Thursday, 4 December 2014

"Women in the Family Way" - Victorian Pregnancy and Childbirth

“Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy and complaining about the shadow over my feet, I’d have cherished every minute of it and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was to be my only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.” –Erma Bombeck

Figure 1: Victorian mother 

Giving birth to a child is arguably one of the most amazing and life-changing things a woman will do in her life – and also one of the hardest. If you think pregnancy and giving birth is difficult in the 21st century, imagine being a Victorian pregnant woman – wondering if either your pregnancy or your baby’s birth will kill you or not.

There is no doubt that Victorian medical practices, such as giving birth, were much more dangerous than they are now. The mere concept of hand washing while birthing a child did not come around until the 1840s. Not very surprisingly after the introduction of bathing your hands in a ‘solution of chlorinated lime before examining new mothers’ in 1842, childbirth mortality rates dramatically lowered from eighteen percent to about six percent.

One experience that all women who have given birth share is the indescribable pain that is experienced. Luckily nowadays we have various pain reliefs available, such as the epidural. This was not a luxury that women had in this period, at least until January 19, 1847 when either chloroform or ether was used as an anaesthetic to deliver a baby, even though it is now a suspected carcinogen. Even Queen Victoria used chloroform for her eighth birth in 1853. This use of anaesthetic became popular all over England - however it did receive some religious backlash. Many members of the British clergy argued ‘that this human intervention in the miracle of birth was sin against the will of God. If God had wished labour to be painless, he would have created it so.’

Figure 2: The birth of Princess Victoria

The normal method for administering chloroform to a patient would be to drop a dose of chloroform,
and place it on a cloth over the patient’s nose and mouth, so that it was to be inhaled. The fact that chloroform causes almost instant unconsciousness made it an extremely impractical method of anaesthetising the mother, and also risked the health of both mother and baby, even after labour. So to counteract this problem, Dr. John Snow (1813-1858) gave a smaller amount of chloroform to the patient (by only putting a few drops on a cloth). Similarly to modern pain relief such as the epidural, or a ‘spinal block’, this allowed the mother to feel no pain but still be able to push and be conscious enough to understand what the birth attendants are telling her to do – it worked as a numbing method.              

                                                                                                                 Figure 3: Chloroform being inhaled

Due to the fact that there was no such thing as ‘prenatal vitamins’, women were often anaemic while pregnant, and this created huge childbirth risks. Other risks to the mother’s health included having a retained placenta (when the placenta remains in the uterus after the baby is born – causing the mother to have to push it out separately), or the contaminated hands of the doctor, midwife and birth attendants.   

Childbirth was alarmingly dangerous in the 19th century, but pregnancy was just as life threatening. Creating a human being is hard enough anyway, but without adequate nourishment, all sorts of complications are created. Huge nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin D and calcium in the working class such as community during the Victorian era sometimes caused rickets, which led to a contracted pelvis and made birth more difficult.

One fashion statement that we often associate with the staunch and repressed Victorian woman is the corset – an outfit used to shape the waist and torso into an aesthetically pleasing shape – i.e. to give the woman an ‘hourglass figure’, exaggerating the bust and hips. A small waist was desirable for women because it suggested femininity, and therefore implied increased oestrogen production and higher chance of fertility. Due to the obvious physical restrictions that the corset placed on the woman’s lungs, torso and internal organs, the corset was so unhealthy for women that it would sometimes prevent pregnancy itself.

Figure 4: A Maternity Corset

The female body changes shape in the stomach area completely during pregnancy - one would think that a woman would be excused from wearing a corset for nine months – surely it would be impossible to fit a rounded abdomen into a tiny corset? Well it was apparently possible for Victorian women. There was no such thing as billowing shirts and dresses, and stretchy ‘maternity jeans’ in the Victorian era. Doctors and gynaecologists (who were interestingly all male) decided that if women still had to wear corsets during pregnancy, they should be expanded slightly in order to allow room for the growing belly. It was determined that between twenty and eighty lbs. of pressure per square inch on the female form. It would certainly be interesting to hear how 21st century women would feel about having to do this!


Figure 5 (above): Pregnant actress Lillie Langtry, 1852

Pregnant women were also confined during the last trimester of their pregnancy – so not only was their pregnancy confining physically, it was confining emotionally and mentally also, and must have been very lonely and consuming. The confinement period may be when women actually took their corsets off due to not being in the public eye.

Figure 6 (left): A heavily pregnant Victorian woman (Mid to late 1880s) 
                                          Figure 7 (right): Some modern day "maternity jeans"                                     

As we can see here, there is a big difference between the sort of clothing what Victorian women and modern women would wear while pregnant. It seems the woman on the left would experience a much more uncomfortable pregnancy: being restrained and restricted by her corset and the many layers of finery she is wearing. Women today are much more lucky - getting clothing tailored to fit their "baby bumps" - indicated here by the stretchy and more flexible material of the maternity jeans.

And finally, possibly the most ridiculous aspect of being a pregnant woman in the Victorian period was the prenatal advice they were given. It is said that pregnant women during the early 1900s were told that there was a link between prenatal nourishment and consumption and the temperament of the baby: one strange one being to avoid salty or sour foods such as pickles – because these type of foods might give the baby a ‘sour disposition’!


Boyle, Laura. "Developments in Childbirth in Regency and Victorian England" n.p., June 20, 2011. Web.

McRobbie Rodriguez, Linda. "12 Terrible Pieces of Advice for Pregnant Women" n.p., December 12, 2012. Web.

Kodali, Shankar Bhavani . "Brief historical evolution of childbirth pain relief" n.p., n.d. Web.

Miss Cellania. "The Historical Horror of Childbirth" n.p., May 9, 2013. Web.

Virag, Melissa. "Pregnancy, Survival and the Wasp Waist in the Belle Epoque", May 10, 2009. Web.

Wohl, Anthony. "Women and Victorian Public Health: Difficulties in Childbirth" n.p., n.d. Web.

Erma Bombeck quote:

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1 comment:

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