DO NOT SIT! A History of the Birthing Chair

ChairI was standing on the second floor of Surgeons’ Hall in Edinburgh waiting for my film crew to begin rolling for my upcoming documentary, Medicine’s Dark Secrets, when I spied a chair (left) in the corner. At that point in the day, I was exhausted and my attention to detail was diminishing with each passing second. Heartened by the sight of a chair, I quickly made my way towards my desired rest stop. Just as I began my descent into blissful comfort, however, I noticed a sign with big bold lettering: Museum Object: Please DO NOT SIT!

Just seconds before plopping my full weight down onto an antique chair, I awkwardly manoeuvred myself back into a standing position and looked around to make sure no one had seen my faux pas.

Upon closer inspection, I realised how obvious my mistake had been. This was no ordinary chair. It had a semi-circle cut from the seat, and looked tremendously uncomfortable. Indeed, I’d have to sit with my legs straddling either side of this awkward contraption to even remain balanced on it.

This was an 18th-century birthing chair.

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Today, the idea of giving birth while sitting upright in a wooden chair may seem torturous.  But long before delivery rooms, stirrups, forceps and foetal monitors, a woman gave birth at home in a chair with the aid of her midwife and other female friends, relatives and neighbours. These women were known as the ‘gossips’, for they spread the word to all the women in the community when another went into labour. The ‘gossips’ supported the mother-to-be during this time by praying with her, preparing special foods, and helping the midwife with any other menial tasks that needed doing.

When the time came, the pregnant woman would be propped up in the birthing chair. The midwife would sit below her, ready to catch the baby, while other women supported and comforted her from above. After the delivery, the exhausted mother would then be lead back to her bed, which remained unsullied from the birth itself.

_8Overtime, birthing became the purview of the medical community. Midwives were replaced by male-midwives (the precursor to the modern-day obstetrician), who introduced forceps into the delivery. Birthing chairs were modified to accommodate these changes. Take, for example, the one on the left. The arm and foot rests on this wooden chair could be adjusted for the mother’s comfort; and (most importantly), the back could fold down, converting it into a bed or an operating table—a necessary feature if forceps were to be used.

Birthing chairs were coveted pieces, and often passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms. Little by little, however, the hospital became the locale of birth and eventually the chairs were discarded.

That said, many examples still exist today in museums around the world. Thinking back on the one in Edinburgh, I am comforted by the sign with its big, bold letters. Clearly, I was not the first to try to sit in the birthing chair; and I doubt I will be the last.

18 comments on “DO NOT SIT! A History of the Birthing Chair

  1. […] DO NOT SIT! A History of the Birthing Chair. […]

  2. Michiyo says:

    Very interesting!
    I’ve never heard of, or thought of these birthing chairs, because traditionally in my country (Japan) women gave birth to babies lying on Futon mattress in tatami mat room.

  3. ktcakes says:

    I used a birthing chair for 3 of my births. It’s a much more efficient way to deliver than laying back and making the baby go UP the birth canal.

  4. John Carbone says:

    I’ve heard about these, Professor, but never have seen a photo of an early example until this post. Thank you for breaking the monotony of the day with something (always) interesting!

  5. David Harley says:

    The shift of “gossip,” from a female relation or close woman friend supporting a mother-to-be to a woman (or man) who spread rumours, arose from the suspicions of men about what was going on within the birthing chamber, to which a woman would be confined for days before and after the birth.

    In some European cultures, at some times, the husband’s presence would be expected in the birthing chamber, especially during a difficult birth. However, the only men generally seen in this room, or partitioned part of a humbler home, were a surgeon and a clergyman, in emergencies.

    The husband was expected to lay in copious stocks of food and drink for the gossips, and exactly what they were talking about was a matter of speculation. The midwife was forbidden to speak of the woman’s secrets, but the gossips might discuss anything at all, as the night wore on and the wine or ale ran low. There are well known plays and pamphlets which impersonate them talking about the inadequacy of someone’s husband or the desirability of a bachelor.

    Some historians have seen this as a privileged “women’s space” [e.g. Adrian Wilson], but others have seen it as potentially very fraught [e.g. Linda Pollock]. This was especially the case if a woman had been excluded or was present but had not been willingly invited. And of course, conversation itself can be dangerous in a confined space. In an aristocratic household, relations might arrive from afar, but in a village a local gentlewoman or a Protestant clergyman’s wife might normally be present.

    The switch from midwifery to manmidwifery that occurred in a large minority of households, in some European countries during the 18th and 19th centuries, had many causes. Among them was certainly the social nature of the birthing chamber. Instead of a raucous gathering of neighbours, with whom one might or might not be on good terms, women express a preference for a more private event which would include their husbands.

  6. jeanjames says:

    There’s nothing easy when it comes to giving birth, I’m just glad I never had to sit in a hard wooden chair resembling a commode! Love the history of the word gossip!

  7. Helen Nelson says:

    Many of us midwives have birthing chairs, but ours are padded and angled comfortably so the mom is as comfortable as can be expected.

  8. Claudia says:

    Interesting to see how they’ve changed through the years. I’m sure many people looked at it and thought, “Plain wooden chair – finally, a place I can sit down for a minute,” something that wouldn’t happen with the later one.

    Just a note on the etymology of “gossips” – I think it’s flipped. The word originally meant the people who were your children’s god-parents (“god-sibs”) and was extended to include close friends as well (who better to have with you at a birth?). The discussions that frequently happened at gatherings of gossips later gave rise to the use of the word in the senses that we still use it.

    • Claudia – thanks for this! I didn’t know that the origin of ‘gossips’ came from ‘god-sibs’. I only know it in the since of the ‘gossips’ who spread the word when a local woman goes into labour.

      Fascinating!

    • Mary in Austin says:

      I think that is the correct etymology. Spanish has something similar, “comadre” for godmother and “compadre” for godfather, close friends, godparents, and in South Texas and Mexico expected cosponsors of big events in children’s lives, such as coming-of-age parties (quinceaneras) and weddings.

  9. ERF Mama says:

    Very interesting! :)
    Midwife are still the common norm in both my home country of Norway, and my current residential country of UK. :)
    Thank goodness for THAT! :)

  10. Anne says:

    They still exist today! I sat on a plastic one at the Royal Free in London when in labour 5 years ago. I didn’t think it was very comfortable though! It was more of a stool than a chair as it didn’t have a back.

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