The Midwives’ Go & Show Bag

Written by: Dr. Edith Langford

Author, Ethnographic Researcher & Clinician, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LMHC), and Addiction Specialist (CASAC, ADC) with four decades of experience. After a lifetime of experiencing ongoing medical mistreatment, she is working on a memoir about medical racism in our healthcare system

The most treasured and most essential cargo--a black leather satchel containing the tools of Granny’s trade--bounced in bed of the wagon. The bag contained all things cleaned and freshly-boiled to the point of sterilization:

Sharon Holly, University of Alabama, Director of  Midwifery Training Program, introduced me to this book by Orlean Puckett: The life of a Mountain Midwife 1844-1939” and there is a page that describes the contents of her bag that she took to births she attended (page 84). She was said to have had a leather doctor’s bag where she kept “scissors, twine or string, eyedrops, gauze and camphor”. 

In response to my on going query regarding the contents of my great-grandmother’s bag, Jenny Luke author of, Delivered by Midwives wrote:

 A midwife in your great-grandmother’s generation, the one prior to regulation and supervision beginning in the late 1920s, early 30s, would not have had a bag like a medical bag. She’d have some sort of homemade bag that contained some old fabric sheets, something to tie the umbilical cord with, and some scissors. She wouldn’t have a designated cap and gown. Silver nitrate might have been available, but it depended on the state. I don’t think Alabama handed it out before supervision began. So on the 1956 list, probably only scissors, maybe some lye soap, and definitely no paperwork.

What the older generation of midwives carried were herbs to make teas to give during labor and home remedies. A no-go for the later midwives I write about.

In a separate email I will send a couple of photos from Onnie Lee Logan’s book. She describes what her mother and older midwives did…these are women from your great-grandmother’s era, pre-1930s.

I hope this helps. Best wishes, Jenny Luke author of, Delivered by Midwives. 

Many of the items also included the essentials for the midwife’s person while working. In it, she was not just a scrubbed professional and garnered the full respect due to a community healer. Her lye soap and hand brush (wood back, pig ·bristles, boilable type) and Orangewood stick ensured that the first hands to touch that brown body were pristine. Other than that reported above by Puckett, there are limited records available regarding the actual contents of the bags before 1956.

Many of the following items may or may not have been in the official bag that Granny would have carried in 1932. However, the 1956 Alabama Midwives Training Handbook describes those things that were required at that time do to recently imposed regulations;

The collection of multipurpose jars of all sizes, nestled safely as each wrapped was in its own separate muslin cloth. There was one pair of sharp and tight scissors, with blunt points that were exclusively used for one chore: cutting the umbilical cord.  

The layer in the bag contained weighty, muslin cloths in all sizes, which were used for such a variety of purposes during the delivery that a large supply was essential and always kept freshly-boiled, folded and covered. 

After scrubbed hands, there were things that would touch the baby and thus need to be equally sterile. Cord dressings including a cotton cord and small gauze-like cotton squares were vital to prevent infection.  We are not sure if Granny  had special “baby eye drops,” a supply of silver nitrate solution, administered at the initial cleaning of the eyes, long before the baby could focus on his or her new world. Without this, babies contract ocular infections that often led to blindness, which happened in home births without midwives present. I can say that I have not heard any verbal report of blindness among the births that I know via documents or can assume she attended due to time, family relations and proximity to her residence.

All  instruments and medications used during the birth had to be placed on a clean surface so she might have carried a large sterilized enamel tray, which is also boilable, a watch to get the baby’s precise time of arrival, a scale with a large cloth would be hooked on to the scale as a cradle to weigh the baby. 

Lining the very bottom of this huge satchel in the 1950s was a large cardboard bound legal size folder containing manila envelopes, Bedside Record Book (VS-10), which served as patient notebook that was left with expectant mothers to document their progress, certificates for births and stillbirths, pre- and postpartum instruction sheets, and sharpened pencils protected by metal caps. The white apron, and white cap were her uniform. The crisply-starched uniform distinguished her from anyone in the community. None of these items were required before the 1950s and some were possibly not found in my Granny’s bag.

We are certain that in 1932, Granny had access to forms for documenting births because she signed my uncle John Brown’s Birth certificate on December 25, 1932. I do have a copy of that birth certificate. Any combination or derivative of these contents made a serious statement. Here was a smart, important person on official business. She was already often one of the few people in the community who could read and write well with comprehension. The folder confirmed much more than the literacy of the bearer. It validated her authority as the person to certify the arrival of a new human being, and guarantee his or her the future identity on this planet.

Also in the satchel were surplus supplies for the birth because Granny was forever cognizant that babies could come early and parents often couldn’t afford the items needed. This was the Deep South during,  some folks were only one generation out of slavery and still share cropping or working below wage coalmining jobs for their parents’ former enslavers. The supplies she did not see after several pre-delivery visits were just not going to be there at the time of delivery.  Thus the cute little bag that was only to contain the things that the midwife needed to do the job turned into a huge satchel that contained many other things including baby’s first clothes, diapers, receiving blankets and the all important item that appears again and again on the necessities list for midwives in impoverished communities: newspaper. 

Newspapers were essential to the process. It could be woven and fashioned into basins, pads, slippers, and baskets. Newspaper could be twisted and stuffed into holes between the wall planks in a cabin-style home for insulation or “chenching” to ensure the warmth of the mother and baby. If the family started asking white folks for old papers early       enough to ask white folks for old papers, there would be sufficient supply for the birth.

On Granny’s wagon, there was a stash of newspaper that was used if the family was unable to score any of this commodity before the birth. Granny had white folks saving newspapers for her all over the county. Granny’s detailed and precise preparations was just a part of her holistic welcome of a new human being within his or her context of her world. She paid attention to the entire family, and that allowed for a healthier and happier greeting for the new baby. Granny was the only medical professional for miles around. As such, she was both a character that welcomed life and sustained life of the baby and it's family.

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