[The following passage comes from the author’s Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, which is reviewed in the Victorian Web. — George P. Landow]

Advertisements showing the flammability of untreated flannelette and the safety of the same fabric when treated with the chemical retardant discovered — after 10,000 attempts — by William Henry Perkin, Jr., the son of the man who invented mauve a half century earlier. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

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he Lancet noted that the “comfortable and comforting” imitation [of flannel] was worn and appreciated by all classes. However, unlike woolen flannel, a tightly woven animal protein fiber that was virtually fireproof, vegetable-based cotton fabrics were tinder, and none more so than flannelette. Flannelette is a calico (plain-weave cotton) fabric “carded” or “raised” into a nap by tearing its surface so it “becomes covered with a j fluff of minute fibers somewhat resembling a thin layer of cotton wool.” The nap, which was compared with down or animal fur, made it soft and warm, but if a spark landed on it, a sheet of flame could flash “over the whole surface of the fluffy cotton layer and travel with extraordinary rapidity.” A description of a flannelette factory suggests that it was one of the few products where workers were more protected than wearers: the room where the nap was raised was “fireproof, and, as an additional precaution, beside each machine is a hose-pipe.” An article on burns in The Lancet saw the problem as a gendered one.

Based on statistical analysis, The Lancet] condemned girls’ clothing. Up to the age of 3, boys’ mortality rose sharply: Victorians and Edwardians clothed boy and girl babies and toddlers identically in dresses. Boys’ death rates dropped when they were put in male attire or “breeched” at around 4, and then fell to almost nothing. By contrast girls, who wore looser fitting clothing, died at twice the rate of boys between 4 and 5, and eight times as often L between the ages of 15 and 20.These are striking differences. For example, in the period from 1906 to 191 1, 389 boys aged 5 to 10 died of burns, whereas 1,427 girls of the same age perished. Dr. Brend noted how working-class girls were often bundled in thin layers of cloth:

The girls are worst off. First they wear a thick vest and bunchy flannelette chemise. Flannelette drawers over or under some sort of stays—often boned—follow. Then two or three petticoats gathered or pleated ... Over this is a bunchy frock, often kilted, and a pinafore... Probably no more inflammable arrangement than this, consisting of layers of flimsy material separated by air, could be devised. The corner of a pinafore has only to become ignited and in a moment the little victim is a mass of flames. On the other hand, the inflammability of a boy’s costume consisting of cloth knickers and a jersey or coat is far less.

Medical debates around the flannelette evil were part of a larger controversy over the dangers of working-class homes. The problem of unsupervised working-class children burning to death while their mothers were busy was so severe that it led to protective legislation. It came at a time when the government was worried about the general health of the nation in the wake of military conscriptions and the failure of the Boer War. Working-class mothers were seen as instrumental in raising healthy children, and domestic environments were increasingly regulated and inspected by public and philanthropic organizations. This concern was part of a societal shift occurring in the 1860s. Deaths that had once been seen as simply tragic accidents began to be directly “attributed to a mother’s carelessness,” and statistical data was compiled. Middle-class children, who were watched by governesses or nannies, were much less subject to these types of accidents, but working-class mothers often had to leave their children alone or in the care of an older sibling.

Another factor was the lack of fire guards. In small, cramped working-class homes where cooking happened over open flames or coals, domestic fire guards helped to stop children from getting too close, but they were an expensive purchase for a household near the poverty line. A government circular in 1901 warned: “during the years 1899 and 1901, inquests were held on the bodies of 1684 young children whose death had resulted from burning and in 1425 of these cases the fire by which the burning was caused by an unprotected fire grate. [170-71]

Related material


Brend, William. “The Mortality of Children from Burning.” The Lancet 182 (8 November 1913): 1321.

David, Alison Matthews. Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Last modified 19 November 2015