The Rabbit Holes series will be all about the baby history I find throughout the week, those tempting research rabbit holes I have to resist following. I may follow up on some of them in the future but for the time being, I’d just like to briefly share interesting finds with you. Let’s get started!
(The headings of the sections are links to original sources.)
Table of Contents
The article in Worcester News does a great job of describing the form and function of a cradleboard and how the historians at Museum Worcestershire used the shape of the bumper bar and decorations to distinguish the cradleboard in their collection as Plains Ojibwe. However, I would like to add that cradleboards aren’t exclusive to indigenous North American cultures, they are also seen in other cultures, for example, the Saami; and not all indigenous North American cultures used cradleboards. The form of infant carrier for any given culture comes down to environmental factors and materials resources.
The mystery, aside from how the carrier ended up in the museum’s collection, is the matching pouch that came with the bag, which was filled with lead shot (y’know, ammo). There are a few theories, some suggest the pouch was a medicine bag others think the pouch was used to store extra ammunition during a hunting party. In my opinion, both could be possible but still miss the mark: what would lead signify in a medicine bag? Was the medicine bag for the baby? Or the baby’s caregiver? Would someone take a baby hunting? There’s the possibility the baby will make inopportune noise, scaring away prey and a rifle that fires lead shot is gonna be LOUD and likely involve gun powder, etc. It’s just not a great combination but perhaps it was a desperate situation and perhaps the medicine bag was co-opted for lead shot and baby had to go with the hunting party or the lead shot was intended for self-defence. There’s definitely a story there.
The commission in question was a five-year investigation of the Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland which were established by religious institutions (the Catholic Church) to “abuse and shame” unmarried pregnant women and the resulting children between 1922 and 1998 (when the last one closed).
The commission was prompted by the discovery of a mass grave of babies and young children at the site of Bon Secours aka St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway in 2016-017. The final report, which is 3000 pages, was published on January 12th, 2021, estimates that 9,000 children died in 18 institutions over 76 years. The infant mortality in these homes was double the national rate with many of the infants dying of neglect, malnutrition, and disease.
Rubella is a very mild disease, with many people not even experiencing symptoms, which can make it more dangerous because if someone is infected during pregnancy, especially early pregnancy, the disease can cause miscarriage or fetal rubella syndrome.
Fetal rubella syndrome causes a constellation of congenital defects, growth restriction, and more. While rubella has been known about for a long time, it wasn’t until the 1940s when Dr Gregg from Australia started listening to his patients–mothers who had babies with similar issues: cataracts, heart problems, developmental delays, etc. who all noted having contracted rubella during pregnancy– that research to find out if Rubella caused congenital conditions began.
The issue of abortion arose as pregnant women who contracted rubella early in their pregnancy may choose to abort, and while many doctors would support this, some doctors refused to tell their pregnant patients that they suspected rubella infection. This resulted in “wrongful life” or “wrongful birth” lawsuits when parents gave birth to infants with rubella syndrome. The test for rubella wasn’t invented until 1965 and the vaccine in 1966.
Another story of abusing unmarried pregnant women and their infants: in the late 1920s to the late 1940s, Lila and William Young (“baby farmers”) ran the maternity home in East Chester, Nova Scotia. Lila was a midwife who claimed to be an obstetrician and William was an unordained minister of the Seventh Day Adventist church and a chiropractor.
They sold healthy newborns to wealthy couples while allowing less profitable infants to die of starvation. Between four hundred and six hundred infants may have died in their care and were buried in wooden butter boxes around the area and in the Atlantic Ocean.
The host of the podcast, Mike Browne, has a personal connection to the topic. He was adopted at three months old, born to a mother living in a maternity home for unwed mothers.
Bette L. Cahill “Butter Box Babies” 1991.
Fiji- Weird Explorer
I recently found the Youtube channel Weird Explorer, he’s a professional contortionist who travels the world looking for, and sometimes tasting, fruit. He posted a video about the fruit Fijians used to cook with human meat. He referenced a passage in a book (called Viti) by Berthold Seeman, a botanist who travelled there in 1860-61 on behalf of the British government.
This kind of government-sponsored travelogue was a kind of proto-ethnography, describing the geography, people, culture, weather, etc. of a place, often to determine if colonizing them would be profitable– in this case, Seeman recommended against it. Sometimes these books will have information about women, pregnancy, infant care, etc. but not often, either because the dude writing the book is oblivious, or is prevented from getting near women and children.
I found a copy of the book on Archive.org and searched through it, finding a few interesting tidbits, for example, there is this passage about how husbands never spend the night in the homes of their wives because it’s considered taboo, as is the conception of a child before the previous one is three to four years of age (if it happens the husband is severely punished by the community). When one of the white people in Seeman’s group was asked by a local how many siblings he had, he said ten and the locals did not believe it possible a woman could give birth to that many children, so he explained that it wasn’t unusual for European women to have babies at annual intervals.
“When told that these children were born at annual intervals and that such occurrences were common in Europe, they were very much shocked, and thought it explained sufficiently why so many white people were ‘mere shrimps!’”Viti, 1860, p 190
There are also notes about local plants and their uses during and after childbirth, matrilineal status, and infanticide. At some point, I would like to do a stand-alone on this, both for the history and cultures of the islands and how this translates to modern practices around pregnancy, birth, and infant care.
Viti, 1860 on The Internet Archive
Bouncing Back, Stephanie Lange’s video
Another one from Youtube, Stephanie Lange’s video about social media influencers “bouncing back” after having a baby versus her experience (as a “beauty/make-up influencer”). If you’re struggling with this and feeling pressure from “influencers” or celebrities to bounce back, I recommend checking out Stephanie’s video.
And of course, I’m curious about “bouncing back” historically. Consider that, in the West, for much of history women didn’t show their bodies or rely on their body shape to define their silhouette and they experienced more pregnancies. Some of the European fashions from the later middle ages made women look perpetually pregnant with over-long skirts held up in front of the belly with pockets.
I have a lot of examples off the top of my head of wealthy women, such as Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, from the 18th through early 20th centuries trying to “bounce back” in order to fulfil their roles as socialites or fashion icons or to conceal a recent illegitimate birth. For aristocratic and royal women, their job was to produce children. They would have been eager to have their fertility to “bounce back,” which gets into the issue of wet-nursing, perhaps more than they were eager for their looks to bounce back.
For the majority of women, bouncing back was less about vanity or fertility, than about physical survival. Running a home, caring for children, and possibly caring for animals, crops, or a family business, required that they resume their regular duties as soon as possible after the birth of a baby.
For the majority of servants, marriage and therefore pregnancy, was prohibited. If a woman in service became pregnant she would need to conceal the pregnancy and birth without an interruption in her duties or risk getting fired. (And in many places, like Scotland, concealment of pregnancy was a capital offence.) This relates to modern issues of maternity leave, which is functionally non-existent in the United States.
And there’s another rabbit hole looking at this issue from a transgender perspective: men (with female reproductive organs) who chose to have a baby will have a unique perspective on “bouncing back” after childbirth. This is certainly another topic that needs its own research project.