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How to Give Birth 100 Years Ago

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Previously: What to Expect When You're Expecting (100 Years Ago)

Up until the mid-19th century, childbirth was something men avoided. Women had babies in a room full of other women, aided by female midwives and nurses. Then the profession of "doctor" began to mean more than "guy who waves burning sage over your head while draining your blood." Science entered the practice of medicine, and it became a respectable profession that was almost exclusively the domain of men.

Male doctors wanted everyone to know that their knowledge and abilities were far superior to that of a common grubby midwife. So they began writing books. They took childbirth out of the intuitive hands of midwives, and claimed it as their own.

Most of what they wrote was as scientifically sound as could be expected for the era. Still, some of it was egregiously puzzling. Here, we look at some of the stranger advice of the day.

Preparing for the birth

In the mid-1800s, many women went to the "lying-in" hospital to be attended by physicians for childbirth. (This practice often proved fatal, as doctors who had no concept of sterilization or contagion would transmit diseases from woman to woman with their own bare hands). But if a woman lived rurally or had enough money, she delivered in her own home. Preparing the birth-room was an important part of childbirth. Turn-of-the-century plumbing, for instance, was an evil in need of a good spackling, according to Henry Davidson Fry's 1907 book, Maternity:

Sewer gas in the room is dangerous; for that reason a communicating bathroom is objectionable. In such a case the communicating door should be locked and the key removed. For the same reason stationary washstands are undesirable. The outflow openings should be closed with plaster of paris. [Fry]

Preparing the patient herself was also important. Fry's desire that the patient be sterilized was admirable, albeit rather abrasive.

The nurse should give particular attention to cleansing and preparing the skin of the abdomen, thighs, and external genital parts. First scrub with warm sterile water and soap, then rub dry, and afterward bathe the parts in a bichloride solution 1-1000, or solution of Lysol, one percent. It is particularly difficult to render the external parts surgically clean. The hair around the genitalia should be cut short with scissors or shaved, scrubbed with hot sterile water, and bathed with bichloride solution. [Fry]

Shaved, scalded, and sprayed down with Lysol. Now you're ready for some real discomfort.

However, John Gunn's 1861 Gunn's New Domestic Physician had a gentler suggestion for preparing those sensitive areas for the task ahead:

The parts of generation during labor should always be well oiled or greased with lard, as it greatly assists and mitigates the suffering, and lubricates the parts of passage. [Gunn]

Candles, cooking, refurbishing, and greasing up the birth canal. What can't lard do?

Women today usually choose to give birth in as few clothes as their modesty (such as it is in childbirth) allows. In his 1907 book, Coming Motherhood, Louis A. Spaeth shows us that women 100 years ago felt the same way. Unfortunately, the popular sports bra and knee socks combination was apparently not an option back then.

Probably the best way to dress a woman for the lying-in-bed is in short undershirt or under vest, shirt waist (blouse) and a skirt or petticoat, warm stockings and bed-room slippers. The supreme advantage of this method of dressing lies in the fact of the easy removal of the soiled garments. When labor is over, the skirt or petticoat is removed over the feet, the shirt waist taken off, and a clean night gown put on. [Spaeth]

Just because you're pushing a bloody human being from your vagina doesn't mean you get to dress like a slob, Madam. Show some decorum and be grateful Mr. Spaeth doesn't recommend returning to corsets until after the birth is over.

Pain mitigation

A few decades make a world of difference in the popular methods of handling the pain of birth. Dr. Gunn's method is as natural and low-impact as his suggested use of lard. Just get yourself a nice towel.

A towel, sheet, or some convenient article, should be tied to the bed post, so that at each pain the woman may pull it, as it assists her very much in her efforts, and she derives great benefit and comfort from the support. [Gunn]

It was long believed that pain was supposed to be part of childbirth, and to try and cheat it was to cheat God. Fry tells of a story wherein a poor woman in 1591 was burnt to death in Edinburgh "for employing charms and other means to cast off the pains of labor." Fry explains why pain mitigation was unpopular for most of history.

The arguments against it were:

The relief of pain during childbirth removed the maternal instinct.

It was immoral because it produced a condition similar to intoxication.

Various ill effects were attributed to it — epilepsy, convulsions, and insanity.

The most powerful argument against the relief of pain was that it was sacrilegious to thrust aside the decrees of Providence. Woman had been sentenced to suffer the pangs of childbirth, and it would rob God of the deep, earnest cries which arise in time of trouble for help. [Fry]

It is amazing how attitudes toward childbirth can change, however, when the most powerful woman in the world has eight children. In 1853, Queen Victoria was chloroformed during the birth of Prince Leopold, and a new era of pain control was born. One Sir James Y. Simpson even helped convince the religious-minded that perhaps God did not insist on suffering in birth.

Says Fry:

The Scottish clergy reviled Simpson for his work in opposition to the primeval curse, "In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children." He turned their shaft to ridicule by reminding them that the first operation recorded in history was performed under anesthesia, since when God created Eve from one of Adam's ribs, he "caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam." [Fry]

Good enough for God, good enough for the Queen, good enough for you.

Of course there will always be women who prefer natural pain control to chemical. In 1907, Spaeth had a unique approach to dulling labor pains. Apparently, the nerves of the womb are directly connected to the clitoris. Ergo sum:

With our present knowledge of the nerve supply of the womb, we are enabled to lessen the pains of labor to a very marked degree. During the first stages, pressure is made with the fingers on the terminal filaments of the sympathetic nerves in and around the clitoris. The index and middle fingers are placed, one on each side of this organ, and firm, moderately hard pressure is made against the bone with the direction of the pressure upward toward the abdomen; this is done by the attending physician, the nurse, or by the woman herself. A reflex result occurs, in which contraction of the womb follows; its mouth dilates, normal propulsion pains ensue, and labor proceeds naturally, all unnecessary flying pains cease. [Spaeth]

I cannot speak against this method, as even though I have had two children, I have never tried it. And likely would have punched anyone who suggested I should.

Post-partum instructions

In 1835, postpartum care mostly involved holding very, very still for a ridiculously long time. After childbirth, women are particularly fragile in mind and body, and physicians were terrified important things would fall out of a lady if she jostled around too much. In his book The Home Book of Health and Medicine, William Edmonds Horner lays it out:

Rest and quiet should be strictly enforced; no visitors should be admitted for a fortnight or three weeks, both to secure the mother from fatiguing herself by talking, and from hearing anything that might agitate or distress her mind. [Horner]

In 1896's Preparation for Motherhood, Elisabeth Robinson Scovil agrees. Even if the new mother wants to talk, she's not allowed to.

After all that the newly made mother has undergone, she needs perfect quiet for several hours before she is permitted to see anyone. A five-minute interview with her husband is all that should be granted. However well she feels, quiet should be insisted upon. Excitement is dangerous and no visitors must be permitted to enter the room, nor should conversation be allowed, even if she wishes to talk. Neglect of this precaution may cause serious disaster, even when all seems to be going on well. [Scovil]

Fry details the amount of interaction and movement the mother is allowed in excruciating detail.

For the first two hours after labor the patient should lie upon her back with the lower limbs extended and her head low. She can then be changed to the side position when desired, but for the first four days she ought to lie upon her back most of the time. After the fourth day she should change to the side often, and it is desirable to lie upon the abdomen some. After the fifth or sixth day she may be propped up in bed with pillows behind her for one-half or one hour at a time. She should not sit up in a chair until the top of the womb has descended into the pelvic cavity — from the tenth to the fourteenth day. The first day that she sits up she should remain out of bed only one hour and must not stand upon her feet or walk until the middle or end of the third week. On the second day that she gets out of bed she can stay up one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon or evening. The length of time is gradually increased, but even during the third or fourth weeks she should lie down or recline upon a sofa much of the time. She should not get up early in the mornings, but have her bath, breakfast, and a rest before doing so. She should wear a wrapper and not go through unnecessary fatigue of dressing.

She should not go down stairs until the end of the fourth week, and then only once a day for the first three days. After that she can go down morning or noon and evening. At the end of the fifth week she can go out for a short walk or drive. Shopping and visiting should be avoided for some time longer.

Neglect of these precautions often causes backache, subinvolution, and displacement of the womb. [Fry]

Fry must have been writing for a very elite group of women who had the luxury of lying around all day. Today, we live in a world where pre-made clothes wash themselves in large whirring boxes, and meals come prepackaged in plates you can throw away, and I still don't know any woman who can spend six weeks not moving. One-hundred-fifty years ago, if the average farmwife took to her bed for that length of time, her family would starve, her animals would turn feral, and the dark forest would reclaim her homestead. Still, it's a lovely thought.

Aside from stillness, there are other precautions to consider. For instance, if you find your generative organs have been unduly tormented by the act of childbirth, Horner suggests milk and bread. Or leeches.

Great stretching of the parts. This occasions great soreness, and uneasy feelings, which are best removed by bathing with warm milk and water. If there be much swelling, an emollient poultice of bread and milk, or linseed meal, may be applied, and frequently renewed. If there be general uneasiness, with heat and throbbing pain in the part, leeches may be necessary. [Horner]

As for the rest of your general post-partum health, one of the worst things you can do, according to Horner, is to eat and drink. Which may not be all that bad, considering you're not allowed to move.

The diet of women, after delivery, should be particularly attended to. For the first five or six days, all heating and stimulant food, and in general all solid and animal food whatever, should be forbidden, as such diet is very apt to bring on inflammatory complaints.

If the woman is not to nurse, she should avoid liquids as much as possible, and rather take a little fruit, ripe or preserved, to quench the thirst. If she is to nurse, she may have a little tea and panado, or gruel for breakfast, and, after a few days have elapsed, a little weak chicken broth or beef-tea, with toasted bread, for dinner; but wines and malt liquors should be avoided. [Horner]

If you're not going to breastfeed, you haven't earned the right to eat your gruel. But you can have malt liquor.

Today, childbirth is slowly returning to the domain of the female attendant, with female doulas, midwives, nurse midwives, and obstetricians slowly outpacing their male counterparts. It is possible that the time in which men were the prime authorities on childbirth will prove to be but a small blip in history. Because, after all, women were made for it. Put humbly by Gunn:

That Women generally endure pain and sickness with more fortitude and patience than men, is evident. Looking forward with the pleasing hope of being the mother of a tender offspring, upon which she can lavish her affection and tenderness, sustains her in fulfilling the conditional requirements of Nature. Few men could be induced, for any consideration, to suffer in a similar manner. [Gunn]

Previously: What to Expect When You're Expecting (100 Years Ago)

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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