{01/02/2012}   1890-1914 & Now: How “The Happy Event” has changed

“The production and raising of a family was the accepted future of every woman lucky enough to escape what was regarded as the disgrace of spinsterhood.”*
Today, a good friend gave birth to a baby boy, Nathaniel, about which I am delighted. I find myself, a disgraceful spinster, reading a 1948 book about reminiscences of England’s Middle Class Golden Age, 1890-1910, and more specifically reading a chapter on “The Happy Event”.
Had my friend had her baby 100 years ago, things would have been very different. She would have “retired” from public life long before it was apparent she was pregnant and she certainly wouldn’t have been working up until a few weeks ago as she would officially have “not been going about much”. Her shopping would have been done for her and she would have been outdoors in a carriage or for a walk with her husband after dark.
News and baby congratulations would have been by letter rather than today’s text. I fear I would’ve been expected to sew or knit a suitable item of clothing, adorned with, in this case, blue ribbon. However, the display and discussion of such baby clothes could only have taken place between the women as “obstetric matters” were too delicate to be discussed with the father or men present. Sheesh!
Births then were usually at home and medical assistance came as a result of the father-to-be (when not at work, where apparently they hoped to be during the birth) running to fetch the doctor – how the neighbours, twitching their lace curtains, would know the baby was on its way. Not many people had phones. If the father-to-be were in the office, he might get home to discover he were a new father!
As the father wouldn’t have much if any involvement in his child’s arrival, “the poor man soon had recourse to the decanter”, the contents of which the doctor would most likely want to share after the birth, a celebratory tipple.
While it would be the father who dealt with telegrams and inserted an announcement in the newspaper. He would have the opportunity to wet the baby’s head with office staff and any acquaintances in the street.
The newborn in the meantime would be introduced to clothing, excessive clothing: a binder (a length of flannel wrapped around the baby and secured with a safety-pin), little vests, a kind of overall, vest and petticoat in one piece made of flannel and laced up with tape, more petticoats and long muslin robes highly decorated and with appropriate coloured ribbon (perhaps to make gender identification easier?!). The baby’s head was also covered with a shawl … as it wasn’t thought right for the baby to be subjected to fresh air.
As for feeding, solids came much later than is nowadays considered normal. A milk diet lasted about nine months, followed by beef tea and slops and some time later, solids.
Baths were also a lot more challenging for hot water wasn’t, excuse the pun, on tap. As nurseries were always at the top of the house, hot water would have to be carried upstairs from the kitchen in kettles, or boiled up on an open nursery room fire.
How different things were 100 years ago. For all my moans about modern society, the excessive plastic and packaging and paranoid health and safety, I feel relieved and fortunate not to be considered a disgraceful spinster who should be knitting clothes for my friend’s baby. I am also glad her life will be made easier by hot water tanks, her husband helping rather than wetting the baby’s head at every opportunity and instantaneous communication methods.

*Quotes from “Twenty Shillings in the Pound” by W. Macqueen-Pope, 1948.


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