societal status would be diminished greatly by divorce.  She would be an outcast.  She would have less of a chance to remarry.  She would have fewer resources to support herself and any children who may be dependent on her.  Therefore, the bed and board divorce may be a better option for some.  The bed and board divorce provided the wife with alimony, while a full separation would not.  However, it would also inhibit her from remarrying.  

Of course, we still have these issues today in marriage.  Who has the final say on budgeting?  If marriage is a partnership, what happens when the partners can’t agree?  What are the pros and cons of obtaining a divorce?  That’s one advantage of studying history.  You learn that there have been hundreds of men like your husband.  

All information comes from Merril D. Smith’s “Breaking the Bonds” (1991).