Monday, 26 February 2018

The Victorian Pregnancy Tests And Superstitions  

C.A. Asbrey

So how did women know they were pregnant before modern tests became available? Given enough time it becomes pretty obvious, but in an age when doctors were male and loath to perform intimate examinations on female patients, how did they confirm their condition in the early stages?

Doctors were unwilling to investigate too much into the subject either. Waiting to be sure was kind of your only option other than superstitions and the Victorians had a myriad of them, which we'll look at later. Mid-century, Dr Pye Chavasse, author of Advice to a Mother on the Management of Offspring (a book so popular it was still in use at the turn of the century) and other similar works, gave the signs of pregnancy, in order of appearance, as ‘ceasing to be unwell’ (i.e. menstruation); morning sickness; painful and enlarged breasts; ‘quickening’ (which would not have been felt until the nineteenth week); increased size. That meant that no woman could be absolutely certain she was pregnant until around the fifth month.

As early as the 1830s it had been known to doctors that the mucosa around the vaginal opening changed colour after conception, yet this useful piece of information did not appear in a lay publication until the 1880s, and the doctor who wrote it was struck off the medical register – it was too indelicate, in its assumption that a doctor would perform a physical examination. Neither doctors nor their patients felt comfortable with this.

                                                                  Jane Ellen Panton

From Kitchen to Garret: Hints for Young Householders by Jane Ellen Panton, at the end of the 1880s, felt she could ‘only touch lightly on these matters [of pregnancy]’ because she didn’t know who might read her book, From Kitchen to Garret: Hints for Young Householders. Her advice revolved around refraining from activity and preparing clothes and linens for the new arrival. Kipling, from the male point of view, was very much of his time when he wrote, ‘We asked no social questions – we pumped no hidden shame- We never talked obstetrics when the Little Stranger came – ‘”

Pregnancy was something the Victorians (well, at least middle-class Victorians) were desperate to hide away. And this shouldn’t be a surprise to us, as this was still common practice well through the 1950s. Hollywood actresses (even ones who were married) taking an enforced temporary retirement once the pregnancy was discovered. They did not do red carpet events, they tried not to get photographed, and they most certainly did not continue to work until after the baby came. Some male actors were also annoyed by the fact that females co-stars got time off while menstruating too. This, of course, was something only stars enjoyed. Chorus girls just had to slog and hoof their way through like everyone else. 

This is not to say that just because the Victorians weren’t comfortable having pregnancy discussed, published about, or seen in society, that it means they didn’t know anything about sex and pregnancy. There was often a very great divide between what one could publish and what one could discuss. Girls did not get all of their information purely from published material. In fact, it was much more likely that most girls had frank discussions with their mothers, aunts, older sisters, and female cousins about sex and pregnancy. The odd story you hear about a Victorian girl not understanding sex until her wedding is definitely reflection of a cloistered minority.

Dr. John West explains in his 1887 book Maidenhood and Motherhood explains that women should wear loose-fitting clothes. "The French term enceinte was originally applied to pregnant women from a habit of laying aside the belt or girdle which they were otherwise accustomed to wear; hence, the term enceinte means to be unbound, and has come to be applied to women in ante-confinement motherhood"

While there is no demand that the mother make an undue advertisement of her state, which would be as immodest as the attempts at its concealment, it is eminently desirable that her dress, especially about those parts of her body which are the regions of procreative life, be worn quite loosely.”

Even the hair was subject to advice. In her 1896 book Preparation for Motherhood, author Elizabeth Scovil “The hair should be parted in the middle at the back, firmly braided in two tails and tied so it will not come unloosed.  It is then no great matter if it cannot be brushed or combed for several days.  It will be found smooth and untangled when it is unplaited.
                                                           1882 Silk Maternity Dress.


Not all the tips passed on were worth knowing though and some have persisted through to the present day. One of the most persistent is the myth of 'maternal impression’, which once gained serious scientific credibility. This is the belief that the appearance and character of a child is influenced by a powerful emotional stimulus experienced by its mother during pregnancy. Birth defects and congenital disorders were consequently explained. Many believed the popular story that the mother of Joseph Merrick, known as the Elephant Man, was frightened by an elephant while she was pregnant. Only this could explain his striking deformity. Every freak show which toured included an invented backstory in which someone's mother had been scared by some animal or been affected by something she saw or ate. There were some folk remedies though. "If a pregnant woman sees a hare in her path, she must immediately stop and make three tears (rips) in her petticoats lest the child be born with a hare-lip" c.1875

Hairy dark patches were reputed to be caused by mice, and food cravings were to be pandered to so as not to disadvantage the baby.

Very often a young wife would suspend her wedding ring by a thread and whichever way it swung would indicate whether the baby was a boy or a girl. The trouble is, no-one can agree which direction is applicable to which sex.

Expectant parents were careful not to draw too much attention to the wife's condition in order to avoid unwanted consequences. They were warned not to boast or to make claims about good fortune regarding the baby for the same reasons. A pregnant mother was advised never to tell of her pregnancy until after the first trimester was safely passed as an ill-wish could cause her to lose the baby.

If bad luck and an ill-fated pregnancy were to be avoided then it was paramount not to bring baby clothes, a cradle, crib, cot or a perambulator into the house before the baby was born. To do so would be tempting fate. It was also an absolute no-go to rock an empty cradle for fear of causing the death of the baby if already born, or adversely, to cause the woman of the house to become pregnant again too soon.

The first born child should never be put into a new cradle. A cradle was always borrowed for the oldest child in a family. A cradle was always supposed to be completely paid for before a baby could be laid in it. Otherwise the baby will be debt-laden all his or her life.

A child born with a 'caul' (part of the amniotic sac) over their head and/or face were, and still are, thought to be kept safe from harm - for as long as the caul itself is looked after. As the owner of a caul was immune from physical bad luck, there was once a roaring trade in cauls, particularly in times of warfare, and advertisements, 'caul wanted' and 'caul for sale', were common sights in newspapers and shop windows.

After a child was born it was the practice that the first person to take the baby away from its mother would carry him or her upstairs, or up three steps of a ladder. This was so the child started off right, i.e. on his or her way up in the world. This tradition continued into the 20th century.

Another, rather unsanitary, practice was not to wash a baby's hands until its first birthday for fear of washing away good fortune. This tradition varied - sometimes it applied only to the right hand and sometimes it was only up to the date of christening. The way a baby held his or her hands during the first few weeks of life was also duly noted. A tight, closed fist meant that the baby was capable of holding onto money and was considered a good thing. Similarly, babies were given silver coins to hold at the christening celebration and in Scotland and Ireland it was the custom to put coins in a baby's cot at the first introduction for luck. This even extended to slight acquaintances and a parent taking a child out in a pram for the first time could accumulate a decent amount of cash from everyone they met in the street.

The choice of first person to kiss the baby was considered very important as it would affect the baby's character for the rest of his or her life. A good tempered, easy-going person was preferred. This was known as 'tempering' the child.

It was important to dress the child appropriately. In many cases the appropriate garment for a newborn was an old flannel petticoat or nightshirt. The reasons for this are unclear but among those put forward are to prevent pride in adult life and to provide protection, particularly if the garment belonged to the baby's father. Dressing the baby in a garment belonging to someone of the opposite sex was said to make the baby more attractive to potential partners in adulthood.


When childbirth was riskier for both mother and child, it was of paramount importance that baptism should take place as early as possible. There were two main reasons, firstly that an unchristened baby would not make it into heaven and secondly, that the child was vulnerable to being cursed by witches and fairies. Parents were warned not to take an unbaptized child out of the house in case the fairies took it and swapped it for a changeling. Baby could not be addressed by his given name until the ceremony had taken place.

Christening also had the power to cure ill-health and to correct the temperament of a miserable baby. It was important that the baby cry during the ceremony to indicate that the Devil had been cast out from his or her little body. If the baby didn't cry then it was whispered that the child would not have long to live.

If twins of both sexes were to be christened or if there was a multiple christening, the boys were always baptized first in order that they would grow up to have a beard. It was 'unmanly' to be second in line to a female.


Churching was, and still is, a controversial subject. The idea that a woman was unclean after the birth of her baby until she had been 'churched', i.e. made her first visit to church sits uncomfortably with modern views of equality. There was even a distinction between having given birth to a boy or girl. Apparently having a boy baby was less 'dirty' than having a girl. If you had a boy then you were considered unclean for seven days after the birth. A girl, however, kept you mucky for two whole weeks. Many communities stipulated that an unchurched woman could not leave the house; others said that she could go out but required that she must not enter another home or even look another person in the face.

In some parts of the world, an unchurched woman was not protected by law and could be attacked and killed without the perpetrator answering for his crime.

In some circles, the time after birth was seen as more positive and cause for celebration and relief for the mother, and was when women got together and men were kept away.

Baby's First Year

There were many superstitions surrounding baby's life up until his or her first birthday. One concerned fingernails. Mothers were adjured not to cut their baby's fingernails until the year was up to prevent their child from becoming 'light-fingered' or, in other words, a thief.

               19th century sterling silver baby whistle rattle and red coral gum teether

To help the baby cope with the pain of teething various necklaces were placed around its neck. Material used included human teeth, animal teeth, glass beads and deadly nightshade berries (!) among other things. The most common was a necklace made of coral. Coral also protected against witchcraft. If a baby was born with teeth or if he or she teethed early, then it meant that another baby would soon be on the way. Other superstitions decreed that an early teether would die young or even grow up to be a murderer.

One last superstition was a belief that the baby should not be weighed until its first birthday to prevent premature death or, at best, future weakness and ill-health. This one has been all but laid to rest due to increased monitoring and healthcare but was still adhered to by some as late as the 1930s.

From Kitchen to Garret: Hints for Young Householders
Dr. John West 1887 book Maidenhood and Motherhood
Preparation for Motherhood,author Elizabeth Scovil 1896

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