I found this story in Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2003).
What did women do before the advent of modern pregnancy tests? Apart from wait, I suppose.
The answer? Not a lot. Waiting to be sure was kind of your only option. Flanders writes, “The first signs of pregnancy were not easy to detect. Mid-century, Dr Pye Chavasse, author of Advice to a Mother on the Management of Offspring (a book so popular it was still in use at the turn of the century) and other similar works, gave the signs of pregnancy, in order of appearance, as ‘ceasing to be unwell’ (i.e. menstruate); morning sickness; painful and enlarged breasts; ‘quickening’ (which would not have been felt until the nineteenth week); increased size. That meant that no woman could be absolutely certain she was pregnant until the fifth month.
“As early as the 1830s it had been known to doctors that the mucosa around the vaginal opening changed colour after conception, yet this useful piece of information did not appear in a lay publication until the 1880s, and the doctor who wrote it was struck off the medical register – it was too indelicate, in its assumption that a doctor would perform a physical examination. Neither doctors nor their patients felt comfortable with this.
“Discussion itself was allusive. Mrs Panton, at the end of the 1880s, felt she could ‘only touch lightly on these matters [of pregnancy]’ because she didn’t know who might read her book. Kipling, from the male point of view, was very much of his time when he wrote, ‘We asked no social questions – we pumped no hidden shame-/ We never talked obstetrics when the Little Stranger came – ‘” (15).
Flanders goes on to talk about how pregnancy was something the Victorians (well, at least middle-class Victorians) were desperate to hide away. It would be nice to break down this idea and be like, “Actually, the Victorians were really chill with pregnancy”, but they weren’t. And this shouldn’t be a surprise to us, as this was still common practice well through the 1950s. You get loads of stories of Hollywood actresses (even ones who were married) taking an enforced temporary retirement once the pregnancy was discovered. They did not do red carpet events, they tried not to get photographed, and they most certainly did not continue to work until after the baby came.
This is not to say that just because the Victorians weren’t comfortable having pregnancy discussed, published about, or seen in society, that it means they didn’t know anything about sex and pregnancy. There was often a very great divide between what one could publish and what one could discuss. Girls did not get all of their information purely from published material. In fact, it was much more likely that most girls had frank discussions with their mothers, aunts, older sisters, and female cousins about sex and pregnancy. The odd story you hear about a Victorian girl not understanding sex until her wedding is definitely in the minority of experiences.