At five o’clock Monday evening [she] went to [her] sister’s to return washboard, having just finished day’s washing. Baby born while there; sister too young to assist in any way, so she cut cord herself; washed baby at sister’s home, walked home, cooked supper for boarders … Got up and ironed next day and day following; it tired her, so she then stayed in bed two days.
The morning after my own daughter was born near midnight, my father called and wanted to know why I was still in bed. After giving birth to Dad, my Italian grandmother was up stomping grapes the next day. Although I question the truth of that story, our female ancestors seem to have been made from sturdier stock than most of us today, as the letter above shows.
The unidentified woman in this narrative was a Polish immigrant whose story is printed in Doris Weatherford’s Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930, revised and expanded edition (Facts on File). The story shows how women sometimes gave birth unassisted and then returned to their normal duties.
Most immigrant women, however, had a midwife during childbirth. Midwives often helped around the house after the birth and returned to check on the mother and infant. Women who had the financial means usually had doctors in attendance or went to a hospital.
To learn more about our foremothers’ childbirth experiences, see the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine, Catherine M. Scholten’s Childbearing in American Society: 1650-1850 (New York University Press) and Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America by Richard W. and Dorothy C. Wertz (Yale University Press).
More great genealogy resources from Family Tree Magazine: