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If it happens, it's usually at home

By Henry Timman • Sep 28, 2018 at 12:00 PM

In a recent issue of Discover Norwalk magazine, I mentioned that in the 19th century (and well into the 20th, too) most family events took place at home. That is, home was the setting for births, marriages, sicknesses, death and funerals. The only sure exception was in Catholic families where marriages and funerals generally took place in the parish church. Very rarely was a Protestant ceremony held in the person’s church.

There are a number of easily-discerned reasons for these customs, if you think about it. The roads were almost impassable at some times of the year; the only transportation was by horse power, or oxen power in the early days; and in pioneer times there were few church buildings to have a ceremony in, anyway.

Instead, the weddings usually were at the bride’s home, with a clergyman officiating, if one was available. If not, the nearest justice of peace would officiate. A lengthy reception might follow with dining and dancing lasting much of the night. By the 1840s, it became fashionable for the couple to go to the county seat, obtain their marriage license and be married in the parlor of one of the hotels in the town. I don’t know whether their families came along as witnesses, or if they simply returned home with the appropriate paperwork. I’m sure that sometimes this style of marriage took place due to objections from the bride’s parents.

Babies were born at home for obvious reasons, one being that there were no hospitals with maternity units. I don’t know when the first hospital opened in Ohio, but I know Norwalk didn’t have any sort of medical facility until near 1900. Sometimes an indigent woman would go to the county infirmary to give birth and stay for a few days after. Sometimes she left with her baby; other times it was placed in a foster home or for adoption by the infirmary directors.

Expectant mothers seldom had pre-natal consultations with a physician. When the time arrived, a doctor was sent for; he delivered the baby (if he arrived in time); and that was that. My grandmother told of a neighbor of her family in the 1880s who delivered her own children without having a physician present at all.

Infant mortality was high before the 20th century, one reason being that physicians and midwives didn’t understand sanitation and the value of frequently washing one’s hands and cleaning one’s instruments. In case you don’t know what a midwife was (and is), she was a lady who specialized in assisting at births and then assisted the new mother and baby for a few days.

Every neighborhood had persons skilled in first aid and sick room care. Usually these were women who were known as Mothers in Israel. They were on call at any time to tend to the sick, soothe the dying and help prepare the dead for burial. The happiest part of their free service had to be when they carried out a successful birth and saw a thriving new baby.

When a person did pass away, they often were prepared for burial at home, especially if the funeral director was from some distance away and the roads were bad. The funeral was then held at home with burial usually in the nearest cemetery. Some 200 people attended a home funeral near North Fairfield in the 1890s. As you can imagine, they didn’t all have a seat. Usually the women sat and the men stood. The beds were taken down in the downstairs bedrooms and all the furniture that could be was carried upstairs to make more room.

One reason there would be big crowds was that most people were farmers and self-employed and could turn out for a funeral on a weekday. A popular young mother died in Hartland Township about 1890, and her funeral was to be held at St. Paul Catholic Church in Norwalk. The procession started from the family home on Jericho Road and when the hearse reached the West Harland church on Zenobia Road, the funeral director stood up and looked back and buggies were still turning off Jericho Road — 1.25 miles to the east. That was a long procession.

Another health matter often dealt with at home was surgery. Sheets would be boiled and hung up around the dining room. The patient would be placed on the table, anesthetic administered and the operation performed. This procedure was used especially when the nearest railroad was too far away to move the patient to it to go to Toledo or Cleveland to a hospital. Many times the patient was taken to the nearest railroad crossing where by prior arrangement the train was stopped, the patient loaded on, and taken to a hospital. Actually, about the only surgeries performed in those days were the removal of tumors and appendicitis. With the latter, they usually waited too long, and the patient didn’t survive the resultant peritonitis.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form.


Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.


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