April 10, 1852



April 10th  Saturday  Worked in the chambers all the forenoon

Mr Colwell came after Orinthia she will commence her school Monday.

Have been painting some spots in the dining room  Made a call in

Olivers  Julia is at work there for Helen.  I have engaged her the 

last of the week.  Heard that Mrs Brett is dangerously sick

Eveline Brett, wife of George Brett, a bootmaker, was a twenty-year-old who had recently given birth.  The baby had survived – at least so far – but she herself was “dangerously sick.”  She likely had come down with childbed fever.

Childbed fever, known medically as puerperal fever, is a postpartum, streptococcal infection of the mother’s reproductive tract. The fever was often fatal. For much of the 19th century, it was usually, if inadvertently, caused by attending doctors. At the time, doctors had no knowledge of germs and didn’t believe in hand washing. The prevailing attitude, as expressed by one Philadelphia obstetrician, Dr. Charles Meigs, was “Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen’s hands are clean.”*

It took a Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis to realize that women with home births had fewer cases of the fever than those women who gave birth in maternity wards. He determined “that washing hands with an antiseptic solution before a delivery reduced childbed fever fatalities by 90%.“*  Publication of his findings was not well received by the medical community, but he was right.

* Puerperal infections  Wikipedia, accessed March 24, 2015


February 10, 1852



Physician-assisted childbirth, mid-19th century

Feb 10th, Tuesday

1852  Went out shopping about 11 Oclock staid untill

that time with Mrs Harris who was confined with

a daughter born about two Oclock.  looked at engraving

again today purchased Allhalloween  Oliver returned 

home to night but I did not get through with my

shopping and concluded to stop another night

Mr Harris came in the cars this afternoon heard of her

sickness just in time to take them  Oliver Jr called at Mr Orrs

While shopping for art in Boston with her son Oliver (3), Evelina had another memorable day. Per usual, she stayed with the Robert Orr family in the city. While there, one of the Orr daughters, Julianne Orr Harris, went into labor and gave birth to a girl.  Evelina stayed with Julianne for a time, which would have been normal in the older tradition of a “circle of women” being present at childbirth. Evelina’s timetable is a bit confusing, but it sounds as though she was there for much of the labor – or “sickness” –  if not at the actual delivery.

It’s likely that a male doctor presided at the birth, because by this period, especially in urban areas, physician-assisted births had become the rule rather than the exception. Midwives were phased out, although they never entirely disappeared. One result of this change was that strict propriety in the birthing room prevailed over medical accuracy, at least in the 19th century. Modern historian Jack Larkin notes:

“Embarrassment and constraint became part of the birth process; physicians were greatly hindered, as midwives had never been, by firmly established canons of female modesty. Men could not look directly at their patients’ genitals, but had to examine them only by touch while they remained fully clothed.Often deeply uncomfortable with a bedchamber full of women looking on – sometimes critically – doctors tried to persuade expectant mothers to clear them out of the birthing room.”

Julianne’s husband, Benjamin Winslow Harris, was away when his wife went into labor, but got a message, somehow, and just made the train home. He would not have participated in the birth itself, but he may have had a hand in the naming of his first child: Mary Harris, after his own mother.


*Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life,New York, 1988, p.97.


July 21, 1851



July 21st Monday  Worked about house all the forenoon 

This afternoon have been to work on the

lounge.  Put some tufts on the side of the

matress & nailed some haircloth on the inside 

of the lounge  Augustus has another son

born to day  He called here about four

Oclock to tell me the news.


Hannah Lincoln Gilmore, wife of Alson Augustus Gilmore, gave birth today to her second child, a baby boy soon to be known as Willie. This was good news.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Evelina noted only the arrival of the little boy and said nothing of Hannah’s labor and delivery. Most middle- and upper-class people at that period would have avoided explicitly describing childbirth. At most, if mentioned in public, the delivery would have been referred to simply as the mother’s “sickness.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, describing the easy birth of her fourth child in 1851, wrote “I was sick but a few hours.”*

Most women, especially in small towns and the countryside, delivered their babies with the help of a midwife, who was often assisted by female relatives; this was still true in Easton.  A new trend, however, especially in urban areas among the wealthier population, was to request the attendance of a physician at delivery. As a modern historian notes, “Fear of pain, permanent injury, or death, willingness to defer to the demands of fashion, the belief that birth posed special dangers to affluent, well-bred women, and the availability of doctors, private nurses, and new medical technology all contributed to changing attitudes.”*  Doctors began to appear bedside as women – especially rich women – gave birth.

We don’t know if Hannah got through her “illness” with the help of a physician. But as reported by her husband Augustus,  she and little Willie were resting by the end of the day.


*Sylvia D Hoffert, Private Matters: American Attitudes toward Childbearing and Infant Nurture in the Urban North, 1800 – 1860, Chicago, 1989, p. 69 and 63