Today's American maternity wards are clean, sexy and sleek. The minute you nose in the door, you can smell the disinfectant that is working overtime to keep you and your soon-to-arrive newborn safe and sound. A kindly administrator or nurse leads you through the hospital corridors. Once inside your room, the harsh glare of overhead lights in the nursing station is tempered with softer lighting. Oh, and about that room! Most maternal patient rooms now resemble a hotel room, with pastel painted walls and a rocking chair tucked into the corner. Some hospitals and birthing centers even provide exercise balls and birthing tubs to ease and encourage labor, and delivery often occurs in your room. After you welcome your new bundle of joy, the baby is placed in a slick, white bassinette that rolls next to your adjustable bed.
But maternity wards were not always this way. Not too long ago, pregnant women arrived at the hospital and were separated by husbands and loved ones, wheeled away on a dingy gurney to a separate delivery room. Moms were told by stiff, starched nurses and nuns to labor one way, and one way only--reclining flat on the back--among creaky, dark (and often unsterile) machinery and devices. After the baby was born, it was whisked away to a nursery where nurses and hospital staff cared for it till the mom was discharged. The whole ancient process sounds distant and scary, right?
The following pictures offer cringeworthy, photographic proof for how far modern American maternity wards have come in the past few decades. Prepare yourself...
15 The Womens' Ward
Maternity ward, Chalons Hospital, France
While death and destruction raged during World War I, there were peacemakers. Leading the effort were the Quakers, who refused to bear arms and instead undertook humanitarian efforts in war-torn countries. One of the Quakers projects was to protect medical agencies and hospitals.
Relief workers faced dirty and dangerous conditions but did their best to ensure adequate patient care. In France, villages had been razed to the ground, but buildings were retro-filled and often reconstructed to meet the needs of pregnant women and their newborns. One such hospital was Chalons Maternitee. During its three years under Quaker care, the hospital saw the birth of 981 babies and had an infant mortality rate of less than 5%- a spectacular rate considering the difficult situation and conditions of the time.
14 An Order Of Baby Burritos
Before babies roomed-in with mom, they were kept in individual bassinettes with nurses in the maternity ward. But even before that, (in the way, way olden days) babies were kept swaddled together in long cots like a medium order of chicken taquitos. No, scratch that. With a minimum of eleven babies pictured in this photo, this is a Taco Bell Supreme Taco Party Pack (I hope no one ordered crispy, they just make a mess).
Seriously, what is going on here? With outstretched hands and serious demeanors, it almost looks like the nurses are working a baby assembly line ("Anna, pay attention- you missed an ear over here!")
And another thing about this picture...While I can’t say for certain these babies aren't tagged on their feet, I don't see any identification on their wrists. Did you ever hear long-ago told stories about babies leaving the hospital with the wrong mother? Yeah, well, this picture is ground zero for that crazy scenario.
13 Old Time Invention
In 1945, Sister Mary Williams puts a newborn baby into a cot she designed at Middlesex Hospital in London. The original caption read, “resuscitation apparatus is ready for immediate use if needed”.
This is a pretty nifty device, and what do you know, super resourceful nurse, Sister Mary Williams, designed it! Whoot for nurses! The nuts and bolts are that the cot, or box, was on a stand which was capable of leaning at a 45-degree angle. An oxygen canister was housed under the frame, and the ends of the cot were able to fold down, enabling the baby to be cared for without being lifted out. Damn, that's innovation. Heck, I'd go so far as to say that it looks like mid-century's first attempt at a Sleep Number Bed. My only hope is that they quickly learned newborn babies need head and neck support.
Infant Room in Brugge, Belgium, early 20th century
Baby 1: “Waaah, waahhhh!" (Is anyone over there?)
Baby 2: “Waa, waa!" (Yeah, you okay?)
Baby 1: “Wha ha ha ha ha!” (Yeah, but I’m dying to know why aren’t we allowed to see each other?)
This picture of two hospitalized infants cracks me up. I understand the shared room. But what cracks me up is the screen between the two bassinettes. It’s not that a parent of the baby wouldn't want privacy with their newborn, but the tight walls indicate there isn’t enough room for the family to sit bedside. Here, perch upright in this upright wooden chair while you sit vigil with your baby. Gheesh.
Other interesting items of note are the glass jars which rest on the short wall above the faucet. While it looks like some kind of iced tea/lemonade refreshment stand, they are more likely to be a hand wash and antiseptic.
11 Good Morning! I'll Take 3 Glazed And 3 Powdered Sugar
Gosford Hospital, Australia
On first glance, I’m pretty sure I'm looking at some folksy donut place in the south. I wonder if they have peach turnovers? But no, things aren't adding up here. The women in the background seem to be taking their sweet time arranging baked goods. And, the cap on the woman in the foreground is peaked. She doesn't look like a food service worker. But what is really throwing me off are the large items in the front bins. I don't think these are Long Johns or even bagels. Wait, are those...babies?
Donut scene aside, some things save this old-time maternity ward photo. First, notice the cute curtains framing the two big picture windows? What a homey touch. That's where I initially felt the southern charm (Australia is southern). Also, the "donut bins" have a flat and raised functionality, so we’ve entered the modern age. I am glad to have solved the mystery, but now I'm craving a pastry.
10 Kaiser Care
This is the 1953 “Baby in the Drawer” hospital room pioneered by Kaiser Permanente co-founder Dr. Sidney R. Garfield. The nursing ward of participating hospitals was placed in the center of the building, with patient rooms spoking off the care room. Each mother’s room had a bassinet set in an ordinary metal file drawer, which slid between the room, and back into the nursing ward. The change allowed mothers to nurse and tend the baby while providing the nurses' easy access as well.
Talk about innovation! This was some serious forward-thinking stuff. I’m sure mothers back then thought the next big thing would be a pneumatic tube (like at the bank!) which would whisk babies to the hospital staff. But sadly, as technology is sometimes disappointing (why are we not driving flying cars yet?) this Jetson-style rooming trend fell out of favor and is now something we only see online.
9 Everyone Knows The Best Presents Are In The Stocking
Babies are born every day, holidays included. And while it can be tough on families to be in a medical setting on Halloween and Christmas, for generations nurses have done their best to bring joy to families and their hospitalized children. The picture above shows four precious newborns being presented in stockings.
These days, Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri dresses up NICU babies in costumes for Halloween and Christmas and posts the adorable pictures online.
“It creates a sense of normalcy for the parents,” said Saint Luke’s Director of Media Relations Michelle Manuel. “You never know if you are going to be in the NICU for weeks or even months….(it’s) a fun way to let them enjoy a special milestone with their babies.”
Typical Halloween costumes are Superman, Wonder Woman, and a butterfly. At Christmas, Saint Luke’s wrapped NICU infants like gifts, with a tag that read, “believe”.
8 Baby Buffet
Washington, D.C. Circa 1919
Our nursing staff would like you to meet Ethel, Margaret, Frank, Mary, George, Clyde, Harold, Teresa, Noreen, and Augustus. What are you in the mood for, and which one looks good to you? Everyone loves Clyde, and Mary has a bit of a kick, like spicy cinnamon. Take your time, and when you are ready, one of us will help you make your selection and bag it up for you.
I’m not sure it’s the candy-striper type uniform or the rolling cart, but these adorable little bundles of joy look more like salt water taffy or bins of yummy ice cream than new babies. I’m wondering if the nurses pushed them around the hospital, chiming out, "A spot of Ethel?", "Who's in the mood for a Teresa?"
As bizarre as this shot is, it's perfectly pleasant. In the early twentieth century, maybe this is how babies were showcased. It's adorable, and I like them all. I'll take one of each.
7 Brisk Bath
What beats a rude awakening? A rude first bath.
This picture is old, like the stuff of your nightmares old, if only because I don’t see a single item of hospital electronics. There's just some nasty rust-rimmed bowls and towels lying around. For that matter, I don’t see any water taps, so by the time that water was delivered to that porcelain bowl it had quite a bit of time to cool down. So really, this baby is over the disrespect of being pushed out of his first house and is now super pissed he's been plunged into a cold bath!’ Yowzers!
I'm not blaming the mini-nurse (seriously, what is she- 15?) caring for the baby, because she’s literally got her hands full. But did you check out the creepy people in the background, hands tucked behind their backs? This is totally on them. File this freaky picture under American Horror Story: Maternity Madness.
6 Nuns And Their Unsettling Headgear
How do you solve a problem like Maria? (yes, a total reference to The Sound of Music) Well, for starters, Maria, and nun nurses aren't the problem. That goofy veil is!
Listen, I'm a good Christian girl. For Pete's sake, my dad was a Roman Catholic priest (before he met my mom, and yeah, had me). I had nuns as teachers and I respect the modest habit and veil.
But a hospital should be a bastion of cleanliness. How clean can things be when a nurse is wearing three yards of swinging polyester? "Hey Sister Mary, you're dragging some mucus there". Gross.
Besides, if I had to guess, that baby isn't crying because he's hungry or wet, but because he's outright terrified.
5 Rocky Horror Hospital
I can’t. I just can’t. But this is why I'm here, so I need to.
For starters, I couldn’t find anything to legitimize this photo, but I also couldn't find anything to dispute it's existence either. So, it's fair game.
I'm going to assume this photo was taken in the era when all objects (cats, dogs, cows, amphibians, toasters, and infant children) were held by the scruff of their neck. I'm joking--what fresh hell is this?
Let's work left to right. The nurse of the left appears to have the lower portion of her hand supporting each baby's back,(a small win) but the baby on the right isn’t digging it. Moving on to the nurse in the middle. Oh, help me on this one. The nurse in the middle is apparently "Freak in Chief", or Tim Curry in his Frank N. Furter costume from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Go ahead, look it up, I'll wait. RIGHT? The nurse of the right was once told it was permissible to hold a baby this way and now takes such delight in it that she dangles her babies like marionettes. It’s all I can do to wipe the smirk off her face.
Egads. All I can hope is that this was a setup, and no baby was harmed in the production of this photo.
4 Couney's Incubators
Dr. Martin Couney's Incubator, built for $75,000 (1.4 million in today's dollars) at Coney Island, NY early 1900s.
Early incubators didn’t resemble the slick, plastic and glass numbers we see today. For years the early incubator was actually seen as a sideshow exhibit by its creator, Dr. Martin Couney in 1904.
Couney, a German native, toiled and tinkered until he created the first incubator for premature infants. To gain attention and credibility, Couney displayed his incubators (with baby patients inside!) at Coney Island in New York City. Couney did not charge the babies' parents and instead made up for the cost of care with the 25 cent admission he charged to see the exhibit.
It wasn't until the 1930s that incubators were accepted by hospitals. Today, Dr. Couney is personally credited with saving 6500 premature babies.
3 Channeling Florence Nightingale
A maternity nurse tends to a newborn at a Kaiser Permanente hospital, circa 1965.
Ah, the semi-modern age of maternity care, or at least in the realm of old TV shows, circa The Brady Bunch era. Granted, this is before babies roomed in with mom, but as this picture displays, baby bassinettes in the 1960s resembled the same plexiglass type baby beds we are familiar with today. The nurse in the photo also looks relatively current, wearing a white gown over scrubs and a peaceful smile.
But one noticeable difference of then vs. now is the nursing cap. Originally worn for modesty, and to help differentiate a nurse from hired help and servants, nursing caps fell out of fashion in the 1970s. As nursing gained in professionalism and men grew in its ranks, the cap didn’t match the image that the community wanted to project.
2 Measuring Up
A nurse measures a newborn baby. Long Island, 1959
Sigh. Where should I even begin with this photo?
This picture was originally featured in Life Magazine. After Steven Woods was born, a photographer captured his first moments in life. Uh, seems to me to be a cruel introduction. I mean, are we measuring a red snapper here? This is a newborn baby!
According to Life, after Woods was born, he was “given some vigorous slapping on the feet to start him to wailing and get his lungs well started, he was footprinted, tagged (like a deer?), hung by his heels, measured, weighed, washed, dressed, and brushed.” Huh.
Large, glossy photos follow the description on Steven’s entry into the world, among them, this title shot with the nurse. Another photo depicts antibacterial eye drops being administered to the baby.
While the full pictorial spread was quite moving, (if not slightly horrifying) I found it awfully ironic that the page after the shoot featured an ad for Early Times Kentucky Whisky. Yes, now if someone could please hand me a bottle and a glass.
1 Laboring With Friends
“The world’s busiest maternity ward” in the Philippines.
Manilla's Fabella Public Hospital delivers up to 24,000 babies a year, with women sharing a bed with three or four other women. If you do the math, that’s about 65 babies born every day. One experienced midwife at the hospital has delivered approximately 200,000 babies in the past 28 years!
Visitors to the hospital are struck by the crowded conditions and the absolute silence that contradicts the normally loud and frenetic situation of childbirth.With no gas, no air, and no epidurals, the laboring women labor quietly. “Filipino women know there’s no point in screaming or moaning,” explained a nurse at the hospital.
The next time you’re complaining about not receiving your epidural in a timely fashion, remember the mothers of Fabella Public Hospital. Oh, and let's give them extra points for the fashionable, snappy headbands.
www.iwm.org.uk , www.bbc.co.uk www.kaiserpermanentehistory.org
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