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.”

5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.


Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.


Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.


If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.


While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.


Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.


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