“A spoonful of kerosene”: 150 years of parenting advice

The way we parent has changed a lot since Queen Victoria signed the Constitution Act in 1867. Here, we take you through a timeline of the good, the bad and the downright strange.

“A spoonful of kerosene”: 150 years of parenting advice

Cover of a 1958 issue of Chatelaine. Courtesy of Chatelaine.

To put it mildly, a lot has changed since Queen Victoria signed the Constitution Act in 1867. We’re no longer giving our kids cod liver oil and spanking is now a criminal offence. But while we haven’t gotten parenting completely figured out yet, a quick flip through the parenting manuals of yesteryear makes it clear just how much Canadian parents have changed in a century and a half. Here’s a timeline of the good, the bad and the downright strange.

The ‘Birth’ of a Nation: 1867 to the First World War The year was 1867. Virtually overnight, medicine had gone from leeches and bloodletting to vaccines and germ theory, thanks to medical pioneers such as Louis Pasteur and Florence Nightingale. It was the same in the parenting world, where midwives were rapidly losing ground to university-trained physicians. Spells and incantations were replaced by sterilized metal tools and big textbooks. Armed with brand new knowledge of vaccines, bacteria and natural selection, the parenting guides of the day adopted this mode of rational thinking.

1. No showers during pregnancy. According to English physician P.H Chavasse, whose widely popular books on parenthood were published around the world, “a shower in pregnancy give too great a shock and might induce a miscarriage,” making baths the order of the day.

2. Do not take long walks while pregnant. Medical professionals advised pregnant women to be extremely cautious: Long walks, horseback riding, sex, dancing and riding in a carriage over a bumpy road were all believed to induce miscarriages. (What they would think of Serena Williams, who just this year won the Australia Open while eight weeks pregnant?)

3. Mind over matter. It wasn’t enough to shield one’s body from the big, dangerous world, but the mind needed to be carefully safeguarded as well. Up until the mid-19th century, medical professionals believed in maternal impressions—the idea that a pregnant woman, by being startled or looking at ugly things, could directly transmit that experience onto her unborn child in the form of birthmarks or malformations.

4. …and the danger didn’t stop after birth. Doctors believed that impure thoughts and volatile emotions could poison a breastfeeding mother’s milk. Thus, it was best to avoid any situation that could upset a new mother. No wonder this period of a woman’s life was referred to as confinement.

5. Beer is OK though. For nursing mothers, “a moderate quantity of fresh mild ale or porter is the best beverage for dinner.” In the 19th century, this was pretty sound advice: Without nationwide access to clean drinking water, beer was the safest option.

6. A little kerosene should do the trick. Ask your grandmother—she might remember this one. For croup, Canadian physician B.G Jefferis recommends a spoonful of sugar (could that be what Mary Poppins meant?) with a few drops of kerosene, repeated until a full teaspoon of kerosene had been ingested. What about the common cold? Six to 10 drops of turpentine would stop a cold in its tracks. “We have used it for the past twenty-five years and always with good results,” wrote Jefferis.

Ad from Gossard & Co for maternity corsets Cozy quarters for baby, courtesy of Gossard & Co.

7. Lace up, ladies. Numerous doctors during the late 19th and early 20th centuries condemned the use of corsets, especially during pregnancy. But even as late as 1917, one could find advertisements for maternity corsets such as this in The Canadian Home Journal.

Chatelaine cover from 1933 with illustration of baby on it Courtesy of Chatelaine

The Interwar Years: 1919 to 1939 During the interwar period, dangerous theories such as eugenics were quickly gaining ground and to ensure that Canada’s next generation would be what Emily Murphy called “human thoroughbreds,” childrearing became a responsibility increasingly shouldered by the Canadian government. To guarantee uniformity among such a thinly spread population, in the ’20s, The Canadian Department of Health began publishing a series that would come to be known as the Little Blue Books, the most popular being The Canadian Mother’s Book, which opened with the statement: “The Government of Canada recognizes you as the Makers of Canada. No National Service is greater than the work of the Mother in her own home.” Yet, despite putting mothers on a pedestal, books published after the First World War differed from their Victorian counterparts in that during pregnancy and childbirth, a mother’s instinct was no longer deemed to be enough. The physician became a necessary part of the process, especially for new immigrants, who found themselves far away from their family and traditional networks of support.

8. Call the doctor! As birthing instructions and homemade remedies began disappearing from the pages of parenting guides, parents became more and more dependent on government-sanctioned institutions. And it shows: In 1926, 18 percent of births in Canada took place in a hospital. By 1940, that number had soared to 45 percent.

A young mother and her baby pictured in a 1934 issue of Chatelaine. A young mother and her baby pictured in a 1934 issue of Chatelaine. Courtesy of Chatelaine.

9. “Go Home, Young Woman!” said long-time Montreal mayor Martin Mederic in a 1933 issue of Chatelaine. He was referring to the multitudes of women who entered the workforce during WWI. “Wouldn’t life be happier,” Mederic wrote, “if many of these [unemployed] men could be given work, even if it meant that these woman would have to go home to be supported by their father, husband or brother as they were in the old pre-feministic days?”

10. Cry it out. In addition to strict feeding schedules and caloric requirements, experts advised a regimented sleep schedule as well. The Blue Books told mothers not to “pick up the baby every time he cries. This is the way to teach him to cry every time he wants amusement.”

Paediatrician Benjamin Spock American paediatrician Benjamin Spock in 1968. Photo: Wikicommons

The Booming Baby Business: 1950 to 1975 Following the Second World War, the nuclear family unit and gender roles became more rigid. As birth rates soared, the child-rearing industry boomed and brought with it children’s programming, books and a new style of parenting that valued instinct over regimentation. First published in 1946, American paediatrician Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care became a household staple. In a few short years, popular opinion had been flipped on its head. Rigid schedules gave way to flexibility and the sanctions on parental affection were lifted.


11. “You know more than you think you do.” These were the opening words of Spock’s bestselling book Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. He insisted that it was indeed “better to make a few mistakes from being natural than to do everything letter-perfect out of a feeling of worry.” It proved a refreshing departure from the demanding guides of old. Constant reliance on the physician and government waned as parents developed confidence in their own abilities and knowledge of their child.

12 Just the way you are. Instead of doling out love only when earned, Spock made the radical suggestion to “love and enjoy your children for what they are, and forget about the qualities they don't have”. During this period, parents began perceiving their children as individuals in their own right, with needs that could not be satisfied by a one-size-fits-all solution.

13. Treat yo’ self. While self-care might seem like the latest millennial fad, as early as the 1960s, people were realizing that an emotionally fulfilled parent was an essential part of the family. With media attention centered on the baby, it became easier for parents to forget to take care of themselves. “The tendency is for parents to consider the child at least as important as themselves—perhaps even potentially more important,” wrote Spock. Indeed, a household where parents lose their sense of identity to cater to their child’s every want is unlikely to be a happy one.

Page from a 1958 issue of Chatelaine, feature story called The Wife With a Job A feature story called "The Wife With a Job" from a 1958 issue of Chatelaine covered everything from how much education does a woman need to careers you can carry on after marriage. Courtesy of Chatelaine.

14. A working what?! Yes, a working mother. They existed, even though few publications were willing to admit it. Despite the percentage of working mothers with preschool-aged children rising from 19 percent in 1967 to 29 percent in 1973, you wouldn’t know it from reading the parenting literature. Nearly all books and articles were written under the assumption that the audience belonged to nuclear family units. By 1979, the tides had begun to shift (albeit marginally) with Chatelaine’s The Canadian Mother and Child citing women in the workplace as a potential factor in low breastfeeding rates.


Brave New World: 1980-1999 As Canada entered the digital age, parents were faced with the problem of raising families in a society that was fundamentally different from the one they grew up in. Video games, cell phones, the Internet—there was no rulebook for any of this. Parents had to decide for themselves to what extent technology should be a part of their child’s life. It proved a divisive topic, splitting parents into two camps: Those who embraced technology for its incredible educational potential and those who sought to restrict its use due to its risks. In the meantime, parenting guides began to focus their attention on families that have always existed but were seldom acknowledged—single parent households, LGBTQ parents and interracial families to name a few.

Book cover of Asha's Mums and picture from of Grade 1 teacher holding the book from the December 1998 issue of Chatelaine Left: Asha's Mums sparked controversy in Canada when it first was published. Courtesy of Women's Press. Right: Grade 1 teacher James Chamberlain defended Asha's Mums, among other books, before the "book ban" case went to the B.C. supreme court in. Courtesy of Chatelaine.

15. A “new” type of family. With alternative family units becoming more and more common (single parent households rose from 12 percent in 1981 to 19 percent by the new millennium), literature from the ‘80s and ‘90s began addressing the needs and issues unique to single parents, working mothers, and the LGBTQ community. Some of the most popular include The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook, Single Mothers by Choice and even The Single Father. Books for children began appearing on shelves as well, though not without a fight. In 1997, a school board in Surrey, B.C. attempted to ban Canadian-written Asha’s Mums from its libraries—a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled the ban unreasonable in 2002.

16. Dad exists too, you know. Parenting literature for dads also experienced a boost. Fathers were encouraged to be more involved in the lives of their children and take more responsibility with household chores, redefining masculinity in the modern age. Spock’s Baby and Child Care evolved with the times and eliminated exclusively female pronouns, urging fathers to “take on at least half of the management of children when you get home from work and on the weekends.”

17. The age of the Internet. Children born in the digital age would be the first to grow up with social media, cell phones and the Internet at their fingertips. One professional writing for Chatelaine recommended, “technology be part of a rich mix of games, puppets, books and loving adults, who help the child succeed in a nurturing environment. Via the Internet, they can interact with people all around the world, find a pen pal in Australia, ask an expert at NASA about the space shuttle, gaze at the Group of Seven paintings at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and travel virtually to all kinds of places they can't get to physically.” But for every article extolling the virtues of technology, there existed another condemning it as dangerous, and responsible for the “dumbing down” of an entire generation.


18. “Constant vigilance!” While famously attributed to Mad Eye Moody from the Harry Potter series, this could have easily been the catchphrase of the helicopter-parent of the ‘80s and ‘90s. With worldwide coverage of child abduction cases such as that of three girls by Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, parents were gripped with fear and children’s freedoms were severely curtailed. Despite the fact that crime had been steadily decreasing for several decades, parents felt it necessary to monitor their child’s every move both outside and online. Precautions that would have been considered excessive in the ’70s, like nanny cams, child leashes and home surveillance, became hot topics.

Mom carrying baby while lying down Photo: iStockphoto

The Twenty-First Century Parent Like their ’90s predecessors, parents in the 21st century continue to trail blaze uncharted territory like social media, cyber bullying and childhood obesity. With no tried-and-true method to navigate such uncertain waters, it’s more important than ever to trust our own instincts and lead by example. Of course, it goes without saying that hindsight is 20/20, and while we can’t predict what the parents of 2167 will say of us, there are a few things that always have been, and always will be true.

20. Some advice is timeless. At the end of the day, it’s every parent’s goal to do right by their child and bring them up to be thoughtful, engaging individuals with something to contribute to the world. Though parenting styles have fluctuated from one extreme to another over the past century and a half, it has always been motivated by the same desire. Even our friend P.H. Chavasse, writing in the 1870s, had this to say to parents: “make sure your child understands that you love them; prove it in your actions—these are better than words; look after their little pleasures, join in their little sports. Let love be their pole-star; let it be the guide and the rule of all you do and say to them.”


This article was originally published on Jun 01, 2019

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