Monday, July 13, 2009

Women's Birth Control in 1860s Ypsilanti

1860s Ypsilanti women had a surprising amount of control over family planning. Regular ads in the paper advertised remedies for missed periods that promised to remove "irregularities" or “obstructions” to normal menstruation. Regular menstruation was seen as a sign of health, and medicines called emmenagogues were available to incite menstruation if a woman’s period was late. Abortifacients also existed, and over time the distinction between these medicines blurred. The euphemisms in the ads for emmenagogues and abortifacients were understood by everyone, even schoolchildren.

At left: This Ypsilanti Commercial advertisement frankly offers a preparation to "prevent any increase of family where health will not permit it."

1860s society subscribed to the "doctrine of quickening." This doctrine said that a conception is not a child until movement of the fetus is felt, which usually occurs between three and five months. Before quickening, people of the time did not regard the conception as a fetus or baby. There was no moral stigma attached to terminating a pregnancy before quickening.

This Ypsilanti Commercial advertisement promises that Sir James Clarke's Female Pills "will, in a short time, bring on the monthly period with regularity."

However, the abortifacients available were dangerous to the mother as well as the fetus. Plant-based remedies such as ergot, tansy, and savin varied in strength according to the growing conditions of the plant and the preparator’s recipe. For some women, the preparations were fatal.

But for many, they worked. Between 1800 and 1830 it is estimated that 1 out of 25 pregnancies was terminated by a medical abortion or the use of an abortifacient. In the 1850s and 1860s, 1 out of 5 or 6 pregnancies was thus terminated. In 1800, the average number of children born to a woman was 7.04; by 1900, the number had dropped to 3.56. Substances recognized as abortifacients included the aforementioned ergot, tansy, and savin, as well as pennyroyal, rue, blue and black cohosh, cotton root, yarrow, aconite, digitalis, quinine, madder root, cherry bark, aloes, and hellebore.

Euphemistic keywords that denote these ads, such as the Ypsilanti Commercial ad at left, include “French” or “Portuguese” pills, “renovating,” “lunar,” or “periodical” medicines, or such phrases as “women’s friend,” “menstrual suppression,” “female regulator,” or “delayed period.”

The 1873 Comstock Law outlawed the sending of “obscene, lewd, and lascivious” material through the mail, including contraceptives, and prohibited the advertising of abortifacients. In contrast to the 1860s papers from which the above ads were drawn, the 1874 papers (relating to Ypsilanti teen diarist Allie’s time in Ypsilanti) show no advertisements for menstrual regulators or abortifacients that I see. Likely the makers of these items were wary of the brand-new, toothy law. But the ads eventually returned, framed in euphemisms as before.

Birth control is thought of as something that came along in the 1960s, with only a scattering of a few quaint folk remedies prior to that. But an 1860s Ypsilanti woman had much control over the size of her family, though the remedies available were sometimes life-threatening. Using them, she could offer a better life to the children she did have by having only the number of children she wanted.

Regulating Menstruation, Etienne van de Walle, Elisha P. Renne
Abortion in America, James C. Mohr
August 26, 1865 Ypsilanti Commercial
December 29, 1866 Ypsilanti Commercial
September 19, 1868 Ypsilanti Commercial


Anonymous said...

That is fascinating! Go, go 1860s ladies!

I read somewhere that the "moral outcry" over terminating a pregnancy began right around the same time that women started asking for more rights. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

Life begins at conception and end with contraception.

Anonymous said...

Cool! I was so hoping someone would leave a comment like that!!!

Every orgasm doesn't need a name....