Pat's Reading Room

"The Plantation Mistress:
Woman's World in the Old South"

by Catherine Clinton

history professor at Harvard, PhD in American History from Princeton
published by Pantheon Books, NY, 1982

cup of java

One of many fascinating books that can be purchased at the shop at Stonewall Jackson's House in Lexington, Virginia - which is where I bought it. Dr. Clinton's text contains many statements that, taken out of context, may sound like too-simple generalizations. Reading the full text shows that these statements are conclusions she has drawn after extensive study. The book is well-documented from personal accounts from the early 1800's. It's fascinating reading. Here, perhaps a grim choice of topics to excerpt, but certainly of interest; and it gives a good idea of the material you can find in The Plantation Mistress.

These passages are quoted from:

Chapter VIII: "Precious and Precarious in Body and Soul"

Statistics bear out that while poor health was common in all of antebellum America, the South suffered especially seriously. Comparing two equal population regions from the 1860 United States census, mortality was higher in the South. District II (Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Minnesota), with a population of 1,725,843, lists 16,032 deaths, while District VII (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama), with a population of 1,504,190, records 37,094: the southern death rate was double. The particular hazards of the South come into sharper focus with a breakdown of categories: District II with 644 typhoid deaths versus District VII with 2,476; District II with 1,096 pneumonia fatalities versus District VII with 3,899; and - equally dramatic - 264 deaths in childbirth for District II versus 401 deaths in childbirth for southern women in District VII.

[Material here omitted.]

[Writing of childbirth] Apprehension clouded the joy of expectancy, for whenever a plantation mistress faced childbirth, she literally prepared to die. ..... In order to ensure safe and healthy pregnancies, some plantation mistresses continued to exercise, especially during the early months - a not uncommon medical practice during the early nineteenth century. 1847, chloroform finally began to be used to relieve the pain of childbirth. .... Confinement was a time of crisis for husband and wife alike. While women went through the pain and anxiety of delivery, expectant fathers feared the death of their spouses. Although a husband did not attend at the actual birth, he commonly tried to be at home for his wife's lying-in. Many planters believed their presence offered essential support for wives during childbirth.


Dr. George Hasell reported in his 'Lectures on Midwifery' that southern women bore children late into middle age, even citing an instance of motherhood at age fifty-four. [Hasell's lectures are at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston.]

Epidemics noted:

  • 1796, yellow fever in New Orleans, late August; it was reported that 200 out of a white population of 2500 died.
  • 1808, yellow fever on plantations in western Virginia.
  • 1820, yellow fever in New Orleans; 130 died in one week, according to a contemporary account.
  • Cholera reported on southern plantations in the 1830's without more specific information.
  • "Smallpox inoculations protected most children, but this preventive measure sometimes failed."

A touch of humor: discussing the popularity of sojourns to the various springs, Catherine Clinton tells us, "Some Southerners thought springs were a cure-all. Indeed one planter playfully described White Sulphur Springs:

`The water has the pleasant flavor of a half-boiled-half-spoiled egg and according to popular belief cures the following diseases. Yellow jaundice, white swelling, blue devils and black plague, scarlet fever, yellow fever, spotted fever and fever of every kind and colour; Hydrocephalas, Hydrothoras, Hydrocele and Hydrophobia, Hypochondria and Hypocrisy; Dispepsia, Diabetes, and die-of-anything, Gout and Grogging.'"

[Note that men outnumbered women 5:1 at the springs...].




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