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Accidents have been a common feature of childhood in Western and non-Western cultures for much of human history, but their nature and location, as well as whom they affect, have shifted over time. There is a striking amount of continuity in the physical causes of children's mishaps; fire, falls, and being crushed by carriages or other vehicles are hazards that transcend time and place. The family dwelling has remained a common site of mishaps, especially for younger children. Contrary to being a havenas the nascent middle class defined homes in the nineteenth century dwellings may have been the site where children faced the most pernicious and intractable risks. Even so, over time, a bevy of new types of accidents have appeared and supplanted older dangers. For example, dangers such as electrical shock, automobile accidents, and accidents involving poisonous chemicals replaced hazards such as "laying over" (or rolling onto children sharing the parental bed) and those associated with caring for animals.

Children, of course, faced many dangers outside their homes, which increased during periods of rapid economic change, such as when the industrial revolution swept Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, with the triumph of an urban society and especially the advent of the automobile, the dangers associated with public spaces, including particularly roads, increased in severity. For example, in modern automobile societies, car accidents have become the leading source of accidents to childrenespecially to teenagers.

The Medieval Period

In medieval Europe, children faced a variety of hazards, including fire, animal bites, falling objects, drowning, scalding, laying over, or being crushed by a passing cart. These dangers appear to have varied little from rural to urban settings, with fire posing perhaps the most dramatic threat, especially for infants. More than one-third of the children listed in coroner's inquests in medieval England died from fires in their cradles, and approximately one-fifth of the children under three died in house fires. To modern audiences, the image of a sow devouring a baby, which appears in Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale," borders on the bizarre, but it almost certainly reflected the common threat that animals posed to childrenand one all too frequently recorded in official records.

In a pattern that has remained more or less constant from medieval times through the modern era, the home was the place of greatest hazard, especially for younger children. According to coroner's records from medieval England, most fatal childhood accidents occurred at home. About 49 percent occurred in a child's own home; approximately 20 percent occurred in other people's homes; 20 percent occurred in public places; and 12 percent occurred in bodies of water. Accidents tended to occur during the busiest part of a parents' dayearly in the morning or at noon. Nearly half of all fatal accidents happened during the summer months, as families turned their attention toward the fields and their agricultural labors, suggesting that at least part of the cause for such mishaps can be attributed to parental neglect or moments of inattention.

In premodern Europe, most records of accidents come from parish and government records. Accidents constituted only a small portion of childhood mortality, estimated by demographers at between 30 and 50 percent for infants. They are also evidenced in lullabies and songs of the period. Death in childhood was so common in the period and accidents did not represent a chief cause, and thus were probably not of major concern to most families. Even so, basic child-rearing strategies reveal at least some concern about accidental death. Swaddling was commonly practiced as a way of protecting children from "chills." It also may have been practiced to keep infants safe and immobileunable to crawl into problems at home, or even out of the house onto streets. Paradoxically swaddling may have facilitated behaviors that actually may have endangered infants. For example, tossing babies from one person to another was a popular form of amusementsomething easily accomplished with swaddled childrenand one that frequently led to accidents.

As children grew older and stepped outside the protection of their parent's or caregiver's attentions, the dangers facing children changed and new dangers presented themselves. In medieval times, fire accounted for fewer accidental deaths among older children than among their younger siblings. Yet older children's mobility increasingly figured into serious accidents, with play accounting for 65 percent of all fatal accidents. As children aged, they also stepped into the gender roles that would accompany them throughout their lives, and the dangers they faced began to be differentiated. For example, little girls tended to have more accidents in the home and boys were more likely to have fatal mishaps while accompanying their fathers into the fields. Even so, home remained a site of persistent hazard, with 60 percent of boys and 79 percent of girls being injured in or very near the family dwelling. However, by the time that boys reached five or six, the majority of accidents they experienced occurred in the fields, often with tools, animals, and vehicles. By contrast, the home remained the most constant source of danger for girls until at least age eight or nine.


Industrialization brought dramatic changes to Western societies in the nineteenth century, reshaping both childhood and the nature of accidents. The introduction of a cash economy, and of mechanized factories and production processes, exposed everyone in society, including children, to entirely new dangers, as did rapidly changing urban settings, with their poor health conditions. Yet in these new urban and industrial environments, a host of other factorssuch as high mortality rates, unprecedented rates of accidents for all workers, and extreme societal dislocationchildhood mishaps did not receive wide attention. When children's accidents did receive reformers' attentions, they did so in the context of broader efforts to address workplace safety, an increased focus on a wide range of issues associated with children's welfare, and concerns about deteriorating health conditions in urban settings.

The new cash economy drove children, and especially boys, into the paid labor force at earlier and earlier ages. For example, in England and the United States, industry made frequent use of children's labor, thus exposing them to new dangers. In Rhode Island, by 1801, one hundred children between four and ten years old worked at Slater's mill, cleaning raw cotton, tending spindles, removing and attaching bobbins, and knotting broken threads. In about the same period, in the coal mines of Lancashire, England, children under twelve accounted for as much as 25 percent of the labor force and suffered the same rash of injuries that struck their parentsfingers cut off by machinery, limbs and skulls crushed by vehicles, and fractures resulting from falls. Yet the presence of children under ten or twelve years of age in factories appears to have been a relatively short-lived phenomenon. By the 1870s, this practice became relatively rare in England and the United States. Reformers' efforts, an increased emphasis on schooling, the influx of adult immigrants, and automation in factories, among other things, all contributed to the decline of child labor in manufacturingand of children's propensity to be victims of factory accidents.

As industrial society emerged in the nineteenth century, children's exposure to dangerous conditions at home and in the community varied with their social class and ethnic or racial origins. The children of relatively poor families faced more hazards because of substandard housing and hazardous conditions, and because their parents had less time to monitor them in the home, neighborhood, or at workwhich these children encountered at younger ages than did those of the middle class. Likewise, economic and political refugees migrating to new homes faced dangerous treks to unfamiliar surroundings that exposed their children to a range of hazards. For example, the children of immigrants to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century were pushed outward into the streets from their overcrowded homes. These children discovered a host of delights and dangers; they played in freshly dug tunnels and rode subways. They experienced automobiles at ground level and saw electricity light their world. The streetsfull of possibilities and dangerswere their world as much as home, parents, and school were.

At about this time, accidents in childhood slowly began to emerge as a broad societal concern. Individual family homes began to be viewed less as a safe haven from the world than as a place of danger. Already in 1897, Frances Fisher Wood noted in her landmark advice manual, Infancy and Childhood, that windows should be barred, open fires shielded, and stairways gated in order to protect children from hazards lurking in family dwellings. Even so, Wood devoted only this brief mention to accidents and as late as 1914 advice guru Dorothy Canfield Fisher made fun of those who took safety precautions in the home. Yet accidents were rapidly replacing disease as the leading cause of death for children early in the twentieth century United States. Indeed, by the 1910s, accidents were the single leading cause of death among children between five and fourteen years old, although among toddlers (one to four year olds) accidents did not eclipse influenza, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diphtheria as the primary cause of death until the 1940s.

Not surprisingly, in the teens and 1920s, societal clubs, Progressive politicians, and workplace safety organizations, such as the National Safety Council, began to focus attention on dangers in the home. The responsibility for keeping children safe, not surprisingly, emerged in a gendered fashion, as home economists and others argued that women should manage households and their dangers in much the same way that their husbands managed the economy and safety in industry and the public sector.

Efforts to control these hazards shifted, though not completely, away from mothers and families beginning in the 1930s, when the National Safety Council and public health organizations began to collect statistics on accidents in the home and community, including especially the hazards of automobiles. President Herbert Hoover's White House Conference on Child Health and Protection was one of the first explicit recognitions of the rights held by children, including the right to health and to safe dwellings and schools. In 1960, the White House Conference on Children and Youth targeted accidents to children.


In the twentieth century, technology played a paradoxical role in the history of accidents. As new technologies, such as electricity and a related range of labor-saving appliances, became fixtures in homes and communities, the hazards faced by children and their families changed. Perhaps more than any other innovation, automobiles transformed the landscape of accidents. In Upton Sinclair's muckraking 1906 novel The Jungle, an automobile is responsible for killing a young child, and following World War II, fatal motor vehicle accidents became increasingly prevalent, so much so that by the 1970s motor vehicles were the major sources of accidental deaths to children.

Yet, as technology presented new dangers, new safety devices promised protection in a consumer society in which safety increasingly could be purchased in the burgeoning number of shopping malls. Already in the 1950s, consumers could purchase poisons, chemicals, and medicines protected by childproof caps. In the 1960s, safety restraints became common features in automobilesone mandated in the United States by the federal government. In the 1970s, battery-operated smoke detectors made their way into the marketplace, and their use was also mandated in many legal codes. The United States government pushed these technological consumer solutions through various institutional means, such as the National Highway Safety Bureau (later the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), which was established by the Highway Safety Act of 1966 and National Commission on Product Safety that resulted from the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1970. Such broad efforts often included a special focus on child safety, which led to the introduction of child car safety seats and labeling on games and toys of potential hazards to children. Childproofing especially the homebecame a buzzword as consumer and technological solutions to the problem of accidents in childhood proliferated late in the twentieth century.

By the late twentieth century, accidents remained the leading cause of childhood death in Western industrial countries, but efforts to control them achieved results and the rate of fatal accidents diminished. Even so, in the industrial world, childhood accidents continue to plague poor families significantly more than middle-class and wealthy families, and in the nonindustrial world childhood accidents take a distant back seat to more pressing concerns about disease, poverty, and war.

See also: Infant Mortality.


Burnham, John. 1996. "Why Did the Infants and Toddlers Die? Shifts in Americans' Ideas of Responsibility for Accidents From Blaming Mom to Engineering." Journal of Social History 29, no. 4 (summer): 817834.

Cooter, Roger, and Bill Luckin, eds. 1997. Accidents in History. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Fass, Paula S., and Mary Ann Mason, eds. 2000. Childhood in America. New York: New York University Press.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. 1986. The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hiner, N. Ray, and Joseph M. Hawes. 1985. Growing Up in America: Children in Historical Perspective. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Iskrant, Albert P., and Paul V. Joliet. 1968. Accidents and Homicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Orme, Nicholas. 2001. Medieval Children. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Reinier, Jacqueline. 1996. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 17751850. New York: Twayne.

Tarr, Joel, and Mark Tebeau. 1996. "Managing Danger in the Home Environment, 19001940." Journal of Social History 29, no. 4 (summer): 797816.

Mark Tebeau

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ACCIDENTS. The United States saw a substantial decrease in accident-related deaths in the twentieth century. Despite a greater number and variety of motor vehicles, firearms, poisonous products, and dangerous pastimes and leisure activities, the nation achieved a 55 percent reduction in deaths from unintentional injuries from 1912 to 2000.

The National Safety Council, a federally chartered nonprofit organization, attributes the decline in accidental deaths to a number of factors, including improvements in technology such as seat belts and air bags, which have helped curb the number of road fatalities. Evolving legislation and proactive safety education has also contributed to safer living, as have broad social changes: the shift from agriculture and manufacturing to an information-based economy has lowered the number of hazardous jobs.

Everyday Accidents

Motor vehicle accidents were by far the largest source of unintentional-injury deaths, claiming 43,501 lives in 1998—roughly 2.5 times more than falls, the second most common cause. Males were twice as likely to die in a car crash as females, but the gender gap was almost nonexistent for falling victims, with twice as many men and women over the age of 75 falling to their deaths as all other age groups combined. Men were nearly three times more likely to die of the third most common accident, poisonings, and four times more likely to drown. The fifth leading cause of accidental death, choking, was fairly evenly distributed between men and women, and, like falls, increased dramatically with age.

Road fatalities in the United States decreased by 17 percent between 1990 and 2000; however, the number of people who died of accidental death in the home rose. Deadly falls, more than half of which happened at home, were up by nearly 40 percent; and poisonings, led by pharmaceutical and narcotics overdoses, more than doubled. The most accident-prone states in 2000 were Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee; the least accident-prone, with approximately half as many unintentional-injury deaths per capita, were Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Other National Safety Council findings reveal an interesting snapshot of America at the end of the twentieth century. Between 1998 and 2000, light delivery vehicles for the U.S. Postal Service had the highest number of accidents per mile for all truck fleets. In 1999, basketball accounted for the greatest number of sports injuries, followed by bicycle riding and football. In 1999, more hospital emergency room visits were related to people using their beds (455,027) than handling knives (446,225).

National Tragedies and Blunders

The most notorious accidents in American history have accounted for relatively few deaths compared to the lives lost from everyday injuries.

Great Chicago Fire (8–10 October 1871). An unusual autumn drought and heat wave, combined with high winds, allowed a small barn blaze to grow into a conflagration that ravaged much of Chicago. As the inferno spread, flames leapt over rivers; firefighters dynamited entire buildings in a vain attempt to slow the fire's progress. The blaze, which only died down when rain began to fall on 10 October, killed between two and three hundred people, destroyed approximately 18,000 buildings, and caused $200 million in damages. Increased fire safety awareness and fire-fighting capabilities, along with a revolution in building materials—from wood to brick and steel—helped decrease fire-related deaths by almost two thirds between 1913 and 2000, even as the population nearly tripled.

Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire (25 March 1911). Just minutes before quitting time, employees of a Manhattan clothing manufacturer were trapped by a flash fire that began in a pile of oil-soaked rags. Due to cramped conditions and a lack of adequate exits, 146 workers, mostly young immigrant women, either died in the blaze or leapt to their deaths from windows eight to ten stories above the street. The scope of the tragedy prompted sweeping reforms in factory safety regulations, aided in part by the efforts of the National Safety Council, formed two years after the tragedy. In 2000, workplace accidents were the smallest category of unintentional-injury deaths, showing a decrease of 90 percent since 1912, despite a quadrupling of the workforce and a ninefold increase in productivity.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident (28 March 1979). A dangerous combination of mechanical and human failures brought a Pennsylvania nuclear power plant to the brink of catastrophic meltdown. The crisis was quickly and successfully addressed and no one was killed, but the accident sparked a major public outcry. While energy officials insisted that the surrounding area was not contaminated, scientists still disagree on whether people living near the plant suffered adverse effects from radiation vented during the crisis. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, no health problems or deaths have been directly related to nuclear power in the United States, but no new nuclear plants have been built in the country since the Three Mile Island event.

American Airlines Flight 191 (25 May 1979). Shortly after taking off from Chicago's O'Hare airport, a DC-10 lost its left wing engine, causing it to veer out of control and crash to the ground, killing all aboard. The deadliest commercial airliner crash in American history claimed 272 lives and prompted the grounding of all DC-10s in the United States pending investigation of, among other issues, maintenance procedures. Although airline accidents are major headline grabbers, the number of lives lost in such accidents does not equal even 1 percent of the deaths caused by passenger automobile accidents between 1997 and 1999.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (24 March 1988). A reportedly inebriated and fatigued crew ran an oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, dumping 11 million gallons of oil into the water and devastating local wildlife. Exxon spent $2.2 billion on the cleanup effort and twelve years later declared the environment "healthy and robust." The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the area had made a remarkable recovery but remained an "ecosystem in transition." While the accident was the worst of its kind in American history, it has since dropped off the list of the world's 50 largest oil spills.


Flexner, Stuart, and Doris Flexner. The Pessimist's Guide to History: From the Big Bang to the New Millennium. Updated ed. New York, Harper Perennial, 2000.

National Safety Council. Injury Facts, 2000. Itasca, Ill.: The Council, 2000.


See alsoDisasters ; Triangle Shirtwaist Fire .

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