December 3rd, 2007

Immigrant Women and Family Planning

“Like her urban sisters. the frontier woman (from 1880 to 1920) frequently used folk remedies to bring about a delayed menstrual period, regardless of the cause. Due to laws against distributing contraceptive products and information, menstrual “regulators” were advertised in rural newspapers like the “Nebraska Farmer,” making abortifacients easily obtainable through the mail. Women also exchanged advice with friends and neighbors about home birth control and abortion “remedies.” For example:

To prevent conception, (a woman should) eat the dried lining of a chicken’s gizzard (or) take gunpowder in small doses for three mornings . . . A woman who wants to put an end to her childbearing must throw the afterbirth of her last baby down an old well or walk directly over the spot where the afterbirth was buried. (She should) drink a tea made from rusty nail water, or rub (her) navel with quinine and turpentine morning and night for several days: each of these remedies can induce abortion.

Doctors prescribed heavy does of purgatives to cleanse the system and induce menstruation. “American Folk Medicine” lists three pages of remedies for “obstructed menses,” recommended by physicians and midwives practicing from about 1830 to the 1930s; some of these concoctions proved to be deadly to the mother herself . . .

From: “Immigrant Women and Family Planning” in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, June 1996