When a 19th-century woman opened her wardrobe, she wanted to pick the perfect outfit, one that elegantly communicated her grace, beauty, and, of course, status. She was not considering which outfit was the most likely to contribute to a gruesome, untimely death. This was a mistake because, due to one bizarre fashion trend of the era, most women were making life-or-death decisions when selecting what to wear!
Matilda’s Doctor Visit
Matilda Scheurer wasn’t feeling well. At just 19 years old, the artificial-flower maker was convulsing every couple of minutes; she was vomiting green water, and the whites of her eyes had turned a lovely shade of — you guessed it — green. She visited a doctor in London.
Green, Green, Green.
“Everything I look at,” Matilda told her doctor, “is green.” Foam leaked from her nose, ears, and mouth, and with “an expression of great anxiety,” as the local paper put it. Then just as suddenly, she died. Her family was in disbelief. How did this happen?
The Archduchess’s Fashion Choice
Not long after, another family found themselves mourning the mysterious death of their young, healthy girl: In Austria, when Archduchess Mathilde was caught by her father smoking a cigarette, she hid it behind her back. The move proved fatal.
The Lit Cigarette
The lit cigarette set her dress ablaze. She was only 18 when she met her fiery end. In 1860, more than 3,000 women alone died just like Matilda Scheurer and Archduchess Mathilde. The gruesome deaths piled up.
In 1861, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow watched his wife, Fanny Longfellow burn alive when her dress caught fire. When writer Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters went to a party, their dresses caught fire while the poor girls were dancing. The problem, of course, was in the wardrobe.
Back in the mid-1800s, dresses were made from other extremely flammable materials, too, like cotton or horsehair. There was also plenty of lace, which easily burns due to its lattice weave. But it wasn’t just the materials that made these garments go up in flames so often.
These dresses were far different than anything you’d find at the store today. Underneath the heaps of heavy fabric, women would wear crinolines. These were stiff petticoats (made from similarly flammable fabrics) that gave the dress a bell-like shape. Of course, these had a separate purpose as well.
The crinolines alleviated some of the heavy dress’ weight, but all that air held inside the skirts sometimes proved deadly. If the material caught fire, it would rapidly spread thanks to the abundant oxygen. And once these dresses were ablaze, a simple “stop, drop, and roll” wouldn’t extinguish the flames.
Besides the terrible fabric choice/shape combo, once the dress was ablaze, putting it out was nearly impossible. The poor women often couldn’t escape in time because they were heavily laced or buttoned into their gowns. And even if they could escape, there was another issue putting them in danger.
Remember Matilda Scheurer’s bizarre green death? It couldn’t be explained by the dress’ flammability alone. In fact, the forces contributing to Matilda’s premature demise all began at work. Day after day, Matilda earned a living by dusting fake plants with a green powder, to give them a realistic look. The money was decent, and the job wasn’t too difficult. At the time, she had no idea just how much she was sacrificing.
Today, we know what that green powder is. But tragically, the knowledge came too late to save Matilda’s life. Every day at work, for hours, she and other young women like her were using arsenic — yes, arsenic — to color the plants. The known toxic substance gave clothes and fake plants a much-coveted green color, so it wasn’t uncommon for the chemical to be laced throughout every article of clothing. But it gets worse.
No One’s Safe
If the flames didn’t kill you, the burning arsenic creating toxic fumes certainly would! This fashion style was extremely popular for women from all walks of life. A majority of them died while they were going about their daily lives and happed to wander too close to an open flame. One group was particularly vulnerable.
It Gets Worse
Housekeepers were particularly susceptible to death by burning dress. Victorian homes were filled with open-flames and were also made of very flammable materials. If an unfortunate servant caught fire, she could also burn down the entire building. More glamorous professions, however, still put women at risk.
Watch Out Ballerinas!
Even if a woman didn’t wear one of the massive hooped dresses, she still had a chance to be burned alive by her clothing choices. Ballerinas were particularly susceptible. Their outfits were made from bobbinet, cotton muslin, gauze, and tarlatan — all materials that like to catch fire.
Dancers loved these fabrics because they were light and airy. Moving in these materials gave them an ethereal quality when they performed for audiences. Their looks were iconic, but so incredibly dangerous, especially given certain stage features.
At the time, open flames were used as stage lighting … you do the math. Tragedy struck in 1862 during a dress rehearsal. Ballerina Emma Livry danced too close to a gaslight and caught fire. She survived for eight agonizing months before dying.
Emma wasn’t the first ballerina to die onstage. In 1844, Clara Webster also went this way. Six ballerinas tried to help put out a seventh dancer who’d caught fire backstage and all eight of them perished. There were many others who suffered similar fates.
This Has To End
With so many people burning to death — sometimes taking others with them, sometimes taking an entire home or theater with them — you’d think these dresses and costumes wouldn’t last long in society.
There Were Options
There were other flame-resistant outfits that ballerinas could wear, but these were stiff and an unpleasant yellow color. Created by Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, these fabrics were made from ammonium phosphates, borax, and boric acid.
Not For Us
Most serious ballerinas refused to use these costumes because they didn’t move with them like the lighter versions. They were concerned that their beauty couldn’t shine during their performances with the stiff, but safe, fabrics.
Too Little Too Late
In 1898, some workplaces, like a firewood factory banned workers from wearing crinoline. This didn’t stop the majority of women from firmly sticking with their deadly dresses. They just had to have a sought-after cone shape figure.
Time Solves Everything
So, what solved this problem? Time. Late in the 19th century, skirts styles changed, becoming slimmer. Instead, bustles became a must-have, keeping the bulk of the dress out of the reach of flames.
If you had to choose between being a factory worker or a maid, you’d probably choose “maid” without question. Who would risk their life in a factory, no doubt surrounded by toxic chemicals and dangerous machinery, when you can fold linens? Well, you might want to re-think that choice.
“In 1851, one in three women between the ages of 15 and 24 in London worked as a domestic servant,” according to Judith Flanders’ book Inside The Victorian Home. As it turns out, factories weren’t actually the most dangerous place for a woman to work: Houses were.
You’ve heard of the unhygienic practices of Victorian England, but it was the housemaid who had to clean up the worst messes. Kitchens and sculleries (a room attached to the kitchen where you washed clothes and dishes) were the worst offenders.
Food Scraps and Dirt
Despite being rooms where so much cleaning went on, kitchens and sculleries were particularly disgusting. In the maids’ haste to get meals on the table, scraps of food and mud and whatever else was on someone’s plate or shirt would literally fall through the cracks.
The reason maids couldn’t keep up with the messes caused by cleaning is because they were too busy attending to one of the biggest problems of the era: bugs. Where there was a scrap of food, there was an insect and his entire creepy crew crawling in to claim it.
A “Living Carpet” of Bugs
The Victorian bug problem was so bad, it’s legendary. Apparently the “kitchen floor at night palpitate[d] with a living carpet” of bugs, mainly cockroaches. Just when the maids thought they’d cleared all the roaches off the floor, though, they’d look up at the ceiling.
Floors “Heaved with Cockroaches”
Just as common as roaches on the floor were beetles on the ceiling. Bugs were so prevalent that they practically cohabitated with the servants. Author Beatrix Potter once observed that servants “had to sit on the kitchen table, as the floor heaved with cockroaches.”
There were so many bugs that maids didn’t have time to bother with the other unwelcome creatures scurrying around the home. Rats may be notorious carriers of disease and other unsavory things, but at least they knew how to stay out of the way.
Work, Work, Work
And that’s what servants battled the most: Time. They couldn’t get rid of the rats because their strict schedules didn’t allow for any deviation from the plan. The working hours for the average maid weren’t only exhausting — they were unrelenting.
Demanding Physical Labor
There were days when housemaids worked from 6 AM to midnight, and unlike factory workers, they worked 7 days a week. Contrary to popular belief, a maid did more than fold linens and wash clothing. Her life was filled with demanding physical labor…
Early Morning Chores
The average servant’s morning always began the same way: by opening every curtain and window shutter, cleaning and lighting every fireplace in the house, and dusting everything from furniture to staircases to walls, all before the sun came up.
She’d then scatter tea leaves over the carpets (a method of concealing odors) before sweeping them up while she swept the rest of the house. She’d beat the rugs, which collected crazy amounts of dirt in just one or two days time.
Next came the floors, and since maids in 1851 didn’t have Swiffers, they had to clean them the old-fashioned way: on their hands and knees, with a dirty rag and a bucket filled with soapy water, Cinderella-style.
A Cinderella Story
As if the maids weren’t embodying Cinderella enough, they’d have to empty the fireplaces of cinders, which usually ended with them covered in soot. But there was never any time to change their clothes — by then, it was time to wake up the rest of the house.
They Lived To Work
Pile on the meals, the laundry, the vermin, the constant visitors tramping muck and who-knows-what-else into the house, and we wonder how maids ever had any time for themselves…which was part of the problem.
Facing Their Employer’s Wrath
There was barely any time for the maids to eat, sleep, or clean their own rooms because they had to keep the entire household afloat. What was worse than an all-nighter or a meal of bread and cold meat, though, was the wrath of the employer.
Since servants were largely relegated to the status of the rats they chased, Victorian employers had no problem punishing them harshly if anything was done incorrectly. A maid couldn’t take a moment to rest or eat, or she’d have to answer to her employer.
Maids Dared To Dream…
Servants endured all kinds of violence from their employers, and had no choice but to deal with it or they’d lose their jobs. But over time, servants started to hear a compelling rumor, one that made them rethink their vocation altogether.
Escape To Factories
Ebenezer Scrooge may have valued cruelty, but it soon became clear to other Victorian-era employers that this strategy wasn’t working. Households were losing servants left and right, and all because the factories were promising better hours, better pay, and most importantly, better treatment.
Servants On Strike
One Victorian employer summed up the small-scale revolution when he commented that “it was now necessary…to allow their maids to go to bed at ten o’clock every night, and to give them an afternoon out every other Sunday, or no servant would stay.”
Finally Being Respected
Both factory and domestic work was back-breaking for women during England’s Industrial Revolution. But factory work sometimes offered women something they hardly ever got as servants: dignity. And to many women, that made all the difference.