Andrea Dubnick's Reviews > Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked

Death by Petticoat by Mary Miley Theobald
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Jul 20, 12

Read from July 10 to 20, 2012

This one comes out of Colonial Williamsburg, so it has a decidedly 17th- and 18th-century slant. But so many of the myths pertain to earlier centuries as well as the 19th (and later, I suppose; I am not involved in historical interpretation later than about 1910).

The "Petticoat Death" of the title refers to the conviction by many folks (myself included, at least before I read this book) that the second-commonest cause of death in historical women resulted from long skirts catching fire from outdoor cookfires and indoor hearths. My source always added that it was infection from severe burns that really did in those historical females.

Perhaps this one originated in the 1970s (ancient history to some, I know) when museums experimented with newer, cheaper, synthetic fabrics for interpreters' clothing. These fabrics DO burn quickly and nastily (melting stickily to flesh rather than falling away), but natural fabrics -- wool, cotton, linen -- which would have been available historically tend to smolder rather than burst into flame.

Then there's that old favorite: People Didn't Bathe, or They Only Bathed Once a Year. Granted, most people in Europe (and America) didn't take warm tub-baths inside very often, since heating water on a stove or over a fire kettle by kettle is a very expensive proposition, in fuel and time. But even before indoor plumbing, of course people washed themselves: being clean is a good feeling, and historical people wanted to feel good, just as we do. Perhaps they were more tolerant of body odors than modern Americans, but everybody always smelled like woodsmoke all the time anyway, and there have been perfume products throughout most of history.

And 61 more myths, some of them even sillier than these! This book will make an excellent addition to your Throne-Room Collection, as the chapters (each with a lovely photograph from Colonial Williamsburg) are one page long.
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