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Lysol and Mother’s Day

By: Amanda - May 12, 2012

Mormon missionary history typically focuses on the histories of the white men who traveled from the gold fields of California to proselytize among the native Hawaiians or among Australians living in Perth and Melbourne.  Although these histories can be engaging forays into Mormonism, my research recently has focused on the men and women who lived in Laie in an attempt to avoid American anti-polygamy legislation.  Doing so has been a fascinating glimpse into the dynamics of the early Mormon community.  I have learned, for example, that Susa Young Gates loved a bit of salacious gossip, even though she often repented of it afterward.  The women of the mission responded bitterly towards her, writing in one case that that woman could “talk” in spite of being told that no one on the mission cared to listen to that “rubbish.”

What has been most fascinating, however, has been reading about their various pregnancies and labors.  Like a lot of young women who have never given birth, I find the process a bit overwhelming to think about.  In the eleventh grade, I watched a video of a live birth in Human Anatomy & Physiology.  My first thought was, “Dear Lord!  It looks like a mucousy alien is emerging from her vagina.”  My second thought was, “I am never having sex.”  Pregnancy in the nineteenth century was more dangerous and potentially disruptive than it is today, when improved sanitation and lowered infant mortality makes even the delivery of mucous-covered aliens relatively safe.  The maternal death rate in 1915, the first year for which we have reliable data, was 607.9 deaths per 100,000 births. Compare that with just 13.3 deaths per 100,000 births in 2006 to an understanding how dangerous childbirth can be.  Women, plagued by frequent pregnancy, turned to antiseptic douches to try to prevent conception.  These douches included mixes of water, salt, and sometimes, even Lysol.[1]

The white women who lived in Laie had similar experiences with pregnancy and labor as their non-Mormon sisters.  In her diary, Dean described being constantly tired as a result of her pregnancy and frequently in bed because of pain.  On January 22nd, 1888, she wrote that she had taken ill with the “cholera morbus” and “hardly sleept” and had “had belly ache and diarrhea all day.”  Likewise, Julina L. Smith found herself exhausted by her pregnancy and work in the kitchen.  Most of these pregnancies ended in a child, but some could end in heartbreak.  Three days before she spent the day in bed with stomach pain and diarrhea, Dean “had such fearful pains in the top of [her] stomach that [she] could not move in bed for hours.”  That same day, her friend Rebecca delivered a ten-pound child, which died according to Dean because of carelessness.  I haven’t been able to find out whether or not Dean’s child lived.  Her diary stops a few days after her stomach pain and no child is listed in the Family Search database.  It is possible that she had a miscarriage soon after her diary ended, and that the pain of her pregnancy became too much for her to bear.  Dean had already lost children and had spent most of her diary mourning what could have been.  If she had had a miscarriage, it is possible that she could not bring herself to write any more about her life in Laie.

As we look forward to Mother’s Day, we should think about women like Dean, Gates, and Smith, and the difficulties they faced as mothers.  Although we idolize mothers now, it could be a dangerous and heartbreaking in nineteenth-century America and remains so for many women living in poverty throughout the world.  Birth control and increased medical knowledge have made motherhood something that women have control over and have decreased the maternal death rate.  As a result, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I think we should also thank the men and women who made contraception and women’s health care more readily available; thus, allowing Lysol to be something that was used to clean tables rather than prevent children.

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5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post, Amanda. Mortality rates were far worse in the 19th century than the first decades of the 20th. You are absolutely correct that with each pregnancy, women were risking their health.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 13, 2012 @ 8:00 am

  2. Interesting, Amanda. Do you have any sense of how childbearing differed for Mormon women in Laie and Salt Lake Valley?

    As an aside… though it looks at Germany in the 1500s, Arthur E Imhof’s Lost Worlds: How Our European Ancestors Coped with Everyday Life and Why Life Is So Hard Today provides an insightful (to me) analysis of some of the consequences and strategies for dealing with the infant and child mortality rates. (Also: the “How Our European Ancestors Coped with Everyday Life” is much stronger than the “Why Life Is So Hard Today.”)

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 13, 2012 @ 8:24 am

  3. Thanks, Amanda. I’m reminded of a comment made in one of my women’s history classes, that modern medical advances have distanced us from our own bodies, in the sense that we’ve forgotten how real and immediate pain and death were for people prior to the 20th century.

    Comment by David G. — May 14, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  4. Thanks for the post, Amanda! As someone whose wife very nearly became one of the 13.3 out of 100,000 back in 2006, it’s important to remember this part of the past–the constant confrontation with death in the bringing forth of life. It’s miraculous and terrifying at the same time.
    How grateful I am for my wonderful wife, who risked her life three times to birth our beautiful “mucousy aliens.” How powerless and small I felt, being reduced to “breathing coach” and “bubble-gum-cigar-administrator” while life and death were wrestling one with another before my eyes. (Cue “Jesus Take the Wheel”)

    If I remember correctly, Julina Lambson Smith was well-known as a midwife in SLC.

    Comment by Nate R. — May 16, 2012 @ 6:55 am

  5. Just attended the funeral of a mother who died in childbirth. Made all of this more real. The father of the husband told the story of an ancestor who had the same trial. No doubt such an experience connects the past and present.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 16, 2012 @ 9:23 am