Every Woman's Doctor Book (c. 1934)
The Every Woman’s Doctor Book dates from around 1934, though the exact date of publication (as well as the identity of the author) is unknown. It was published by The Amalgamated Press, a now-defunct London-based company that produced popular magazines, newspapers, and comic books, in addition to advice manuals such as this.
The book would have been one of many popular health manuals available in this period; even though health advice literature of this kind has a long history and was available long before the modern period, it became increasingly popular after the turn of the twentieth century as literacy rates became hugely improved, and printing and distribution costs became cheaper. While it is difficult to gauge exactly who looked to these manuals for advice, or the extent to which people actually took any of the advice on board, historians such as Peter Stearns and Jessamyn Neuhaus argue that they are still important sources for getting at social trends and patterns, and help us to understand how cultural norms were formed.
The book includes some general information regarding physiology and biology – for instance, illustrations depict the inner workings of the human body, the functions of the organs, and the reproductive systems of both men and women. It also contains lots of practical advice designed for wives and mothers to use in their caring role at home; readers are informed about the best ways to dress small wounds and scraped knees, make a sling, or remove splinters from a child’s finger, for example.
Like a lot of the popular medical advice aimed towards women in this period, much of the book focuses on marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. The author of the book advises women that, once she is in a ‘normal marriage’, sex with her husband should occur ‘once or twice weekly’ and that a child should be produced as soon as possible. Indeed, conceiving children is described as being hugely important as the author labels a ‘childless wife’ as being the ‘most pathetic figure in the world’. As the pictured text and illustrations (taken from a chapter titled ‘The Coming of a Baby’) show, women were told about what to expect from the different stages of pregnancy, as well as how to prepare for ‘the fear of the unknown’ surrounding childbirth. Its perhaps not surprising that a good deal of attention is also paid to the specifics of how best to raise a child – mothers are instructed in the best way to make up a baby’s bottle, how to wind and change them, how to wean them and feed them a healthy diet, and how to get them to sleep.
This manual therefore offers us a useful glimpse into ideas about women’s health, and the close links being drawn between ideas about ‘healthy’ women and maternity during this period. It also tells us a lot about expectations surrounding a woman’s role in the home more generally, particularly the importance of caring and home-making, as well as the idea that being a wife and mother was central to a woman’s identity. As Jodi Vandenberg-Daves has argued about similar texts in an American context, this kind of advice literature can also be used to help us understand the ways in which scientific and medical knowledge replaced expertise gained from personal experience as a voice of authority in everyday life in the modern period.
Looking for more sources?
The Hypatia Collection includes a number of contemporary advice texts relating to women’s health, particularly in the ‘health’ section. See, for example, Gladys M. Cox’s Women's Book of Health from 1933. There are also texts from different time periods; some of these, such as Pye Chavasse’s book on ‘Advice to Mothers’, are older than The Every Woman’s Doctor Book and date back to the nineteenth century; others, like Angela Phillips and Jill Rakusen’s ‘Our Bodies Ourselves’, are more recent and date from the 1970s and 80s.
There’s also material relating to family health and the provision of medical care at home more generally. There are advice post cards produced by the Red Cross, book-length guides like Alfred Fenning’s Every Mother's Book produced in the 1890s, and the 1924 book Everybody's Home Doctor, dedicated to providing ‘medical hints useful in emergencies and until the doctor comes’.
The collection also holds a considerable amount of material related specifically to the history of maternity and maternal health. In addition to secondary works charting the history of child-care advice, there are original copies of a number of child-rearing advice texts; these include (but are not limited to) ‘mothercraft’ manuals from 1920s and the 1940s, all the way up to advice for women expecting their first children in the 1980s.
Elsewhere, The Wellcome Library has a huge amount of resources relating to medical history, including other advice texts like the Every Woman’s Doctor Book. They are committed to digitising as much of their material as possible, and you can therefore view a host of advice texts from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries online through their website.