J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Myth of Women Burning Themselves Up

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.

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.
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.

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.


Brett said...

I am less suspicious of the stove makers and think it was more likely a motherly warning story used to make sure kids were careful around the fire. 'You might burn to death' sounds more like something to grab your attention then 'Careful, your clothes may smolder." Listen to a mother warn her boy not to climb a tree sometime to see what I mean.

J. L. Bell said...

A good point. Even maternal warnings about walking around with your shoelaces untied sound dire.

That said, there is an urban legend that a large number of colonial women died early from childbirth or cook-fire burns. Oddly enough, there is no corresponding factoid about children dying in open fires (though some certainly did).

Liz B said...

Open fires & children:
If I remember correctly, "A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812" by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich makes the argument that small children were more likely to be burnt in fireplaces following the birth of a new child. I don't recall if the statistics LTU looked at were for injuries or death.

J. L. Bell said...

I've also come across accounts of toddlers drowning in buckets. Child-proofing an eighteenth-century house was clearly a challenge.