What Motherhood Really Looked Like (20 Vintage Pics)

Motherhood is often taken for granted. While getting pregnant and giving birth are natural processes, becoming a mother is a unique and emotional experience. Mothers are special and parenting styles vary between families and cultures.

Nevertheless, modern mothers have some things in common: they can decide on the number of kids they want, they can create their own birth plan, they can work, and they can leave their husband if the family environment is not safe for them or their kids. On top of that, millennial moms are social divas who spend lots of time online, seeking advice, blogging and posting about their travels around the world.

While motherhood today is still tiring and demanding, motherhood has changed a lot over the past century. In fact, mothers are no longer a target of humiliation and hate, expect of those notorious mommy wars. In contrast, at the beginning of the 20th century, as historian Stephanie Coontz said, "There was this tremendous attack on old-fashioned mothers who expected all this reverence just for being moms."

From the devastating consequences of the WWI and WWII to the suffragette and hippie movements, mothers fought to denote their maternal role as well as human rights. Let’s have a look at 20 vintage pictures that show what motherhood really looked like.

20 Victorian America

One of the most influential eras throughout the world was the Victorian period. In fact, according to www.victorian-era.org, the influence of the Victorian era in the US was evident after the Civil War. Motherhood was a central aspect. Queen Victoria had nine children, so motherhood, including the burden of intercourse and labor, became a model of marital virtue.

However, as we can see from the picture above, back then, a woman’s status was lower than her husband’s position in life. On top of that, many poor women had to carry the burden of repeated pregnancies as well as unequal work to supplement their family’s earnings. Sadly, many pregnant women became servants, knitters, and mistresses.

19 The History of Maternity Wear

From heavy dresses with layered folds to tiny corsets to hide a woman’s condition - aka pregnancy - the evolution of maternity clothing throughout the centuries was astonishing. In fact, it represents the attitudes towards women and pregnancy in general. According to the Elle magazine, it was in the 1920s when expectant women could finally leave restrictive silhouettes and social pressure in the past. As an ad in Good Housekeeping said, "Be entirely free from embarrassment of a noticeable appearance."

As we can see from the vintage picture above, American pregnant women in the 1920s could enjoy comfortable drop-waist dresses and trendy accessories all at the same time.

18 The First World War

Although the 20th century brought numerous social changes which benefited women and mothers, the world faced lots of devastating events. The WWI shook Europe and the rest of the world. Although when we think of battles, we think of soldiers and gunpowder, we should remember that mothers were a moving force.

According to americanhistory.si.edu, mothers played a vital role in society. Mothers participated in recruitment encouraging their children to join the army, raised funds to support the government, and became memory keepers left with the task of memorializing the loss of life. As we can see from the touching picture above, the family was a sacred unit and mothers had to keep its holiness intact.

17 Scars And Loss

The devastating consequences of WWI tore families apart. During the war, men and women fought together to survive. Nevertheless, the end of the war was as scary as the actual war: mothers had to deal with poverty, famine, and discrimination to help their children survive. The European economy collapsed.

As we can see from the heartbreaking picture above, people lost their homes and savings and had to rebuild their world and sanity. Nevertheless, while Europe was recovering from the war, the influence of the US increased. As a result, American women started to shape the world for women - all of us.

16 The Wind Of Change

Since girls and mothers embraced male occupations in factories, propaganda, and military services, some women had no desire to go back to pre-war conditions. As millions of men were recovering from the physical and emotional traumas they suffered, society became more tolerant towards women.

Yet, even the war couldn’t erase all the gender stereotypes and inequality which have ruled the world for thousands of years. So, in the 1920s, it was the women’s suffragette movement that helped girls, women, and mothers gain the respect they deserved. Women were no longer baby-makers; they were finally free individuals who could study, work, vote, and change the world.

15 Poor Me, Pour Me Another

The US Prohibition of Alcohol (1920-1933) was another crucial event that helped women and mothers establish their social role in the world. Many mothers and housekeepers believed that the prohibition of alcohol would erase social problems, such as domestic violence and divorce. The reality was different, though: the Prohibition only led to terrible crime, corruption, and secret drinking.

As a result, according to the womensmuseum.wordpress.com, women’s organizations were determined to repeal the notorious 18th amendment. As we can see from the vintage picture above, women were mobilized to change their world and fight for a better future for their children.

14 Far From Home

It’s not a secret that immigration has always been a source of population growth and cultural diversity. The history of the immigration to the US is also fascinating: the New World has always been a symbol of hope and dreams. While some people managed to succeed and live the American dream, many families had to deal with prejudices, language issues, and poverty. Did you know that at the beginning of the 20th century some scientists claimed that the American intelligence was declining due to immigration?

As we can see from the picture above, life for mothers who immigrated to the US was not a walk in the park: multiple pregnancies, work outside the home, and cultural shock.

13 White Supremacy

It wasn’t only immigrants who had to face numerous obstacles. Some racial groups also had to deal with prejudices, violence, and unfair policies. Actually, according to bl.uk, in some parts of the US women were unable to exercise full political rights. As we can see from the picture above, women had to constantly fight for equality.

When it comes to the brutality of white supremacy, African-American women became a moving force which mobilized the black community. After the loss of Emmett Till, his mother insisted on an open casket to show his body, which mobilized people. Then, it was brave Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a bus, which shook the whole country.

12 Single Moms

Although women had to endure the burden of multiple births and unequal rights, governments refused to admit that women were equal members of society. Sadly, even now, women and men are still not seen as equal. With no access to health care and financial support, many women found themselves giving birth out of wedlock. Single moms were stigmatized by society, so women were forced to seek alternative options: illegal and dangerous abortions, adoption, and secret homes.

As we can see from the picture above, marriage could help many families escape from social judgment. Interestingly enough, bridal wear was completely different back then.

11 Dark Times

The ghosts of the WWII will never leave our world. According to BBC, when WWII broke out, women and men fought together. As in WWI, women were no longer housewives - they were active members of society, fighting against fascism and madness.

Yet, after the war, women had to go back to their pre-war reality and become good mothers and obedient wives. As we can see from the picture above, women in the 1950s had to be beside their husbands. Nevertheless, mothers had already told their daughters that there was a whole new universe out there, so it’s no surprise that the 1960s were marked by the rise of feminist groups.

10 Many Faces

WWII was marked by madness and people’s choices was a new, scary thing reality. As in every war, nothing was only black and white. According to thoughtco.com, since men were more likely to become targets of suspicion, women (including mothers) could easily become spies, traitors, and resistance fighters.

The world couldn’t recover easily from the War. Sadly, the post-war reality became a misogynistic carnival where victims became targets. Thousands of women who were forced to sleep with German soldiers to provide for their families were punished and humiliated. As we can see from the picture, many French mothers had their heads shaved and humiliated.

9 ... And Counting

While Europe and the rest of the world were recovering from the scars of the War, the US and the USSR started a new carnival of madness: the Cold War. Propaganda and fear made the family an essential unit where one could find peace and safety. According to standford.edu, many people moved outside the cities and American women became homemakers again. The government reinforced gender stereotypes and fear.

As we can see from the picture above, American families, especially in rural areas, were big. Women had two crucial roles: to endure multiple pregnancies and, of course, to make sure their sons and daughters were not "communists".

8 Rainbows And Flowers

While the West and the East were constantly competing with propaganda games and spy conspiracies, the hippie movement (60s-70s) slowly became the most popular counter-cultural movement, which stood against the traditional American life. Many girls and boys realized that propaganda and fear meant only pain, obedience, and hatred. As a result, more and more young people got involved in political protests and social movements, spreading peaceful messages and free love.

People were experimenting with substances and pleasure, of course. Many babies were raised by young and single mothers. Nevertheless, there were numerous hippie communities where mothers and children could find support and understanding.

7 Spirituality & Motherhood

Although hippie mothers and fathers believed they were meant to change the world, many people were simply experimenting with substances and got involved in hedonistic rituals. People realized that the government failed them despite their protests and sacrifices, so many hippies just dedicated their lives to traveling and partying.

Young mothers knew that their job was not only to bear and rear children. Quite the opposite: many got involved in mysticism, cults, and communes. As we can see from the picture above, men and women started searching for answers within themselves, focusing on their own needs. As a result, the "Me" generation slowly replaced the hippie movement.

6 Punky Mom

Since the hippies couldn’t save the world, many young people rejected the hippie counter-culture of the 1960s and decided to explore the secrets of the punk subculture which emerged in the 1970s. Rebellion, crazy hair, anarchism, and Dr. Martens boots - young punks had a lot to say to the world and the governments that failed their dreams.

Punk mothers could not care less about social pressure, American conspiracies, family virtues, and maternity clothes. With or without long hair, moms knew they had the power to change the world and create a better place for their kids. Just look at the picture above!

5 What A World!

Bonnie Taylor, Prince, Eurhythmics, Journey, Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, and so on and on - the 1980s were simply a lively source of cool music and unique entertainment. Perhaps the best aspect of this era was the fact that mothers of the 1980s and 1990s were rarely in competition.

A mom told babble.com, "We have access to so many choices and information now than we used to. Then you go and look on Facebook and see people having fun and doing all this stuff and you start to feel like you should be doing those things too instead of sitting and home enjoying a barbecue." Just look at the picture above and think about it: family time meant more than the Internet back then!

4 Working Mama

Modern mothers travel, work outside the home, spend lots of time online, and as we can see from the picture above, have lots of fun with their kids. According to livescience.com, more than 60% of moms with kids under six and 80% of moms with older kids work outside the home. In comparison, in the 1950s, 19% of moms with kids worked outside the home.

At the same time, parents today spend more time with their kids than in the past. According to a recent study, in the 1960s mothers spent 10 hours a week on childcare, and dads only 2.5 hours.

3 The Magic of Life

Childbirth has changed a lot in the past century. From pain management to women’s expectations, women tend to have fewer children than decades ago. As we can see from the picture above, maternity wards have also changed.

The pain of childbearing is still one of the main maternal concerns. According to bellybelly.com.au, anesthesia became popular after Queen Victoria used ether during labor. At the beginning of the 19th century, mothers turned to "twilight sleep" – the practice of using substances to provide pain relief and erase the memories of birth. After the 1960s, though, doctors became more aware of the issues associated with heavy anesthesia and women reclaimed their autonomy in the process – so natural birth became popular again.

2 Powerful Women

It’s not a secret that women had to fight for their rights in order to lead a normal life. In medieval England, for example, even royal mothers struggled to find their way and help their kids survive. According to royalcentral.co.uk, despite their secret battles to survive, the women behind the Crown have shaped people’s future and motherhood itself. As stated above, Queen Victoria used ether during labor, which led to better pain management today.

No doubt Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, is also an influential figure. Just look at her powerful smile! In fact, in 2015, she became the longest-reigning British monarch.

1 Social Mama

Mothers today are so much more different than their great-great-grandmothers: modern mothers have more rights, fewer children, and access to education and jobs. At the same time, technology has changed our world tremendously, and mothers spend more and more time seeking advice online, posting pictures of their babies, and… getting involved in mommy feuds. Sadly, mommy wars exist and people often enjoy judging moms. Working moms, stay-at-home moms, anti-vaxxers, pro-vaxxers, and so on and on.

It’s not a secret that celeb mothers have also influenced mothers worldwide, whether it's Jenny McCarthy raising questions about vaccine safety or the Kardashians changing the way families perceive surrogacy. And as celebs and gossip go hand in hand, what do you think: Will Kim and Kanye have a fourth child?

References: American History, BellyBelly, BL.uk, Elle, Standford.edu, Live Science, Royal Cenreal.co.uk, Thoughtco.com, Victorian-era.org, Women Museum

More in Moments