Archive for the ‘Childbirth’ Category

“an evident distinction between the male and female”

Dr. William Buchan, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, is famous for a book called Domestic Medicine: or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, with an Appendix, containing a Dispensatory for the Use of Private Practitioners. Originally published in 1769, it ran to 22 editions and was translated into many languages. It was popular throughout Europe as well as in the American colonies. When Abigail Adams sailed to Europe to join John in 1784 she took a copy of Buchan along with her. The book is full of what seems to us today to be common sense advice: the value of cleanliness, a sensible diet, the benefits of exercise. Here is what Dr. Buchan says about women at the beginning of his chapter on the “Diseases of Women” which include “Menstrual Discharge. Pregnancy, Child-birth, and Barrenness”. It was common during that time to term these natural processes diseases. Giving birth was referred to as “being ill.”

Women, in all civilized nations, have the management of domestic affairs, and it is very proper they should, as Nature has made them less fit for the more active and laborious employments. This indulgence, however, is generally carried too far; and females, instead of being benefited by it, are greatly injured, from the want of exercise and free air. To be satisfied of this, one need only compare the fresh and ruddy looks of a milk-maid with the pale complexion of those females whose whole time is spent within doors. Though Nature has made an evident distinction between the male and female with regard to bodily strength and vigour, yet she certainly never meant, either that the one should be always without, or the other always within doors.

The confinement of females [constriction by corsets, etc.] besides hurting their figure and complexion, relaxes their solids, weakens their minds, and disorders all the functions of the body. Hence proceed obstructions, indigestion, flatulence, abortions, and the whole train of nervous disorders. These not only unfit women for being mothers and nurses, but often render them whimsical and ridiculous. A sound mind depends so much upon a healthy body, that where the latter is wanting, the former is rarely to be found.

I have always observed, that women who were chiefly employed without doors, in the different branches of husbandry, gardening, and the like, were almost as hardy as their husbands, and that their children were likewise strong and healthy.

Domestic Medicine can be read ONLINE. The excerpts in this post are taken from pages 521-22.

posted May 12th, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off on “an evident distinction between the male and female”, CATEGORIES: Childbirth,Health,Medicine

“I … am very apprehensive that a life was lost … “

Pregnancy and childbirth loomed large in the lives of eighteenth century women. Abigail Adams experienced a distressing experience in her last pregnancy. She wrote to her husband John in Philadelphia of her premonition that something was amiss.

July 9, 1777I Sit down to write you this post, and from my present feelings tis the last I shall be able to write for some time if I should do well. I have been very unwell for this week past, with Some complaints that have been new to me, tho I hope not dangerous.
I was last night taken with a shaking fit, and am very apprehensive that a life was lost, as I have no reason to day to think otherways; what may be the consequences to me, Heaven only knows. I know not of any injury to my-self, nor any thing which could occasion what I fear.
I would not Have you too much allarmd, I keep up Some Spirits yet, tho I would have you prepaird for any Event that may happen.
I can add no more than that I am in every Situation
unfeignedly Yours, Yours.

Abigail wrote another letter to John the following day.

Tis now 48 Hours since I can say I really enjoyed any Ease, nor am I ill enough to summons any attendance unless my sisters. Slow, lingering & troublesome is the present situation. The Dr. encourages me to Hope that my apprehensions are groundless respecting what I wrote you yesterday, tho I cannot say I had any reason to allter my mind—my spirits However are better than they were yesterday, and I almost wish I had not let that Letter go. If there should be agreeable News to tell you, you shall know it as soon as the post can convey it, I pray Heaven that it may be soon or it seems to me I shall be worn out. I must lay my pen down this moment, to bear what I cannot fly from—and now I have endured it I reassume my pen and will lay by all my own feelings and thank you for your obligeing Letters.

In case you missed it, when Abigail wrote “I must lay my pen down this moment,” she was experiencing the onset of labor—”what I cannot fly from.” In a subsequent letter to her husband, Abigail wrote that she had delivered a still-born child, a much-hoped-for daughter: “[A] life I know you value, has been spaired … altho the dear Infant is Numbered with its ancestors.” She noted that “no one was so much affected with the loss of it as its Sister [Nabby] who mournd in tears for Hours.”

Letters are from In the Words of Women, pages 172-73.

posted February 4th, 2013 by Janet, Comments Off on “I … am very apprehensive that a life was lost … “, CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Childbirth,Death

“Oh how great the loss … “

Fans of Downton Abbey undoubtedly shed tears at the death of Sybil Crawley Branson after childbirth in the episode that aired on January 27. Sybil’s marriage to Tom Branson, the family chauffeur and an ardent Irishman, and their move to Ireland, had unsettled the family. When a pregnant Sybil and her husband were forced to leave that country because of Tom’s revolutionary activities, the couple returned to Downton Abbey in time for Sybil to give birth. Warnings by the family physician of symptoms of eclampsia were discounted by the obstetrician brought in by the Earl of Grantham. Although Sybil was delivered of a healthy girl she died soon after of seizures typical of eclampsia. A severe blow to all.

This sad event brought to mind the description recorded in her diary by Frances Baylor Hill of Hillsborough, Virginia, of the agony and eventual death after childbirth of her sister-in-law Polly Hill.

Fryday [ September] the 8 [1797]. Sister Hill had just had a little one and was very sick … her baby is a fine girl tho’ not so handsome as Thomas.
(Saturday) Sister Polly still continu’d to be very sick had a high fever all day ….
Monday. Sister Polly rather better in the morning … Aunt Hill sent for Mr. Hill & Doctor Williamson, they did not come till the evening & found her a great deal worse than they expect’d … she grew so much worse that they sent for Doctor Roberts …. They set up with her all night & gave her bark [quinine] ….
(Tuesday) she was sometimes better & then worse, the whole day kept changing … The Docts gave her bark & Laudanum which confus’d her head very much …
(Wednesday) Sister Polly was very ill all day ….
(Thursday) a little better in the morning, but Oh how soon the pleasing hope vanish’d into dispair of her ever geting well, she continu’d extreemly ill all day; toward the evening she seemed to be a little better, but in the night she grew worse again and Poor Dear creature kept growing worse & worse untill about 5 oclock, which was the hour of her departure. No mortal can describe the distressing scean that follow’d after every thing being done by two very eminent Doctors & haveing had the best of nursing, to see her expire! Oh how great the loss to her Dear & Affectionate Husband, as well as her tender relations.

Diary entries from In the Words of Women, pages 175-76.

posted January 31st, 2013 by Janet, Comments Off on “Oh how great the loss … “, CATEGORIES: Childbirth

A Midwife’s Tale

The Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich was published in 1990 and won a Pultizer Prize. A splendid work, the result of years of painstaking research, it presents ten long transcribed passages from the “raw” diary entries of midwife Martha Ballard, one per chapter, each with an interpretive essay. The essays help flesh out the character of Ballard and give readers insight into the society and culture in which she lived and worked. Explaining her approach Ulrich writes: “Juxtaposing the raw diary and the interpretive essay … I have hoped to remind readers of the complexity and subjectivity of historical reconstruction, to give them some sense of both the affinity and the distance between history and source.” Wise words.

In researching materials for In the Words of Women my colleagues and I considered including some of Martha Ballard diary entries, but it seemed presumptuous of us given Ulrich’s extraordinary effort and the availability of her book. Besides, the raw entries tend to be short, repetitive, and “submerged” in what Ulrich called “the dense dailiness” of life. Here is an example dated August 16 1787.

At Mr Cowens. Put Mrs Claton to Bed with a son at 3pm. Came to Mr Kenadays to see his wife who has a sweling under her arm, Polly is mending. I returned as far as Mr. Pollards by water. Calld from there to Winthrop to Jeremy Richards wife in Travil [labor]. Arived about 9 o Clok Evin.

As you can see considerable space would have to be allotted to explain who the people were as well as the context, and we could not afford that luxury.

The reason that prompted this post is that I finally viewed the television documentary “A Midwife’s Tale” (1997), one in the PBS series the American Experience. Brilliantly done, it tells Ballad’s story through reenacted scenes, readings from her diary, and participation and commentary by Ulrich. In addition to acquainting viewers with Martha Ballard it demonstrates how a historian works, and how challenging and complex that work is. It is available from Netflix.

Ulrich’s book can be purchased from Amazon.

posted January 28th, 2013 by Janet, Comments Off on A Midwife’s Tale, CATEGORIES: Childbirth,Daily life,Health,Primary sources,Reading old documents,Research

A “fine child may be producd in less than five months…”

The young lawyer Royall Tyler had become acquainted with “Nabby” Adams, the daughter of Abigail and John, when he was a boarder in the household of Mary Cranch, Abigail’s sister. The two fell in love but Nabby’s parents had reservations about Tyler. Abigail whisked Nabby off to Europe with her in the spring of 1784 to join John, and the relationship did not survive. Nabby married Colonel William Stephens Smith in London in 1786.

In September of that year, Mary Cranch had some interesting news to convey to her sister regarding Tyler who had moved from the Cranch household to that of Joseph and Elizabeth Hunt Palmer in Braintree, Massachusetts. She was not a little surprised at the consequence of that move.

We live in an age of discovery. One of our acquaintance has discover’d that a full grown, fine child may be produc’d in less than five months as well as in nine, provided the mother should meet with a small fright a few hours before its Birth. You may laugh but it is true. The Ladys Husband is so well satisfied of it that he does not seem to have the least suspicion of its being otherways, but how can it be? for he left this part of the country the beginning of september last, and did not return till the Sixth of April, and his wife brought him this fine Girl the first day of the present Month. Now the only difficulty Seems to be, whether it is the product of a year, or twenty weeks. She affirms it is the Latter, but the learned in the obstretick Art Say that it is not possible. The child is perfectly large and Strong. I have seen it my sister: it was better than a week old tis true, but a finer Baby I never Saw. It was the largest she ever had her Mother says. I thought So myself, but I could not say it. It was a matter of So much Speculatin that I was determin’d to see it. I went with trembling Steps, and could not tell whether I should have courage enough to see it till I had Knock’d at the Door. I was ask’d to walk up, by, and was follow’d by her Husband. The Lady was seting by the side of the Bed suckling her Infant and not far from her—with one sliper off, and one foot just step’d into the other. I had not seen him since last May. He look’d, I cannot tell you how. He did not rise from his seat, perhaps he could not. I spoke to him and he answer’d me, but hobble’d off as quick as he could without saying any more to me. There appear’d the most perfect harmony between all three. She was making a cap and observ’d that She had nothing ready to put her child in as she did not expect to want them so Soon. I made no reply—I could not. I make no remarks. Your own mind will furnish you with sufficient matter for Sorrow and joy, and any other sensations, or I am mistaken.
Adieu yours affectionately

Mary Cranch was clearly implying that Elizabeth Palmer had borne a child fathered by Tyler while her husband, Joseph Pearse Palmer, was away from Boston in 1786. While Abigail was saddened by the behavior of Tyler, whom she had in fact rather liked, it is interesting to note that she placed the blame for the incident entirely on the woman.

In this case it may be difficult to determine which was the Seducer, and I feel more inclined to fix it upon the female than the paramour, at any rate She is more Guilty, in proportion as her obligations to her Husband her children her family & the Religion of which she is a professer are all Scandalized by her and she has sacrificed her Honour her tranquility & her virtue.

Tyler not only bedded Elizabeth Palmer but married her daughter Mary. The pair moved to Vermont and had eleven children. Tyler became a noted jurist and author. His play, The Contrast, was the first American work to be professionally produced and commercially successful.

Cranch’s letter and Abigail’s response are on pages 192-93 of In the Words of Women. The portrait of Nabby by Mather Brown (1785) can be seen at the Adams National Historic Park.

posted November 26th, 2012 by Janet, Comments Off on A “fine child may be producd in less than five months…”, CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Adams, John,Childbirth,Courtship,Marriage,Scandal

previous page · next page

   Copyright © 2022 In the Words of Women.