Setting the Stage: The Childbed

I know, I know.  It’s been ages (again).  I would offer you the usual excuses (post-doc applications, job hunting, life, etc.) but you’ve heard them all before.

In my last blog post, I wrote about locating birth within the household – just where did women give birth to their children?  This time, I am going to narrow the focus a bit by writing about the childbed.  Now, those of you that have attended any of my recent public talks will know that I am a little obsessive about beds and their different manifestations.  In almost all houses, beds were the stages upon which the dramas of family life were played out.  Birth, death, sickness, sex, intimacy, arguments, violence – all could be played out within the curtains of the same bed.  Beds signified status, wealth and even (as you will see if you sign up for the next instalment of this blog!) neighbourly interactions.  Unsurprisingly, then, the bed was central to the process of giving birth in the eighteenth century.

Upon recognising the signs of early labour, the bed needed to be prepared for the messy business of giving birth.  Most professional midwives recommended that women give birth in bed on a complicated arrangement of sheets to protect the expensive mattress from what Professor of Midwifery at Edinburgh University described as the ‘stagnant animal effluvia’ of birth.[1]  Nice.  To many of these writers, it was important not to move the new mother once the infant was delivered, so the layers of sheets were designed to pull out from under her to keep the bed clean.  Our old friend William Smellie recommended that:

The London method is very convenient in natural and easy labours; the patient lies in bed upon one side, the knees being contracted to the belly and a pillow put between them to keep them asunder. But the most commodious method is to prepare a bed and a couch in the same room, a piece of oiled cloth or dressed sheep skin is laid across the middle of each, over the undersheet, and above this are spread several folds of linen, pinned, or tied with tape to each side of the bed and couch; these are designed to spunge up moisture in time of labour and after delivery, while the oiled cloths or sheep-skins below, preserve the feather bed from being wetted or spoiled: for this purpose, some people lay besides upon the bed, several undersheets over one another, so that by sliding out the uppermost every day, they can keep the bed dry and comfortable.[2]

Alexander Hamilton’s method of preparing the bed required no less than six sheets in addition to an oil cloth, a hair mattress and a coarse blanket.[3]  Clearly, both men had their wealthy patients in mind in making these recommendations.

Despite their wealth, however, Hamilton’s and Smellie’s clients were as likely to borrow their childbed linen as purchase it.  Research by Janelle Jenstad has suggested that borrowing childbed linen from your social superiors articulated the breadth of your social connections to the many visitors that would be present in your birthroom in the weeks that followed the birth. [4]  This may have been falling out of fashion as the eighteenth century progressed and textiles became cheaper to acquire.  Amongst Yorkshire Viscountess Frances Irwin’s papers, for example, is a printed advertisement for ‘Elliott’s Plume of Feathers’ in Covent Garden who could provide, amongst other things, ‘all Sorts of Child bed Linnen, Baskets, Blankets, Mantles & Robes’.  I don’t know if Frances made any purchases from Elliott’s – but the fact that Elliott placed childbed linen at the head of his advert does suggest that it was one of his best sellers.

Madame Bagge and her husband - recieving visitors after childbirth. 1782.
Madame Bagge and her husband receiving visitors after giving birth, 1772.


Many women did not, however, give birth in their beds. Middling and lower status women gave birth on temporary beds that could be hygienically disposed once the messiest bit was over.  William Hey – obstetrician, surgeon and founder of the Leeds General Infirmary – recorded how, in 1760, he ‘placed [his patient] on the Hands and Knees upon another Bed laid on the floor’ having been unable to deliver her London-style.  Pierre Dionis, a French man-midwife, suggested in his General Treatise of Midwifery that ‘the Woman is plac’d upon a little Palate-Bed’ to allow the midwife better access to the business end of things as labour progressed.   A palate bed was a mattress placed on the floor and tucked away when not in use.

Low status women used straw in place of a pallet bed, as suggested by the term ‘lady in the straw’ to describe a women giving birth.  This straw might have been woven into a mattress as part of the wider preparations for childbirth.  Dr Sasha Handley generously drew my attention to this rather fine specimen (now at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading) that had been used as loft insulation in a house in Titchfield, Hampshire.

Mattresses like this had the added benefit of being burned once they had been soiled. Once these women had been delivered, they could carefully be moved to their beds to recover.

As I suggested in my opening paragraph, however, beds were more than simply spaces in which birth took place.  They were emotional and spiritual spaces and, as such, provided the focus for the wider social and cultural experiences of childbirth.  My next blog post (hopefully in just two weeks so long as stick to my only new year’s resolution) will explore this emotional and symbolic role in a bit more detail.

[1] Hamilton, The Female Family Physician, p.216.

[2] Smellie, Treatise on Midwifery, p.124

[3] Hamilton, The Female Family Physician, p.216.

[4] Janelle Day Jenstad, ‘Lying-in like a Countess: The Lisle Letters, the Cecil Family, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 34, 2, (2004), pp.373-403,  p.374.


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