Since I led a walking tour in Cambridge today, I’ll offer only this short blog entry. Here’s a 2001 article from the Camden County [New Jersey] Historical Society on “Was Death by Fire Common in Colonial Kitchens?”:
The common belief that colonial women routinely died as a result of their clothes catching fire at the kitchen hearth is a myth, Clarissa Dillon, Ph.D., told a gathering at the Camden County Historical Society.Woolen and linen skirts don’t catch fire easily, unlike fabrics that became popular later. Mortality reports bear out Dillon’s statement that death because of accidental burning was uncommon.
Appearing before the Historical Society’s Mary Cooper Gardeners, the historian from Haverford, PA, said 18th-century women were essentially protected from fire by the very nature of the era’s homespun clothing.
I have a pet theory that the danger of open cooking fires was played up in the 19th century by people with a financial incentive to do so: stove manufacturers. But like so many pet theories, I don’t have any evidence to back it up.