This is a serialization of the new book written by Carl Flowers, owner of Silveus Plantation, the subject of "Groton's Anonymous Mistress." The 300-year-old home is accessed by Kemp Street near the boundary of Groton and Dunstable.
By Carl Flowers
None of the women who lived in the mistress died during childbirth, nor were any children stillborn. Only one infant died at the Mistress when John III and Betsey Woods lost an infant at two and a half months in 1820. This is an extremely low mortality rate. Normally, the rate was one out of ten. Children arrived at the Mistress about every two years. Some arrived a little earlier, some arrived a little later than two years. This suggests that all of the children born in the Mistress were nursed by their mothers rather than by a nurse maid because breast feeding retarded conception.
As an arrival date approached, nearby neighbors and family assisted with daily chores. If young children were in the house, neighbors often took them in. At that time, people just automatically assisted their neighbors. On the day of delivery, the laboring mother was coached by a midwife or a neighbor who had experienced childbirth herself. In the case of a first-time delivery, female relatives almost always attended. The Fitzpatricks are a good example of this because James and Elizabeth had no family in Groton. They traveled to Lowell so their parents could assist in the birth of their first three children.
On most occasions, deliveries weren't made in bed. Instead, the expecting mother was supported on a chair or in someone's lap. A specialized birthing stool was sometimes used to facilitate the delivery. As soon as the event was over, the new mother was helped to the comfort of a bed centrally located on the first floor. That way she could supervise kitchen and family activities. At the Mistress, that room would most likely have been the family room to the left of the front door. When the south ell was added to the Mistress in the 1820s, this may have changed. The amount of time a mother spent in bed depended on how much help was around and how difficult the delivery had been, however newly delivered mothers were expected to resume all their duties as quickly as possible.
As soon as the birth was completed and the umbilical cord cut, the baby was placed facing upward on a board or in someone's lap. More than likely, it would have been the lap of the midwife. The legs were pulled straight down and wrapped with yards of narrow linen. Cotton was too expensive until sometime in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. The linen was wrapped around the feet, legs and torso stopping just under the armpits. The arms were then held straight down along the side of the body and wrapped from the fingers to the shoulders. Finally, a third piece of swaddling was secured to the forehead and shoulders. The result was an immobile child wrapped in swaddling clothes, unable to wiggle its fingers or toes or stretch its arms and legs.
The practice was commonly used until sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century and didn't come to an end until late in the nineteenth century, thus some, but not all the children who were born or who grew up in the Mistress would have been swaddled. It was recommended the swaddling be changed every twelve hours, but this probably didn't happen. Wet swaddling was just hung out to dry and not washed unless it was severely soiled. To wash the swaddling, water had to be drawn from an outside well and carried into the house and heated over a fire before the washing could begin. Bringing in wood and making soap were additional burdens.
The whole idea behind swaddling was to keep a child warm in the winter and make it possible for anyone to look after it. The baby could be placed anywhere and it would stay exactly where it was put for hours at a time. Its mother didn't constantly have to be checking in on the new baby, allowing her plenty of free time to go about her many tasks inside and outside the house such as cleaning, doing laundry, preparing meals, milking two or three cows and looking after the kitchen garden. By the end of first three months or so, depending on the weather, the baby's arms would no longer be swaddled. After six to nine months, the swaddling days were over. That's when the baby was outfitted with a long petticoat, no matter if it was a boy or a girl. The petticoat would limit the ability to crawl, yet allow the baby to stretch and have some body movement. Crawling was considered demeaning and animalistic. Without swaddling, it was believed, the child would never walk straight. It would always be bent over. Besides swaddling, other measures were used such as standing stools and walking stools. They too, prevented crawling and kept a child standing for hours at a time in addition to keeping children off cold and dirty floors.
Eventually, babies were placed in cradles, which might have been nothing more than an old wicker basket, a box, or an old chest with a couple of rockers on it. Being in one of these at night, an infant was safe from its mother rolling over on it on a cold winter night and smothering it to death. When extra covers were needed, they could be placed on the baby and tucked under the mattress, made of straw, horse hair or feathers. On really cold nights when it was difficult to keep the house above freezing, a rug or heavy blanket could be thrown over the top of the cradle which was then placed in front of a fire.
Even though the Mistress has a fireplace in every room, the Mistress remained cold and drafty. Air-tight windows and insulation had yet to be invented. For that reason, a majority of the cradles had hoods on them to help keep drafts out. By the time a child was about ready to walk, the cradle was replaced by a crib. When the War Between the States was over in 1865, the crib had completely replaced the once indispensable cradle. Not only did the cradle give way to the crib, so did the walking stool and standing stool. Perhaps none of the Fitzpatrick children experienced the cradle.
Just as births took place at home, so did deaths.