While sitting at home one afternoon in 1861, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, caught fire. Her burns were so severe that she died the next day. According to her obituary, the fire had started when “a match or piece of lighted paper caught her dress.”
At the time, this wasn’t a peculiar way to die. In the days when candles, oil lamps, and fireplaces lit and heated American and European homes, women’s wide hoop skirts and flowing cotton and tulle dresses were a fire hazard, unlike men’s tighter-fitting wool clothes.
It wasn’t just dresses: Fashion at this time was riddled with dangers. Socks made with aniline dyes inflamed men’s feet and gave garment workers sores and even bladder cancer. Lead makeup damaged women’s wrist nerves so that they couldn’t raise their hands. Celluloid combs, which some women wore in their hair, exploded if they got too hot. In Pittsburgh, a newspaper reported that a man with a celluloid comb lost his life “While Caring for His Long Gray Beard.” In Brooklyn, a comb factory exploded.