Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked by Mary Theobald

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I greatly enjoy American history so I was excited to read Mary Theobald’s Death By Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked (Andrews McNeel Publishing, June 2012). I ended up leaving it a bit disappointed because of the lack of depth behind the book. It was an amusing and quick read, and I did learn some trivial facts from American history, but because I had expected a more detailed examination of myths and reality, I was disappointed in the superficiality of Ms Theobald’s offering.

As the subtitle suggests, the book is a collection of clarifications to some common misconceptions and traditions in history, such as that women frequently died when their petticoats caught fire or that early homes did not have closets in order to avoid the “closet tax.”  Ms Theobald writes with a humorous and personable tone and her explanations against the traditions were succinct. Each myth got one or two pages of explanation to “debunk” it; some explanations were as brief as a few sentences. On pages without text were full-color photographs of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation artifacts, as well as staged scenarios with modern-day actors.

If the reader wanted a quick and amusing look at history, Death by Petticoat may be a satisfying option. It seems particularly appropriate as a coffee table book to remember one’s trip to Colonial Wiliamsburg. (I’ve never been there myself). It is a book one can flip through but it’s also short enough to read in a sitting as I did. As it was, I personally was disappointed by the superficiality of the explanations. Further, there was no resource list or endnotes to indicate sources (a pet peeve of mine in nonfiction), and I found it far too brief a read to leave me feeling  I’d learned something memorable about American history other than “don’t be gullible.”

Note: I read a digital review copy from the publisher for review consideration via

Reviewed on June 8, 2012

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Oh when I first read the title of the review I was so excited, but if you say it is not a really deep work, then I do not feel like reading it. I expected something filled with historical data to bring down the myth.

    • Elena, that’s exactly how I felt. I saw the title and subtitle and was very excited to begin it. Alas, from page 1 I was disappointed. It wasn’t BAD just not what I expected or wanted. Some people will find it perfect. American history “lite.”

  • I agree with Elena. This sounds so exciting, at least its title. But if it’s just superficial explanations with little to no notes.. I guess it’s not for me. I’m sorry you were disappointed in this book!

  • I feel like books dedicated to debunking something (if they say “debunk” in the title especially!) tend to be kind of superficial. I always get extra excited for them and then end up disappointed.

    Did women not catch fire? That’s what happened to Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters! One of them caught fire to her skirts, and the other one went to help her, and they both burned all up. So we know it happened to at least two women!

  • Hello! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

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