She's Having a Baby, Then and Now

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Happy Mother's Day to all you moms out there who read my blog! In honor of Mother's Day I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how pregnancy and childbirth used to be in the 20th century. Not to worry - this post will not make anyone squeamish. I just find it interesting how much attention is lavished on new mothers today compared to what our mothers and grandmothers experienced. In case you haven't noticed, our current society is absolutely obsessed with pregnancy and babies. Blame it on the media for following female celebs to get a photo of what may or may not be a "baby bump" (as if any of us care) and 9/11 for putting the focus on procreation. Babies are a booming business: there's oodles of baby care and child rearing products on the market that our grandmothers could only fantasize about. They also never received a baby shower. Think about that the next time you see a request for a $500 Pottery Barn nursery rocking chair or high end jogging stroller on a baby registry.

Here are a few things about becoming a mother that have changed during the past 60 years or so.

Maternity Clothing
There’s no contesting that this is one thing that has definitely changed for the better. In my mother’s day, maternity clothing meant stuff like the horrendous garb you saw on I Love Lucy when Lucille Ricardo got pregnant: an uncomfortable looking tent for a shirt, usually adorned with a bow. There was no such thing as spandex in the 1950s. Maternity clothing up until the 90s was also all about modesty - no one would ever conceive of showing off their belly, and bathing suits for pregnant women were unheard of. And would you check out this interesting early ad for Lane Bryant - a store chain for plus sized women which apparently had its beginnings in helping conceal pregnant bellies altogether. The copy says the catalog is delivered in a plain wrapper, so even your postman didn't even have to know that you were expecting!

The Baby Shower
Although baby showers are said to go back to the Romans and other ancient civilizations, I know one thing from talking to my mother and other ladies from her generation: they never had one. Research tends to indicate that the baby shower starting popping up in America after WW2, as the Baby Boomer generation was being born. One thing's for certain: moms-to-be didn't enjoy the lavish affairs that the baby showers of today have become, and they certainly didn't receive the latest designer diaper bag on the market.

Twilight Sleep
In the third season of Mad Men, Betty Draper is administered "twilight sleep" medication while in labor, and ends up having some strange conversations with her dead father. But for most women, twilight sleep ensured a painless and stress free labor and delivery. The delivery method was invented by a German doctor named Carl Gauss around the beginning of the 20th century. It replaced the old usage of chloroform and combined morphine with anesthesia to give the mother a dreamy childbirthing experience. By the 1930s it caught on in America and continued to be a popular method through the early 60s. There were some negative side effects associated with twilight sleep - it was said that babies born in this matter were "born sleepy" and doped up. What ultimately caused it to fall out of favor, however, was the fear of being sued by a mother who could not remember anything going on in the delivery room.

Although some women may differ in their experiences with this form of childbirth, my mother insists that for her it was "heaven" - you'd go to sleep and when you woke up you'd be holding the baby, with no to little memory of the actual act. Some of my siblings were born this way. When Grace Kelly gave birth to Princess Stephanie in 1965, she opted for more natural childbirth which finally put the twilight sleep craze to rest. By the 1970s, women had more pain control options available to them.

Dad-Free Deliveries
Another common practice about giving birth was keeping fathers out of the delivery room. They sure had it easy, pacing the waiting room back and forth and breaking out the cigars and congratulatory back slaps. As a result, they had no idea what their wives had to go through. By the 1980s, fathers were starting to become more hands-on with helping the mother of the child prep for pregnancy (remember the Lamaze classes craze?) and their job didn't end once the baby arrived - many started to get handy with diaper duty as well.

No Car Seat For That First Ride

Hard to believe, but at one time bringing the newest member of the family home meant the mother simply held him or her in her arms (and chances are the car she was riding in had no seatbelts to even protect her in case of a crash.) Carseats actually go back to the 1920s but sound completely useless: they were no more than drawstring backs that attached to the rear seats so that you could keep an eye on your tyke while driving (and so that he/she wouldn't get into trouble.) Through the 1960s the carseat had involved into a padded high chair, but remained flimsy and not effective at preventing injury in a crash. It wasn't until the 1970s when manufacturers starting improving and testing car seats for children.

Diapers deserve an honorable mention, too - it wasn't until 1960 or so that Pampers began to market a mass disposable diaper product. In the early 20th century, diaper services would pick up soiled diapers and supply the mother with a pack of fresh ones.

I hope everyone who is a mother enjoys her day!


  1. So interesting! I loved this post. I still remember how disturbed I was by that Mad Men episode. *shudder* Can't believe how different things were back then.

  2. I find it interesting that the maternity catalog was delivered in a plain wrapper.

    My Dad was present at my birth in 1973. He freaked out because I was purple.

  3. My children were born in 1974, 1976 and 1979. Maternity tops always had bows...I did have a maternity swim suit...a long sleeveless version of the "bowed" tops, with elasticized waste pants underneath, completely out of view.

    We had a "car bed" that just sat on the rear, bench, harness or seatbelt or anything. In 1960, my brother had a car seat, that attached over the back of the front bench seat...and had a "steering wheel"...imagine that!

    I had a diaper service.

    1974 birth, I was given a drug that caused hallucinations...even though I had requested "natural birth"...and hubby was supposed to be in there with me...but he was left out in the waiting room. He *was* in the delivery room in 1976 and 1979.

    I understand the safety issue of infants and children in carseats, but having them in the back seat, where Mom can't reach them, unless she pulls off the road: Well that just scares me!

    Oh...and I never had a baby shower! We had a small bureau in the baby's could have a "diaper changing" section affixed to the top...we didn't have enough money for that, so I changed diapers on my bed...until I realized the kitchen counter was a much more comfortable spot, for me and my back. We also couldn't afford an Umbroller Stroller...and now, people pay upwards of $500 for strollers!

    Would I do it all again...heck, yeah...but without that drug, the first time! ...Jude


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