The Danger of Grandma’s Dress

By Stephen D. Bowling

January 2, 1939 – So much has changed in Jackson including the look and the feel of the town. So many grand buildings have been lost to time, fire, or neglect. It is doubtful that many old-timers would even recognize our little town now. One of the most obvious changes with time can be seen in the clothing that we now wear.

Until recent years, no respectable man would be seen outside or in public in polite company without long sleeves, a top jacket, and a hat. The custom of tipping the hat or removing a hat in a lady’s presence went the way of the Jackson depot too. The old clothing worn by our grandparents and great-grandparents was course and cumbersome. But not all changes to the dress code have been for the worse.

An unidentified woman sits near the fireplace to stay warm and to cook or perform other household duties. Source –

Until the mid-1950s, respectable women were expected to cover their legs and ankles at all times. To accomplish this, women wore multiple layers of clothing and floor-length dresses. These “granny” dresses were also usually accompanied by long aprons with pockets filled with needed items.

These long dresses often made movement difficult for women and were dangerous to manage. In a time before central heating and air, heat during the cooler months came primarily from open grates filled with coal banked up to spread warmth in the room. The mixture of long dresses and open fire grates lead to many life-threatening accidents for young children and older ladies. The Jackson Times and many Kentucky newspapers are filled with stories of tragic dress fires and other stories involving these open fireplaces.

Susan Frances (Haddix) Howard standing outside the home of her son, Elijah Howard, about 1938.

Two tragic stories in Breathitt County’s past detail these fireside accidents and are perfect examples of the danger that Grandma’s dress could pose. The tragic stories of Belle Davidson and Susan Howard illustrate the worst-case scenarios.

On Monday, January 2, 1939, Susan Frances (Haddix) Howard sat by the fireplace at the home of her son, Elijah Howard, on Cane Creek. The 80-year-old widow lived with some of her 14 children since her husband, Elijah Howard, passed away in 1906. According to the family, Susan stood to warm herself with her back to the fire when her long, black dress ignited.

Susan Frances Howard’s tombstone in the Bowling Cove Cemetery. Source-

The fire quickly spread up her back catching her hair on fire and severely burning her legs and upper body. The family heard her cries and ran to put out the fire quickly, but the damage had been done. The burns, which covered most of her body, caused tremendous pain and she faded in and out of consciousness. In a very short time, she died lying facedown on the bed.

She was buried beside her husband on Wednesday, January 4, 1939, with her four sons and nine daughters standing by her graveside.

Arminta Belle (Spicer) Davidson standing in her long dress with her first husband, John Davidson. Belle’s dress caught fire in the front parlor of the large house that once stood near the Bell Davidson curve (Oren Davidson curve) at Copeland on Highway 1110.

Arminta Belle (Spicer) Davidson lived in a large two-story house that her husband John Davidson build for the family a mile or so up the Kentucky River from Howard’s Creek. The large farm with open river bottom-land was a beautiful place and its proximity to the L & N Depot at Copeland made this farm very desirable. In this large house, which stood until the 1980s, John and Belle raised their 5 children.

John died on December 18, 1924, and Belle, faced with a large farm and a house full of children, remarried in November of the next year. Her second husband, Arthur Bohannan, took over the management of the farm along with Belle’s sons, Langley and William Davidson.

A brief article about Belle Davidson’s death was printed in the May 4, 1966 edition of The Lexington Herald-Leader.

On April 8, 1966, Belle was banking the fire in the fireplace in the front room of the large, white house when the fire popped and shot an ember onto the cuff of her dress. The flame quickly spread burning up the dress and she was severely burned. She was rushed to the doctor’s office at Jackson where her burns were treated.

The burns extended over much of her body and infection was feared. She was taken to the St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington for more advanced care. Despite the best efforts of the capable medical staff, Belle Davidson died from fever and infection at 4:00 a.m. on May 4, 1966. She was brought back to Jackson and buried with her first husband, John, at the Haddix Cemetery.

The stories of Susan Howard and Belle Davidson Bohannan represent two of the hundreds of similar cases where long dresses and open fire grates ended in tragedy. While most of the clothing habits have changed for the worse since these incidents, the introduction of central heating and the shortening of dresses have been positives in the lives of women. Many instances of similarly terrible results were not reported in the papers.

We will never know the names of all those who suffered a similar fate. Luckily, modern life has reduced the danger posed by the long dresses grandma wore.

© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling.


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Danger of Grandma’s Dress

  1. William Mooney says:

    The dresses didn’t post just a danger to grown women but also to small children. I am the grandson of Martha Howard Potter of breathitt County and one of my aunt’s died as a small child when their nightgown caught fire. My mother, Alice Potter Mooney, still grieves over her sister.


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