4 Historical Royal Birthing Traditions

MirasWonderland/iStock via Getty Images
MirasWonderland/iStock via Getty Images

We can’t really tell you what it was like in the delivery room of the private Lindo wing of St. Mary’s Hospital in London. But we can tell you what it would have been like for other historical royal women. And let’s just say, it wasn’t always pleasant—although in some cases, it changed the way babies were born for everyone.

1. Giving birth with an audience

For hundreds of years, royal women gave birth in front of spectators. It was a big custom among the French royalty—poor Marie Antoinette was almost killed by the great crush of people who poured into her bedchamber at Versailles when the doctor shouted that the baby was coming. Contemporary reports claim that it was stiflingly hot, that it was impossible to move for spectators, and that some people were climbing atop the furniture for a better view. No wonder she fainted. (And no wonder the custom was abandoned soon after. Well, sort of: The royal mother still gave birth before a crowd of people—ministers, advisors, trustworthy types—just a smaller one.)

A public viewing, no matter how uncomfortable for the one being viewed, was designed to prove to the entire court that the child was indeed the fruit of the royal woman’s womb, that there hadn’t been a switch up at some point.

Even if it wasn’t an official public—as in any punters off the street—policy, other royal women were expected to deliver their babies to an audience. Still, it didn’t work for Mary of Modena, queen consort of the Catholic King James II. No less than 70 people reportedly witnessed the birth of their longed-for son and heir, James Francis Edward Stuart, on June 10, 1688. But gossips still claimed that he was a changeling child smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming pan, and that the real prince had been stillborn. The whole conspiracy was cooked up by Protestants wary that the Catholic King James II would raise his son, the heir to the throne, a Catholic; that would constitute a further imposition of what they now considered a foreign religion on a Protestant people. The supposed illegitimacy of young James, however, furnished William of Orange, the next Protestant in line for the British throne, with a good reason to invade.

But measures to make sure that the royal baby was indeed the right one were still in place until 1936. Until then, and including the births of Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret, the British Home Secretary was required to stand outside the door of the birthing room, just to be sure.

2. Palace or hospital?

Maybe it’s comforting to know that royal women tend to give birth generally the same as other women, and the mechanisms of those births tend to follow the customs of the day. That meant that for the vast majority of royal family history, babies were born at home, or at whatever palatial estate the royal mother happened to be in at the time. Prince Charles, heir to the British crown, was born November 14, 1948, at Buckingham Palace. (Or rather, as the BBC put it, “Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh, was safely delivered of a prince at 9:14 p.m.”)

At the time, roughly one in three women in the UK gave birth at home. It wasn’t until more than 20 years later that a member of the royal family would be born in a hospital. In 1970, Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, was the first royal baby to be born in a hospital (University College London—that’s where I gave birth! I feel famous!). That was, incidentally, the same year that the Peel Report in the UK recommended that every British woman should give birth in a hospital, not at home, for the safety of the infant. Now, less than 3 percent of British mothers give birth at home—and the royals are among the majority who go the hospital route.

3. A bit of chloroform? Queen Victoria starts a fad

Queen Victoria was all about setting standards and starting fads, some of them better than others. For the vast majority of human existence, pain relief for women in labour was rare—and for at least some of history, said to be against the wishes of God. One woman in 1591 was burned at the stake after she asked for pain relief during the birth of her twins. Though not quite so extreme, that was the general attitude even after the discovery of relatively safe anesthetics in the 19th century. Ether and chloroform were all right for things like surgery and limb removal, but delivering babies the painful way was woman’s lot in life.

And then, in 1853, at the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria asked her attending physician for a bit of the good stuff. Dr. John Snow (the visionary doctor who figured out that the deadly cholera outbreaks cutting swathes through the city were being transmitted by water-born microbes) administered chloroform to the Queen via a saturated cloth: “Her majesty expressed great relief from the application, the pains being very trifling during the uterine contractions, and whilst between the periods of contraction there was complete ease.” I’ll bet.

Victoria’s decision, however, and the decision of people around her to tell everyone about it, ushered in a new era of drugs for childbirth. For good or for ill: After the floodgates opened, doctors were throwing anything and everything at delivering mothers, from nitrous oxide (whip-its!) and quinine (anti-malarial!) to cocaine and opium. By the end of the century, modern science determined that modern ladies—well, modern ladies of the upper and middle classes, and definitely not poor women—were too delicate to give birth without significant aid. During the early part of the 20th century, some doctors advocated “twilight sleep” for those women who could afford it. “Twilight sleep” was basically super-strong drugs that didn’t knock you out during the birth— women under the influence of this cheery cocktail routinely hallucinated and had to be restrained and blindfolded during childbirth—but they did make sure you didn’t remember a damn thing except waking up in the morning with an adorable new baby. Um, thanks, Victoria?

4. Get a grip: Forceps

Nowadays, instrumental births are more common; in the UK, around one in eight women delivers her child with help from a Ventouse (the vacuum) or forceps. Before the invention of the forceps, however, there were few options to unstick a stuck baby that didn’t result in the death of the mother or the child. The less said about that the better.

But beginning in the late 1500s, one family had a secret gadget that seemed to miraculously free the baby without (too much) harm and save the mother as well: The Chamberlen family had invented the first obstetric forceps. And they didn’t tell anyone for the next 200 years. French Huguenots Dr. William Chamberlen and his pregnant wife and three children sailed to England in 1569. No one knows whether it was this Chamberlen or one of his sons called Peter (he had two) who developed the first forceps design, but by the 1600s, the Chamberlens were the "men midwives" of choice to the British social elite. Men midwives, as they were actually called, were the newest, hottest thing in obstetrics, putting female midwives out of business left and right. Of course, it was still quite inappropriate for a man who was not her husband to see a lady’s bits, so male midwives were forced to work almost blindfolded: The female patient would be covered in a sheet from her neck down, the other end of the sheet tied around the male midwife’s neck, forming a kind of tent. 

This actually worked out well for the Chamberlens, as it meant they could keep their lifesaving—and incredibly lucrative—instrument a secret. The Chamberlens by now were favorites of pregnant British royals and aristocracy, though the rest of the medical community pretty much hated them. In the early 1700s, Hugh Chamberlen finally made the design for the forceps public, although they were almost immediately the subject of fierce debate—some doctors and midwives thought they killed more infants than they saved.

It took the death of a royal princess to make people think otherwise. In 1817, Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of Princess Caroline and George, Prince of Wales (later George IV), died after delivering a stillborn baby boy. The national outpouring of grief was intense—the British people had loved Charlotte in direct proportion to how much they hated her father, which was a lot. But while the nation clad itself in black, Charlotte’s death had another, more long-term effect: The attending doctor was excoriated in public for not using forceps to deliver the child. The demand for forceps soared, ushering a new era of birthing protocol; the doctor, however, killed himself three months after Charlotte’s death.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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