During the 19th century, there were many sources of information on motherhood and maternity. Some new mothers relied on the instructions of their nurse, midwife, or physician. While others used the example set by their own mother as a guide for their conduct. For all the questions remaining, there were motherhood and maternity manuals produced by hospitals, religious organizations, and advice experts. These guides advised on everything from conception and pregnancy to nursery decoration, childrearing, and teenage rebellion.
When it came to clothing, Victorian maternity manuals advised that the expectant mother let comfort be her guide. However, as a rule, tight corsets were discouraged, as were any form-fitting garments which might impede either the pregnant woman’s circulation or the growth of the fetus. In fact, as Dr. John West explains in his 1887 book Maidenhood and Motherhood:
“The French term enceinte was originally applied to pregnant women from a habit of laying aside the belt or girdle which they were otherwise accustomed to wear; hence, the term enceinte means to be unbound, and has come to be applied to women in ante-confinement motherhood”
Not only were tight clothes a danger to a lady’s health, they were also seen as not particularly modest for a woman in the more visible stages of pregnancy. According to West:
“While there is no demand that the mother make an undue advertisement of her state, which would be as immodest as the attempts at its concealment, it is eminently desirable that her dress, especially about those parts of her body which are the regions of procreative life, be worn quite loosely.”
A Delivery Room Coiffure
In her 1896 book Preparation for Motherhood, author Elizabeth Scovil advises on the proper hairstyle for the delivery room. This is not as frivolous as it sounds. Many Victorian ladies had very long hair and if left unbraided during their confinement, it could become so inextricably knotted that the strands of hair would have to be “drawn out of a knot by picking up each one separately with a needle.” As Scovil explains: “Hair forty inches long that had been untouched by comb or brush for three weeks, had been disentangled, but it is a task that equals one of the labors of Hercules.”
To prevent this catastrophe, Scovil advises that during the first signs of labor, the expectant mother’s hair should be styled into braids. She writes:
“The hair should be parted in the middle at the back, firmly braided in two tails and tied so it will not come unloosed. It is then no great matter if it cannot be brushed or combed for several days. It will be found smooth and untangled when it is unplaited.”
The First Nine Days
Having given birth, the new mother was changed into a fresh nightgown and, if chilled, she was given something warm to drink. After attending to her basic needs for warmth and comfort, it was important that the new mother be left alone. Scovil states: “After all that the newly made mother has under gone, she needs perfect quiet for several hours before she is permitted to see anyone. A five minutes interview with her husband is all that should be granted.”
Even if the new mother insisted that she was well enough to see her friends and family, it was critical that she not be allowed any company until she had had adequate rest and sleep. According to Scovil: “Excitement is dangerous and no visitors must be permitted to enter the room, nor should conversation be allowed, even if she wishes to talk. Neglect of this precaution may cause serious disaster, even when all seems to be going on well.”
It was not only excess company that posed a danger to the new mother, but excess light. Scovil advised that the mother’s room be “partially darkened” during the day and that, during the night, it be lit only with a shaded gas lamp. Even worse—at least, for those of us who are inveterate readers—Scovil declares: “Even if she feels well she should not read until after the third day. Rest of mind and body is all important.”
There was no absolute rule about how long the new mother must remain confined to her bed. However, West acknowledges the old, “oft repeated” dictum that: “She must not get up until the ninth day.”
Though West states that this is a safe rule in “normal child-bed convalescence,” he points out that the amount of time spent in bed after giving birth can range anywhere from five to fifteen days, depending on the circumstances.
Baby's First Months
Babies were generally viewed as clean slates or empty vessels, their little infant hearts ready to “receive impressions” from the moment of their birth. As such, it was critical that they not experience the evils of the world, lest those evils have a lasting negative effect. In the 1831 Mother’s Book, author Lydia Child explains:
“It is important that children, even when babes, should never be spectators of anger, or any real passion. They come to us from heaven, with their little souls full of innocence and peace; and, as far as possible, a mother’s influence should not interfere with the influence of angels.”
For the mother, this meant that she must “govern her own feelings” and make sure that, when dealing with her infant, her “heart and conscience” remained pure. As Child states: “…what does the innocent being before you know of care and trouble? And why should you distract his pure nature by the evils you have received from a vexatious world? It does you no good, and it injures him.”
If at all possible, Child advises that the new mother should “take the entire care of her own child.” Though servants might be called to assist her or to watch the infant while she is resting, the new baby should “as much as possible, feel its mother’s guardianship.” Child recommends:
“If in the same room, a smile or a look of fondness, should now and then be bestowed upon him; and if in an adjoining room, some of the endearing appellations to which he has been accustomed, should once in a while meet his ear. The knowledge that his natural protector and best friend is near, will give him a feeling of safety and protection, alike conducive to his happiness and beneficial to his temper.”
It was never too soon for the 19th century mother to begin teaching her baby. This did not necessarily mean reading and writing (though many mothers were encouraged to read to their new babies or to recite the alphabet). Instead, motherhood experts recommended inspiring a baby’s natural curiosity. As Child explains:
“Attention should be early aroused by presenting attractive objects — things of bright and beautiful colors, but not glaring — and sounds pleasant and soft to the ear. When you have succeeded in attracting a babe’s attention to any object, it is well to let him examine it just as long as he chooses. Every time he turns it over, drops it, and takes it up again, he adds something to the little stock of his scanty experience.”
Though exposing the new baby to attractive objects and pleasant sounds was important, Child declares that there is nothing so critical to the development of the newborn as a mother’s love. She writes: “Gentleness, patience, and love, are almost everything in education; especially to those helpless little creatures, who have just entered into a world where everything is new and strange to them.”
Motherhood and maternity manuals of the 19th century contain far more advice than what I have included in this article. If you would like to read specific information on pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing in the 19th century, I urge you to have a look at any one of the books referenced in my works cited list. Until next time, I wish you all a Happy Mother’s Day!
This post originally appeared on mimimatthews.com and has been reprinted with permission.
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Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture. When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper historical romance novels. Her latest Victorian romance The Matrimonial Advertisement can be ordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. To learn more, please visit www.MimiMatthews.com.