Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Birth of Elizabeth Rogers ( my grandmother ) in 1892

Birth of Elizabeth Tryon Rogers
Daughter of Nathaniel and Elizabeth Rogers
Danbury, Connecticut during the rise of the industrial north

May 22, 1892
Sunday morning at 5:00 am

Elizabeth lingered in the place of her dreams. Her heart floated through time, even as her body lay heavy and warm beneath layers of quilts. She tried to roll over; to find that place where sleep could remain but her condition would not allow it. She closed her eyes, trying to once again be the girl in her dreams; the one riding bareback on a wild mustang; her hands gripping the thick black mane as she made her way across the western plains. 

Her husband, Nathaniel, looked out the window wistfully when she shared her dreams. “You read too many stories. It’s not easy for a woman out west.’

Nathaniel, at the age of fifteen, had joined the union Army as a drummer boy.  He walked mile after mile watching as whole towns were burned and mothers and children looked on crying. He had walked across the country trying to forget the faces of friends who died in small, forgotten southern towns.  He had sailed to England as a merchant only to be haunted by the nightmares that woke him each night. When he returned from England, all he wanted was to make a warm and happy home for friends and family.

“Imagine sleeping outside in a covered wagon.  Imagine, she whispered, “imagine our seven children camped beside a campfire on our way to Oregon. Imagine.”  Nathaniel reminded her that people could now take the transcontinental railroad but she only shrugged her shoulders and continued to read of adventures out west.

Her bedroom, in contrast to the places of her dreams, was dark save for the smallest crack of morning coming from beneath the curtains.  The windows were shut and covered in heavy velvet, keeping out what spring breezes stirred in the world beyond.

She pushed the covers aside and left Nathan sleeping.  These were bound to be her only minutes alone for some time to come.  She slipped on a robe but her round and growing figure prohibited her from securing the buttons.

The children were sleeping in a large room next to the upstairs porch.   She walked by them, quietly pushing open the door to let in the morning air; the soft pinks of dawn blending into long clouds of smoke from the chimneys of the factories.

Already the hat factories were blowing their whistles; calling the men of Danbury to spill out into the streets and make their way to work. They spoke so many languages and came from so many places; the whistle being the common language that united them all.

Hats. Everywhere there were hats being made in factories, shops and front rooms. The streams ran with the dye and chemicals used in their making, Pallets of beaver skin were unloaded at the new train station.  There were sidewalk, street lights and a department store.

This then was the American dream; immigrants coming from Ireland and Germany to work in the factories and help women with their daily chores. Cook told her of the famine in Ireland and how anything was better than starvation.  She had not wanted anyone working in her home but with a new baby on the way and all the others, she had finally agreed.  Cook’s husband had been killed in a factory accident and she had children of her own. 

She reached up and let loose her long dark hair. It was spring and for at least a few moments, her world was her own.  She could be alone with her thoughts here on the porch.  Seven children sleeping inside and one more about to be born. Eight children.  She felt thankful that they were all alive and well.   She understood that Nathaniel only wanted what was best for her and the children by keeping them here in New England.

 She had insisted on the airing porch. It was intended to bring fresh air to the bedrooms and to prevent disease but was used more practically for hanging wash and hand sewing by the second maid who also helped her with the children.  She rather liked maid’s soft old chair and found a place there amongst the drying laundry.  Proper New England women did not sit on the airing porch fully dressed let alone in their dressing gown.  Nathaniel, who was mayor of Danbury was susceptible to the impressions she and the children made in the community and begged her often to abide by a sense of propriety; especially in her condition.  She sighed and pushed a wandering baby foot out from beneath her ribs where they were constantly pushing up and causing her sharp pains.  She stretched, raising her arms upward, trying to give both the baby and her more room.

The winter had been cold with snow so deep they had been confined to the house for weeks at a time. She complained frequently and had been cross with Anne, Sally and Seafus who had raced about the house playing games meant for the outdoors.

They reminded her of her own childhood in Brooklyn and the games she had played so freely there. Nathaniel had been raised in Saybrook, a seaport with marshy places for a boy to roam.  

Nathaniel, knowing that their early years together had been filled with many moves, had worked hard to make this house both modern and perfect. There was even indoor plumbing.  She had found it distasteful to have the toilets indoors but with the many calls to use it during her pregnancy; she was grateful and had come slowly to accept this new way.

She could hear the iceman filling the icebox on the side of the house. The sun was only now appearing over the slate rooftops but already the streets were busy with peddlers and the arrival of servants. She stared out wandering how she would live this one perfect day if she could plan it just as she wanted. What one wonderful thing would she do? Of course, she would love to have the baby; to meet this new person and be free to move about in public as she had before pregnancy.


Her thoughts were interrupted by the soft, familiar call of Nathaniel’s voice.

“Here you are. And still in your night clothes.”  He kissed the top of her hair. 

“Come lets ask cook to bring us breakfast in our room. She has made biscuits.  I can smell from here. ‘

Elizabeth sighed. “But it is such a lovely morning. I cannot bear to go in. Not yet.”

She reached out to touch his cheek. He was a handsome man dressed as always in a dark suit, fitting for the mayor of Danbury. 

“Lets have tea out here. The children are still sleeping and it would be fun.”

Nathaniel went down to tell the cook to bring them tea on the porch and returned with a small vile of homeopathic medicines. The ones the doctor prescribed for his wife’s constant need for fresh air and the nausea that had lasted throughout the pregnancy.

He shook them in his hand, his dark playful, irresistible eyes begging her to behave.

She held out her small hands to take the vile and shook a few under her tongue to dissolve.  They might relieve the nausea but never her wish to be outdoors or her resolve to break free of the chains of Victorian England.

They sat there with their tea while Nathaniel made every effort to encourage and comfort his headstrong wife.

“I know your situation is delicate. Perhaps a day in bed is just the thing. A day in bed and then surely we will have a fine picnic.”   Having a picnic was the polite way of saying a woman was having a baby.  You did not tell your friends you were pregnant but rather said that you would not be making afternoon calls.

“Being pregnant and giving birth is not a picnic.  Only a man or a group of men would call birth a picnic, having never done it himself.“ She replied with a smile.

“Well, it’s like a picnic someone else has prepared for you. You open the picnic basket and out comes the most wonderful surprise!”

She couldn’t help but laugh at his analogy.

“Soon women will be able to have their babies in the new hospital, with a doctor.  They are about to break ground on Danbury’s new hospital.”

“I would never have a baby in a hospital where sick people go to die.  It’s not clean and besides I need the comfort of my own home.  The poor women who go to the hospital to give birth in the city nearly always die.”

“But we could call the doctor to come here and not an Irish washerwoman.”

“We could but I won’t.  At least a washerwoman has clean hands and a soft way about her. Besides she is a trained and skilled midwife. Your fancy hospital committee doesn’t want women to work or vote or be a doctor or much of anything.”

He knew she would have her own way and call the midwife who attended all her births.  He had lost his first wife in childbirth and they had called a doctor who was trained in the most modern methods.

Elizabeth had talked to her friend before her birth.  She had decided to have her baby with a doctor who had learned all the latest technology; ether for pain and forceps to get the baby out.  Elizabeth was convinced that these two things had killed her friend and not the birth; that and the doctor’s refusal to wash his hands.  It had already been proven that doctors carried infections from patient to patient on their unwashed hands but most refused to listen.

She did not like to think of these things

“I think I’ll go gather daisies for the hospitals in New York City.  The train can get them there still fresh.  They say they make everyone feel better because it gives them a cheerful outlook. It’s the least we can do for children in the city.”

Her brother and sister had died of smallpox when she was young and she was convinced that it was the lack of sunshine and fresh air.   Their portraits hung in the parlor, next to the piano.  “They liked singing” she liked to tell visitors.  

After they were both dressed, for the day, and the children were up and calling to one another, she opened the curtains and windows.  After Jimmy and Ada died, her parents became part of the Popular Health Movement that believed being healthy was the domain of common sense and a healthy life style.  Children needed to wear clothes that let them run and play and not the restrictive garments of Victorian England.

Elizabeth gathered the children and instructed them to dress for a picnic. There would be no school that day.

“We are picking daisies to send to the hospitals in New York City.  There are so few flowers there and it makes such a difference in their recovery.  Come, come. Its best to pick them before it gets too hot and they begin to wilt.”

The girls put on smocked shifts dyed in shades of green and yellow.  Soft shifts fashioned after English country smocks made of silk with embroidered sashes at their waists. Practical so they could run and play but still modest and lovely. Mama, as they called her was part of a movement towards more healthful clothing for young ladies and discouraged corsets for all but very special occasions. She believed it hurt the digestive system and interfered with a woman’s natural ability to give birth.

They wore bonnets in the carriage but as soon as they reached the daisy field she allowed them to run with their hair down, picking daises as she lay on the blanket and felt the first early twinges of labor. There was no need to hurry. It was early and would take all day before the contractions would be strong enough to call the midwife. Besides she enjoyed the warm, spring sun and the sounds of the children playing.  Robins called as they built their nests.

“Mama.”  Look at all the daisies. It was Seafus, her only son, standing there with his sisters with bundles of fresh daisies. They placed them in water under the carriage where it was cool. Mama removed the food from the basket.

She frequently had to stop what she was doing. While passing out cakes, she held her breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them again all the children were staring at her.

“Might best be time to go home and get these flowers to the train station.”  Remarked cook as she began to gather things up.

“I’m fine.” Protested Mama. “We can finish the picnic surely.”

Mama rubbed her back and began to pace as the children finished.”

She began to doubt her decision to go out.  The ride back to the house was at least forty minutes by carriage.  She breathed deep and begged the baby wait.

Seafus held his mother’s hand. “Papa said if this baby is a girl, we can name her Elizabeth after you.”

“Please Mama, if the baby is a girl can we name her Elizabeth like you.” 

“Yes, added in Anne. We must have a sister named Elizabeth.”

Mama held up her hand amused.  “You father will name the baby and I doubt he will name a boy Elizabeth, even if it is after me.”

Everyone laughed and piled into the carriage, singing as they made their way home.

Neighbors, out for afternoon social visits, waved and remarked how odd it was that Elizabeth Rogers should be out in her condition.  Elizabeth was not expected to make social calls in her condition but was free to receive women guests one afternoon a week should she feel well enough.  Women left cards and letters which Mama always took time to answer but more and more her afternoons were filled with meetings about the Danbury Garden Club and the new hospital.

Once back home on Farfield Avenue, Mama made her way up to her room with Cook’s help. The children were told to amuse themselves quietly in the parlor while the driver took the flowers to the train station and to city hall to get Nathaniel or NB as most people in Danbury called him.

“Ask him if he wants to come home for a picnic.”  Mama whispered with a smile.

The stair case railing was mahogany; a warm, lovely wood so comforting to run ones hand over. She paused and held onto it for a contraction and then proceeded upstairs. The pressure was building in her and she knew she needed to lie down. 

 Soon the midwife arrived and sent the house into action.

“Put on a pot of warm water.”

“Heat the baby blankets.”

The house was busy with things being brought up the staircase and then the door was shut and the children waited.

Mama slipped on a white smock she had made for the birth as well as a petticoat that could easily be lifted from below.

“Keep walking till you feel the baby coming.” The midwife called as she unpacked her birth bag and laid things out for cutting the cord.  They had set up the birth bed she had used for all her births.  It was made up with clean sheets weeks ago.

“Not long now.”  

“How do you know?” she asked between the contractions.

“It’s the smell; the smell of a baby coming and the look on your face. I know it well enough by now.’

Elizabeth had barely reached the bed when a long deep moan swept through her. “She’s coming.”

Midwife eased her down on the bed just in time to see the baby’s head and body tumble out in one contraction. 

“Ah, a wee girl in a hurry to be born.”  The baby looked around quietly. 

“Let’s hear you cry so all of them downstairs know you’re here.”   She looked her over, cut the cord with scissors she had boiled and tied the cord with string.   In a matter of minutes she was wrapped snuggly next to her mother who was laughing. 

“Now that was a fast one.”

She turned to the baby and offered her the breast.

“I can find you a wet nurse, if you want, “Mrs Rogers?”

“Why no, I always nurse my own babies.  I know some women don’t like to but I am happy to lie here and know I’m helping them grow.” 

“Some want to but they have to work in the factories and can’t.  The factory owners tell them to give them milk from a cow but if its spoiled the babies get sick and die.  Yes, Mrs Rogers, its best to give the baby the milk God made just for them.”

The midwife cleaned up quickly; removing the wet sheets and putting new ones beneath her with skill and experience.  She clucked and cooed, talking to herself as much as to anyone.

“In the old country all the babies were put to the breast and none dying so young,”

The midwife realizing that the curtains were still open, hurried to shut them.

‘Never mind. Leave them open so we can enjoy the last of the day.” 

The midwife piled the laundry in her arms.  She’d stay the next few days, making sure the mother and baby were doing well. 

Downstairs, Anne, Ruth and Seafus were putting flowers in vases.

“We picked flowers today.”  They told their father when he hurried in the door.   “Mama wanted to go on a picnic and we didn’t even have to go to school and now midwife has come and we are to play in the parlor.”

Nathaniel waited on the staircase. The afternoon sun was pouring through the stain glass window.  Cook passed him on the stairs.

“Well, Mayor, you’ve got yourself another girl.”

He hurried up the stairs and down the hall to their room where Elizabeth was sitting holding a new baby.   

She unwrapped the small, pink, perfectly formed baby so her husband could see for himself his eighth daughter. He kissed her tenderly.

“We’ll name this one Elizabeth after you.” 

Then he wrapped her up and took her to the window.

Outside the hat factories were calling the end of the day. The Congregational Church was ringing the six o’clock bell and everywhere people were returning home.

The older children ran upstairs to see the baby while cook stayed on to prepare a proper dinner. The midwife would stay the week and Grandmama would come from Brooklyn.

In New York City, daisies were being delivered to the patients of the city hospital. The day began as it started with a soft breeze and the songs of the birds outside their windows. The soft pink of sunset filled the sky. Clean sheets and the petticoats of birth were already nearly dry on the airing porch where Nathaniel sat and had his afternoon tea. Mama had insisted that he take the baby outside. It had been such a perfect day and she didn’t want her to miss it.

This is the story of my grandmother’s birth. My great grandmother had all her babies at home, with a midwife. My grandmother had all her babies at home and then my mother had all of us in a hospital.  My mother was told she could not breast feed and gave me cans of condensed milk.  The end of the 19th century would mark the loss of the midwife on the American landscape.  Because the United States, unlike Europe and Japan, did not establish midwifery schools, most midwives were immigrants who were trained in Europe.   As medical schools, often for males only, were started they encouraged women to have their babies in the hospital; mostly so that the young medical students would have someone to practice on.  As my grandmother said, “Only the poorest had their babies in a hospital because we all knew you were more likely to die there.”   As women began to have their babies with doctors and in hospitals, the rate of postpartum infection soared and death related to birth became epidemic.   The midwives, whose hands were always in soapy water had not carried disease but the doctors, who refused to wash their hands spread disease from sick patient to laboring woman.  Midwives, breastfeeding and homebirth began to be associated with poor, immigrant women and women of the rural south.   The industrialized factories of the north brought new found wealth, inventions and jobs for immigrants but it also brought pollution, the loss of breastfeeding and the decline of the midwife.  It would take women generations to overcome the restrictive language and roles of a proper Victorian society.  It would take generations to understand and restore the midwife, once again, to her place in the community.

When I first wanted a homebirth with a midwife, my parents protested.  Then my grandmother, the baby in this story, looked over her glasses and said, “And where do you think you two were born.”   We all laughed and I had my babies at home with midwives.


  1. Ah for the daisies and picnics. May the casual reader know that our great grandmother did take her children to pick daisies for people in New York, although perhaps not when she was in labor! Great story, thanks Sadie.

  2. Thank you for the very lovely, evocative story. I was transported. I am honored to carry the same name of such strong, clear women.

    I birthed my three children, just as the midwifery was coming back into our alternative culture. It was still 'illegal'. I made this choice for all of the reasons describe in your story ... besides, my body assured me that this was the best choice for my children. My third child came so very quickly (one hour) and 3 weeks early that my midwife missed her emergence. So I served as my own midwife: checking my own dilation, directing those attending the birth, cutting the cord, etc. She was born with the cord wrapped around her neck several times and was a little slow to start up. She made her covenant with LIFE soon enough and pinked up beautifully (apparently full cooked). This self-midwifing is, of course, not really a recommended path, but I never doubted the wisdom of this choice at the time (she would have been born in the car if I had made another choice). I explained this to friends afterward (so they could vaguely understand) as "A fool in failure, and a genius in success", but I never felt any possibility of 'failure' and all turn out quite well. What this experience taught me was the wisdom and power of WOMAN" BODY as a co-creator with LIFE.