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Victorian Motherhood Guides Reflected Changes

Victorian motherhood guides disagreed on important issues. Should you swab a newborn with brandy? How often can you kiss your baby? Are morphine cough syrups effective or is opium better for children? All of these questions and many more were addressed in mountains of Victorian motherhood guides.

Child rearing theories went through phases and fashions through the 19th century, just as they do today. Some remain relevant while others leave us wondering how the human race survived. We can laugh at past generations, but is it possible that those of the future will look back at our ideas with a smirk? Eventually, scientific discoveries were reflected in Victorian Motherhood Guides. Fortunately, the instincts of mothers to protect and nurture their young have remained a constant as evidenced in these photographs.

And Then There Were Germs

Yes, mother has always known best and most likely suspected that cleanliness was a key to good health. Many of the guides included everything from solid practical advice to “old wives’ tales” to potions and incantations. But a dramatic shift occurred in mid-nineteenth century medicine that was reflected in Victorian Motherhood Guides. In 1859, Florence Nightingale published Notes On Nursing. Louis Pasteur published his germ theory in 1861. Both emphasized the importance for cleanliness and sanitation. Vaccines, weighty medical books and sterilized tools began to replace mother’s common sense.

Following are just a few favorite ideas from a mountain of Victorian Motherhood Guides.

Cassell’s Household Guide Covered All Bases

1869: Cassell’s Household Guide was called “a complete encyclopedia of domestic and social economy and forming a guide to every department of practical life.” Cassell, Petter and Galpin published it in London with multiple editions to follow. According to Cassell’s:

“Should the infant appear exhausted and cold immediately after birth, sponge it all over with brandy or some spirit.”

While brandy and spirits could be useful, narcotics were frowned upon.

“Never dose a baby with narcotics. The safest remedy for a pain in the stomach is a few drops of peppermint in water sweetened with sugar, and a hot flannel laid upon’ the stomach or across the back. In our articles on Domestic Medicine, ample directions will be found for the treatment of all more important symptoms.”

Cassell’s took a decidedly Florence Nightingale stance to the importance of environment.

“The aspect of a day-nursery should be light, airy, and, if attainable, exposed to the south. It is impossible to over-estimate the worth of this situation in the attempt to rear children in full health and buoyancy of spirit. The ruddy bloom of a well-trained child betokens something more than a sound constitution-it indicates a joyous temperament and keen enjoyment of life.

Most of this was out of the control of lower income mothers. Sadly, Cassell’s had no advice to cure poverty.

“Children immured in gloomy apartments never wear this look. In all save their clothing they are liable to resemble the ill-fed population of crowded cities, whose playground is the nearest gutter.”


Advice to a Wife by Pye Henry Chavasse

1877: Chavasse warns mothers to stop breast feeding by month nine or risk giving the baby brain disease. As an added warning, the mother could go blind.

Don’ts For Mothers—The Little Book of Big Advice

1878: This little book was published anonymously, although several other books of Don’ts (for wives, husbands, marriage and weddings) were later published with the author Blanche Ebbutt. This title told mothers how to avoid horrors like having ugly or stupid children. To name a few:

Don’t feel it necessary to wash your infant’s head with brandy.

-Don’t be disappointed when you learn ‘it’ is a girl not a boy. A girl is every bit as important to this world as a boy.

-Don’t hold children’s parties. They are one of the great follies on the present age. Their pure minds are blighted by it.

-Don’t punish a child too harshly. Small children may be sent to bed without supper or tied in an arm-chair.

-Don’t attempt to manage a boy if he is too bad to be governed by any other means than flogging: tell his father of his disobedience and request him to punish the boy.

-Don’t allow your child luncheon. If he want anything to eat between breakfast and dinner let him have a piece of dry bread

-Don’t kiss your infant on the mouth. Infants ought never to be kissed except for on the forehead,

-Don’t permit a child to be in the glare of the sun without a hat. He is likely to have a sunstroke, which might either at once kill him, or might make him an idiot for the remainder of his life.

-Don’t cram a wet nurse with food, give her a strong ale to drink.

-Don’t put boys into trousers too young but keep them in petticoats until they are four years old. Never put trousers on girls at all.

Victorian Motherhood Guides: Point Sleeping Babies North

1878: In his book, The Physical Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife, and Mother, Dr. George H. Napheys warns mothers that children must sleep with their head pointed north in order to maintain health. This was because of electrical currents that scientists of the day believed to move in one direction around the globe.

Good Food Made Good Sense

1881: Former slave Abby Fisher offered some practical remedies for childhood maladies in her cookbook. She honed her culinary skills and repertoire of recipes over a lifetime. She published What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking. Her achievements are more profound considering she learned to cook on plantations where she was born into slavery in the 1830s. Like Harriett Tubman Fisher built a reputation for her ability to cure illnesses including dysentery through herbs.

The book’s final recipe, Pap for Infant Diet, she dictated: “I have given birth to eleven children and raised them all, and nursed them with this diet.”

In her recipe for Blackberry Syrup — For Dysentery in Children she notes that it’s “an old Southern plantation remedy among colored people.”

Dr. Luther Emmett Holt: Don’t Touch, Don’t Kiss, Don’t Spoil

In all fairness, L. Emmett Holt was a famed pediatrician who introduce milk certification in New York City after determining that bacteria caused a large numbers of infant fatalities. He also became a leading expert on childhood diseases. That said, he had strong opinions on tough love.

1894: Holt wrote The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children’s Nurses

Forget about motherly wisdom, love and intuition. Holt believed in highly regimented scheduling for children. This included eating, toilet training, and sleep. According to Holt:

“Babies under six months should never be played with: and the less of it at anytime the better for the infant. They are made nervous and irritable, sleep badly and suffer from indigestion.”

 He believed that children should sleep alone, while books of the earlier 1800s encouraged mothers to keep their babies close at night. If a baby cried at night, he instructed mothers to check for the basic needs and then leave the child to cry it out alone.

Holt also introduced the concept of “airing’ babies.

“Fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood, and this is just as necessary for health and growth as proper food. The appetite is improved, the digestion is better, the cheeks become red, and all signs of health are seen…It is not true that infants take cold more easily when asleep than awake, while it is almost invariably the case that those who sleep out of doors are stronger children and less prone to take cold than others.”

Dangling baby cages became the rage in the 1920s, thanks in part to Holt’s ideas. Even Eleanor Roosevelt hung her baby out her New York window in a wooden basket attached by wire. She gave up the practice after neighbors reported her crying baby to the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Mother Love Is A Dangerous Instrument!

1928: In his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child,  behavioral psychologist John B. Watson warned mothers against excessive shows of affection. According to Watson “mother love” is a dangerous instrument:

“… which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.”

But Watson didn’t exclude all affection. 

“There is a sensible way of treating children…Never hug and kiss them, never let them to sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when you say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning…Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary job of a difficult task.”

A Special Note About Legitimate Medicines Of Victorian Childhood

When Victorian Motherhood Guides failed to deliver solutions, many parents turned to over-the-counter remedies. One of the favorites was Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. It was pitched as an indispensable aid to quiet crying babies and teething toddlers. One of its main ingredients was morphine. Other common ingredients in popular remedies were an array of opiates, cannabis and alcohol.

For more articles on Victorian motherhood, check out Nineteenth Century Mother Photos that ranged from hidden moms to beautiful portraits. 

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