By Tashrak (Y.Y. Zevin), Translated by Sonia Gollance
The natural feeling of shame. – The rights of a pregnant woman in society. – “All the glory of a king’s daughter is within” (Psalms 45:15).– Maternity clothing.
From Etiquette: A Guide for Proper Conduct, Courtesy, and Good Manners for Men and Women (Etikete: a veg vayzer fun laytishe oyfirung, heflikhkayt un sheyne manieren far mener un froyen), by Tashrak in collaboration with A. Tanenboym and D. M. Hermalin (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1912), 245–49.
Women often contend with communal expectations about how they should dress and behave, especially during pregnancy. Guidelines for pregnancy in 1912 New York City looked quite different from today's standards: they involved wearing corsets, staying home, walks at proscribed times of day, and refusing to receive visits from male friends. In this chapter from his etiquette manual, Tashrak (pseudonym for Yisroel-Yoysef Zevin, 1872–1926) describes proper behavior for both well-to-do and working-class women during pregnancy. Although Tashrak’s book does provide general advice for deportment, this chapter is just one of several that offer gendered guidelines, including chapters addressing clothing, use of makeup, love and marriage, and ballroom etiquette.
Pregnancy is a natural process. This is the truth. Because it is natural, some say you shouldn’t be ashamed of it. But it is also true that not everything that is natural can be conducted in public.
It is not just among humans, but among animals as well, that the female withdraws in solitude during advanced pregnancy. As soon as a woman knows that she is pregnant, she should watch out for the moment in which the pregnancy begins to show. Until then it is not necessary for her to indicate, through speech or behavior, that she is pregnant.
Naturally, we are not speaking here from the hygienic point of view.
Many women can wear a corset even up to the fifth or sixth month. If it does not harm her health and she can successfully hide her pregnancy, then it is up to her. The matter for discussion here is the visibly pregnant woman in society.
And so, as mentioned previously, as long as the pregnancy is imperceptible, it is the woman’s privilege to go everywhere and lead her life as usual. As soon as the pregnancy is noticeable, then the best thing is to sit at home. “All the glory of a king’s daughter is within.”
There are women who get spots on their faces during pregnancy. Even when powder was not in fashion, it was common to cover these spots with fine rice powder. Rouge should be avoided, even now, when people make use of rouge.
Seclusion in the home is the best thing. The pregnant woman requires comfort, and she receives it nowhere so well as at home.
In the house itself, she must also have suitable clothing, which should be both convenient and appropriate.
The corset, needless to say, should be discarded. But the body should certainly not be permitted to sag. Modern corsetry provides countless girdles and body coverings, which offer support for her abdomen. Even hygienically, it is not necessary to leave the body in its natural state.
Then comes clothing.
The clothes from before no longer fit. New ones must be made especially for pregnancy. But all of these clothes must have the characteristics of a nightgown. The reason is as follows: fitted clothing cannot be put on during this time. Clothing which should be fitted and does not fit is simply unfitting.
Whatever she wears must be made in the shape of a nightgown
Then comes the overdress or housecoat. It must follow a special cut that fits loosely like a nightgown.
As we have already mentioned, the best palace for a pregnant woman is the home. Yet there are exceptions: sometimes she can visit or go for a walk.
Visits by a pregnant woman are exclusively in the circle of her family, and mostly in the afternoon. Never in the morning, rarely in the evening. Visits to her own parents should be as often as possible; in-laws significantly less, sisters and brothers about the same as in-laws.
The pregnant woman should expect visits at home, and she should receive members of her own family and very close friends. The proper conduct in many societies is that men, even intimate friends (except for close family), do not visit pregnant women. If they do come, the pregnant woman does not receive them.
Her dress and coat for going out should not be made from an entirely dark color, but also not from an entirely light one. Shades of brown are the most appropriate.
Walks to close family should be enough, but a little more may be allowed. In the company of her husband or a member of the family, she may walk in the evening through quiet streets.
On such walks, if it is not far from home, it is acceptable to go out without a hat. A hat, above all for a woman in advanced pregnancy, is inappropriate. For this reason, she does not walk too far, so that she need not put on walking clothes.
We mentioned previously that when a woman is in the early days of pregnancy, and her condition does not yet show, she may go through and lead her normal life as before. Yet the pregnant woman must not forget that such social conduct requires tactful handling, that is to say, when someone invites her to a dance and a late supper, then she must sometimes respond with a counter-suggestion. If a pregnant woman senses that she is not in a position to participate fully, then she should not go, to avoid any embarrassment.
It is a big question if pregnant women need to attend the weddings of their own very close family.
In the circle of her family, it does no harm to appear in an appropriate nightgown, but when strangers are present, it is no longer nice. Therefore, she tends not to go to public wedding ceremonies, only to private receptions at a time when only her family are there, or when she can appear for a short time and then go away.
As the reader has seen for themself, up to now we have only given rules of etiquette for well-to-do women, for those who can honor the requirements of manners and approved social customs. For poor women and those who are not well off, unfortunately there must be an entirely different Shulkhan arukh, another set of rules applies.
In our society, there are pregnant women who are often compelled to work in a shop even up to the last instant.
Whether rich or poor, nature arranged that every human has his pleasures and his mindful consideration.
A woman who is not pregnant is, typically, in better spirits and happier than one who is. The pregnant woman, whether rich or poor, is in a completely different mood. The working woman, who must toil in a shop, who must labor in the home, who receives everyone, speaks with everyone and goes out in public to provide for the home,–such a woman must act reserved and assume a particularly respectable conduct.
We believe that, even among poor people, a person can either make new clothes for herself, in nightgown-form, or remake an old one so that the contours of her pregnancy are not too obvious.
Such women, who must often go out in the street and come in contact with strangers, must, naturally, wear a hat everywhere. Such a woman should take care that, no matter how inexpensive her hat, it should be black, or at least blue or brown. It may have a black feather, but no flowers of any kind.
Poverty is bitter, indigence is terrible, but every woman can be nice, clean, tidy, and attractive, whatever her station.
Tashrak (pseudonym for Yisroel-Yoysef Zevin) was born in Horki (now Belarus) in 1872 and died in New York in 1926. He was a humorist, journalist, translator, and essayist. Primarily affiliated with the Orthodox daily Yidishes Tageblat (New York), he also worked for Yiddish papers in the United States and abroad, published children’s stories in Hebrew, and wrote in English for the New York Herald. He is best known for his humorous stories of immigrant life in New York.
Sonia Gollance is Lecturer in Yiddish (Assistant Professor) at University College London. She is the author of It Could Lead to Dancing: Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2021), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Jewish Thought and Experience. Her ongoing translation of Tea Arciszewska’s play Miryeml was supported by a 2020-21 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship. Her translations have been published in In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies and JewishFiction.net.