A History of Motherhood Through Design

Motherhood — that most basic rite of passage upon which the survival of the species depends — should be considered necessitous enough to qualify as the mother of invention. And it very likely does, producing countless brainchildren, but there’s no mainstream design history to prove it.

The Victoria & Albert Museum has an early 20th-century breast pump, but it’s not on display. None of the handful of historic maternity-wear pieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute (including a late-1800s silk burgundy gown with ample belly room) are on view, either. Objects like contraceptives, menstrual products, at-home abortion kits, and baby monitors (including the chic ones designed by sculptor Isamu Noguchi) are central to the system that delivers us all here. But they’re rarely, if ever, studied in design history curricula, let alone exhibited by museums that might retain them.

Ford Motor Company’s “Tot-Guard” (1973) (courtesy the Collections of the Henry Ford Museum)

“Museum collections, fashion and design exhibitions, the mainstream of design scholarship, and many public forums have yet to fully embrace maternity as a topic worthy of serious inquiry,” reads the introduction to Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births (2021). The book aims to fill that void, and accompanies a current exhibition of the same name at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.

Designing Motherhood has been a project in the works for years, predated by an Instagram account led by design historians Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick that aggregates objects related to maternity. The newly released book includes over 100 objects spanning medical devices to depictions of laboring women in films, and includes contributors from a range of fields and experiences.

Margaret Millar with Silver Cross pram (1982) (courtesy Michelle Millar Fisher)

Leafing through this reproductive smorgasbord is an exercise in saying, “Hey, I had one of those,” or “I’d never do that” (I’m thinking specifically of the saccharine spectacle that is the gender-reveal cake). Anyone who has ever menstruated or ever will menstruate (regardless of whether or not they choose to have a child) can likely find something relatable in its diverse pages.

The book reaches all the way back to a speculum found in the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii, then returns to the present day with some far-ranging and fascinating objects. It covers the late 19th-century practice of taking posed postmortem daguerreotypes of stillborn babies, who were dressed and placed in sleeping positions, for example. The Finnish Äitiyspakkaus, a cardboard box full of baby items, originally created by modernist designers during the interwar period, is also included as a unique artifact that has become embedded in Finnish culture. (As a special design feature, the box itself functions as a bassinet and has been cited as a reason why Finland has a low rate of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.)

Woman wearing Sari, Bengaluru (then called Bangalore) India (2006) (photo by and courtesy Philippe McLean)

Designing Motherhood discusses the sari, an iconic Indian dress that is adaptable and takes expanding and contracting bodies into account. And the book covers the design history of home pregnancy tests, a revolutionary invention by New York-based graphic designer Margaret Crane, which radically transferred power from the doctor’s office to the home user and was an important step in granting women more agency in choosing how (and if) to proceed. A prototype of Crane’s patented Predictor, an instantly sought after test released in the late 1960s, was acquired in 2015 by Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (where it is, predictably, not currently on view).

Fisher and Winick said that some of the objects for their exhibition were easier to find than others. Etsy and eBay were frequently the source of treasures, such as a classic Maclaren stroller and an authentic vintage Tassette menstrual cup. Historic personal hygiene products are tricky, given that they’re unlikely to be kept for posterity. “We’d long given up hope that we’d get our hands on one of these so you can imagine the enthusiasm expressed via text and the speed at which we bought this beautiful object,” the Designing Motherhood curatorial team shared with Hyperallergic. “We’re thrilled to put it on display with a few more recent menstrual cup designs.”

Predictor Home Pregnancy Test Kit (1971), designed by Meg Crane (courtesy Brendan McCabe)

Though many think of the menstrual cup as a modern device, it was first conceived in 1867 by American inventor S. L. Hockert, and the first commercially available one was designed in 1935 by former Broadway actress Leona Watson.

Gathering the objects for the Designing Motherhood book and exhibition was clearly a laborious effort, and the end result feels something like an heirloom trunk containing a jumble of things that either look vaguely familiar or curiously foreign. “Motherhood was a field hiding in plain sight,” writes design critic Alexandra Lange in the book’s foreword, “obscured by its own ubiquity and sidelined by everyday sexism.” The curators hope this project will be a corrective design history-in-progress, one that opens the trunk and inspires further study.  

Designing Motherhood: Things that Make and Break Our Births continues at the Mütter Museum (19 South 22nd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through May 2022. The exhibition is curated by Michelle Millar Fisher, Amber Winick, Juliana Rowen Barton, Zoë Greggs, and Gabriella Nelson.

The publication, Designing Motherhood: That that Make and Break Our Births by Michelle Millar Fisher and Amber Winick (2021), is published by MIT Press and is available online and in bookstores.

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