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1950s U.S. Maternity Wards
sailor twain - is so very french
myxginxblossoms wrote in little_details
I'm looking for descriptions of typical hospital procedures, particularly on maternity wards, in the early 1950s. (The story in question takes place in 1951 Manhattan, but any sources within about five years either direction would be acceptable for my purposes.)

While there are timelines of the history of childbirth here on this fair internets, they tend to focus very specifically on the actual childbirth procedures--when forceps became common, the use of twilight sleep, etc.--and they're almost all published on natural birth-related websites. I want something a little broader in scope and less hopelessly biased. (A lot of aspects of childbirth in the mid-20th century sucked, I agree! But that's not actually relevant to what I'm trying to write right now, and I'm not inclined to assume I'm getting the whole story from people trying to sell me a natural birth experience on the rest of their site.) I'd like information more along the lines of whether/when visitors were allowed, what kinds of activities new mothers were allowed after giving birth (they'd be in the hospital 5-7 days afterward, after all!), how much they got to see their child (I know that a 12-hour isolation from the mother after birth wasn't uncommon), what a day spent in the hospital after giving birth might be like, et cetera. In-depth (and again, more academically sound than what one might find on a midwifery website) information about various childbirth procedures would be helpful, too, but it's not the primary thrust of what I'm after.

eta: Just to be clear, I'm not in doubt that the act of giving birth in the 1950s could be invasive, stressful, and dangerous. I'm just much more interested in writing about what happens after that point. Thanks.

Things I've googled: maternity ward 1950(s), 1950s childbirth experience, 1950s giving birth, 1950s pregnancy book, 1940s childbirth, delivery room 1950s, hospital rules 1950s, hospital visiting hours 1950s, hospital stay 1950s, hospitals 1950s, visiting a person in the hospital 1950, childbirth 20th century, et cetera.

This is from 1957, but the account Deborah Spungen gives of her first daughter's birth in And I Don't Want to Live This Life is pretty good in terms of how bewildering it is for a 20 year old first-time mom in Philadelphia whose newborn experienced complications.

I don't have the book in front of me, but from what I remember, she asked if her husband could come in with her, and the nurses said, "What, he having a baby too?" They talked about sedating her, asked her if she was in pain and when she nodded, said, "OK, we'll sedate you now." She said she slept through the entire birth.

Post-birth recovery seemed to take place in double rooms, and they put her in with the mother of a stillborn baby because they weren't sure her baby would live and "they don't like to put the mother of a live baby with the mother of a dead one." Her husband was allowed in during normal visiting hours, but it took a LOT of protesting on her part to get to see the baby (the complications, IIRC, had to do with jaundice and blood-type incompatibility requiring transfusions). Once she was allowed to see the baby, the ward wanted to put her and the baby on a strict feeding schedule.

In other words, this was an author who was not particularly advocating for any birth-related things (her advocacy centered around the treatment of the family of murder victims, but that came about 20 years later) and yet it doesn't sound like the "natural birth" sites you mention were that far off in their descriptions. Works of fiction I've seen set in the time period where there was a new baby imply similar, in most cases - separation from husband for the labor itself, sedation if not actual twilight sleep being standard procedure rather than an option, visitation of the husband being restricted to actual visiting hours, and even if the mother wanted to breastfeed (which is possible) the baby being brought to the mother on a strict schedule (3-hour or 4-hour depending on the size of the baby) and looked after in the nursery most of the rest of the time.

Edited at 2011-01-26 01:19 pm (UTC)

Oh, I'm well aware that the procedures they describe are exactly as awful as they say--I've been interested in the history of childbirth for well before I wanted to write this story, so the actual procedures are nothing new to me. Unfortunately, if you look at a site like this (it's not on a natural birth website, but I've seen it recopied onto a few--this is just the first link of it I could find here at work), you'll find a very heavy focus on everything awful about giving birth in the mid-20th century, and little to nothing on the mundanities of it. I've read a lot of horror stories, but unfortunately (fortunately?), I'm writing about more than just horror. :)

That said, this looks like an account I might be able to use, if it goes into detail of her overall hospital experience, and not just the birth experience itself. I'll definitely check it out.

There's an article I came across a while back, that talks about this from the nurse's point of view; I think that you can find the whole thing at

It starts in the 30s, but it moves on to the 50s.

This is really, really helpful--thank you so much! I might end up buying the book itself, because it looks superinteresting. ♥

We had a book at school that frightened the life out of me that was a sex-ed book from 1960. It basically said things like:

When you come in while you're in labour,
- Your pubic hair will be all shaved off
- You will be put in a nightgown on a hospital bed
- You will be given an enema
- Your hands will be tied to the sides of the bed/trolley so that you don't touch the sterile area where the baby will be coming out.
- They will sedate you if they feel you're not coping (eg making too much noise), and they will give you pethedine early on. There were no options on this.
- You *will* have an episiotomy, because you don't want the baby to spend too long coming out, do you?

Etc. Now excuse me while I run away in terror...

I can offer you an anecdote from my late mother-in-law's experience, if it helps—she gave birth in the mid-'50s, in the UK, not the US. She told me there was confusion when the nurses approached her about feeding the baby: she told them "I feed him myself" and they couldn't seem to understand what she meant—did she want a bottle, or a teaspoon to feed the baby with? No, she wanted to breastfeed. Which they found bizarre.

Definitely fits in with what I've read--breast-feeding was demonized pretty heavily at that point in time. Thank you for the anecdata, it's definitely helpful!

(And the idea of feeding a baby with a teaspoon is sort of boggling my mind. If I was in charge of doing that, I'd spill everywhere, lol.)

Breast-feeding was just coming back in to favour at this time. Both I (born 1952) and my sister (1955) in the UK were breastfed. But I'm sure there were variations between hospitals and doctors.

Something else was that a much lower percentage of births took place in hospital than today. In the UK at least it was common for births to occur at home with a midwife. My sister was born at home and dad did the fetching and carrying for the midwife.

Madeleine L'Engle had trouble in 1947 in the US wanting to breastfeed her daughter. Then the nurses tried to cut the 2AM feeding. When L'Engle said they were theater people and were up at 2AM, let's cut the 9AM -- she had to fight over it.

My grandmother was having her kids during the late 1940's and 1950's, and if I recall correctly, she said it was typical to keep the new mother in bed for an entire week.

That is true, especially in hospitals and in the United States--the way hospitals were paid in the US differed sharply to how they're paid now, so it was much more beneficial, money-wise, for them to keep people in the hospital for as long as possible. And, of course, the difference in technology and culture also had a hand in it, I imagine. I really appreciate the anecdata to support what I've read, thank you. :)

I know that my grandmother (who had her children in Massachusetts between 1945 and 1956) was so sedated that she doesn't remember giving birth any of the three times she did it. I also know that she chose the hospital where she would give birth (not the very nearest one to her) because her sister was a nurse there, I am assuming because it would mean a bit of family company. My grandfather liked to take pictures, but there are none from the hospital (at least not that I've ever seen), only from post-arrival home with new baby, so I would guess that wasn't something that would be done as it often is today. I also seem to recall that my father (the eldest) said that he wasn't taken to the hospital to see his younger brother, but only saw him when he arrived home, but he was only a toddler then and so taking him to visit at the hospital might have been seen as disruptive or they might have thought he wouldn't get anything out of it anyway. I could ask him about his youngest brother's birth in 1956 if that would be helpful, he was 11 then and would probably remember it more clearly :)

unhappy childbirth, 1950s


2011-10-13 12:59 am (UTC)

This is my story. I gave birth to my first child in 1958. I read a book on natural childbirth and asked my doctor if my husband could be present for the birth. He looked at me as if I was insane. I was thrilled with the pregnancy, but the birthing process was the worse experience of my life.

I went to a very large hospital in Los Angeles and was taken to the basement. Yes, pubic hairs went and a very large enema was given. I was not quite 22, a child by today's standards. My husband was allowed to stay with me until I had pain medication. I was left alone in the room once I was given a sleeping pill; that I do remember. Imagine, 22, in labor and all alone.

I have no memory of giving birth. My daughter was born at 11:04am and I did not see her until the next morning.

They brought her in twice a day. I wanted to breast feed, but they gave her bottles in between the visits, so she really couldn't latch onto the breast.

I was in the hospital for five days. Visitors were allowed in twice a day I think at 2:00pm and 7:00pm. A woman sat near the elevator and visitors had to sign in. Only two allowed at a time. I roomed with a very nice girl and we spent the days talking.

This is a very sad memory for me and I still grieve the loss of my memory. I'm glad it has changed.