Crinoline Conflagrations

1861 wasn’t a good year for skirt fires. At the ending of Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations, (Spoiler Alert) Miss Havisham dies when her forty-year-old tattered wedding dress catches fire after touching a hot coal from the fireplace. In the real world, Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wife of the famous American poet, also died from burns after her dress caught fire from a fallen candle. In an attempt to put out the flames, her husband suffered facial burns, which resulted in his growing whiskers for the rest of his life to hide the scars. Worst of all, the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia burned to the ground in 1861 killing nine ballerinas whose gauze skirts caught fire on stage after one ballerina’s skirt touched a gas lamp. Fact is, a large skirt of a combustible material in a world heated and lighted by open fire was not a safe fashion choice in 1861.

Long skirts had always been a fire hazard for as long as there had been long skirts, but since the 1820s women’s skirts began growing in width by the addition of starched petticoats. By the early 1850s, upwards of six or more petticoats were being used to achieve the widening style, making women unaware of their enormous circumferences in relation to oil lamps on tippy tables, and fireplaces without screens or fenders.

In the mid 1850s a petticoat reinforced with wire hoops and/or woven horsehair bands, called crinoline, removed the necessity of multiple layers of petticoats. The style was praised for being a more hygienic and healthy way to achieve the fashionable silhouette, until it was realized that the hooped underskirts also expedited fire by the addition of a draught that caused a fire to burn faster. And to make skirts extra-flammable, the solvents employed for dry cleaning silk dresses at that time were all petroleum-based.

3-Fire-at-Ballet-1861-660x448

Blazing ballerinas during the 1861 Continental Theatre fire in Philadelphia, from Frank Leslie’s magazine, September 28, 1861

The New York Times first reported a crinoline casualty in 1858 when a young Boston woman suffered a fate similar to Miss Havisham, The article referred to nineteen similar cases being reported in the London Court Journal (an unreliably sensationalist newspaper) during the first six weeks of 1858 and extrapolated an average of three deaths per week from crinoline conflagrations (not the most scientific way to create a statistic, and based on information I suspect was invented or inaccurate in the first place.)

Regardless of the validity of the statistics, there are many documented cases of women perishing from skirt fires: Margaret Davey, a 14-year-old London kitchen maid was reported in The Times on 13 February 1863 that her dress, “distended by a crinoline,” ignited as she stood on the fender of the fireplace to reach some spoons on the mantelpiece, and later died as a result of extensive burns. A similar case was reported later that year, when 16-year-old Emma Musson died after a piece of burning coke rolled from the kitchen fire to ignite her crinoline. The snippets show up throughout the era when crinolines were at their height (or rather width) of popularity.

Occasionally, reports even show up later. While filming the civil war story Warrens of Virginia in 1923, the silent film star Martha Mansfield was sitting in a car between takes when a passerby flicked a match, mistakenly thought to be extinguished, into the automobile, igniting her highly flammable gauze costume. Mansfield died the following day from her injuries.

Addendum June 24: Oscar Wilde’s two half sisters also died from their skirts catching fire. In 1871 they were attending a ball and the back of one of the girl’s dresses caught fire from touching the fireplace. In 1871 women are still wearing wire frame crinolines, but reduced in size from their enormity a decade earlier. As they were at a ball, it was more likely a train that caught fire as it whisked by the fire. http://www.irishidentity.com/extras/gaels/stories/wilde.htm

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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15 Responses to Crinoline Conflagrations

  1. Liza D. says:

    Good heavens. Take about a “fashion victim.” Am I simply awful for having giggled my way through this charming bit of witty writing, Jonathan?

  2. Alacaeriel says:

    I’ve always been curious about why women’s skirt grew wider, etc. (Although I can understand why the crinoline was invented – those petticoats must have weighed a tonne! Actually, considering I’ve worn a full-skirted wedding dress entirely supported by petticoats, not a crinoline, I know they are heavy!)

    But beside that point… I’ve been in a heritage-listed house, kept in 1850s style, in a bell-skirted dress (I went for crinoline). Do you think I could fit neatly down the garden paths or between chairs and tables? Nope! I mean, this was a house that would have had servants, but little is actually said about what the servants wore at the time, besides “the mistress’s cast-offs”. Did servants also suffer from these crinoline conflagrations?

    • Jonathan says:

      The skirts with the largest circumferences were worn for the best occasions – promenades, balls, weddings, etc. Working women such as servants didn’t wear crinolines for work for the very reason you mentioned – the difficulty to do their work. Instead, working women usually wore a skirt with three petticoats underneath to create fullness but not to the fashionable extreme. The woman of the house, who had the luxury of leisure, often remained in her room reading and attending to correspondence before noon, often wearing only a dressing gown.

  3. Heavens to betsy! This danger never occurred to me.

  4. John T says:

    I remember reading up on causes of deaths in that period. From contemporary newspaper reporting, women accidentally becoming human torches was a startlingly common cause of death. Surely the fact that their dresses usually fastened up the back only made things worse.

    • Jonathan says:

      It certainly wasn’t a rare occurrence, but I wonder how common it really was. The reportage tends to be sensationalized, and often not by very reputable newspapers. Funnily enough those same newspapers also report of how crinolines saved lives – I know of two reports of women who fell from bridges into rivers and how the air under their skirts kept them buoyant until help arrived!

  5. Viola says:

    Not sure if this will be read but I also am not sure who to ask and today my google-fu led me here.

    I remember reading a novel once where the woman was well aware of the danger of her skirts catching fire as she danced at a ball and so employed a sort of…belt thing on the hem of her dress. It was meant to gather the skirts in a bit so they wouldn’t bell out as she twirled. I can’t remember the book and I’ve never been able to find out if this was actually a thing or just invented by the author.

    Any idea? TIA!

    • Jonathan says:

      I don’t know of the literary reference but I don’t read a lot of fiction, so that’s not surprising! I don’t know what sort of belt would have been used to keep the dress from flaring out – this isn’t something I have ever seen. Sorry, wish I could help.

  6. writtenwyrdd says:

    It was not a “belt thing” but a loop they used to catch up a train so they could dance.

    • Jonathan says:

      Ah yes – that could even be an elevator skirt with a series of strings and loops inside the skirt so that the outer skirt can be lifted, puffing out around the hips, like a bustle, to expose the petticoat that was a few inches off the floor, so the wearer wouldn’t trip on their hems. Those were often worn for sporting activities. There were also skirt lifters – little clips that you could attach your train to, so you don’t trip while dancing.

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  8. Liz says:

    Why do you leave out that these were rare occurrences and that silk and wool did not catch fire easily but instead smolder. By leaving out the larger context you are spreading mythology.

    • Jonathan says:

      I didn’t leave anything out and I am not spreading mythology. I am referencing reported events. While wool and silk may burn with less ease than cotton or linen – they still burn, especially if they have any solvent residue or perfume that is based on a flammable chemical like white gas or alcohol. The ballerina’s tutus were likely starched cotton gauze, but the evening gowns were more than likely silk – perhaps silk gauze, and worn over cotton undergarments. Even wool garments were lined with cotton, and worn over cotton petticoats.

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