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Birth Chairs, Midwives, and Medicine

Amanda Carson Banks

Publication Year: 1999

There was a time when birth was treated as a natural process rather than a medical condition. Before 1800, women gave birth seated in birth chairs or on stools and were helped along by midwives. Then societal changes in attitudes toward women and the practice of medicine made birthing a province of the male-dominated medical profession.

In Birth Chairs, Midwives, and Medicine, Amanda Carson Banks examines the history of the birth chair and tells how this birthing device changed over time. Through photographs, artists' renditions of births, interviews, and texts from midwives and early obstetricians, she creates an evolutionary picture of birthing practices and highlights the radical redefinition of birth that has occurred in the last two centuries.

During the 1800s the change from a natural philosophy of birth to a medical one was partly a result of heightened understandings of anatomy and physiology. The medical profession was growing, and with it grew the awareness of the economic rewards of making delivery a specialized practice. In the background of the medical profession's rise was the prevailing perception of women as fragile invalids. Gradually, midwives and birth chairs were relegated to rural and isolated settings.

The popularity of birth chairs has seen a revival in the late twentieth century as the struggle between medical obstetrics and the alternative birth movement has grown. As Banks shows through her careful examination of the chairs themselves, these questions have been answered and reconsidered many times in human history. Using the artifacts from the home and medical office, Banks traces sweeping societal changes in the philosophy of how to bring life into the world.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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List of Figures

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

Over the years, many people have played a part in seeing this book through to publication. I would like to extend my deepest thanks to three people who have had a primary role in this process: Craig Gill, my editor at the University Press of Mississippi, who has been continuously excited about this manuscript...

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Introduction: Artifacts and the Cultural Construction of Birth

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pp. xv-xxiii

We have before us radically different accounts of the history of a fairly common artifact of birth and the historical way of birth. Although Dempsey's story is certainly colorful, it was only one of many similar versions presented in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century medical texts. The striking...

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Stones and Stools: An Early History of Birth Chairs and the Practice of Delivery

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pp. 1-31

Long before delivery rooms, operating tables, stirrups, fetal monitors, and forceps, birth practices were simpler and less invasive. Women turned to other women, midwives (meaning literally "with women"), and practiced strikingly similar traditions of birth across time, place, culture, and geography. Birth was the province...

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Curse or Cure?: The Rise of Professional Medicine, the Redefinition of Birth, and the Move from Chair to Bed for Delivery

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pp. 33-78

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the general practice of delivery was strikingly different from what it had been a hundred years earlier. Increasingly, birth was something practiced rather than a natural event that occurred. This change reflected dramatic alterations in the overriding philosophy of birth, and this...

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Contest and Compromise: The Debate over the Philosophy of Birth, the Return of the Birth Chair, and the Struggle for Ownership

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pp. 79-117

The drastic changes in the philosophy of birth that occurred the nineteenth century culminated in thought and deed in the twentieth. In response, the cultural construction of birth was composed of a definition of birth as a pathological event, and the practice was increasingly characterized by prescribed medical procedures...

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Belief, Artifacts, and the Cultural Construction of Medicine

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pp. 119-123

From the sixteenth to the late twentieth century, the practice of birth changed radically. The history of birth within a biosocial framework, one that "is produced jointly and reflexively by (universal) biology and (particular) society" helps us to understand why these changes took place and how the many elements...

Appendix: Museums and Archives with Birth Chairs in Their Collections

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pp. 125-126


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pp. 127-148


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pp. 149-154

E-ISBN-13: 9781621031390
E-ISBN-10: 1578061725
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578061723

Page Count: 154
Publication Year: 1999