Vintage Motherhood Book

Oooh have I got a treat for you all!


For my birthday last week, my mother gifted me this amazing flea market find: Preparing for Motherhood by Bernarr Macfadden, published in 1928.

I love a good, vintage treasure! It’s so interesting to see what life was like way before our time. Especially where obstetrics and motherhood are concerned.
I thought this would make a great follow up post to my ‘Obstetrics 90 Years Ago (& how things have changed)’ blog from a couple years ago. Check that post out if you haven’t already, it’s really something.

I mean, naturally he would write a book on preparing for motherhood, no?

I mean, naturally he would write a book on preparing for motherhood, no?

Before diving into the wonders of this gem, I want to talk a bit about it’s author, Bernarr Macfadden.

Upon a quick google search, I learned that Bernarr has been credited with beginning the health & fitness culture in America. He was a proponent of physical culture, meaning a combo of bodybuilding and nutritional/health theories. He was a predecessor of Charles Atlas & Jack LaLanne.
He had 8 children, Helen, Byrne, Byrnece, Beulah, Beverly, Brewster, Berwyn, and Braunda.

Why this man felt the need to write a book about preparing for motherhood, I will never know!
But boy am I glad he did because now I get to share it with all of you.

Consisting of 21 chapters with titles ranging from “What Mothers Should Know About Eugenics” to “Does Maternity Mean the Loss of Your Figure?” to “Keeping The Breasts Firm After Childbirth” (yes those are literally the first and last couple chapter names), this book has it all.

Though there are some practices in the book that I agree with and lots that still ring true today, there is also quite a lot of questionable quotes throughout.
Let’s read some, shall we?

“It is a widely known fact that the women of savage races have comparatively little trouble in childbirth. Civilized women, on the other hand, seem to have lost to some extent the capacity for normal parturition, as a result of our artificial standards and habits of life.“ - oof. I guess this is a sign of the times to refer to other cultures as savages. You better believe he also refers to Native Americans later on in the book as Indians.

Don’t marry without a physical examination first!

Don’t marry without a physical examination first!

“…seek health in your mate. Assure yourself that his or her family does not consist largely of members who are confined in the insane asylum or the penitentiary. Or that they are not addicted to the excessive use of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Also that they are free from epilepsy, syphilis, and scrofula.” - this is all still the first chapter, about breeding properly. Which brings us to…

“With cousins, provided the blood strain is pure, there is absolutely no reason why marriage should not be consummated. Where the blood is pure their association in marriage can be productive only of good results, so far as bringing healthy, well-nourished children into the world, is concerned.” - he claims this does not count as incest…okay then..

These next couple sections are entitled “The Easy Labor of the Indian Mother” and “‘Civilized’ Babies Have Larger Heads”.
He states: “The fact is that the average woman is more or less unfit for the ordeal.” The ordeal meaning birth.
“Her methods of dressing, her corsets, her muscular inactivity, her lack of physical development, her mistakes in diet, and her entire mode of living, have been of a nature to unfit her for this, the supreme experience of woman’s life. She is not capable of what I would term a ‘natural’ childbirth.” - This guy gets allll my eye-rolls.

“Remember that the average person uses about four bushels of air a minute. Therefore your room should be constantly replenished with fresh air; otherwise available oxygen will be quickly exhausted and you will be breathing in large amounts of carbon dioxide - a deadly gas thrown off in breath.” - WHAT. I love fresh air as much as the next gal, and I agree with needing it, but.. what?!

There’s a section about telepathy. Bernarr doesn’t know whether there is such a thing as telepathy but he likes to think there is. He speaks about this because there is a lot of worry surrounding the unborn child being ‘marked’ through fright and unpleasant sights. He rules out telepathy though because what’s to stop a father from telepathing his child, or why couldn’t the mother telepath and mark the baby once it’s outside her body? This whole section is just odd. But one quote made me laugh:
“You are on the horns of a dilemma, my dear mother-friend.”

The importance of exercise while pregnant (though the model is not) looks kinda like a hip-hop dance.

The importance of exercise while pregnant (though the model is not) looks kinda like a hip-hop dance.

Throughout the book there is a LOT of talk about enemas. And directions, and positions, for taking an internal bath. Thankfully the use of enemas in pregnancy, and especially labour, has been disproved and they are no longer offered. “A bi-weekly cleansing of the colon with a quart and a half or two quarts of warm water, into which has been dissolved a liberal amount of pure castile soap, will be found to afford a degree of relief that can be obtained by perhaps no other means.” THIS IS NOT NECESSARY. Please talk to your healthcare provider if you ever think about doing an enema while pregnant.

I’m including this whole next segment because it’s just too good.

On sex while pregnant:
“…it may involve even more than the health of the prospective mother - it may involve her domestic happiness as well. With women there is at times an intense congestion of the ovaries and of the genital organs following pregnancy.
In fact, physicians state that among women who are normally somewhat frigid, there often develops after pregnancy what amounts sometimes almost to nymphomania.
There may be a physical basis for this, but it is abnormal and only of temporary duration, and in any case can be mentally controlled. Sexual indulgence after pregnancy has taken place has a tendency to bring about abortion or miscarriage, if there is an inclination in this direction, and the health of the mother and child must be the determining factors in the matter.
The woman should turn her attention to other matters and stop thinking about the sexual relationship. If physical energy is expended through other channels, there will usually be less sex energy.
It is, as a rule, the inactive woman, accustomed to giving way to her appetites, who feels the sex urge most strongly. In cases in which the craving is very strong, it may be quite effectively reduced by the use of the cold sitz-bath.
If the wife does not permit too intimate fondling at this time, it will be less difficult for both the woman and the man to control the sexual impulse. In fact, if there is not this fondling, there will probably not be the awakening of the impulse. The husband should at this time consider his wife less in the physical and more in the spiritual light, as the woman who is to bring into the world a new soul is closely akin to the divine.”

- repeat after me: sex while pregnant is totally normal and healthy!!!
Unless instructed by your doctor for a medical reason, please have all the sex you like.
The only kind of nice thing in this section is the end. I think it’s sweet for the husband to consider his wife in a more spiritual light since she’s bringing a new soul into the world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have sex with her too.

He explains as well that after birth, sexual relations should be avoided during the entire nursing period for eight months or longer. One of the reasons he lists “the quality of milk itself is likely to undergo certain chemical changes as a result of sexual stimulation, just as it may become a deadly poison to the child under the influence of furious anger.” No.

Obviously it’s of the utmost importance to keep your hair brushed while pregnant

Obviously it’s of the utmost importance to keep your hair brushed while pregnant

“It is normal for some women to have weeping spells. They should not be denied the privilege of indulging in them, for they afford sedative reaction. Husbands, if your wives enjoy a quiet, inoffensive weep, don’t interfere with their enjoyment.
Many a woman has become a self-indulgent hysterical wreck simply because the anxious husband has insisted upon cajoling her into smiles when tears would have quieted her much ore satisfactorily.
In fact, it is imperative that the husband as well as the wife be instructed in the matter of emotional disturbances. While the husband need not be stern or distant, yet he should learn not to take these outbursts of sentiment too seriously.”
- how about your hormones go crazy when you’re pregnant and that often results in crying. You two are a team, you know the best way to comfort each other! I think a wife would prefer her husband to be nice while she’s crying and not let her just weep…

“The question of clothing during pregnancy is a very important one, for not only should it satisfy the demands of health, but it should be so designed as to help a woman over the embarrassment which many feel when obliged to appear in an obviously pregnant condition.” -pregnancy, so embarrassing.

While there are SO many ridiculous things in this book, I also want to mention some of the practices that they got right!
Humans have changed a lot in the past 90 years but some things remain true.

Like the benefits of fresh air and exercise! “Don’t be ashamed of being seen out of doors. Remember that motherhood is something to be proud of, and that pregnancy is a condition to be honoured. Apart from your walks, which should be regular, both motoring or sitting outdoors on the porch or on the lawn are recommended.” He then goes on to break down the correct way to walk…

Probably because Bernarr was a fitness guy, he got this right. “With poor bodily posture there is always a tendency toward the displacement of the digestive and other organs. Corsets aggravate this condition, and in many cases the vital organs sag or fall several inches below their normal position, a condition which is highly detrimental in pregnancy.” That’s prolapse! He basically outlines what I learned in the pelvic floor/core course that I did!

“Try to avoid a fussy or a gloomy nurse. The same is true of the physician. Remember, a hearty laugh has great therapeutic value.” “Encourage the doctor to be patient. Nature must take her time, patience with her is always richly rewarded.” YES!

“As soon as the cord stops pulsating it is tied securely about two inches away from baby’s abdomen.” They practiced delayed cord clamping back then!!

A note to fathers : “True, you will assume your ordinary duties of fatherhood, your wife the devotions of motherhood. But you are now more than her lover - you are the father of her child.”

“And be very certain to drink plenty of water. For water forms almost 90% of the milk supplied to the infant, as well as furnishing the proper diluent for the mother’s blood, and the normal stimulus for the excretion of toxic products from the kidneys and bowels.” The importance of drinking water!

“A rhythmic retraction and protrusion of the abdominal walls, or in other words, a raising and lowering of the abdomen, is one of the best exercises for causing muscles to return to their former shape.” He got this right again. We can further explain this as doing the ‘core breath’ talked about in this post.

I’m so glad I got the chance to read this and turn it into a post for all my fellow birth/history nerds! What are your thoughts on Bernarr Macfadden and all of his advice on preparing for motherhood? Let me know in the comments!