‘For her, living was to be measured in doing. Nothing was trivial.’ – A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 – 1812

July 5, 2010 at 1:55 am (Book review, books, History)

In the early 1700s, Cotton Mather refers to the women of New England, noted for their piety, as “the Hidden Ones.” But, as author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observes, “In real life,…women weren’t hidden at all. They fed travelers, bargained with neighbors, and moved about their towns at will, on horseback, in canoes, or afoot.” But, she adds, ” in one sense they were hidden, even in Martha’s diary. Women, to use a Biblical metaphor, performed their works under a bushel; men’s candles burned on the hill.”

One is tempted to add that in the annals of history, until quite recently, it was ever thus…

For Martha Ballard of Hallowell, Maine, the diary is the sole thing that rescues her, as a distinct individual, from complete obscurity. And yet, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich tells us: “Those few historians who have known about the diary have not known quite what to do with it.”  The document is filled not only with her experiences as a midwife but also with the details of her labors in her house and in her  beloved garden As such, there has been a tendency to regard it as not being particularly germane to historical inquiry. As recently as the 1970s, a work entitled Lying-In: A History of Childbirth in America had this to say about it: “‘Like many diaries of farm women, it is filled with trivia about domestic chores and pastimes.’

Ulrich’s book stands as a corrective to that dismissive assessment:. In her introduction, she avers that “…it is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies.”

Each chapter of A Midwife’s Tale begins with a section from the diary. The spelling and capitalization are eccentric, but that was not unusual for the time. Dating from 1809, here are some sample entries:

‘1  2  At John Shaws. Birth 2nd. June 16 receivd 7s and 6d of Mr Shaw.
Clear. I was Calld about midnight to John Shaws wife who is in Labour. Shee was safely delivered at 8 hour this morning of her 2nd child and daughter. I returned home about noone. Mr. Ballard went to Town meeting. Magr Samuel Howard was chosen to represent the Town in general Coart.
Birth John Shaws daughter [illegible]

2  3  At home. Feel unwell. Patty T Came here.
Clear. I have been doing work about my soap. Feel very feeble. My husband been to Hallowell. Came here at Evening.

3  4 At home Daughter Ballard sent us 4  1/4 lb. chees.
Clear and warm. I have helpt do my hous work. Patty washt andd Cleand bed rooms. We removd Cyrus Bed and Chest up Chamber. Mrs Smith and Brooks Calld here. Inform me Mrs Mosier is very sick.

4  5 At Daughter Lambards and Mr Mosiers.
Cloudy and some rain. I went to Daughter Lambards. Calld to see Mrs Mosier. Find her very sick.

5  6   At Daughter Lambards. To Lecture & son Ephraims.
Rained part of the day. I went to Lecure from Daughter Lambards. From there to son Ephraims. Sleep there.

And on and on it goes, delivering babies, tending the sick, visiting family members and friends and  receiving them at home, and endless housework: moving furniture, making soap, and endlessly cooking and cleaning. In the midst off this endless round of hard work, Martha records that she feels “very feeble.”  And wherefore should she not? She is 74 years of age or thereabouts, and has three more years to live. But age and feebleness are no excuse: she is still assisting with household tasks, some of them quite arduous. The weather is always of great concern. Will she be able to reach her patients? (These include not only women in labor put anyone who is sick or injured and in need of the hand of a healer.) And in the precious summer months, there is the unremitting care of the garden that provides for friends and family.

Read  A Midwife’s Tale and you will encounter the contradictions and strangeness of rural America in its early years. You will meet people who are kind, considerate, and compassionate, for whom no trouble is too great when it comes to helping family, neighbors, and friends. You will also encounter cruelty, rape, and murder. (And wait till you read about the Purrinton family – what a shocker!) You will learn the fascinating history of medical practice in the early days of the republic. You will find yourself with Martha Ballard as she attends an autopsy. But most of all, you’ll travel back and forth, to and fro, across the Kennebec River and back again, as the intrepid midwife delivers baby after baby – 816 in all!

This book is the story of a life lived and a land transformed. It is a remarkable chronicle of perseverance and ultimate triumph. I feel deeply grateful to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Professor of History at Harvard University, for bringing Martha Ballard so vividly to life. It’s a quintessentially American story, and I’m especially pleased to be posting this on the evening of  July 4, just as the fireworks are starting to go off.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for A Midwife's Tale


  1. Thomas at My Porch said,

    I enjoyed reading this back in grad school.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for the comment, Thomas. I like My Porch very much & have added it to my blogroll.

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