This is the second installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the believability or accuracy of a historical.
Just because a certain appliance or technology existed in a certain year doesn’t mean it was common or affordable. For example, more people than you might assume had televisions in the mechanical scanning-disc era of circa 1928-33. That doesn’t mean everyone had one, or that a poor farmer or factory worker knew about them or could afford them. Know what kinds of technology existed in that era, like phones, refrigerators, kitchen appliances, typewriters, record players, cameras, home movies, etc.
I freaking love antique cars, esp. Brass Age. I love the chance to include make, model, and colour when describing cars in my books. Make sure you know when a car was released, became popular, and was available outside of its country of origin. And try to mix it up a little with make and model. Not all Americans drove Model Ts!
I was embarrassingly naïve in my early days as a serious writer, and really believed there were some form of birth control pills in the 1940s, as well as home pregnancy tests, sponges, and easy, open access to condoms. Women in this era had to use diaphragms (which was very hard even for married women in many areas), vinegar-soaked household sponges cut to shape, condoms the male partner got from a pharmacist, or some kind of risky folk remedy like lemon juice. This was also the era when doctors seriously advised women to douche with Lysol for birth control and general health.
Until the early 20th century, generally only destitute or very wealthy women birthed in hospitals. Until male obstetricians’ sadly successful smear campaign against midwives in the early 20th century, women had always been brought to bed by their nearest and dearest, with a midwife in attendance. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common for women, esp. with money, to invite physicians in, but birth still took place at home. Mortality rates for both mothers and babies actually drastically went up after birth began moving to hospital, while midwives had much better outcomes. Don’t even get me started on the barbaric twilight sleep.
For a woman birthing with a midwife or physician at home, she was in control of the situation, and got to decide who was there and which interventions to accept. Even if many women feared birth would be their death, they knew what to expect from having witnessed so many other births. It wasn’t hidden away in shame and secrecy in a hospital, where women were alone among strangers.
The higher death rates in the old days were mostly due to poor sanitation, doctors and midwives who didn’t wash their hands and who reused equipment, and the unnatural conditions upper-class women lived in. Poor and working-class women had better labours, since they actually had a lot of fresh air and sunlight, and weren’t expected to hole themselves in like invalids and not do any physical activity during pregnancy. Upper-class women were also the ones forced into corsets, which deformed bones and organs.
It would’ve been extraordinarily rare for a woman to have anyone other than medical personnel in the delivery room until the 1970s, and even then permission was usually only granted for the husband, if he produced proof they’d taken a Bradley or Lamaze class. Any woman during the twilight sleep era who either avoided heavy drugs and/or had friends and family in attendance would’ve been the wife of a doctor, wealthy, or birthing with an extremely progressive doctor.
Women also laboured at home longer, usually only arriving in active labour instead of at the first mild contraction. The vast majority of women went into labour naturally instead of scheduling inductions at the 12-week visit, the C-section rate was extremely low (twins and triplets, most breech presentations, and suspected “large” babies weren’t considered medical emergencies), and hospital stays were two weeks long early in the 20th century and still around 4-5 days at mid-century.