Discovering Dora: Immigrant Midwives in the Lower East Side, 1880-1920

Jennifer Garvey is completing her first year as an MA candidate in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence. Originally from Farmington, Conn., Jenn graduated from Pace University with a degree in Sociology, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies. The following is an introduction to her prospective thesis work on immigrant midwives in Manhattan at the turn of the century.

Jenn currently lives in New York, where she has studied and lived for 6 years.

Arriving at the Municipal Archives on Chambers Street in Manhattan, I informed the worker behind the desk that I was working on a thesis about immigrant midwives in New York City.  She responded, “Well, there’s nothing for you here.”  After she directed me to the National Archives on Varick Street, I continued to prod: “There’s no way for me to look at the birth certificates here to see who the birth attendants were?”  Finally, she directed me to a drawer of microfilms of birth certificates for individuals born in Manhattan before the 20th century.  I pulled a box from 1886, put it in the machine, and began to skim through birth certificates.  I could barely read anything, but I was able to decipher markings on the lines next to “Name of Birth Attendant.”  Some certificates had “M.D.” or “Dr.” indicated,  but there were hundreds of others that simply read “Mrs.” or a woman’s name.  While there was no way of determining from the microfilm whether or not these were midwives, I wrote down a name I saw time and time again, “Dora.”  I thought to myself, “This may be useful later on.”

Dora’s file.

Once at the International Archives, I searched the 1880 census in its occupation field for “midwife.”  Two hundred and six records turned up for women living in New York City who worked as midwives.  Nearly all of the listings were immigrant women.  They were from Prussia, Germany, Italy, Russia, Ireland, and the list goes on.  There were only a handful who were native-born.  Another similarity between these midwives is the fact that they were widows and claimed themselves as the “head of household,” leading me to conclude that many of them worked as midwives in order to support their families.

In the middle of finding all of these women within the census record, Dora popped back into my mind.  I went back to the beginning of the search and added “Dora” into the line for names.  Three seconds later, there she was.  Dora Droesler, born in Prussia.  In the 1880 census she was 34 and had two sons; William aged 6 and Charles aged 5.  Widow.  Living in the 137th enumeration district, which was located within the Lower East Side.

Dora will serve as a centerpiece to my thesis, which will paint a picture for what life was like for midwives in the Lower East Side in New York City from 1880-1920.

-Jenn Garvey

4 thoughts on “Discovering Dora: Immigrant Midwives in the Lower East Side, 1880-1920

  1. I’d like to talk to you about this work sometime — couldn’t find an email. I’m very easily found via email — would you please write to me? Thank you. Barbara Katz Rothman

  2. My Great Aunt and G Grandmother were midwives in NYC. I have the hand written birth book there are over 3000 names of childern that they delivered. Their names were Wilhelmine Winterfeld and Sophie M. Winterfeld.Where did you find out the 206 woman. Would be interested

  3. My great grandmother was one of these women on Orchard st in1910. I’d like to get in contact with the author

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