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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Nell Putnam Sigmon, December 13, 1979. Interview H-0143. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Birth control methods and sex education in the early twentieth century

Though Sigmon wanted to have more than two children, the doctor advised against it, so her husband made sure she did not get pregnant. She describes the methods of birth control they used. She also talks about how little she knew about sex and child-rearing before entering marriage. To explain her ignorance, she tells the story of a young woman in her community who did get pregnant before marriage and the shame associated with that.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Nell Putnam Sigmon, December 13, 1979. Interview H-0143. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you try to raise your children the same way that you were raised, or did you try to raise them differently?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
I sort of just raised mine like I was raised. I kept them well fed, and I kept them clean, and they were healthy. [laughter] The neighbor up there used to say, "How in the world do you keep your children so nice and clean? They get out here and play in the dirt and the sand just like all the rest." I said, "Well, when they get dirty, I bring them in and wash them, clean them up. And feed them. And I take care of mine, let them take a nap every day."
JACQUELYN HALL:
Your mother had eight children, and you only had two?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you want to have only two children? Was that your plan?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
No, I sort of wanted four children. I wanted two boys and two girls or three boys and one girl. I don't know. I had my fortune told one time when I was a young girl [laughter], and she told me I was going to get married twice, to a young man the first time and to an old man the last time. [laughter] And that I was going to have four children. Well, I didn't have but the two. I had the boy first and then the girl. But I never did weigh over a hundred pounds before I was married, and so I come along and married this great big husband, and my children were larger than I were, you might say. And so I had to have a Caesarian both times. So my family was limited. So my husband said, "Well, we're not going to have any more babies. If we raise these two and give them an education, we'll be doing real good." And he said really he didn't care that much about having any more. The doctor didn't fix me so I wouldn't have any more. But he said if something would happen to one of these, maybe it'd be all right for me to have another. But I and my husband just didn't want to take no more chances, so we just never did have more children.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you feel about that?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Well, I sort of went along with him, because him and the doctor thought it was best that I didn't have any more, because I was taking a chance the third time. And, too, he didn't want nothing to happen to either one of these others, so if one would happen to die or anything that I could have another one. But he didn't take no chances on me having any more. But there's six years' difference in my children. And it about worried him to death the last time I got pregnant. But I got along real good the last time. But I said the Lord had sure been good to me in so many different ways, because I had these two little grandsons that filled in for my two children. [laughter] And I said really, I had grown up with my children, and now I'm still growing up with my grand children. [laughter] And so really it's sort of keeping me young. I don't have time to think of any illness. All of my health's good. I went down to Charlotte to a doctor and had a physical, and he didn't even find one thing wrong like that. I have a little nervous indigestion, but he said that's caused from acids. And he told me to stay off the acids, spices and stuff like that and onions. I can tell it more in things I eat than any other thing, onions and peppers and spices, stuff like that. That's when it sort of flares up. So he give me a list of things not to eat. So other than that, I've got good health. And I said, I think back now, those Caesarians might have had a lot to do with my health being so good. Because the doctor had told me that my babies were so large and I was so small that he would advise me to have a Caesarian, because if I didn't have that I would have to have a major operation, which would be a lot worse than having the Caesarian. So my husband said, "Well, I'm going to leave it up to you, whatever you think is best." And he said, "Well, I think it's for the best." So I went to Charlotte to have my babies. I went to a doctor down there.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What did you do to keep from getting pregnant after your second child was born?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Well, I don't know, just take precautions.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did your husband use rubbers or something?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Well, most of the time. But he was careful not to get me pregnant. And I took douches a lot. The doctor give me something to take douches with.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do douches work to prevent pregnancies?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Well, yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Are they pretty foolproof?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
As long as you keep yourself clean, you're not going to get pregnant.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Sometimes people do get pregnant, though, anyway.
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did you know anything about the facts of life before you got married?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
No, I did not. I didn't know nothing about babies, getting pregnant, or none of that stuff.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Really?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
No, ma'am!
JACQUELYN HALL:
You didn't know a thing?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
No, sir.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And you were twenty-seven?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Well, after I got that age I did. But I still didn't realize the responsibility of babies. [laughter] I raised my first one by the book.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What do you mean?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Because I didn't know nothing about babies.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What book did you have?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
The doctor give me a baby's book.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was it Dr. Spock?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
I don't know.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And you really followed that?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
He give me some other books that he had in the office that he'd give to young mothers, and I'd read them. But he said you feed your baby when he cries or acts like he's hungry, and keep him dry. That makes a good baby, and all that stuff.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So when you were growing up, your mother never told you or nobody ever talked to you about that?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
She didn't tell me nothing about men and all that stuff. I had to learn that all over. I didn't know anything about that.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did you learn about it?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Just through actual experience. You know, girls didn't do all that stuff when I was growing up.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When you were growing up, did you ever hear about people who got pregnant before they were married?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
Yes, and a girl that I knew got pregnant, and she drank turpentine or something. But anyway, she had a miscarriage. But when a girl got pregnant, everybody knew it, didn't it? [laughter] I know this one girl that used to run around in our gang… We had a group that we used to buddy with. We'd go to the mountains, you know, young couples. We was all single. And we went to the mountains one Sunday, and this Ruby Lee, she liked this Troy Barger so well. And oh, she loved him to death, and she did go all out for him. She got pregnant, and a whole group of us went to see her one Saturday night at her house, and she was in bed. And this boy I was dating said, "Do you know what's wrong with Ruby Lee?" And I said, "No, what?" He said, "She's had a miscarriage." Well, we all laughed. We didn't really know what it was all about. And I said, "Do you mean she's had a miscarriage? Law, I thought she was a nicer girl than that." Well, they all laughed about it. Well, naturally I did, too. She thought she had a secret, but everybody knew it.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I wonder how everybody knew. Did the boy tell?
NELL PUTNAM SIGMON:
I guess he told it to the other boys, and that's how the girls all found it out. [laughter] But I declare. But he was so good-looking. I dated him one night after him and her broke up. And I wouldn't wish for a nicer boy. But she really did love him. She looked like Dorothy Lamour. They said I looked like Vivian Leigh.