(Video) “The Timeless Way Part 3: Birth Images from the 1800s”

Northern Mexican Birth Image in Witkowski (1887)

In this third installation of “The Timeless Way,” narration first centers on 19th century gynecological, medical, and anthropological studies of native birth and birth culture from around the world.  Working in the field, the authors of these studies often drew pictures of the births that they saw in their native contexts, leaving an historical trail of images for contemporary readers to observe.   

George Engelmann, one of the most important gynecologists of the 19th century, published in 1882 his work, Labor Among Primitive Peoples.  In his examination of global birth cultures, he observed that most people around the world gave birth in an upright posture.  Frequently, women used tools such as ropes or bars for support during their labors.  Engelemann found that even American pioneer women gave birth in upright postures.  Birthing chairs, often used today in the context of modern birth, were first used by Europeans and American pioneers.  After studying the birth positions shared by so many cultures around the world, Engelmann came to believe that the back-lying posture used in the United States at the time posed problems to women and their babies.  He proposed alternative birth positions to be used as an aid to a woman’s labor.

Robert Felkin, a British explorer and missionary, also examined the culture of native birth, although he focused his attention on Central Africa.  In 1884, he published a paper explaining his findings, which included images and explanations of the classic childbirth position in which the woman labors in an upright position, aided by two attendants.

In 1887, the French medical doctor, G.J. Witkowski published an extensive work on birth customs from around the world, Histoire des Accouchements Chez Tous Les Peuples. (A History of Childbirth of All People), which contained over 1000 illustrations.  Highly influenced by the work of George Engelmann, Witkowski also described the importance of the classic birth pose, explaining its use within many different cultures. Some of the images shown in the video include illustrations connected to Native American, Mexican and Japanese births.

This “Timeless Way” segment concludes, however, in a discussion of the late twentieth-century, which marked a revival of traditional birth postures in the United States.  An array of books in which the importance of body posture is explained are now on the market in the US, easily available to the pregnant woman and her partner.  I believe that all of the books in my Resources section contain images and/or explanations of these postures.