Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Brief Overview of Childbirth and Nursing in Seventeenth Century America

Women in the seventeenth century were not graced with the medical advancements or knowledge that women have today, and this prompted a higher risk associated with both pregnancy and childbirth.  However, they did have a supportive female community that proved beneficial in providing knowledge and support to new and expecting mothers.  While men dominated most aspects of life in the seventeenth century, pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing were female niches.
In several communities, men were excluded from the delicate handling of childbirth, barred from the home or into another room.  The husband was at the mercy of women present during labor; these women served as middlemen to keep him informed.  In excluding men from childbirth, doctors and pastors were rarely present.  It was only “In a moment of extreme peril the traditional experience of the midwife gave way to the book-learning and professional aura of the minister-physician.”[1]  This changed by the mid-eighteenth century, as people recognized that medical and religious authorities could prove to be the most help in dire situations.
Celebrating the Birth by Jan Steen, 1664.

Instead of taking instruction from minster-physicians in the community, pregnant women put faith in older mothers.  There were not many midwives in New England during the seventeenth century, and female neighbors took on the role.  The experienced women would provide information and comfort to expecting mothers, as well as old wives’ tales.  For example, they warned the mother that “reaching over one’s head during the last months of pregnancy would result in a tangled umbilical cord and the possible death of child.”[2]  They would also use eggs (a symbol of fertility) to help speed delivery.  The English Housewife recommended taking “two or three eggs and they must be neither roast nor raw, {…} and eat a piece of brown bread to them and drink a draught of small ale.”[3]  When it came time to deliver the child, several women would gather in the home, and help deliver the child.  For example, “Depositions in an Essex County case of 1657 reported a dozen women present at a Gloucester birth.”[4]  There is also an instance where every female member in Falmouth Neck attended the birth of one woman’s son.[5]
The female community was present after childbirth as well.  In fact, another lactating mother would often feed the baby for the first time; this was because the mother’s milk was considered “impure for several days owing to the ‘commotions’ of birth.”[6]  However, it is important to note that there was no paid wet-nurse.  All wet-nursing was voluntary, either by family members or neighbors.  While it was the responsibility of the mother to nurse, when a mother was sick or had to travel, it proved incredibly helpful to have the support of the surrounding female community.  As Beales puts it, “Exchange or courtesy wet-nursing was thus an extension of the networks of female friendship and service which existed at the time of childbirth.”[7]
While a wet-nurse could be used when the mother was sick or traveling, these situations were also used to promote the weaning of a child.  Ulrich also describes cases where mothers would leave their children and stay with extended family in an effort to get the child to stop nursing; this was known as a “weaning journey.”[8].  These weaning journeys have led historians to conclude that the weaning process was an anxious experience for both mother and child, but the lack of documentation cannot confirm this belief.
Good Neighbors by Johannes Christiaan Janson, 1780 – 1810

Childbirth was a daunting experience for women in the seventeenth century, and the support provided from the female community proved invaluable.  In a period when women lacked a voice, they demonstrated their knowledge and strength through the exclusive niche of childbirth.

Works Cited
Beales Jr., Ross W. “Nursing and Weaning in Eighteenth-Century New England Household” in Families and Children, edited by Peter Benes, 48-63. Boston: Boston University, 1987.
Markham, Gervase. The English Housewife. Edited by Michael R. Best.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Good Wives: Images of Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

[1]Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Images of Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 133.
[2] Ibid., 137.
[3] Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, ed. Michael R. Best., {Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986), 40.
[4] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives, 126.
[5] Ibid., 126.
[6] Ibid., 129.
[7] Ross W. Beales Jr., “Nursing and Weaning in Eighteenth-Century New England Household” in Families and Children, ed. Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University, 1987), 60.
[8] Ibid., 58.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article! Paintings provide a wealth of insight into material culture as well. Well done, Miss!