Volume X, No. 3, Spring 1983


Raising babies in the early 1900's

by Lisa Goss and Melinda Stewart

"'I killed three of my mother's babies.' The lady I was boarding with years ago told me that," Lorene Amos said. "People used to believe if babies didn't break out in a rash when they were infants, they would die. They called that rash the hives. This lady was an older child, and as these three little baby sisters came along one at a time, her mother would tell her what to do because mothers lay in bed ten days and someone else would take care of the babies during that time.

"Her mother thought the babies would die unless they broke out in hives, so she instructed this older daughter how to make different teas such as mouse tea and sheep manure tea to make the babies break out. The daughter made the teas and gave them to the babies. Well, some of it went bad and killed the babies. This lady said she knew what was wrong now--it wasn't the hives, it was the teas that killed the babies. It was a real burden on her heart.

"I've heard of other people who thought they could break the babies out in hives by giving them such teas. But I never heard anyone own up to the fact they killed their own kids."

Raising children to adulthood in the rural Ozarks in the early 1900s was a difficult task, especially getting them through the first year when so many babies died. Parents did the best they could with the knowledge and help they had. Mothers today marvel how those long ago mothers managed without twenty-four hour emergency service and baby specialists as close as the telephone to help on any problem. Concerned about their children's welfare, the mothers at the turn of the century may have caused some deaths with wrong dosages, but many babies' lives were undoubtedly saved with home remedies and solicitious care.

Lorene Amos recalled other stories and some experiences with raising babies in the Ozarks in the early part of the century. Naomi Frisbee, Stella Anderson, Mary Jane Hough, Flora Lamkins and Mabel Wilson, who all had children during the early 1900s in the rural Ozarks, also recalled their experiences raising their babies.


While all the ladies felt that having children was considered a blessing, each had different experiences with raising children. Mabel Wilson said, "Having kids was a fact of life with me. It was something I was proud of. I said I don't care how many children I had, just so I don't have to raise one by itself because I was raised by myself, and that was too lonely a life. If children don't have brothers and sisters, they don't know how to cope with life because they've not had others to deal with and it's rougher on them."

"I don't think anybody under twenty ought to get married and give birth to a child," said Mary Jane Hough. "If I could call my ducks back, I would be thirty-two. But you have to live once to know how to live. I got married when I was sixteen and my husband was eighteen. We lived together sixty-two years." She was seventeen years old when she had her first child.


Mabel was twenty-five years old when she had her first child. "We'd been married two years before we had any children," she said.

Flora Lamkins is the mother of six children and was twenty years old when she had her first, while Mary Jane was twenty-nine when she had her seventh and last child!

Since there was no type of birth control, families tended to be large, and there were not too many months between each child. "There were usually about twelve or thirteen months," Flora said.

Mary Jane agreed, "They weren't very much apart, I can tell you! I think there was a little over two years between two of them, and a little over a year between the others."

Mabel's seven children were spaced almost exactly two years apart.

Then as now, when a woman finds out she is pregnant, many thoughts run through her mind--the sex of the baby, the clothes that she has to prepare and an appropriate name to choose.

Naming the baby varied depending on the parents. Some like Mary Jane named her baby as soon as it was born. Flora said, "We always tried to have a boy and a girl name picked out beforehand." This way the parents could have some time to think about the names.

Both Mary Jane and Flora remembered they didn't always get to name their children. "My mother named every child I've got! I never named one, but she wouldn't have named them if I didn't like the names she chose," said Mary Jane. Flora added, "I didn't name all of them. My sister done part of it."

Mary Jane even told her children that they could pick their own name when they got old enough. "I thought it would be nice for them to have a name that they would like," she said. One daughter and one son did change their names.

The baby was usually born at home with a midwife or a doctor present. During the birth, the other children were either kept busy or sent to a neighbor. Mary Jane said, "The older children were too little to know. I can remember when one of my mother's babies was born, and they took me away. I was little, about six years old. I didn't know anything about it. People didn't know everything then--better off they didn't know it. I thought, 'What in the world are they bringing me over here for?'

I was about half way afraid. My mother had been in a wreck with a spring wagon and horses. It throwed her out onto the road. I don't know exactly how far along she was, but I imagine she was maybe eight months. The baby was breech. Course, when I went home, I didn't ask no questions. They just told me there was a little baby there. That was all there was to it."

Mabel said that she wouldn't tell her older children about the other baby soon to be born unless they asked her first. "If they asked, I always made the point to tell them because I felt that they were ready for it. They had the question in their mind whenever they asked, and they were ready for the answers."

She said that sometimes neighbors and relatives might stop by to see if they could help. "When the first one came, one of Rob's aunts came in, took one look at us and felt so sorry for us trying to manage with that little baby to take care of with no help at all. She went home, got her clothes, came back and stayed with us a week and a half. Of course we appreciated her help, but it tickled us because we were doing fine.


Clothing was an important item for the expectant mother to prepare. She made all clothes for the baby at home from material bought at the local country store. In comparison to the modern layette, the rural Ozark baby of the early 1900s had very few clothes. Flora remembered that three undershirts and three gowns plus diapers and blankets were considered adequate for the newborn.

The mother made all the clothes for the baby as baby showers were not customary. "Oh, sometimes Grandma would bring a little something. But we never did have anything like showers," said Flora. The mothers got few hand-me-downs from any neighbors or relatives because as Mary Jane said, "I guess they didn't have anything to give down."

Flora added, "It'd be wore out by the time it got to you. We had things from an older child that we handed down to the next child. We'd hand them down in our family, not outsiders."


Almost all baby clothes were made out of some kind of white material. Ail the ladies agreed that whatever kind of material it was, it needed to be soft. Most preferred cotton, muslin, broadcloth or percale, and in the winter, white flannelette for warmth.

At first there was only white material for babies but later there was also material with tiny colored prints on a white background. Mary Jane recalled that by the time her son, Elmer, was born in 1911, she was beginning to get prints with little flowers. Both Mary Jane and Flora agreed that a child was about a year old before it began to wear colored clothes.

The first garment put on a baby was a stomach band. "Back in them days, they had to have that band before anything else. They thought the baby couldn't live without the bands," said Mary Jane.

Stomach bands were usually worn for about six weeks or until the cord dropped off and healed. According to Flora, "You weren't allowed to handle the baby without the band on. They mustn't cry very loud or cry very much and you couldn't let them strain because it would cause their little navel to protrude."

The bands, usually made of white muslin, wrapped around their stomachs to tie in the back. There were several different ways of making the bands. Some were strips long enough to reach around the baby and lap over when they grew. Some put darts in them to make them fit and to keep them from working up.

Diapers were, of course, essential. The mothers bought diaper material by the yard and made them. Bird's eye was the material for summer while white flannelette was popular for winter. The flannelette was fleecy on one side and plain on the other. Naomi remembered that the diaper material was not always new. "Sometimes it was even a shirt tail."

Flora hemmed her diapers on a treadle sewing machine on two sides. The selvage formed the hem on the other two sides.

Diapers were square and folded three cornered. Flora explained, "This way two points came across the stomach and then the other one came up between the baby's legs. You pinned them in the center. Then you could pin each stocking to their diapers with the pins down on the leg."

Since rubber or plastic pants were unknown, the mothers had to find some other way to help keep the baby dry. Flora said, "A lot of times, we used two diapers together. Also you could fold the flannelette diapers and put them under the baby to help keep them dry. Sometimes it would keep them dry, and sometimes it wouldn't. I know there was sometimes that you would have to change your clothes, too!"

From birth to the time the babies began to pull up, both boys and girls wore long dresses. But just as styles of clothing have changed from the early 1900s to today, the style of dresses changed from the time the ladies themselves were babies to the time when their own children were born.

The ladies remembered that they and their brothers and sisters wore very long dresses. "They would hang way down, almost on the floor when you held the baby," said Flora. "They weren't just for dress. They wore the long dresses all the time, every day. But, I've seen some nice ones and fancy, covered with lace all on the bottom. They were white."

"Those long dresses were so cute," said Mary Jane. "Mother had a sister that never did have no children, and I've seen her cry because she didn't have a baby. 'I want one,' she said, 'with a big long dress.'"

Besides serving as clothing for the baby, the long dresses provided extra warmth as they were long enough for the mother to lap them over and cover the baby.

"It was an awful job when you had to change the diaper with those long dresses," said Flora. "They didn't have rubber pants, of course, and whenever they would get wet, the whole thing would be wet. After you would change them, you would put a pad under them. The pad would be made out of an old heavy blanket. You would fold that a few times to put under them and then pull the dress down over the baby and pad to keep the dresses from getting wet. That was the main trouble. When they would get wet, then that dress would get wet, too. When you went anywhere, you couldn't use the pad and you would put several diapers on them and then change them.

"After the baby outgrew the dress, then the mother would make two shorter dresses out of it. She would take the bottom of the skirt, cutting it off just at their feet and would have enough material to cut a yoke and sleeves and make two dresses out of one. But I never did have any that long for my children."


The gowns the ladies' babies wore came down just below the feet. They opened in the front with a placket, but usually were not open completely down the front so the babies couldn't get their feet out. The gowns buttoned in front to keep the baby from laying on the buttons, as mothers laid the babies on their backs to sleep. As snaps were not available, the women used small buttons to fasten the gowns.

This photograph, taken in the late 1800s shows a boy in a very fancy long dress.

The Amos boys pose for a family portrait around 1910. They were all young enough to wear dresses except Roy, in the dark suit.

At age four in 1900, Paul Rittershouse at left, and a friend played with a chicken. Notice that all the babies' clothes are white, even the toddlers' dresses.

"The little gowns then were made out of flannel, or for summer, some kind of a soft material--whatever I had," Mabel said. "For the winter, the gowns were long enough so that they'd cover their feet when you'd pull them clear down. Of course, in the summer, you didn't have to have them that long. But in the winter, the houses weren't heated like they are now. It'd get a little cool sometimes, and they'd get out from under the cover. When they got old enough to begin kicking, you had a job to keep them covered."


In 1917, Lottie Rice held her son, Leroy, showing his long dress and fancy bonnet.

Lauren Amos models her grandmother's seventy-two year old slat bonnet.
Twins Minnie and Winnie, with sister, Linnie McCoy.
In 1925, two year old Paul Rittershouse still played in his dress.

The Jeffries and Fisher cousins in their everyday clothes in 1919.


In the winter the baby wore long sleeved flannel undershirts as well as flannel gowns. "I would make little shirts and embroider them. I really thought they were something," said Mary Jane.

Also in the winter, the babies wore long stockings. The long stockings were good for warmth, but they also caused some problems for the mother when changing the diaper. Because the stockings came up and were fastened with a safety pin to the diaper, they usually got wet. Babies born in the summer didn't have long stockings.

Crocheted booties that grandmother might have made were worn by tiny babies. "When they were about two months old, we made shoes for them, little mocassins. You could make the shoes by cutting a little round sole and making the little shoe to lace up. They were out of velvet or a material that's a little heavier. You could get different colors. But the babies wouldn't be walking when they wore those," said Flora.

Another clothing item for the young baby in the winter was a cap to wear at night. "The mother nearly always made caps that were out of flannel to sleep in at night," said Flora. "The houses were open and it was real cold of a night. You couldn't cover their heads with a blanket because you were afraid they would smother, so you would put those caps on them to keep their heads warm, as a lot of babies are bald-headed, at least mine were. But I never did let mine wear them through the day. They wore those caps until they were about a year old."

From the time the babies were about six months old to when they were beginning to walk, the clothing changed to accommodate the baby's increased activity.

Both boys and girls still wore gowns or dresses, undershirts and long stockings. However, the gowns or dresses were shortened to ankle length, leaving the baby's feet free as it learned to pull up, crawl and toddle. Because the baby was too active to cover with a blanket in the daytime, they also wore slips. The slips were usually made out of the same material as the dresses, but were a little shorter than the dress with a rounded neckline and armholes. Because the slip drew over the baby's head, usually one shoulder buttoned to make it easier to slip on.

As the babies learned to walk, their dress changed again. Both boys and girls wore dresses, but there was a difference. "All my children back in them days wore dresses," said Mary Jane. "But we would make what they called a boy dress that would open in the front with a turned down collar."

"My boys wore the dresses," said Flora. "We made them just straight and they almost always wore a belt. That is the way they made all the boys' dresses. The girls' dresses were made differently. They would have a ruffle or some decoration. And then later the boys had Buster Brown suits with little shorts about knee long and long jackets, too."

Stella Anderson said, "I dressed them like they were, boy or girl. Girls wore dresses, and boys wore pants when they were big enough to stand without falling over the long dresses when they walked."

When the children started to walk, they wore store-bought shoes. "We would let them go barefoot in the summertime and buy shoes in the winter," said Flora.

Although washing clothes was time consuming and just plain hard work, the mothers took special care of the baby clothes. Flora always washed the baby clothes first and boiled them separately from the other washing. The clothes for the rest of the family would be washed after the baby's were finished. "We thought we hadn't washed if we hadn't boiled our clothes." said Mary Jane.

Diapers were washed more frequently than on just the family wash day. "We washed them out every day or every other day," said Flora. "We didn't have enough diapers to last until wash day. When I would hang them out, there would be just a clothesline full." Both the boiling water and the sun took out most of the stains from the diapers.

Because of the time involved in washing the diapers, the mothers didn't always wash them when the baby just wetted them. They hung the diapers in the sun to dry, and then used the diaper a second time on the baby.


A baby must not only be clean, clothed and diapered, but it must also be fed. All of the ladies agreed that the mother's milk was best for the baby. Almost every mother breast-fed her baby if it was at all possible for her to  do so.


Naomi said, "Well, I'll tell you, I  fed them right from the tit think children are better when they nurse from their mother, for they're not drinking cow's milk and getting bull."

"There's a lot of difference between the bottle baby and the breast baby--all the difference in the world," said Mary Jane. "The breast babies love their mother above everything on earth. If the mother nurses the bottle to them, they love her and all, but they don't love her like a breast baby. I think the mother's milk is what the baby requires. And I think that's what keeps them healthy. I really do. These babies that growed up on these bottles, they sometimes are nothing but a bag of fat. It seems like it's not natural or something."

"I'd advise you, if you could, to nurse them yourself for it's better for the baby, and it seems like they don't get so many sicknesses. The children were quiet and just better children," said Naomi.

Upset stomachs and diarrhea were not common with breast-fed babies. Mary Jane said, "They didn't have stuff like that when they nursed their mothers. There's something in the mother's milk that's nature for the child to have. That's what these things are put on for!"

There were precautions that a mother had to take when she was breast feeding. Flora said, "When you're nursing the baby, you have to be careful of what you eat, because it'll hurt the baby. And if anything hurts you, then it'll hurt them."

Mary Jane recalled one experience where that happened. "I know I ate some apples one time, and they made me sick. Ferrell was a baby then. He was as sick as I was.  They hurt us some way or another."

If a mother was not able to breast-feed the baby, they had to supplement with a bottle. The first bottles were not very successful, however. Mary Jane said, "Every one they put on the bottle in them days died. I think it was because they didn't know how to be sanitary. The first bottle I ever seen had the nipples with a little long tube. The tube went down and passed into the bottle, and it wasn't any bigger around than your little finger. Well, how could you have cleaned that tube? And then, they'd probably give cow's milk to them full strength. I think they did boil their cow's milk, but now-a-days, you put syrup in the milk and weaken it so much."

Mary Jane's mother was unable to breast-feed her but Mary Jane did survive. "My mother didn't give much milk to me because she was poorly. So they raised me on tea and coffee. I've said today that's what made me so nervous!"

While nursing a baby, most mothers did not give it water. Flora said that she didn't give any water to her babies until they were old enough to drink from a glass. "I didn't boil it." Mary Jane said that she gave it in a spoon.

The babies were usually not given any kind of solid food until they were about six months or older, according to Flora, and Mary Jane also fed hers some when they were six or seven months old. The babies were started on solid food after they got their first teeth.

To begin with, the first foods were always soft, usually mashed potatoes and gravy. The mothers didn't fix anything special. "It was food that we cooked to put on the table, but we mashed it and fixed it like the baby food is now," said. Mabel. "Most of the babies loved gravy, but you had to watch it. It'd be too rich for them if you let them have as much as they wanted."

Mary Jane said, "I've seen some people to chew their baby's food, and take it out of their mouth and put it in the baby's. I never did do that. I always mashed it up real fine."

Babies couldn't eat everything that was on the table. "You couldn't give them pickles, kraut and salty stuff," Mary Jane said.

"Babies are just like grownups," said Mabel. "One can eat one thing while another can't. Their systems require different things. The cabbage and stuff like that you can't feed them, even though some babies' systems just love the taste of it. But you can't let them have it because it'll colick them. Anything that will cause an unusual amount of gas will colick them. Beans is another thing that babies love, cooked real good and mashed into pulp, but I didn't let them have very much. Some of them can eat the beans and it don't hurt. It makes some of them sick."

Weaning the baby varied from mother to mother. She began when she felt it was time. "I think ten or eleven months is a good time if they're hearty and they'll eat other food," said Naomi.


Mary Jane said that she weaned her youngest son when he was about eleven months old.

"I usually weaned them from the bottle or breast either one when they were about a year old. Of course, that's a little big. They were easier because they had to be eating. Then they didn't want the bottle so much," said Mabel.

Each mother had her own way of weaning. Stella said, "We had a wood cook stove. And I would just take a little of that soot from inside the lid and rubbed it on my breast. I would tell them the cats done that. I asked them lots of times if they wanted the breast milk, and they'd say, 'No, no. Dirty cat!' That was the last of it, but that's the easiest way I know."

Mabel explained how she weaned her babies. "I'd feed them all I could get them to eat, then take their bottle and set it up, and that was it. They'd fuss a little bit for a day or two, but if they had plenty to eat, why, they wasn't uncomfortable. They'd go to sleep."


Modern nursery equipment includes baby bed, changing table, a small bath tub, car seat, baby carrier, play pen, high chair and stroller. Most modern mothers have such luxuries as wind-up baby swings, wind-up mobiles and crib toys that attach to the baby bed. The mother in the rural Ozarks in the 1900s had almost no special equipment, usually not even a baby bed.

"Usually the new baby slept with the parents," Mary Jane explained. "I wouldn't put a baby in a bed to itself--couldn't harden to it. I always thought that was the awfulest thing I'd heard. I always wanted my baby in bed with me. A lot of people let them lay in their arms, but that'll damage their heads."

Mabel said, "They got moved out of my bed when they were about a year old. Mine didn't always sleep through the night, but they didn't wake up too bad, unless they were teething or something that made them fussy. I'd get up, change them and feed them. They'd usually go back to sleep for me pretty good. I always slept with my babies in the crook of my arm. I had my arm out and laid them under it. If I moved, I'd bump them. If I got tired of laying on one side, I'd put the baby on the other side and turn over.

"I never put them in a bed to themselves at night because I was scared to," she continued. "Back then I heard about finding the babies dead in their cribs. That made me scared to put one out that way in the night. I laid there with them there in the crook of my arm and if they moved the least bit, I woke up and checked on them. If they didn't stir pretty often, I'd move them a little.

"The children also regularly took naps until they were a year old. I usually had a little basket for the first child I had. It was about three feet long and about two feet wide. It was oval shaped and about a foot and a half deep. It was kind of rough, so I made a nice little soft mattress in the bottom, and I padded the sides. They used that, one child after another until they kicked the end out of it. They would lay and kick on that end. It was funny to them. They just kicked and kicked until it got so old that it broke on the end. They were six or eight months old before I'd take them out of the basket."

For Mabel, bathing the children was a daily ritual. "I'd give them a bath in a little dishpan every day just after breakfast. Even in the wintertime they would get a bath every day. I always said, 'A bar of soap is the difference between low class people and us poor folks!'"

Mary Jane bathed her children every other day on her lap near the stove in the living room to discourage colds. She used clear water with a small amount of soap and powder to prevent rashes.

Baby furniture was usually limited to hand-me-downs, homemade furniture or gifts from other people. "The highchairs we had were so old-fashioned," Mary Jane said. "They had no little tray. We'd just push them up and let them eat on the table. I think they might as well eat off the table because the trays have got to be washed and cleaned whenever they are used."

Flora added, "We didn't have any baby buggies or anything like that. We just had to carry the baby around with us across our hips."


"They had baby buggies back when my children were little," Mary Jane said, "but I didn't have any. We didn't have any money to buy them. We didn't have a playpen," she continued. "Daddy fixed a box for my oldest boy, and I had him put little legs in each corner, and he tacked a little frame around it. When the baby was eight months old he could pull up. He could hold the rail and he walked around and around just as hard as he could. It helped me. I could put him in it and he wasn't on the floor crawling."

"For the wood stove and things that you wanted them to stay away from," Mary Jane said, "we'd set a chair by it or we'd just have to teach them that the stove was hot. They'd learn it pretty young. We didn't try to keep them in one room. We just turned them loose and let them go wherever they wanted to. I did not let my children get into anything. We kept everything up so they wouldn't get into it.

"You also have to watch them around a young brother or sister because they're liable to put something in a child's mouth. If they're eating, they may try to feed the baby."

Lorene said, "I remember when my mother absolutely had to get something done, she would tie my younger brother to the bedpost with a diaper. The diaper was soft around his waist and didn't hurt him, but he could go a short distance to play without getting into anything."


The mothers relied on home cures for many of the common illnesses or problems of babyhood, using the doctor, whose practice often covered a wide area, only in emergencies. Flora said, "My mother's father was a doctor, and he knew a lot of home cures, so we learned a lot of cures from him. But we were always asking advice from older people. I would go by what they told me because I thought they had more experience than I did. But if there was something I thought I liked better than theirs, then I would have used that. Doc Hartley, our local doctor, always said that he thought a grandmother could doctor a baby better than he could."

For every day health problems, the mothers sought advice from grandmothers and midwives. One such midwife was Ella Dunn of Taney County who used many herbs native to the Ozarks for cures.

Catnip tea was a general all-purpose cure for a variety of baby problems such as diarrhea, fever and hives. Ella said, "I used catnip tea for the babies when they didn't want to sleep. It's soothing and good for them. It's good for the little babies when they're fretty, colicky and cry. Make a tea with sugar and catnip and give that to them. Pretty soon they'll drift off to sleep."

There were other cures for the colic which is a problem in babies from newborn to over six months. The causes of colic have been discussed for generations, but both Flora and Mabel felt that it was due to gas. "Colic was actually a gas formed in their stomach that didn't work off," said Mabel. "That caused pain. They would cry, scream and double up. We would put a drop of peppermint in a spoon of water and give it to them. That would make them belch. Sometimes the babies would hardly miss a day that they didn't have it."

Flora had another cure for colic. "Put a tiny bit of camphor in water or milk and give it to them in a spoon. Sometimes they wouldn't be very old when they got colic and camphor is awfully strong. You would have to give a little baby just a little bit. You would turn them up across your shoulder like burping them, and it wouldn't be long until they would belch."

Another common ailment for small babies is thrush, a fungus which causes milky-white lesions inside the mouth.

For thrush, Flora advised taking a little cloth and washing their mouths out with boric acid water.

For a sore mouth, Ella said, "I would take golden seal and mix it in maple syrup and give it to the babies."

Diarrhea is always a problem, but in a small baby that can easily dehydrate, it is a special concern. For diarrhea, Flora said, "We would take a burned biscuit crust. Just burn it and soak it in water. Give the baby the water off the burned biscuit crust. That is what my husband's mother and his grandmother always used to do."

For diaper rash, Flora suggested cornstarch or vaseline.


There were many cures for teething discomfort. Mable said, "My children started teething about six months. One baby had problems. Her gums would raise up in big blood blisters. The teeth would not break through, and she'd just chew on anything she could get hold of. I didn't know what to do. An old-timer came along and said, 'You kill a rabbit, split that rabbit open just as soon as you kill it, take some of those brains while they're still hot and rub that on her gums, and that will stop it.' I thought, 'Ooo!' but I had just got to my wits end because the child couldn't eat or anything. I told Rob to get a rabbit and let's try it. We had to do something. I rubbed that on her gums and pretty soon she went to sleep. After that her teeth began to come through. I don't know what that had to do with it. It wasn't the rubbing of her gums because I had been rubbing her gums with my hands. I guess the old-timers' methods had some sense to them."

Colds were both annoying and sometimes dangerous to babies. There were a variety of cures. Some mothers found it helpful to apply coal oil and turpentine to the chest and neck area to improve breathing. Flora suggested another cure. "They would take onions and roast them in the coals of the fires. Press the juice out and rub it on their chests. Take turpentine, camphor and a little vaseline and mix it together. Then rub that on. They would put a cloth over their chest afterwards. It would be a terrible smell. They would smell like an onion, but that would loosen their cold."

Mabel said, "Onion tea also loosens a cold. For colds, I'd grease their chests with mentholatum and put a flannel on it. The biggest thing to loosen colds was to hold the babies against you. Body heat seems to do them more good than anything."

Another use for onions was for pheumonia fever. "Take onions and cook them. Then put that in a poultice. First put a cloth next to the baby and then put that poultice on. It seemed like it worked," said Flora.

Mothers in the early part of the twentieth century were concerned with intestinal worms. To control worms in small children Flora said, "Take Jerusa-leum oak seeds. Jeruseleum oak is a wild weed that grows out in the field around the hog pen. It's just a little bitty fine seed, like a poppy seed, and gives off a smell. Mash that up and put in molasses for, worms. It would pretty near kill you, let alone the worms. It would really get rid of them."

Sometimes no cure worked. Because there was a shortage of doctors and a lack of modern technology, serious illnesses and deaths were more common.

Every family was, at one time or another, touched by a child's death. Mabel explained, "I guess you knew more about it then because one person depended on another. There was one baby about the time one of mine was born that lived three or four days. Then they came down and said they thought it was dead. And there I was big pregnant! I got up, got dressed and went up there. I got a mirror. That is how you checked to see if they were breathing--by the vapor on the mirror. The baby wasn't breathing at all. I checked it thoroughly and decided it was dead. Then we had to bathe and dress the baby to get it ready for burial. We just got a straight board and laid the baby flat. Then we shaped it and put a towel where we wanted its arms. Back then they buried them within two or three days. They just watched them, and if they discolored, they got them buried faster. This baby I took care of died one night, and they kept it over the next day because they had to make a casket."


Having a small child changed the mother's life immensely. Her already hectic schedule of tending to the house, garden and animals had to incorporate the problem of dealing with a small child. She had to adjust to always having the children with her as she went about her work.

"Having a child in the house makes more work," Mabel said. "You can count on that! I got up and got breakfast and began to see that each one was fed down the line. Then I started washing dishes. After that I gave the babies a bath.

Then, by the time I got all that done and the beds made and so on, it was time to start lunch. After lunch I'd wash dishes again. Sometimes in the afternoon I'd get an hour or two to sit down and rest and relax. I was very glad to get that hour or two."

Mary Jane added. "I always kept my work a-going. I kept everything clean. I don't know how I did it. When I think of the work I used to do, I think, 'Oh, Lord!' But I just always kept everything going."


Constantly having the baby by their sides as they did, the mothers thought of ingenious ways to occupy the baby. At times they would give them a toy to play with or a sugar tit to suck on, and that would satisfy them until their mother finished her work. Mary Jane explained how she made her sugar tits. "I just got a clean white rag. I'd tie the sugar up in it and wet it with a little bit of warm water. Then I'd put it in their mouth. They'd go to town with it and it would pacify them."

Another way to keep a child busy was to place a feather smeared with molasses in their hands. Flora explained, "When the baby takes a hold of that, the feather sticks to his fingers. He'll have to take the other finger to pull it loose. And then he couldn't get that hand loose so he'll take the other hand and pull. They'll sit there and pull and play with it."

Mabel added, "My husband fixed rockers. It was a little thing with two rockers and boards across it. I'd set the baby basket on them, and I could rock the baby in it. I'd set one foot on the rocker and the other foot on a machine pedal. And that's the way I did part of my sewing when the oldest was a baby because she was very, very troublesome. My husband could hear her screaming across a forty acre field when she was small. You'd think she had the colic or something. I knew she was bound to be sick. When he came in, he would lay her on his lap and sing some diddly-daddle song to her, and that's all there was to it. She had Daddy. And then you feel like spanking her even when she was a little baby because all she wanted was her daddy."

While some men didn't pay much attention to their wives' work, others helped around the house and shared in the responsibilities of the young. Mary Jane remembered, "In those days men didn't think they had to help out. They didn't think they were supposed to. They were just raised like that. They'd go to the fields as soon as daylight. But Daddy was always pretty good about the house. When Elmer was little, he fed him. Elmer wouldn't be fed by anybody else. He wanted his daddy. He used to make his mother so mad!

"But I remember one time my husband and one of his brothers was together. I left Elmer with them to take care of while I walked to the store two miles away.  I carried ten dozen eggs in a great big basket. They let Elmer fall in the creek while I was gone. He could walk but he was just a little thing, not over a year old. I found out when I got back home, and it really scared me."
"My husband helped with about everyhing there was to be done at one time or another," Mabel added. "He never fussed about it. When I needed help, he'd pitch in. Usually though, I'd rather do the jobs than holler at him. I'd have to say, 'Do so-and-so. Now, do so-and-so.' It was easier to get up and do it rather than tell him."

As the children grew older, they helped with caring of the babies. In that day, before nursery care centers, a house might have two or more children in diapers at one time. There was much to be done.

In comparison a modern mother awakens to the sound of her newborn baby crying. It is the normal two o'clock in the morning ritual--waking up, going to the brightly decorated nursery, changing the disposable diapers and using the plastic throw-away refills of the plastic bottles. While rocking the baby back to sleep, the two listen to the train that plays music while sliding on the crib's rail.

With the baby starting to calm down, the mother looks around the nursery and gazes at the modern conveniences. Remembering the stories that her grandmother told her of the times she had with her children, she thinks of how lucky it is for her to have everything easy and already prepared. With more schools, fewer children, washers and dryers, doctors, canned foods, disposable diapers and baby sitters, she knows that she has fewer worries to cope with than her grandmother and the other mothers in the early 1900s.

But each mother in her own day has worried about the days ahead for her baby and has found satisfaction and fulfillment in successfully raising her children. The satisfaction and worries of the modern mother is no less than that of Naomi Frisbee, Stella Anderson, Lorene Amos, Mary Jane Hough, Mabel Wilson and Flora Lamkins when they raised their babies years ago.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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