Revisited Myth # 48: Before there were hospitals, houses had birthing rooms.

Victorian era birth

Victorian era birth

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?”

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13 Responses to Revisited Myth # 48: Before there were hospitals, houses had birthing rooms.

  1. Janice says:

    I am 60 and a friend who was 20 or so years older, told me she went to a place where the women would give birth. It was a home. Not at the hospital. They would stay there for a while.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hello Janice. How interesting! Was that in the U.S.? If so, I wonder where it was. I’m older than you, and I’ve never heard of anything like that.

  2. QNPoohBear says:

    I haven’t heard the term birthing room but I’ve heard borning room – the room closest to the kitchen fire where people were born and people died. Is this categorically a myth or misnomer? When I was a teen, I read a novel The Borning Room by Paul Fleischman set during the U.S. Civil War

    • Mary Miley says:

      From a practical standpoint, giving birth in the room nearest the fire (the kitchen) might be sensible in the winter, perhaps, but certainly not in the summer. There is no evidence that even the largest of houses contained a room set aside for giving birth, although a family could certainly have called the bed chamber where Mother and Father slept (and Mother gave birth to her babies) the birthing or borning room.

  3. A Delery says:

    While I don’t doubt this debunking, an exception is Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington Cemetery, where Mrs. Lee’s dressing room was periodically converted to a birthing room. “As the births approached, she would strip the small room, disinfect it with carbolic acid and hang white sheets to provide a sterile environment for her newborns.” Six of the seven Lee children were born in that room at Arlington.

  4. Susan Smyer says:

    According to Wikipedia:

    “The widespread introduction of antiseptic surgical methods followed the publishing of the paper Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery in 1867 by Joseph Lister, inspired by Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of putrefaction. In this paper, Lister advocated the use of carbolic acid (phenol) as a method of ensuring that any germs present were killed.”

    Mrs. Lee had moved away from the Custis-Lee Mansion many years before Lister published his paper.

    • Curtis Cook says:

      Yes, this. Lister was the first to use carbolic acid for disinfecting purposes, in 1865. It had been used for other purposes — primarily reducing the odor of sewage — since 1834.

      At this point I’ll also mention Ignaz Semmelweiss, a physician of German ancestry born in Hungary who did his best work in Vienna. After studying for six years the difference in infant death rates in two clinics under his supervision, in 1847 he came to the conclusion that the difference was caused by the professionals who helped deliver the babies. The ‘good’ clinic was for the training of midwives, who generally washed their hands periodically throughout the day, whilst the ‘bad’ clinic was for the training of medical students who would go straight from the dissection of cadavers to the delivery rooms and (apparently) took pride in not washing until the end of the day.

      Semmelweiss mandated thorough hand washing with chlorinated lime every time students shifted between working on dead and living patients, and infant mortality in the ‘bad’ clinic dropped by 90% over the next year. Established doctors in Vienna were outraged by the implication that they were responsible for the deaths of their patients and manuevered his dismissal. He started anew in Budapest, but his ideas did not catch on until Louis Pasteur announced the germ theory of disease, which various sources list as happening in 1864 or 1870.

  5. Anita Wingert says:

    After having visited friends’ colonial era home recently, and been shown where the ‘borning room’ had been, I explored this idea a bit and certainly agree that a tiny, not very private space seems unlikely to have been the usual place for childbirth. But why would such a use have made up for that kind of small nook next to the kitchen? Enough so that it is commonly described as such even now?
    The information I’ve gathered mentions that such a room would have been very practical in other ways. Instead of ‘borning’ referring only to giving birth, it might have derived in this case from newBORN. Hence a space for babies (and perhaps others when ill?) to be kept warm, close to mother and other caretakers while they were engaged in cooking and household tasks.
    Instead of being a luxury item, a wealthy mother would be the last to need this convenience, since she would have had servant/s for kitchen work.

  6. starwefter says:

    My ex grew up in a house on Cape Cod built in the late 1700s that had a borning room. He said it was the supposed to be the room for the mother to have some time for a few weeks with the newborn away from the rest of the family. We ran into something once that said something along the lines of that borning rooms never had windows because of a superstition that the baby’s soul would be stolen away out a window. This may be a modernly invented myth, but it is true that the room in his house had no window in it until his dad, who was a finish carpenter, installed one.

    • Mary Miley says:

      To my knowledge (as one who holds a BA and MA in Early American history, who taught US History for 13 years at a major Virginia university, and has spent 45 years writing and researching topics relevant to this time period), there is no Early American tradition of sending the mother and baby away from the rest of the family for a few weeks. Nor is there any superstition of stealing souls out windows. It sound like a relatively modern story that attached to this room, which could have been a windowless lean-to on the original house–a storage area that was later incorporated into the main house.

  7. starwefter says:

    I kind of had the impression it was more supposed to be a separate room to give the mother a chance to recover from giving birth and possibly to deal with those middle of the night feedings without waking up the rest of the family, rather than being specifically sent away. Sort of a “you get a break from me and the baby and I get a break from the rest of you and chance to SLEEP!” type of thing, which I could see a woman wanting to do. None of that would explain the lack of window though. I have no idea if my ex’s mother ever actually used the room as such, I think his dad converted it into a rather tiny bedroom for a couple of his younger sisters. I seem to remember it was a smallish room (I may be wrong about that, I only saw it the once) and they had a fairly large family so they were sort of crammed in wherever they would fit growing up.

    Do you have any idea when people started to refer to borning rooms? His family would have moved into this house sometime in the mid-1960’s (I think he said he was 8, which would put it about 1965) so apparently the (probably mistaken) idea that this was a thing goes back to more or less the middle of the 20th century?

    • Mary Miley says:

      The term “borning room” isn’t in dictionaries that I could find, and I don’t have immediate access to the Oxford English Dictionary which gives first known use of a word, so I can’t answer that. Next time I’m at the public library, I’ll look up the term in their OED, but I suspect it isn’t there.

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