Monday, January 16, 2012

Death By Petticoat:American History Myths Debunked, by Mary M. Theobald

Andrews McMeel Publishing, ISBN 9781449418538, June 2012

This little book covers a collection of popular, oft-repeated myths of American history, both the completely fabricated and those with a grain of truth vastly over-inflated to make a better story.

The title refers to the claim that long skirts and petticoats were so likely to catch fire that "death by petticoat fire" was the second leading cause of death for colonial American women, with only childbirth beating it out. In fact the leading cause of death for colonial American women was disease--and the cottons, wools, and linens that made up colonial era clothing were a lot less flammable than the polyesters, rayons, and nylons commonly found in modern clothing.

Overall, this is a brisk and sensible book with a sense of humor and an understanding of how and why "myths" catch on and are hard to dislodge. This includes the discussion of the myth of houses being burned down to collect the "valuable" nails used to build them. In fact, nails weren't all that valuable, and no one burned down substantial houses just to get the nails. The first settlers at Jamestown, though, were mostly unattached young men who came to make a quick fortune and go home. They didn't build substantial homes; they built shacks. When they realized they'd be staying, these shacks were easier to burn down than tear down--and once burned down, why not collect the nails? They weren't especially valuable, but they weren't worthless, and why waste them?

In some cases, though, there seems to be a failure to think things through. In the discussion of ice cream, Theobald concludes, for reasons she doesn't really explain, that the Chinese "probably" invented ice cream. The problem with this is that the Chinese don't consume dairy products. Most Chinese, like most adults in areas that have been civilized for a long time, don't produce the enzyme necessary to digest dairy products. It's not likely they invented ice cream. Europeans and their descendants in the Americas are not the only possible candidates, but would have to be serious contenders. It's a small point, but it does cause me to wonder a bit about some of her myth explanations that I don't know enough about to make my own judgment.

Still, it's an interesting and entertaining read, as well as a quick one. This could be a fun title to bring along when taking the children to visit historical American sites.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.