Saturday, December 01, 2012

Childbirth in Rural (and Not So Rural) America 100 Years Ago

I live sixty-five miles from a Dr. and my other babies (two) were very large at birth - on 12 lbs., and the other 10 1/2 lbs.  I have been very badly torn each time through the rectum. . . . I am 37 years old and I am so worried and filled with perfect horror at the prospects ahead.  So many of my neighbors die at giving birth. . . . I have a baby 11 months old in my keeping now, whose mother died.  When I reached their cabin last Nov. it was 22 below zero, and I had to ride 7 miles horseback.  She was nearly dead when I got there, and died after giving birth to a 14 lb. boy - Will you please send me all the information for care of myself before and after and at the time of delivery.  I am far from a doctor, and we have no means.

-from a letter by Mrs. A-C-P of Burntfork, Wyoming, in 1916 to Julia Lathrop, a "maternalist reformer" and chief of the Children's Bureau within the Department of Labor.  Congress passed legislation creating The Children's Bureau in 1912.  This passage from the letter is quoted in Wertz and Wertz, Lying-In: a History of Childbirth in America (Expanded Edition) (Yale Univ. Press 1989), p. 205.

My dad's father, Walter Levi Stokes (June 6, 1877 - December 20,1949), was married before he married my dad's mother, Hettie Louise Johnson Stokes (October 24, 1884 - July 14, 1959).  His first wife died in childbirth, as did the baby.  My dad said that Grandfather Walter stopped working when my dad was 15 or 16. Dad had to go to work to support the family.  They moved from a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta to a house on the outskirts of that city.  I remember that old wooden house, with its privy out the back.  Neighbors, the Cooglers, helped feed the family.  My dad believes that his father stopped working because the trauma of Grandfather's first wife and baby dying caught up with him.  I think that means he suffered from depression.  You don't get over losing a baby at childbirth.  I can't imagine what happens to a young man who loses his wife and baby both.

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