Delivery furniture: an illustrated history
An excerpt from “Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births”.
By: Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick
The benefits of different birthing positions—kneeling, standing, sitting, squatting, or lying—particularly with respect to pelvic posture, have been publicly debated since at least the 1880s. Birthing positions can be chosen or mandated, intuitive or inherited, self-directed or at the behest of other forces. Birthing furniture and other physical objects, structures and accessories determine not only the physiology but also the emotional experience of birth.
In what follows, we mine medical textbooks, period magazines, centuries-old prints, and contemporary speculative designs to trace how birthing positions, furniture design, and social and cultural expectations divided and converged. over time. Even in a single setting, birthing furniture (and birthing positions) can vary widely, from the lying position that a birthing bed facilitates, to more active, interchangeable, and spontaneous positions that equipment like birthing balls yoga and peanuts, slings, bars, stools, pools, and chairs make it possible. Some designs, such as birth irons, may seem anachronistic, but are still commonly used on incarcerated people, both during childbirth and after childbirth. Even without furniture, people giving birth find their way. In a bas-relief dating from around 60 to 30 BCE at the Temple of Esneh in Egypt, for example, Cleopatra is shown giving birth on her knees, her body surrounded and supported by other women.
The May 1958 issue of Ladies Home Journal
In this issue of the popular women’s magazine, among the usual depictions of mid-century motherhood – sparkling appliances, cake recipes and lipstick-wearing women in aprons – was a page with a letter written by an anonymous labor nurse and childbirth:
When I started in my profession, I thought it would be wonderful to help bring new life into this world. I was and still am shocked by the way an expectant mother is rushed into the delivery room and tied down with handcuffs around her arms and legs and steel clamps over her shoulders and chest. It is common to take the mother directly to the delivery room as soon as she is “prepared”. [This preparation would have meant shaved pubic hair and an enema.] Often she is tied in a lithotomy position, legs in stirrups with knees wide apart, for eight hours. On one occasion, an obstetrician informed the nurses on call that he was going to a dinner party and that things needed to be slowed down. The young mother was taken to the delivery room and tied hand and foot with her legs tied together.
The letter struck a chord. Women across the country wrote to share their own stories of abuse, including being tied up and drugged in an effort to keep them still, quiet and passive.
Delivery beds and tables
The recommendation to give birth while lying down was, at least at first, well-intentioned. It was officially introduced in 1598 by the French barber-surgeon Jacques Gillemeau, who claimed that the recline was the most comfortable and would help induce labor. The first birthing beds were real beds, similar to sleeping furniture. In the mid-1800s, medical designers added leg harnesses and stirrups to obstetrics tables, which soon trickled down to the design of birthing beds, as did leather straps and other restraints. With the invention of plastics, birthing beds could be lightweight, easy to clean and assemble, and adjustable.
Although there were no uniform obstetrical practices until the first quarter of the 20th century, the supine position (lying flat on the back) and the lithotomy position (lying on the back with the feet in the stirrups ) have become biomedical delivery standards in hospitals. Many types of birthing beds fold the person giving birth into an upright position, inviting the power of gravity into the design.
Birthing chairs and stools
Backless birthing chairs and birthing stools help people feel balanced and supported in an upright position during childbirth. With three or four legs, they usually feature a semi-circular cutout on the seat. The position of the body in the birthing chair not only uses gravity as the baby falls from the uterus and emerges through the vagina, but also maximizes the capacity of the muscles (abdominals, back, stomach, legs, arms and vaginal sphincter) to work effectively together. Babylonian birthing chairs date back to 2000 BCE. An Egyptian wall relief from 1450 BCE in the Luxor Temple Birth Hall shows Queen Mutemwia giving birth to her son, Amenhotep III. A birthing chair is also depicted on a Greek votive from 200 BCE. Some thousand-year-old birthing stools from Britain were designed to be transported when taken apart, suggesting they were owned by midwives rather than individual households. Today, many birthing centers incorporate furniture and equipment designed for sitting and squatting during labor. The woodcut above shows a birthing stool from Der schwanngeren Frawen und Hebammen Rosengarte, by the German physician Eucharius Rösslin. First published in 1513, it has become a standard manual for midwives in Germany.
In 1965, New Yorkers George and Charlotte Blonsky obtained a patent for a “Device facilitating the birth of a child by centrifugal force”. The circular table has been meticulously designed and incorporates safety features designed to protect both mother and child. When it was time to give birth, the mother was asked to lie on her back with her legs apart; it would then be strapped in place and the table would spin at very high speed. To prevent the child from flying away, a soft-mesh net was there to catch him. The design “would aid the underpowered woman by creating a gentle, evenly distributed, properly directed and precisely controlled force that works in unison with and complements her own efforts.” Although lovingly and meticulously crafted with only the best of intentions, the Blonsky has never seen general use. This version was presented by the artist Marc Abrahams in the exhibition fail better at the Science Gallery of Trinity College Dublin in 2014.
While midwives around the world have used water in one form or another to relieve pain and relax laborers, birthing pools are a more recent phenomenon.
Some trace their genesis to Moscow in the 1960s, when Igor Charkovsky, a former lifeguard and self-proclaimed “father of sea births”, encouraged births in the Crimean Sea. In the 1970s, Dr. Michel Odent designed a delivery room at the general hospital in Pithiviers, in northern France. Dark, earthy colors and heavy curtains encouraged a sense of seclusion and privacy, allowing people giving birth to labor in whatever positions they found most comfortable. In 1977, Odent installed a swimming pool in the chamber. Although he considered water as a form of pain management, many of his patients gave birth in swimming pools, and Odent is often credited with starting the trend of water birth. The visual image of an uninterrupted flow of liquid can have a powerfully positive psychological effect, and the feeling of weightlessness that accompanies immersion in water can be used to encourage intuitive movements and postures.
Ultima Thule by Stiliyana Minkovska
With more people giving birth and more families exercising their right to actively participate in the birthing experience, making it more physiological and psychologically supportive as well as personal, positive and even profound, designers are responding. In 2020, Bulgarian-born, UK-based artist and designer Stiliyana Minkovska created Ultima Thule, a speculative design for an otherworldly, sanctuary-like birthing environment comprised of three pieces of furniture from flexible and sculptural childbirth. Using color, texture and open shapes to facilitate a variety of postures, the pieces function as “an aid that allows the pregnant woman’s body to adopt any desired position in preparation for childbirth.” The pieces are accommodating, allowing the future parent to sit, kneel, squat, rest, bend and crawl until they find comfort. It is a gradual element, where the mother makes the journey alone, or may be supported by a partner, doula or midwife.
Michelle MillarFisher is curator and historian of architecture and design, is Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick curators of contemporary decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She frequently lectures on design, people and the politics of things.
Amber Winick is a writer, design historian and recipient of two Fulbright awards. She has lived, researched and written about conceptions, policies and practices related to family and children around the world.