As I mentioned in an earlier post our brand new exhibit celebrating Women’s History Month opens October 4th. I thought that it might be nice to start off Women’s History Month and tie in with our exhibit if we discussed the many aspects of daily life for women through the ages. What better way to start than with the beginning of new life and something that affects only women, pregnancy. We’ll start off with the 19th century and work our way through time using garments in our collection to illustrate what a woman would have worn. Let’s begin!
In the 1800’s there was no reliable way to determine pregnancy in the very early stages, one had to guess whether or not they might be “in a family way”. Most young women of the time didn’t know much about their own bodies to begin with, a woman’s “monthly sickness” was not something that was regularly talked about. They were able to discern their new state of being when the signs like morning sickness and fatigue began to appear. Most women spent the majority of their married life “in a family way”. Maternity dresses were generally just house dresses that could be let out with each pregnancy and then taken in as necessary. The reason they wore house dresses was because a pregnant woman was not considered decent to be out in public. Once that baby belly started showing that was it, you were no longer fit for company. They even referred to pregnancy as “confinement” because the woman very rarely left the home. Another sad fact of life in the 1800’s was that many pregnancies ended in miscarriages and still births. Still, most women desired a large family as it was the way of life at the time. I managed to find two maternity dresses from the 19th century in our collection to share with you today. The first is a lovely brown dress from the 1840s-1850’s that started its life as a wedding dress and was later altered to wear during pregnancy and nursing. And the second is a very plain house dress from the 1860-70’s.
I also wanted to share with you some excerpts from a fascinating book about women’s health written in 1889 called The Physical Life of Woman: Advice To The Maiden, Wife and Mother by George H. Napheys A.M., M.D.
This book was of course written by a male, which may seem rather ironic to us in the current century as we’d expect women know more about their bodies and lives than men, but at the time it was accepted that men knew best about just about every subject. At the time it was widely believed that what a pregnant woman saw, thought or imagined could influence how her child would look or what kind of traits he would have. There was a section in the book titled “How To Have Beautiful Children” that I thought you might find rather amusing.
HOW TO HAVE BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN.
A practical question now naturally suggests itself. How can the vices of conformation be avoided, and beauty secured? The art of having handsome children, known under the name of callipædia, has received much attention, more, perhaps, in years gone by than of late. The noted Abbot Quillet wrote a book in Latin on the subject. Many other works, in which astrology plays a prominent part, were written on this art in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
We have already stated that well-formed parents will transmit these qualities to their children, with scarcely an exception. Like begets like. Unfortunately, all parents are not beautiful. Yet all desire beautiful offspring. The body of the child can be influenced by the mind of the parent, particularly of the mother. A mind habitually filled with pleasant fancies and charming images is not without its effect upon the offspring.
The statues of Apollo, Castor and Pollux, Venus, Hebe, and the other gods and goddesses which were so numerous in the gardens and public places in Greece, reproduced themselves in the sons and daughters of the passers-by. We know also that marriages contracted at an age too early or too late, are apt to give imperfectly-developed children. The crossing of temperaments and of nationalities beautifies the offspring. The custom which has prevailed, in many countries, among the nobility, of purchasing the handsomest girls they could find for their wives, has laid the foundation of a higher type of features among the ruling classes. To obtain this desired end, conception should take place only when both parents are in the best physical condition, at the proper season of the year, and with mutual passion. (We have already hinted how this can be regulated.) During pregnancy the mother should often have some painting or engraving representing cheerful and beautiful figures before her eyes, or often contemplate some graceful statue. She should avoid looking at, or thinking of ugly people, or those marked with disfiguring diseases. She should take every precaution to escape injury, fright, and disease of any kind, especially chicken-pox, erysipelas, or such disorders as leave marks on the person. She should keep herself well nourished, as want of food nearly always injures the child. She should avoid ungraceful positions and awkward attitudes, as by some mysterious sympathy these are impressed on the child she carries. Let her cultivate grace and beauty in herself at such a time, and she will endow her child with them. As anger and irritability leave imprints on the features, she should maintain serenity and calmness.
It was also common that in the early stages of pregnancy a woman would continue to wear her corset, though sometimes loosened over the abdomen to give her growing belly some extra room. This is discussed in this excerpt about clothing:
The dress during pregnancy should be loose and comfortable, nowhere pressing tightly or unequally. The word enceinte, by which a pregnant woman is designated, meant, originally, without a cincture,—that is, unbound. The Roman matrons, so soon as they conceived, were obliged to remove their girdles. Lycurgus caused the enactment of the Spartan law, that pregnant women should wear large dresses, so as not to prejudice the free development of the precious charges of which nature had rendered them the momentary depositaries. Stays or corsets may be used, in a proper manner, during the first five or six months of pregnancy, but after that they should either be laid aside, or worn very loosely. Any attempt at concealing pregnancy, by tight lacing and the application of a stronger busk, cannot be too severely condemned. By this false delicacy the mother is subjected to great suffering, and the child placed in jeopardy. The shape of the stays should be moulded to that of the changing figure, and great care should be taken that they do not depress the nipple or irritate the enlarging breasts.
There was a lot of literature as to how a woman should conduct herself during pregnancy as all manner of birth defects, deformities, illnesses, appearance, and other such things that affected a newborn were thought to have been caused in some way by the mother as shown by this excerpt:
CARE OF HEALTH DURING PREGNANCY.
This subject, the proper management of the health from conception to childbirth, is worthy of careful consideration. The condition of pregnancy, though not one of disease, calls for peculiar solicitude, lest it should lead to some affection in the mother or in the child. For it ought to be remembered that the welfare of a new being is now in the balance. The woman has no longer an independent existence. She has entered upon the circle of her maternal duties. She became a mother when she conceived. The child, though unborn, lives within her; its life is a part of her own, and so frail, that any indiscretion on her part may destroy it. The danger to the child is not imaginary, as the large number of miscarriages and still-births proves.
All mothers desire to have healthy, well-formed, intelligent children. How few conduct themselves in such a manner as to secure a happy development of their offspring! Puny, deformed, and feeble-minded infants are daily ushered into the world because of a want of knowledge, or a sinful neglect of those special measures imperatively demanded in the ordering of the daily life, by the changed state of the system consequent upon pregnancy. We shall therefore point out those laws which cannot be infringed with impunity, and indicate the diet, exercise, dress, and, in general, the conduct most favorable to the mother and child during this critical period, in which the wife occupies, as it were, an intermediate state between health and sickness.
Pregnancy, while not a very commonly discussed part of a woman’s life in the 19th century, was a very important part of a woman’s life. Birth control of course was almost non-existent (save for sheepskin condoms which were rarely used by married couples due to birth control being forbidden by the church) so most women had more than 10 pregnancies in their lifetime. Not every woman survived pregnancy either, it was unfortunately a lot more common then to die during childbirth than it is now. Maternal death during childbirth rates soared when society made the change from home births with a midwife to hospital births with a doctor doing the delivery. The conditions in hospitals were less than sanitary at the time and doctors often went from working on a cadaver to delivering a baby without washing their hands or sterilizing equipment in between. There’s some more fascinating in depth information on the subject of childbirth in the 19th century found here.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed our little peek into maternity in the 19th century and that you’ll join me next time when we explore maternity in the early 1900’s.