What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Victorian Edition

By Sarah P., Summer Student

Since I addressed children in the Victorian Era in my previous article, I thought it was time to highlight the experiences of mothers. On this path of research, I discovered that mothers commonly followed odd and interesting practices dictated by society. Women were guided by many different sources in the Victorian Era concerning motherhood, including the advice of their own mother, nurses, physicians, or midwives. These were knowledgeable figures concerning both maternity and parenting who could lead women to follow the correct path of Victorian motherhood. Alongside these individuals, many pregnant women read maternity and motherhood guides that were published by advice experts, hospitals, and religious institutions. Manuals from these organizations focused on various topics including the management of teenage disobedience, conception, childrearing tips, and even how to decorate a nursery.

Expectant mothers were urged by many maternity guides to embrace a fashion style that would allow them to feel comfortable. They were advised to forgo wearing any tight corsets and clinging clothing, as they believed these garments could obstruct the woman’s circulation and hinder the baby’s growth. Dr. John West explained in his 1887 book, Maidenhood and Motherhood, how the French word, enceinte, meant being unbound and was commonly associated with females in ante-confinement motherhood. Pregnant women would commonly abandon using their usual girdles and belts as it was considered best for the baby. Form-fitting clothing may have been perceived as a danger to a woman’s health, but society felt this style of fashion for pregnant women was immodest. Victorian society did not embrace the idea of having a woman’s pregnancy on obvious display. Dr. West instructed expecting mothers to wear loose fitting clothes that obscured their growing bellies. Although women in the Victorian Era were heralded for their motherhood, the idea of witnessing a woman’s pregnant belly in form-fitting clothing was considered unseemly.

Pregnant women not only faced advice concerning their clothing, but also recommendations concerning their hairstyle when they were delivering their child. Elizabeth Scovil informed readers in her 1896 book, Preparation for Motherhood, what she considered to be the perfect hairstyle while giving birth. While Victorian women were undergoing a period of confinement during their pregnancy, they would commonly have their very long hair unbraided. This led to numerous tangles and knots in their hair that Scovil noted had to be painstakingly untangled with a needle.  Scovil went on to describe this task to be as difficult as one of Hercules’s great labours.  Her solution was for pregnant women to arrange their hair into braids at the first indication that they were in labour. She specified that the hairstyle should have the hair middle-parted in the back with two braids of hair with tails that were tied tightly to ensure it would not come undone. Scovil assured her readers that this hairstyle would result in untangled hair, even if they had not combed their hair for many days. 

Black and white sketch drawing of a girl braiding her long hair
Drawing of a Victorian Era girl braiding her hair, from Sew Historically

Once the ordeal of childbirth had occurred, women were then expected to follow rigid instructions for the first nine days after giving birth. After childbirth, the mother was provided with a new nightgown and given a hot drink to warm her up if she felt cold. Once the mother had been cared for, it was highly advised that she was then kept in a state of isolation from others. Scovil instructed new mothers on the importance that they were secluded from others in a quiet environment for a few hours.  She pointed out that after such an intensive event, the only discourse that should be expected of her was to have a short five-minute conversation with her husband. The mother may have indicated that she felt ready to be in company with her family and friends, however, it was strictly advised that she be on her own until she had a decent rest. 

Scovil pointed out to young mothers that their rest was crucial, and any sort of excitement could have severe repercussions on their health. This led her to advise that no one should be in the same room as the new mother and most importantly, no one should talk to her no matter how much she may want to converse. She points out that this is a vulnerable period, and if this advice is not followed, disastrous results may occur. Scovil also advised that the mother should not be in a room with a substantial amount of light, as it could be just as dangerous as conversation. She instructed that the new mother’s room should only have a lit shaded gas lamp at night, and during the day it was to be moderately darkened. Scovil even demanded that mothers not entertain themselves with reading until they had fully rested for three days. It was highly suggested by West and others that the mother be bedridden for the first nine days.

The advice for women did not cease after they had given birth. It extended to how they should raise their newborn in the first few months after their birth. Newborns were commonly perceived as empty vessels who were ripe for being impressionable from birth. They were considered so impressionable that it was vital that they never be exposed to any of the sinful aspects of humanity, as it may have lingering effects on them. Lydia Child advised in her 1831 book, Mother’s Book, that babies should never witness any instances of passion or anger as they are innocent beings gifted from heaven. Child stated that mothers should not allow their strong feelings to influence their angelic child. She advised that while they were in the company of their child, the mother should strive to ensure that her conscience and heart stayed pure. Child recommended that the mother take complete responsibility for the care of her baby and only rely on servants during periods when she needed rest. She pointed out the importance that a child be able to recognize its mother as a guardian, in order to foster a sense of protection and security. Assistance manuals were perceived as the pinnacle of understanding what was best for both mother and child. Although some of this advice may seem outlandish to the modern perspective, there are points of wisdom in some of the instructions that provided women a sense of preparation in their new role as a mother.

Sources Consulted:

Child, Lydia. Mother’s Book, 1831.

Scovil, Elisabeth Robinson. In Preparation for Motherhood. London: Forgotten Books, 2015.

The Victorian Baby: 19th Century Advice on Motherhood and Maternity; Article: https://www.mimimatthews.com/2016/05/08/the-victorian-baby-19th-century-advice-on-motherhood-and-maternity/

West, John D. Maidenhood and Motherhood; or, Ten Phases of Women’s Life. Chicago: Law, King & Law, 1887.

MET Museum, 1882 maternity dress: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/81512

Sew Historically, a girl braiding her hair: https://www.sewhistorically.com/victorian-and-edwardian-hair-care-night-time-hair-routine/

The Victorian Baby: 19th Century Advice on Motherhood and Maternity, The Young Mother by Charles West Cope: https://www.mimimatthews.com/2016/05/08/the-victorian-baby-19th-century-advice-on-motherhood-and-maternity/; painting in the collection of the Victorian & Albert Museum: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O81636/the-young-mother-oil-painting-cope-charles-west/

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