Granny Women and Birthing Babies in Appalachia
Photo Courtesy of the University of Oregon
Historically in Appalachia, there existed no easy access to trained medical doctors. Roads were poor if they existed at all and the terrain was mountainous with no rail lines near. The people depended on “Granny women” for their health care needs. These women, who were often illiterate, were trained by other Granny women who passed their knowledge on to the next generation. No formal education was involved, and they relied on home remedies and folklore. Besides midwifery, they were also filling the role of a general practitioner and treating people of all ages.
The people of rural Appalachia were a clannish folk who placed great emphasis on the matriarch of the family. She was responsible for the health and spiritual care of the family and commanded great respect. The Appalachian female lived a hard life, they worked just as hard as the men, running the household and caring for the children. Cooking all the meals, making all the clothes, cleaning the house. They were also responsible for raising a garden and canning the food to last over the winter. It was often the woman’s responsibility to care for the livestock and if there were no-one else to do it, also help her husband with other chores around the home.
They generally lived in great poverty. Women married young, and since birth control was not available, this produced large families. Abortion was not an option, but it was not unheard of for women to ingest pennyroyal to induce a miscarriage. This would not be a typical practice since they were a superstitious and religious people.
So typically if a women went into labor someone would send for the Granny woman. The laboring women would continue with her daily routine till the pain became so great she would have to take to her bed. If the pain became too intense, the Granny women would place a knife under the mattress to “cut the pain” If the mother were lucky there might be hand washing involved before the Granny woman would deliver her child. While the mother was in labor no-one could sweep the front steps of the house after sundown, as this would bring bad luck to the birth. Bad luck could also be produced by the mother raising her hands over her head during labor.
It was also believed that the placenta would come faster if the mother blew with great force into her fist. Once the placenta was delivered, it was buried deep because if were dug up by an animal it was believed this would bring death to both mother and child.
After delivery, soft poultices of milk and bread, onion, cornmeal, cow dung, pancakes, and potatoes were used to treat mastitis. A rag soaked in camphor would be applied to the engorged breast to bring the milk. Newborns were held upside down by their feet and lifted up and down to prevent them from becoming “liver growed.” The baby would be dosed with catnip or a drop or two of turpentine or even a spoonful of whiskey to “hive’ the baby.
Sometimes there were no Granny women to help, and women had to do the best they could during birth with the help of their spouse or an older child. Many Granny women would refuse to deliver an unwed mother since their religion forbade premarital sex.
These women did not have the luxury of resting in bed after delivery. They would usually get out of bed after having the baby and finish their chores for the day. Sometimes if the family could afford it, the Granny woman would stay and help for a few days.
It is no wonder the infant and mother mortality rate was high.
Cavender, Anthony 2003 Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachian. Chapel Hill The University of North Carolina Press.