In many historic houses, guides used to show visitors the birthing room. Thankfully, one hears this less often today–a myth on its way out!
Until the twentieth century, American women gave birth at home, usually in their own bed in their own bedroom. There was no special “birthing room” reserved for this purpose–even in the largest, wealthiest households–not in the colonial period, not in the Victorian period.
Giving birth was a time of great stress for women because of the many problems that could occur with both baby and mother. Reliable estimates for death of the mother and/or child during childbirth are impossible to come by. Before the first national census in 1790, records were spotty. Only snapshot studies of certain areas at certain times exist to give us an idea of the range. For the colonial period, some historians estimate that one in eight women died in childbirth. (This is NOT saying that one in eight births killed the mother, but that of eight women–each of whom may have been pregnant six, eight, or ten times–one was liable to die in childbirth.) Other reputable sources say one in ten. About half of the babies born died before their fifth birthday. The numbers didn’t begin to improve until doctors and midwives began to understand the importance of washing their hands and sterilizing their instruments.
(Sarah St. Germain contributed this idea bit of information in May 6, 2011, “I recently came across a definition from Noah Webster’s 1806 dictionary which may help clear up part of this myth: Birth: act of coming into life; regeneration; lineage; origin; convenient room; place to lodge in. Perhaps it was an easy jump to “birthing room”? He changed the definition for the 1828 dictionary.”)
Hmmm. Do you suppose Webster was thinking of “berth?”