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April 12, 2015 / Charlie McNabb

Dig Into the Archive

On Friday I gave a presentation in Haverford Special Collections titled “Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health in the 18th and 19th Centuries.” The talk was part of a series called “Dig Into the Archives” where presenters share interesting items they have found in the archive while researching on a particular topic.

A flyer for the presentation with the title, abstract, location and time, and a reproduction of a page from Culpeper's Complete Herbal. Abstract is reproduced in full below.

Colleague Dan created this flyer. Isn’t it snazzy?

For those who’d prefer not to strain their eyes, the abstract reads:

“How did girls and women in the 18th and 19th centuries experience puberty, sexuality, pregnancy, and childbirth? What sorts of instruction did they receive? Did they communicate their experiences, seek help, or offer advice to other women? And how did midwives and early gynecologists learn and teach their craft? In this Dig Into the Archives presentation, librarian Charlie McNabb will discuss primary source materials that give researchers fascinating glimpses into women’s lives, as well as the gaps and silences in the archival record that may be even more revealing.”

When I was invited to do a Dig, I took it as an opportunity to broaden my menarche research and explore menstrual attitudes and experiences from the past. I looked in diaries and memoirs of girls and women, searching for those time periods when an adolescent writer would be likely to begin puberty as well as time periods when an adult woman’s daughters might be in that phase of life. To my dismay, I found no mentions at all of menstruation, or puberty more generally. So I decided to expand my topic and look at sexual and reproductive health more generally.

I looked in those same diaries and skipped to the months when I knew the writer had babies (This is a great example of how a good finding aid is essential for research! I knew enough information about my subjects’ lives that I could easily locate these events.). I was hoping for details about late pregnancy, labor, and delivery. I did find mentions of births, but rarely any juicy details. Most women simply recorded this event like any other, noting the sex and health of the baby and perhaps who visited. These same women often provided more details when documenting sermons in church and who was present or absent!

There were some notable exceptions. Caroline Cope Yarnall Hartshorne kept a diary between 1860-1873 that contains exquisite details of each of her three children’s births. While there is no mention of the physical experience of labor and delivery, she described each baby with loving details of their appearance and her emotional reaction. She also recorded who was present and who visited, and their reactions.

A page from a diary written in cursive. Partial excerpt in caption.

“She was pronounced by all to be a fine, hearty baby… Her weight was somewhere about 10 pounds her broad shoulders and high chest gave promise of health and strength.”

Another interesting item I discovered was an 1848 letter from newborn baby Elizabeth Cope to her aunt, in her father’s hand. My preconceptions about men’s involvement with pregnancy and babies was shattered with this very sweet letter. The most intriguing part for me is the fact that he explicitly discussed the physical pain of childbirth, something that none of the women mentioned in their diaries.

A letter written in cursive. Partial excerpt in caption.

“Dear Aunty, this is to inform thee of my safe arrival in this city about 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon and as mother says thee would like to hear early from now I take the first opportunity of letting thee know of my and her welfare. She seems pretty comfortable this morning though I hear she suffered a good deal on my account yesterday and the night before but that is all over now and she seems so well pleased with my company that I hope she will soon forget her troubles.”

Besides women’s diaries and letters, I also investigated how physicians cared for women’s reproductive health and how they disseminated their research. The Hartshorne Family Papers include the papers of two doctors: Joseph and son Henry. Both doctors routinely shared case information through letters to and from other doctors. Presumably, this scholarly sharing helped physicians learn new surgical techniques and medical formulas.

In 1816, Dr. Joseph Hartshorne treated a woman with a tumor on her labia. In a letter to another physician, he describes the location, size, and symptoms of the tumor, and explains step-by-step how he surgically removed it.

A very old and damaged letter in cursive. Partial excerpt in caption.

“The entire extirpation is preferable in all cases in which [illegible] can be effected with safety. A gum elastic catheter was left in the bladder, but the irritation which it excited induced me to withdraw it the second day after the operation. Nothing remarkable occurred before the evening of the third day when unequivocal symptoms of tetanus appeared.”

He then goes on to describe how he treated the tetanus. The patient recovered and and was discharged after four months in his care.

In another letter from 1829, Dr. Joseph Hartshorne described the case of a woman with painful menses.

A letter in cursive. Partial excerpt in caption.

“When the menstrual discharge is too profuse… The sulfur of lead cannot be used more than a few days. A solution of alum may occasionally be substituted.”

What I found most fascinating about Dr. Joseph Hartshorne is that he took women’s complaints seriously and clearly tried his best to learn about reproductive health and share this information with other doctors. His son Henry took after him. Dr. Henry Hartshorne took a special interest in maternal and infant health and also taught at the women’s college, preparing women medical students to become doctors.

Dr. Henry Hartshorne wrote a household cyclopedia in 1876 that includes a robust section titled “Diseases Peculiar to Females.” This section has descriptions and remedies for common female reproductive complaints: too much menstrual flow, not enough menstrual flow, cessation of the menses, all manner of illnesses and complaints that arise during pregnancy, and hysteric fits. To his credit, he seemed to regard “hysteria” not as some mysterious “wandering uterus” but as both a physical malady (“suppression of the piles or the menses”) and an emotional one (“long-continued grief, anxious thoughts, or other distresses of mind”) and his recommendations seem positively progressive.

Page from a medical text. Partial excerpt in caption.

“A light animal food, red wine, cheerful company, and a good clear air, with moderate exercise, are of great importance in this disorder.”

I was pleasantly surprised at how these medical doctors cared for women’s reproductive health. Their letters and case notes are very detailed, which I’m sure was of great help to the colleagues they shared information with.

The records of the women themselves were rather disappointing in terms of details of reproductive milestones. However, it’s likely that since diaries in these times were primarily records of family histories and therefore somewhat public, women may have coded details of this nature. Perhaps they were more frank in their letters to one another; I was not able to find any in these collections, but another researcher certainly might.

I enjoyed my Dig and could not have located anything at all without the assistance of the archivists, Sarah Horowitz, Ann Upton, and Krista Oldham.


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