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.

By | 2013-09-19T15:24:10+00:00 September 19th, 2013|Casebooks|31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Anne September 19, 2013 at 3:52 pm - Reply

    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.

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice September 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm - Reply

      Anne – thanks for your comment! Interesting. I heard that these were making a comeback but I didnt know to what extent. Did it have a hole in the middle too?

      • Anne September 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm - Reply

        Yes, it did. It was not that dissimilar to a potty! Just a bit higher and with a hole through the middle.

  2. ERF Mama September 19, 2013 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    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! 🙂

  3. Claudia September 19, 2013 at 3:57 pm - Reply

    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.

    • The Chirurgeon's Apprentice September 19, 2013 at 3:59 pm - Reply

      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!

      • c2ross September 19, 2013 at 4:16 pm - Reply

        Yes, one person’s important social news is another person’s gossip!

    • Mary in Austin December 3, 2013 at 4:45 am - Reply

      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.

  4. Helen Nelson September 19, 2013 at 4:52 pm - Reply

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

  5. jeanjames September 19, 2013 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    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!

  6. David Harley September 19, 2013 at 10:49 pm - Reply

    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.

  7. John Carbone September 20, 2013 at 9:25 pm - Reply

    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!

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

  9. ktcakes September 23, 2013 at 2:38 am - Reply

    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.

  10. トリーバーチ セール October 15, 2013 at 9:09 am - Reply

    財布 トリーバーチ

  11. Michiyo November 6, 2013 at 10:32 pm - Reply

    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.

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

  13. Flora June 5, 2014 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    There is a living museum in Hawaii where they have a split rock to be used as a birthing chair. I have a picture of it somewhere.

    • Penina March 23, 2016 at 7:24 pm - Reply

      Is there any chance you found that picture?I am working on a book about birth superstitions and customs. I’d love to see that split rock birthing chair or maybe you have the name of the museum in Hawaii?
      Yours,
      Penina

  14. Aislinn Black June 26, 2014 at 9:09 pm - Reply

    Sitting seemed to be the standard position for pre-Columbian births in the Americas as well: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MocheCeramicBirth.jpg

  15. […] a time when women had no choice but to give birth naturally, and often did so while sitting up in a birthing chair. The experience was wrought with dangers, not least the risk of ‘childbed fever’ which claimed […]

  16. nanoo July 8, 2015 at 1:03 am - Reply

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  17. […] The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice’s DO NOT SIT! A History of the Birthing Chair . […]

  18. Tom July 23, 2015 at 9:14 pm - Reply

    Maybe my daughter can use this come end of December this post and comment

  19. Stacey February 15, 2016 at 5:35 am - Reply

    I used birthing chair with my first child and it made it so easy, and coming back to a clean bed was nice, almost 6 yrs later when my next was due I found they no longer use them. I never understood why they stopped using them, especially if mother and baby were in good health.

    • Comadrona June 3, 2016 at 12:41 am - Reply

      The reason I no longer use a birth stool with my clients is that the incidence of perineal trauma is greater when they are used. The perineal area gets congested and tears more easily with the pressure of gravity. Stools also mean that the mother is fixed in one spot whereas she might benefit from movement. Most women instinctively seek, and find, the best birthing position for them if we don’t suggest things like sitting, or lying in bed. Often all-fours or kneeling is chosen which, as it happens, are the least likely positions to contribute to perineal lacerations. However, stools are good for helping passive descent of the baby (bringing the baby down before the pushing starts) – but a toilet is just as good for that. The toilet affords privacy and it is where we instinctively “let go” so is enormously beneficial during labour.

  20. […] ‘DO NOT SIT’ – A History of the Birthing Chair, and ‘THE ANAESTHETISED QUEEN AND THE PATH TO PAINLESS BIRTH’, by Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, at http://www.thechirurgeonsapprentice.com […]

  21. mickey2942 August 23, 2016 at 4:30 am - Reply

    . I had an emergency C-section with my daughter, she was breech, and big. 100 years ago, barely a century, we probably would have both died.

  22. Michelle Tager July 8, 2017 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    I have a chair that looks almost the same as ypurs along with a foot stool. My grandmother gave it to me. Its same wood and leather but the arms have manueverable wooden place to put ypur feet up on like stirrups in a gyno exam. What is the chair worth?

  23. […] ‘DO NOT SIT’ – A History of the Birthing Chair, and ‘THE ANAESTHETISED QUEEN AND THE PATH TO PAINLESS BIRTH’, by Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, at http://www.thechirurgeonsapprentice.com […]

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