What to Expect When You’re Expecting in the Nineteenth-Century U.S.

Type “pregnancy” into any internet search engine today, and you’ll literally get a billion results. This plethora of information at our fingertips feels quite modern, and yet it has a long history: American women have long turned to the printed word for advice about their reproductive bodies.

In the nineteenth century, there were many competing books that women consulted for information about their menstrual cycles, health issues they may encounter, the development of pregnancy, and even for a time ways of preventing pregnancy. These small and discrete guides usually cost anywhere from twenty-five cents to a dollar, and while some were sold at bookstores, others were marketed directly by their doctor-authors who would give lecture tours to promote and sell their books. Some books, judging by the well-worn pages I’ve seen, were surely also passed between women. The presumed readers of these books were almost certainly white middle-class and wealthy women. Those books that contain illustrations of women wearing innovative corsets for pregnancy or the pregnant woman’s body always depicted a white woman.

I recently visited the Library Company of Philadelphia, which has a large collection of popular medical books and many of these women’s health guides. I had a question I hoped the archive would help answer: how did American pregnant women in the nineteenth century understand heredity? I knew coming into this project that the theory of maternal impressions — the theory that the emotions and experiences felt by a woman during pregnancy could impact her fetus in potentially harmful ways, even resulting in congenital disorders and stillbirths — still circulated in the U.S. well into the late nineteenth century. British doctors dismissed this theory by the 1830s, but American doctors clung onto it fiercely, defending it in medical journals and conferences. I also wanted to see how they described this theory to their patients, and what the motivation might have been to promote the belief in maternal impressions.

Maternal Impressions and Inheritance

Because some of the earliest medical guides printed for women in the U.S. were copied word-for-word from England, the handbooks for women from the 1830s and 1840s took a more ambivalent stance toward maternal impression. For example, one popular book, Thomas Bull’s Hints to Mothers, went through many reprintings in the U.S that were all copied from the British edition. Hints to Mothers mostly tried to assuage pregnant women’s fears. Bull told women, “pregnancy is not to be looked upon as necessarily a period of deprivation and suffering.”1 He explained that pregnancy isn’t a disease but a “natural state.” Bull launched into an attack of maternal impressions, acknowledging its popularity and lamenting how it often leaves women during pregnancy “truly wretched”2 because they worry so much about the effects they might have on their child. Ironically, Bull attempted to prove his theory with scientific facts we now know to be wrong. He told women that the “infant has its own distinct circulation, carried on by the action of its own heart and blood-vessels, and having no direct communication with the vessels of the mother.”3 While Bull’s relatively progressive guidebook might have influenced some women to discard their beliefs that they could harm their fetus through the power of their mind, over the next few decades some of the most popular handbooks written for women in the U.S. about maternal health continued to perpetuate the belief in maternal impressions.

Seth Pancoast’s popular text, The Ladies’ Medical Guide, first published in 1859, came out in six editions through 1865.4 Pancoast, an American doctor, argued that maternal impression does account for children’s personalities, physical appearances, and idiosyncrasies. However, he also believed that fathers can have this effect to a lesser extent. He provided twenty-three different examples of maternal impressions that he claimed had been well documented. Among these examples are a child born without a hand because his mother was frightened by a beggar without a hand during her pregnancy; a woman whose child’s bowels protruded from his abdomen at birth because she witnessed the opening of a calf by a butcher in a similar manner; a woman whose vulva was bitten by a dog gave birth to a son with a similar mark on his penis; and the list goes on.5

“Period of nine months, with the natural position of the child,” from The Ladies’ Medical Guide by Seth Pancoast, 1865. (Courtesy University of Michigan)

George H. Napheys’ The Physical Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife, and Mother (1869) similarly stated that maternal impression acts “through the blood of the mother.”6 In a scientific-sounding explanation, he told his female readers that all “nervous impressions” are communicated to the child through the blood because of the “exceedingly thin membrane” connecting them. Napheys spent a number of pages on the topic of inheritance, and if his preface to the 1874 edition — which claimed the first edition sold nearly 150,000 copies — is to be believed, his book was quite popular as well.7 (The publisher’s notice describes it as “beyond question among the classics of the English language.”8) Like Pancoast, he said that men should be held responsible for some congenital birth anomalies. For example, he argued that epilepsy could be caused by the intoxication of the mother or father during intercourse.9 Yet, he entirely blamed women when he explained that children can be “idiotic or deformed” because “the influence of some severe mental shock received by the mother during her pregnancy.”10 Napheys cited Charles Darwin’s work on inheritance, but added that readers need to understand that there is a difference between “hereditary transmission,” which is passed down from the mother and father, and “the possession of qualities at birth,” which are “due to mental influences or accidents operating through the mother.”11 He also cited Francis Galton’s Heredity Genius (1869), but gave it a twist because he believed “the influence of the mother is even greater than that of the father” and that offspring would “be improved if distinguished men united themselves in marriage to distinguished women for generation after generation!”12

Maternal Impressions and Eugenics

Napheys wrote his guide before Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883, but the emergence of Galton’s eugenic thought in Heredity Genius can already be seen in Napheys’ language. And yet, Galton wasn’t a proponent of maternal impressions. Like Darwin, who in part was overturning the Lamarckian belief that traits could be passed down through impressions, Galton proposed a theory that was based entirely on the inheritance of traits already apparent in parents. Geniuses give birth to geniuses, he argued, and therefore we need to encourage their reproduction — and limit those who are less “fit.” That is the basis of eugenics.

To return to the question that opened this essay: why was maternal impression such a popular theory in the nineteenth-century U.S., and why did it persist well after English doctors discounted it as a theory of inheritance? If we follow the development of these maternal guides, we can trace how seamlessly maternal impressions morphed into the theory of eugenics, which would dominate conversations about inheritance in the early twentieth century. As late as 1889 doctors were writing manuals for mothers like S. P.’s Mother, Nurse, and Infant, which cautioned women to maintain “a tranquil mind” during pregnancy or risk a “bad effect upon the child.”13 Sackett warned women that they might miscarry or start bleeding if they were too frightened or angry or couldn’t control their tempers. And he concluded, “it is quite certain that cheerfulness and equanimity of mind contributes to the future good health of the child, and may even affect its disposition and mental traits.”14

“A mother nursing her child,” from The Ladies’ Medical Guide by Seth Pancoast, 1865. (Courtesy University of Michigan)

This language is echoed by P.B. Saur’s guide, Maternity; a Book for Every Wife and Mother (1887), one of the first maternal guides authored by an American female physician. Saur announced that “Children have the right to be well-born,”15 which is precisely the kind of rhetoric adopted by the eugenics movement within just a few years. Like Sackett, Saur continued to promote maternal impressions, but she provided a scientific explanation for its mechanism of transmission, which she called electrotyping.

These late nineteenth-century maternal guides reveal an important link between maternal impressions and eugenics: while the theory of maternal impression seemed to focus on the individual body of the pregnant woman — to discipline her to repress anger and fear, to isolate herself from the outside world lest she expose her fetus to some horrible vision — the theory of eugenics was more explicitly about shaping the population. And yet, Napheys, Sackett, and Saur all produced guides that seamlessly move from promoting maternal impressions as a means to emphasize that it is a woman’s responsibility to ensure her baby was healthy, beautiful, and morally sound, to using eugenic theory to emphasize the exact same thing.

The theory of maternal impression lasted in the United States for so long because it addressed anxieties about race and disability in a country whose demographics constantly shifted in ways white Americans often viewed as threatening. The theory of maternal impression ultimately promoted the idea that white women should be held responsible for reproducing children that are not disabled, not morally corrupt (i.e. good Christians), and white like themselves by instilling in them the fear that their children might be born “wrong” through their own fault. As these maternal guides show, women’s reproductive bodies, as always, were a key site through which the narrative about maintaining a white America was controlled.

Acknowledgments: With thanks to the Library Company of Philadelphia and particular thanks to librarian Connie King.

Notes

  1. Bull, Thomas, 1842, Hints to Mothers, For the Management of Health During the Period of Pregnancy and in the Lying-in Room; with an exposure of popular errors in connexion with those subjects, New York: Wiley & Putnam., p. 10. Return to text.
  2. Ibid., p. 12. Return to text.
  3. Ibid., p. 13. Return to text.
  4. Versions of this guide continued to be published until 1905 with different titles. Return to text.
  5. Pancoast, Seth, 1859, The Ladies’ Medical Guide, Sixth Edition, Philadelphia: John E. Potter & Co., p. 205-208. Return to text.
  6. Napheys, George H., 1874, The Physical Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife, and Mother, Philadelphia: J.G. Fergus & Co., p. 190. Return to text.
  7. The University of Rochester’s Atwater bibliography of popular medicine confirms the book’s popularity. The first edition sold out in two weeks, and was issued three more times in 1869, at least eleven times in the 1870s, nine times in the 1880s, and three times in the 1890s. See An Annotated Catalogue of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of American Popular Medicine and Health Reform, 2001, Rochester: University of Rochester Press, p. 87. Return to text.
  8. Napheys, p. 1. Return to text.
  9. Ibid., p. 134. Return to text.
  10. Ibid., p. 134. Return to text.
  11. Ibid., p. 134. Return to text.
  12. Ibid., p. 144. Return to text.
  13. Sackett, S.P., 1889, Mother, Nurse, and Infant: A Manual, New York: H. Campbell Co., p. 21. Return to text.
  14. Ibid., p. 21. Return to text.
  15. Saur, P.B., 1887, Maternity: A Book for Every Wife and Mother. Chicago and Philadelphia: L.P. Miller & Company, p. 164. Return to text.

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