Luc Melanson
Luc Melanson

8 Ways Childbirth Used to Be Even More Labor Intensive

Luc Melanson
Luc Melanson

Giving birth is hard. Or so I’ve heard. I don’t have the proper equipment, so when my children were born my job was restricted to feeding my wife ice chips and telling her she was a trouper. But after witnessing the sounds and faces she made, I’m assuming birth is hard.

That said, I’m incredibly grateful that my kids were born in the last decade. Because childbirth in centuries past was almost incomprehensibly harder, more painful, and more dangerous than it is in modern-day America. Not only that: It was also a lot stranger.

1. It involved far more animals than you might expect.

According to the book Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy, French midwives would place a chicken on the belly of the pregnant woman. The idea was that the scratchy claws would somehow speed up labor.

Cassidy also writes that women in the Hopi Native American tribe were encouraged to snack on weasels. They hoped the fetus would absorb the weasel’s skill of digging its way out of holes. Other women were told to eat eels to make the birth canal slippery.

2. Sometimes it wasn’t just strange—it was downright brutal.

Well, more brutal than childbirth tends to be of its own accord. German midwives were known to flog expectant women in a hearty attempt to scare the baby out of the womb.

3. And then there was the machinery.

If you want to lose some sleep, check out the diagram of a 20th-century baby-extraction contraption that involves forceps, ropes, and pulleys. (It can be found at London's Wellcome Library or here, but clicker beware: it's not for the faint of heart). Or just take my word for it and get your beauty rest.

Other tools would fit right in at Christian Grey’s dungeon. As Randi Hutter Epstein describes in Get Me Out, “a few looked like fireplace stokers, and one looked like a gigantic cast-iron corkscrew.”

4. Women still had to act like proper ladies and hosts.

In colonial times, women in labor were expected to provide “groaning beers” and “groaning cakes” (basically, special fruitcakes) to their guests.

Since they looked unseemly squatting or with their feet in the air, Victorian women were encouraged to lie down during birth. Unfortunately, as Epstein writes, the pose “may look ladylike but does not work very well for the mechanics of labor”—not to mention, it can be “excruciating.”

5. Fathers got dramatic.

Now, consider the odd ritual known as “couvade,” once practiced by several societies, including the Basques of Northern Spain. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the father would get into bed with his wife and simulate childbirth. That is, he pretended to undergo labor, just like the baby’s mother. And then, the mother would sometimes get to her feet hours after giving birth and wait on the father.

6. An epidural was not an option.

Don’t even think about asking for pain relief. According to Genesis 3:16, agonizing childbirth was punishment for Eve’s sin: “In pain shall you bring forth children.” And according to Sanjay Datta’s book Childbirth and Pain Relief: An Anesthesiologist Explains Your Options, in 1591, a Scottish woman named Euphaine Macalyane was burned to death for having the gall to ask her midwife for a remedy to alleviate her labor pains.

7. Some people wanted the delivery bed to be a confessional. 

Perhaps even worse: In traditional Siberian culture, it was thought that labor was a convenient time to interrogate the soon-to-be mom about any potential infidelities. She was told that the birth would be even more painful if she lied.

8. It’s not even all ancient history.

Fifty years ago, retired mining engineer George Blonksy and his wife, Charlotte, were granted a U.S. patent for their “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force,” which Jennifer Block describes in the book Pushed. Also known as “The Blonksy,” it was a floor-to-ceiling, cast-iron carousel of doom. The mother-to-be would be strapped in and spun around, generating a force seven times that of gravity to “counteract the atmospheric pressure opposing the emergence of the child.” The doctor stood by, ready to employ an emergency brake if necessary.

So all in all, today’s birthing process is an improvement. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “Easy for you to say, Mr. Breathing Coach.”

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:


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