A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Paperback, 1991


Checked out
Due Jun 16, 2024


Vintage (1991), Edition: Reprint, 444 pages


Drawing on the diaries of one woman in eighteenth-century Maine, this intimate history illuminates the medical practices, household economies, religious rivalries, and sexual mores of the New England frontier. Between 1785 and 1812, a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in twenty-seven years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine. On the basis of that diary, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich gives us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society. At once lively and impeccably scholarly, A Midwife's Tale is a triumph of history on a human scale.


(266 ratings; 4.1)

User reviews

LibraryThing member mckait
This book is rather complicated. With excerpts from Martha's diary, we are treated to a peek at life in Hallowell Maine from 1785-1812. Part of what fascinated me was the use of herbal remedies, and other resources close to hand.

In years past I have done a bit of study into these things myself, and
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was intrigued by how and what herbs were used by this woman who was midwife and doctor, nurse and friend to the women in her community. He usual fee was 6 pence, but she was often paid in goods or service and often according to the means of the family she visited. One family might pay nothing, and Martha would forgive the debt, just to see the woman brought to bed with her child safely and in good health for both. Another family would take pride in paying her very handsomely with goods and money far beyond what she requested.

Martha made her way to these families in the best and the worst of circumstances. A winters night might find her plowing through waist high snow on foot. Another early morning might find her ensconced in a carriage and carried by this means to her door. This, as you can imagine was a rare event. Far more often is was on foot or horseback.

It was common in those days for women to give birth every two years. This ensured that the family would have help needed to maintain their independence, as each child soon learned tasks that helped to provide the family with support of one kind or another. What tasks learned depended mostly upon the gender of the child, and the business of the family.

The research done by Ulrich provides us with a much broader view than we would have been given by Martha's diary alone. Comparisons are made to other towns, other locations regarding births, deaths and family occupation. IT is explained in simple terms how one family's reliance on other family's for
use of needed tools or trade was key to their survival. One family might weave and trade the cloth for wool. It seems to me that if we had to rely on others more these days we might try a little harder to be nicer to each other.

This is not to say that Martha's time was without local conflicts. For instance it was not uncommon for the head of the house to be jailed for debts. This would put his family into a very difficult and embarrassing situation.

Something else that interested me and also reminded me of another book was the relationship between the midwife and the male Doctor. In the beginning things were a lot simpler and there was a great deal of cooperation between doctor and midwife. As time passed, the doctors began to feel and act in a superior manner. Eventually midwives found themselves in a much inferior position to the doctor. These things are mentioned by the author more so than by Martha. Her account is more mundane, and lends itself to the simple daily activities of the families. She kept her house, raised her family and kept local birth and death records, as well as some rather gossipy accounts of who was getting up to no good around the town.

Without Martha's careful accounting there would be little record of the families of that time. There would have been no history for her own family of the triumphs and turmoils and moves and local history involving their ancestors.
This is undoubtedly a book of history, and should be considered so by any thinking of reading it. There are plenty of dates and dry patches, but it was interesting to me none the less.

If the topic of midwifery interests you, you might want to give it a read.. or if the history of Maine is what draws you in, this might be a book for you. I confess that it was much more of a history book then I expected, but I was determined to carry on . I am glad I did, but this one will not make it to my reread shelf.
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LibraryThing member d.homsher
A study of the life of an eighteenth-century midwife, Martha Ballard, in Hallowell, Maine, on the Kenebec River, based on her diary.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich studied the diaries of one of her ancestors, a talented, dedicated, tireless midwife in Maine, who lived during the late 1700s. Ulrich weaves
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excepts from the diaries with her own interpretations of the historical situation, based on extensive research. Wonderful book! The best sort of women's history.
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LibraryThing member danichols
This pathbreaking, Pulitzer-prize-winning book is a study of the life, labor, and social connections of a rural midwife, Martha Ballard, based on her manuscript diary in the Maine State Library. A MIDWIFE'S TALE changed the way historians researched and wrote women's history. In the 1970s and '80s,
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students of women's history primary focused on the records of literate, middle- and upper-class women, and defined their lives as a struggle against the strictures of a patriarchal society. Ulrich, by contrast, chose to study the life of a modestly-educated woman of limited means, and to describe her daily business rather than her conflicts with others. She found that women like Ballard enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy, even power, in early American society: they sold homespun, garden crops, and dairy goods to neighbors; commanded the labor of their daughters and of boarding teenagers from neighboring households; and, in the case of midwives, presided over the rituals of birth and life. (Martha Ballard fulfilled these latter tasks quite well, losing only 19 babies from the 814 births she attended, and providing medical care to dozens of her neighbors). Ulrich's book reminds us that in history, "the petty struggles and small graces of ordinary life" (p. 343) were as important as longer-term struggles for legal equality and citizenship. A note for readers: while the early chapters of Ulrich's book can be slow going, the latter half of the book includes many exciting episodes, including a mass murder and a violent rural insurgency.
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LibraryThing member Scapegoats
Ulrich writes an amazingly detailed history of one small region in Maine during the late 18th and early 19th century. She bases the book around the diary of a mid-wife named Martha Ballard. The diary itself is remarkably terse, but Ulrich makes use of a variety of sources to supplement the diary
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and provide context. The amount of detail she provides makes the book slow to read, but gives an excellent picture of early American society in this rural society in Maine.
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LibraryThing member brewergirl
This isn't a book with an exciting or compelling storyline. It took some dedication to read it, but it was fascinating. I've never had the discipline to keep a journal but I appreciate the consistency of Martha Ballard's diary ... as well as the discipline it took to decipher it and place it in the
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larger context of her community.
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LibraryThing member rowmyboat
This is a work of non-fiction, based on a diary kept by a midwife in Maine from 1785 to 1812. I heard about the book in my intro to archives class, during my first semester at library school. I gave my mom a copy for Christmas that year, and picked up a copy for myself just a few weeks ago at the
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League of Women Voters annual book sale here.

It is not a transcription of the diary itself, but each chapter starts with a selection from the diary. See, the diary itself is not a terribly exciting read, and most readers would miss the important aspects. The spelling and grammar is not standardized at all. Entries are between a couple sentences to a paragraph long.

Ulrich's background information and commentary on the diary is the interesting part. She explains what Martha is writing about, and makes connections of information and themes throughout the years. She has kept all the generations of John Shaws straight for us, and provided an index and copious notes.

The most valuable part of this book, I think, is the description of sexual morals and reality in the new United States -- and thus probably also England -- at the turn of the 19th century. We think of the people of the thirteen colonies that formed the U.S. as Puritans, and we probably draw most of our assumptions about their sexuality from The Scarlet Letter and the like. According to Martha Ballard's dairy and Ulrich's research, this idea we have are not really accurate.

In reality, according to Martha and Ulrich, premarital sex was the norm, though not really talked about. Judging by the date of women's first children, a lot of women get married after they were already pregnant, some getting married very shortly before their babies were born. 38% of the first babies Martha delivered were conceived out of wedlock. 38%! Of these, about three quarters of the mothers married the fathers. The law gave unwed mothers opportunity to sue for child support -- and, unlike today, the powers that be were pretty happy with this, as it forced men to take responsibility for their actions.

In Martha's own family, her son Jonathan was forced to marry a young woman after the woman had given birth to her and Jonathan's child. As the midwife, Martha had the sticky place of helping the young woman in childbirth, and being a main enforcer of the social norms of marriage as well. All in all, as long as you got married before, or even shortly after, a child was born, it was ok. Aside from Jonathan, two of Martha's other children also were pregnant/had a pregnant partner before their weddings.

Also, the wedding itself was not terribly important, aside from making everything legal and religious. The date that is celebrated and commemorated is the one a couple "goes to housekeeping," that is, the day they move in together. This day might be several weeks, maybe even a month or two after the actual marriage. In the intervening time, the couple would visit each other at their parents' houses, spend overnights, and finish collecting the things they would need to set up house. But, the days and weeks leading up to the wedding looked much the same, with the groom-to-be visiting his affianced in her parents' house, and often spending the night. In Martha's diary, the weddings of her children and nieces barely gets mentioned among all the other goings on.

Another interesting aspect is the discussion of the changes in medical practice going on at the time. Medicine was becoming more professionalized, and male doctors were taking over many of the functions that female practitioners had long been performing. The men were also blending a more emergency, interventionist approach to medicine into the women's kind of routine care. All this is especially visible in Martha's field of midwifery. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the men's way of doing things did not produce much better results than the women's, and in some cases the women's produced better results. Martha, for example, lost very few patients in her many years of practicing.

I highly recommend this book for those interested in women's history, history of the early United States, or medical history. That it is based on, and transcribes parts of, a primary document makes it especially valuable.

There is also a movie, which works a lot like the book. We see Ulrich working with the manuscript, hear parts of the diary being read, and see very accurate reenactments of what the diary discusses.
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LibraryThing member Mipper
This is one of my favorite books, probably for its complexity in addition to the general topic. If you are looking for a romanticized book about life at the time of the Revolutionary War, look elsewhere. What caught me about this book was the painstaking research that went into it - and the fruits
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of that research are tremendous. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich dissects Martha Ballard's diary and compares it to other sources from the period giving a picture of life at the time. Some of the most interesting aspects, to me, were the lives of the women (which is usually not well documented, historically), the beginning use of physicians for childbirth and the incredible connection between the people, the environment and the society of the time. A great book.
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LibraryThing member jeanfeldeisen
This book was marvelous. It was based on the midwife's diary but took parts of it and used it as background for a sociological and historical study of her life and times. I found it fascinating. It has inspired me to keep a regular diary again, (though I am no midwife) but was touched by the story
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her terse but reliable entries told.
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LibraryThing member dhelmen
History and material culture through personal narrative and biography. Ulrich brings us into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and into rural new england through Martha Ballards life.
LibraryThing member emmelisa
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is a historian's historian, and a gifted writer. Not only has she brought to light a marvellous document of life in America's past, she has also used her considerable scholarship to add depth and clarity to what would otherwise be an obscure journal of an unknown woman.
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Reading it, you are so caught up in the lucid way in which she highlights the details of Martha's story that it is easy to miss the incredible amount of research, study, and analysis that made it all possible. An impressive and important accomplishment, and a wonderfully readable book.
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Terrific social history work which examines the life of a typical American woman in the early Federal period through her diary. Wonderfully written and illuminating this is a must-read for anyone interested in American history beyond the typical "great men" stories.
LibraryThing member auntieknickers
This is one of the most important works in both women's history and Maine history for the post-Revolutionary period.
LibraryThing member missdarla
Martha Ballard's diary gives a unique insight into the life of women, and in particular, the life of a woman who helps to bring new babies into the world. This book doesn't read like a novel, these are her diary entries with additional descriptive text to help you follow along. I found it
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LibraryThing member Carolfoasia
I was fascinated by the personal history of this woman. It gave me great insight into post-Revolutionary War New England life. I was shocked at the percent of pre-marital pregnancies (38%)!
LibraryThing member GennaC
An intimate look at the life of a 18th-century midwife, healer, housewife, and mother in rural Maine. Drawing on the seemingly bare diary entries of Martha Ballard, Ulrich paints an honest and vivid picture of the work of women throughout a period in history when they were considered unremarkable
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and their influence was often overlooked.
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LibraryThing member rosinalippi
This carefully composed, beautifully written edition of Martha Ballard's diary is one of those rare books written by a historian for a law audience that really does what it sets out to do. Ulrich took challenging material that many male historians had simply put aside as intrinsically of no
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interest or importance, and mined gold.
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LibraryThing member NatalieSW
Excellent use of a rare diary of a woman, a self-described "gadder" — a woman who leaves home frequently to interact with neighbors — and a woman whose medical work impinged on the very separate world of men. The writing is fluid and fascinating, neither pedantic nor glib; Ms. Ulrich offers
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questions where questions are all we can have and suggests possibilities where she has support from within Ballard's diary or from other sources. Her footnotes are great, and support rather than interfere with the text if you're a reader who prefers to read the entire chapter/ book and then look at attributions, explanations, etc. I really enjoyed this book, and learned a lot from it.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
Sometimes I need more than 5 stars to review a book, this is one. Fascinating book revealing life on the edge at the beginning of white America. Every day every action, every death, every birth, every sickness, all for the good Lord willing it or allowing it. What a hard life they lived. Every step
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they took was basically fraught with peril - having a baby could easily mean death, crossing thru the woods to your neighbors house could result in a fall and death...
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LibraryThing member reader1009
nonfiction/women's economic & social history (1780s-1810s in Maine).
These pulitzer winners are always so meticulously researched; here is a woman's life (the grandmother of Clara Barton) as reconstructed through primary sources. Not all the chapters are going to be interesting to all readers, but a
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lot of it was for me.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
This is an amazing book that I highly recommend. It's non-fiction based on a diary written by a midwife living in Maine at the end of the 18th century. Thatcher starts each chapter with 2-4 weeks of diary entries. These are generally 1-4 sentences describing the weather, how she felt, what she did
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(spun wool, planted beans, etc.), and if she delivered any babies she'd account for how she got there, how the mother and child did, and when she got paid. It is 27 years of a daily account of her life which can sound rather mundane, but Thatcher pulls an amazing amount of information out of this diary. She covers everything: midwife practices, the shift from midwives to doctors, a history of the settlement of Maine, a local murder, a local rape and the court proceedings that followed, debtors prisons, family relations, and the role of women in the local economy. As a midwife, Martha Ballard presided over more than 800 deliveries, only losing one mother. While Thatcher explores all of these topics through Martha's words, she never loses Martha's voice. This is so worth reading!
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LibraryThing member kcollett
Diary of a midwife in Hallowell, Maine; daily entries give insight into the life of the community, particularly the women’s economic network that is missing from histories; explicated by Ulrich. The diary itself is fascinating, not because what Martha Ballard was doing was extraordinary, but
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because it wasn't--for rural Maine in 1800. And then there are Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's careful and thorough notes about how Martha's words fit in with what else we know about the society. One of the things I remember most from when I read it is the existence of a whole sub-economy that operated among the women--which was evidently completely invisible to the men's notions of the economic system--or at least to history, until now.
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LibraryThing member creynolds
Generally pretty interesting information about a woman's life in the late 1700s-early 1800s based on her diary. My only criticism is that I think the author sometimes treated her interpretations of what was going on as facts. Nevertheless, it's amazing to see how demanding life was for Martha
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Ballard as a midwife in Maine, and it was also fascinating to learn more about the flow of the community -- so much has changed in the time since. There was much more visiting back and forth than I would have imagined. Also, notions that premarital sex was rare to nonexistent are wrong, but also our image that only women were punished for out of wedlock births. In fact, the community encouraged the women to name the fathers and then demanded that the fathers marry the women and be responsible for the children. Finally, very familiar familial conflicts were normal then as well as now -- children not living up to their parents' expectations, jealously or bickering between people, and even mass murder (a father killed his family and then himself).
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LibraryThing member juniperSun
This book is very interesting way to learn about everyday life in America in the late 1700's-early 1800s. The extracted diary entries themselves are not that interesting; it is Ulrich's extrapolation of events in Martha's life that makes it so. She ties in information from other entries not
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presented, writings from other contemporaries (usually men), and historical documents to make a cohesive subject. Each chapter seems to develop a specific theme, e.g. medical practice, crime & punishment, marital customs, gardening, local economy and women's contributions, the rebellion of squatters trying to settle land owned by a major corporation. It countered my current assumptions that "women weren't educated" or "women with children out of wedlock were shunned".
While I didn't read all the diary extracts, looking at Martha's spelling was quite interesting and made me wonder that maybe the current theory of encouraging young students to write without regard to spelling might be an excellent way to get them to express themselves.
I hope that Ulrich left a transcript of the diary with the Maine Historical Society for future researchers use.
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0679733760 / 9780679733768
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