4 Historical Royal Birthing Traditions

MirasWonderland/iStock via Getty Images
MirasWonderland/iStock via Getty Images

We can’t really tell you what it was like in the delivery room of the private Lindo wing of St. Mary’s Hospital in London. But we can tell you what it would have been like for other historical royal women. And let’s just say, it wasn’t always pleasant—although in some cases, it changed the way babies were born for everyone.

1. Giving birth with an audience

For hundreds of years, royal women gave birth in front of spectators. It was a big custom among the French royalty—poor Marie Antoinette was almost killed by the great crush of people who poured into her bedchamber at Versailles when the doctor shouted that the baby was coming. Contemporary reports claim that it was stiflingly hot, that it was impossible to move for spectators, and that some people were climbing atop the furniture for a better view. No wonder she fainted. (And no wonder the custom was abandoned soon after. Well, sort of: The royal mother still gave birth before a crowd of people—ministers, advisors, trustworthy types—just a smaller one.)

A public viewing, no matter how uncomfortable for the one being viewed, was designed to prove to the entire court that the child was indeed the fruit of the royal woman’s womb, that there hadn’t been a switch up at some point.

Even if it wasn’t an official public—as in any punters off the street—policy, other royal women were expected to deliver their babies to an audience. Still, it didn’t work for Mary of Modena, queen consort of the Catholic King James II. No less than 70 people reportedly witnessed the birth of their longed-for son and heir, James Francis Edward Stuart, on June 10, 1688. But gossips still claimed that he was a changeling child smuggled into the birthing chamber in a warming pan, and that the real prince had been stillborn. The whole conspiracy was cooked up by Protestants wary that the Catholic King James II would raise his son, the heir to the throne, a Catholic; that would constitute a further imposition of what they now considered a foreign religion on a Protestant people. The supposed illegitimacy of young James, however, furnished William of Orange, the next Protestant in line for the British throne, with a good reason to invade.

But measures to make sure that the royal baby was indeed the right one were still in place until 1936. Until then, and including the births of Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret, the British Home Secretary was required to stand outside the door of the birthing room, just to be sure.

2. Palace or hospital?

Maybe it’s comforting to know that royal women tend to give birth generally the same as other women, and the mechanisms of those births tend to follow the customs of the day. That meant that for the vast majority of royal family history, babies were born at home, or at whatever palatial estate the royal mother happened to be in at the time. Prince Charles, heir to the British crown, was born November 14, 1948, at Buckingham Palace. (Or rather, as the BBC put it, “Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh, was safely delivered of a prince at 9:14 p.m.”)

At the time, roughly one in three women in the UK gave birth at home. It wasn’t until more than 20 years later that a member of the royal family would be born in a hospital. In 1970, Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, was the first royal baby to be born in a hospital (University College London—that’s where I gave birth! I feel famous!). That was, incidentally, the same year that the Peel Report in the UK recommended that every British woman should give birth in a hospital, not at home, for the safety of the infant. Now, less than 3 percent of British mothers give birth at home—and the royals are among the majority who go the hospital route.

3. A bit of chloroform? Queen Victoria starts a fad

Queen Victoria was all about setting standards and starting fads, some of them better than others. For the vast majority of human existence, pain relief for women in labour was rare—and for at least some of history, said to be against the wishes of God. One woman in 1591 was burned at the stake after she asked for pain relief during the birth of her twins. Though not quite so extreme, that was the general attitude even after the discovery of relatively safe anesthetics in the 19th century. Ether and chloroform were all right for things like surgery and limb removal, but delivering babies the painful way was woman’s lot in life.

And then, in 1853, at the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria asked her attending physician for a bit of the good stuff. Dr. John Snow (the visionary doctor who figured out that the deadly cholera outbreaks cutting swathes through the city were being transmitted by water-born microbes) administered chloroform to the Queen via a saturated cloth: “Her majesty expressed great relief from the application, the pains being very trifling during the uterine contractions, and whilst between the periods of contraction there was complete ease.” I’ll bet.

Victoria’s decision, however, and the decision of people around her to tell everyone about it, ushered in a new era of drugs for childbirth. For good or for ill: After the floodgates opened, doctors were throwing anything and everything at delivering mothers, from nitrous oxide (whip-its!) and quinine (anti-malarial!) to cocaine and opium. By the end of the century, modern science determined that modern ladies—well, modern ladies of the upper and middle classes, and definitely not poor women—were too delicate to give birth without significant aid. During the early part of the 20th century, some doctors advocated “twilight sleep” for those women who could afford it. “Twilight sleep” was basically super-strong drugs that didn’t knock you out during the birth— women under the influence of this cheery cocktail routinely hallucinated and had to be restrained and blindfolded during childbirth—but they did make sure you didn’t remember a damn thing except waking up in the morning with an adorable new baby. Um, thanks, Victoria?

4. Get a grip: Forceps

Nowadays, instrumental births are more common; in the UK, around one in eight women delivers her child with help from a Ventouse (the vacuum) or forceps. Before the invention of the forceps, however, there were few options to unstick a stuck baby that didn’t result in the death of the mother or the child. The less said about that the better.

But beginning in the late 1500s, one family had a secret gadget that seemed to miraculously free the baby without (too much) harm and save the mother as well: The Chamberlen family had invented the first obstetric forceps. And they didn’t tell anyone for the next 200 years. French Huguenots Dr. William Chamberlen and his pregnant wife and three children sailed to England in 1569. No one knows whether it was this Chamberlen or one of his sons called Peter (he had two) who developed the first forceps design, but by the 1600s, the Chamberlens were the "men midwives" of choice to the British social elite. Men midwives, as they were actually called, were the newest, hottest thing in obstetrics, putting female midwives out of business left and right. Of course, it was still quite inappropriate for a man who was not her husband to see a lady’s bits, so male midwives were forced to work almost blindfolded: The female patient would be covered in a sheet from her neck down, the other end of the sheet tied around the male midwife’s neck, forming a kind of tent. 

This actually worked out well for the Chamberlens, as it meant they could keep their lifesaving—and incredibly lucrative—instrument a secret. The Chamberlens by now were favorites of pregnant British royals and aristocracy, though the rest of the medical community pretty much hated them. In the early 1700s, Hugh Chamberlen finally made the design for the forceps public, although they were almost immediately the subject of fierce debate—some doctors and midwives thought they killed more infants than they saved.

It took the death of a royal princess to make people think otherwise. In 1817, Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of Princess Caroline and George, Prince of Wales (later George IV), died after delivering a stillborn baby boy. The national outpouring of grief was intense—the British people had loved Charlotte in direct proportion to how much they hated her father, which was a lot. But while the nation clad itself in black, Charlotte’s death had another, more long-term effect: The attending doctor was excoriated in public for not using forceps to deliver the child. The demand for forceps soared, ushering a new era of birthing protocol; the doctor, however, killed himself three months after Charlotte’s death.

The Smithsonian Needs Your Help Transcribing Sally Ride’s Notebooks

Sally Ride in 1984.
Sally Ride in 1984.
Coffeeandcrumbs, NASA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On June 18, 1983, Sally K. Ride made history when she became the first American woman to travel into space. Now, the Smithsonian Institution is making the history of her incredible decades-long career more accessible to everyone—and they need your help to do it.

The National Air and Space Museum Archives is home to the Sally K. Ride Papers, a collection of 38,640 physical pages (over 23 cubic feet) of material spanning Ride’s professional life as an astronaut, physicist, and educator from the 1970s to 2010s. Those resources have been scanned and used to create an online finding aid—not unlike a table of contents—so researchers can easily navigate through the wealth of information.

To simplify the searching process within that online finding aid, the Smithsonian Institution is asking for volunteers to transcribe documents in the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center, a digital hub launched in 2013, where anybody can sign up to type and review historical sources. Three projects from the Sally K. Ride Papers are currently available to transcribe, which include her notes for shuttle training between 1979 and 1981, notes about the Remote Manipulator System Arm (there's one on the International Space Station today), and notes from NASA commissions on which she served. One, for example, was the Rogers Commission, which investigated the causes of the fatal Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.

You can find out more about the documents in the projects here, and if you’re interested in joining the forces of “volunpeers,” as the Smithsonian likes to call its transcribers, you can create a new user account here. (All you’ll need is a username and email address.)

Check out more citizen science projects you can participate in at home here.

12 Things You Might Not Know About Passover

iStock
iStock

For practicing Jews, Passover is a time to remember their deliverance from captivity in ancient Egypt. It's one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, and in the days before the first night's seder, families make preparations such as cleaning the home of chametz and planning for a week of meaningful dietary restrictions. Here are 12 facts about Passover that you wouldn't have learned from a yearly viewing of The Ten Commandments.

1. Firstborn sons need to fast for Passover.

matzo
iStock

The festival of Passover (or Pesach) commemorates the story of the Jews' escape from Egypt. The passover in question is when the houses of the observant Israelites in captivity were "passed over" as Egypt's first-born children were killed (although confusingly, in the Torah, the date the 14th of Nisan is referred to as Passover while the week-long celebration is the Festival of Matzot. They've since been combined into one celebration called Passover).

In celebration of the firstborns being saved, it is traditional for them to fast on 14 Nisan. If there are no children, the oldest member of the household fasts. If the firstborn is a daughter? That depends on the tradition of the community.

2. Passover lasts either seven or eight days.

reading the Haggadah at Passover
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The Torah says to celebrate Passover for seven days (the time between the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea), but many Jews outside of Israel celebrate for eight. Traditionally each month of the Jewish calendar was determined by an astronomical observation and could be either 29 or 30 days long. After a new month was determined, messengers spread the word. For Jews who lived too far away for messengers to bring timely news of a new month, it was safest to celebrate for an extra day, so no matter how long the previous month was, the holiday was celebrated.

Eventually the calendar was standardized and the eight-day custom was no longer needed. Today, some Jewish denominations outside of Israel (like Reform Judaism) celebrate the mandated seven days, while many others prefer eight days. Inside Israel it's generally seven.

3. Leavened grains are a no-go at Passover.

Person sweeping the floor
iStock

One of the most important parts of Passover preparations is cleaning the house of chametz, or leavened food. Even the tiniest bit has to go. Because the Jews left Egypt in such a hurry, it's said they didn't have time to leaven their bread. To commemorate that, five grains (traditionally wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and oats) are banished from the house. Jews can spend weeks ensuring that the house is perfectly clean—and there are even professional chametz cleaning services that say they'll boil toys, break down and reassemble kitchen chairs … and possibly still leave the house dirty. There's a saying in Jewish households: "Dust is not chametz." The goal is to get rid of chametz above all else.

4. Matzo, which is made from wheat, is one of the most important parts of a Passover meal.

baking matzo
iStock

While there are restrictions against leavened products, one of the most important parts of a Passover meal is matzo, which is made from wheat. The difference between matzo and regular bread is that the wheat in matzo cannot come into contact with any water until it's ready to be cooked. And once water and wheat are mixed it has to be baked within 18 minutes (sources differ as to whether the timer stops when it enters or leaves the oven). After 18 minutes, fermentation begins and it is chametz.

But why 18 minutes? Supposedly it's because that's how long it takes to walk between the cities of Migdal Nunaiya and Tiberias in Israel. Over the years, scholars have argued about how long it would actually take to walk between the cities, with some proposing that copying errors reduced the distance from circa 4 miles to 1 and thus reduced the time from 72 minutes to 18. Nowadays, it's felt that even if there was a transcribing error, there's enough tradition to use 18 minutes.

5. Grains get complicated during Passover.

matzo ball soup
iStock

As Jews spread around the world, they often found themselves faced with foods that weren't explicitly mentioned for Passover. Sephardic Jews (generally) feel that only the five expressly mentioned grains are forbidden, while Ashkenazi Jews worry that the dishes made from certain other plants that look similar and are grown in similar conditions as the forbidden grains will risk contamination between the two. So if these ingredients (called kitniyot, or "legumes") were avoided, actual chametz could more easily be avoided (although kitniyot is nowhere near as regulated as chametz).

But recently, some authorities have argued that improved technology and storing methods have rendered the old methods obsolete. It's a current debate in some communities.

6. Some of the best matzo flour is made in Arizona.

field of wheat
iStock

One of the most difficult parts of making matzo is keeping the flour dry before it's ready to be converted into matzo; any water risks converting flour into chametz. So, according to The New York Times, one sect of Hasidic Jews has found the perfect farming conditions to produce their wheat—the arid fields of southwestern Arizona. The group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York, work with a farm in Yuma, Arizona, to ensure that no unwanted moisture affects the crop, and the resulting kosher wheat is shipped back east to make up to 100,000 pounds of matzo.

7. Pets also get special food during Passover.

cute dog with head tilted
iStock

For Passover, houses must be free of chametz and there can be no benefit derived from it. This includes pet food. In keeping with this, there are Passover-friendly pet foods out there, and some Rabbinical authorities propose switching out your pet's diet for a few days—such as giving dogs straight meat or herbivores a variety of approved vegetables. If a pet must have a specific type of food—or you can't get Passover-friendly pet food—some observant Jews follow the rabbinical authorities who give the option to sell the pet to a gentile for a few days and then get it back after Passover has ended.

8. There are six symbolic Passover foods.

seder plate for Passover
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The focal point of the start of Passover is the Seder plate, and on it are six ceremonial items:

Beitzah—A cooked egg, representing sacrifice (it's also been suggested that while most foods soften when you cook them, eggs get harder, representing the resolve of the Jewish people)

Haroset—a sweet mix of fruits, nuts, and honey/wine that symbolizes the mortar used by Jews during their slavery

Karpas—a green vegetable signifying new life

Maror and hazeret—bitter herbs (often horseradish for maror and something like romaine for hazeret) to represent the bitterness of slavery

Zeroa—a shank bone (or a chicken neck) to remember the Paschal sacrifice.

9. Sometimes an orange is added to the Seder plate.

slice of orange
iStock

In the 1980s, Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel spoke on a panel at Oberlin College. While there, she met some students who told a story of a rabbi who said "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate." In response, they started placing a crust on their plates.

Heschel was inspired, but felt that using bread sent the wrong message, writing "it renders everything chametz … [suggesting] that being a lesbian is being transgressive, violating Judaism." So she proposed putting an orange (originally a tangerine) on the Seder plate to symbolize Jewish gays and lesbians. At some point a story emerged that it was actually to symbolize women in general, but Heschel explained: "A woman's words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn't that precisely what's happened over the centuries to women's ideas?"

Other more modern additions include pine cones (symbolizing mass incarceration), an artichoke (to recognize interfaith families), or tomatoes or Fair Trade chocolate (to remember that there's still slavery around the world).

10. Some major companies produce special kosher-for-Passover food and beverages.

ad for kosher Coca-Cola
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC-BY-2.0

Many companies produce special kosher-for-Passover products, from chocolate syrup to cake mixes. But one of the most important is Coca-Cola. In the early 20th century Rabbi Tobias Geffen was serving as an Orthodox Rabbi in Atlanta. Due to his location (Coca-Cola was invented and is headquartered in Atlanta), he was frequently asked if Coca-Cola was kosher. After analyzing the product, he found two problem ingredients—alcohol and glycerin.

The alcohol was a problem because it was grain-derived and thus unacceptable for Passover, a problem that was solved by switching to fermented molasses. The other problem, however, was glycerin. The glycerin was derived from animals, and there was simply no economic way to ensure the animals were kosher. As Roger Horowitz explains in Kosher USA, there's an exemption in the rules for a tiny amount of an unacceptable ingredient—designed to cover mistakes—and Coca-Cola's glycerin content was dramatically below that level. Rabbi Geffen, however, believed that since the glycerin was deliberately added, it didn't qualify for this rule. Soon though, a new source of glycerin from cottonseed oil emerged, and Coca-Cola was approved for Passover.

When Coca-Cola switched to high fructose corn syrup, however, that created a problem for Ashkenazi Jews. As such, today there's a special yellow-capped Coca-Cola that doesn't use HFCS and is certified kosher.

11. Maxwell House coffee holds a special place at Passover.

Maxwell House Haggadahs
Tom Lappin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

But the most influential company is likely Maxwell House. In the 1920s they decided to expand their presence to Jewish families—but there was a problem. Colloquially known as coffee "beans," there was a view that they were legumes, and as such forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews. Soon Maxwell House convinced reluctant coffee drinkers that their product was acceptable and in 1932 the company began publishing the Maxwell House Haggadah (the Haggadah is the telling of the Exodus and how to perform a seder meal). In the years since, Maxwell House estimates that it has published 50 million Haggadahs, which were even the preferred text for the Obama White House Seder.

12. The world's largest Seder happens in a surprising location.

Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
Hundreds of worshippers gather in a hall for Passover in Kathmandu in 2014.
PRAKASH MATHEMA, AFP/Getty Images

Going on for almost 30 years and hosting over 1000 people, the Kathmandu Seder was started in 1989 by the Israeli ambassador to Nepal, who quickly realized that the demand was much higher than he was ready for. The ambassador contacted a rabbi friend who dispatched two rabbinical students to aid the preparations. The seder was a massive success—expecting 90 guests and hoping for 150, they ultimately had 500 guests.

Nowadays, preparations for the seder start months in advance, with 1000 bottles of wine and over 1000 pounds of matzo getting shipped in from the United States and Israel.

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