Historical essay
Tea Kettles and Turpitudes: Abortion and Material Culture in Irish History

Tea Kettles and Turpitudes: Abortion and Material Culture in Irish History

In 1932, a Donegal woman was brought up on criminal charges after she attempted miscarriage by consuming both pills as well as a ubiquitous item in early twentieth-century households: a bottle of castor oil.1 Just a few years earlier a Belfast midwife, Isabel, defended herself in court after being charged with giving another woman an illegal abortion. “All I done,” Isabel told investigators, “was to give her a wash-out with a syringe and Lysol. She was complaining of a discharge. She showed me a box of pills which she said she was taking…I advised her to take a warm bath…”2 Isabel appeared bewildered that she was being charged with a crime. Her actions, she asserted, were very much in keeping with traditional practices in women’s health care. As she explained, she only used readily available household items — Lysol, warm baths, douche syringes — to assist her neighbor.


That the Donegal woman made use of a common kitchen item and that Isabel gave her friend an abortion in her kitchen, the female center of the household and the locus of women’s daily tasks, matters. Despite the presence of “professional” abortionists across the UK and Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of illegal abortions transpired in private homes. This is perhaps not surprising when we consider that the home, and the kitchen, had long been the central sites of women’s health care, particularly when associated with reproduction.3 The importance of the kitchen in the Irish household cannot be overstated. Early twentieth-century nurses who visited Irish homes later remembered how the kitchen was not only the principal site of their work but also functioned as the social center of the household and community.4

When they utilized kitchens and kitchen items to give abortions, however, Irish women complicated the meaning of the household and their roles within it. They challenged the rhetoric on Irish motherhood that so characterized the age — no small task at the time.

Women’s subversive use of spaces and material culture is demonstrated through the case study of a seemingly innocuous kitchen item: the tea kettle. If the home was woman’s sphere and the kitchen was the heart of the home, then the kettle, always heating on the stove or over the hearth, was a central object around which domestic life functioned. Nurses working across Ireland from 1900 to 1950 reported that when they visited rural homes, “they could smell the tea boiling before the front door was opened and that there was no hope of refusing it.”5

Early Twentieth-Century Kettle. (Cambridge and County Folk Museum/National Education Network Gallery)
Early Twentieth-Century Kettle. (Cambridge and County Folk Museum/National Education Network Gallery)

In abortion procedures, kettles were used to boil water for instrument sterilization, to heat cloths, and to mix with disinfectant, which would then be injected into the womb. Testifying in a 1948 Co. Laois case, the son of a woman who received an abortion in her own home remembered: “Mrs G. & my mammy went up to the bedroom with a basin of hot water. They got the water out of the kettle. Mrs. G. put the water into the basin.”6 In Antrim, 1935, an abortionist, Minnie, “had hot water and all ready to wash [the woman seeking abortion] out.”7

The kettle was the idealized representation of women’s domesticity, their roles within their family, and the traditions of hospitality that many held dear. For the early twentieth-century Irish woman, particularly the wife and mother, the kettle epitomized her domestic role and her central place in the family and community. By using kettles in home-based abortion procedures, women complicated the meaning of the kettle and thus their roles as homemakers. The tea-kettle was a central item in constituting women’s cultures in modern Ireland, but its multifaceted and subversive use may have been understood only by women.

Although the textual evidence on women’s reproductive lives is often scarce, objects abound, and they provide an invaluable window into women’s everyday lives and cultural practices.8 An analysis of the things that women interacted with day in and day out reveals Irish women’s reproductive lives and lived experiences. When women used kettles and kitchen tools to end pregnancies, they demonstrated tenacity in trying to manage their bodies and health care, even as British and Irish authorities continued to restrict women’s reproductive autonomy. By using the home, the kitchen, and domestic items in a rebellious manner, and often to reject motherhood, women troubled prevailing gender norms even as they provided future historians a small glance into their domestic health care practices.


  1. State Files at Circuit Court, Donegal, 1932, National Archives of Ireland, Dublin. Return to text.
  2. Deposition of Isabel M., Sarah B., Case, Belfast, 1930, file BELF/1/1/2/94/11, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast. Return to text.
  3. Emma O’Toole, “Medicinal Care in the Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Irish Home,” in “She Said She was in the Family Way”: Pregnancy and Infancy in Modern Ireland, ed. Elaine Farrell (London: Institute of Historical Research, 2012), 115. Return to text.
  4. Elizabeth Prendergast and Helen Sheridan, Jubilee Nurse: Voluntary District Nursing in Ireland, 1890-1974 (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1912), 18. Return to text.
  5. Prendergast and Sheridan, 18. Return to text.
  6. Deposition of William B., Kathleen G., Case, State Files County Laois, 1948, National Archives of Ireland. Return to text.
  7. Statement of Jennie M. Minnie C., Case, 1935, Antrim Assizes, file ANT/1/2/C/45/8, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Return to text.
  8. Anne L. McClanan and Karen Rosoff Encarnación, eds., The Material Culture of Sex, Procreation, and Marriage in Premodern Europe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). Return to text.

Cara Delay, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston, holds degrees from Boston College and Brandeis University. Her research analyzes women, gender, and culture in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland, Britain, and the British Empire, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth. She has published in The Journal of British Studies, Lilith: A Feminist History Journal, Feminist Studies, Études Irlandaises, New Hibernia Review, and Éire-Ireland and written blogs for Nursing Clio and broadsheet.ie. Her co-edited volume Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950, was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015, and her monograph on Irish women and the creation of modern Catholicism is forthcoming from Manchester University Press. At the College of Charleston, she teaches courses on women’s history and the history of birth and bodies.