Historical Archaeology

, Volume 52, Issue 2, pp 264–280 | Cite as

“To Married Ladies It Is Peculiarly Suited”: Nineteenth-Century Abortion in an Archaeological Context

  • Andrea Zlotucha Kozub
Original Article


Abortion was a lucrative business in the 19th century. Advertisements for services and patent-medicine abortifacients abounded and were targeted primarily at married, middle-class women engaged in family planning. Contemporary accounts suggest that one in five 19th-century pregnancies may have ended in abortion. Concerns over a potentially shifting demography prompted a backlash, and by the end of the century abortion was prohibited under most circumstances. Despite its widespread occurrence, archaeological evidence of abortion has been limited to a few documented cases, most notably the privy of the brothel at Five Points. The discovery of fetal remains and associated artifacts in two upstate New York domestic privies offers an opportunity to discuss the archaeology of abortion within the context of middle-class family planning, as well as the problems inherent in identifying abortion archaeologically.


abortion contraception patent medicines health care history of medicine 


El aborto era un negocio lucrativo en el siglo XIX. Los anuncios de servicios y medicamentos abortivos con patentes abundaban y se dirigían principalmente a las mujeres casadas de clase media interesadas en la planificación familiar. Los relatos contemporáneos sugieren que uno de cada cinco embarazos en el siglo XIX pudo terminar en aborto. Las preocupaciones por un posible cambio demográfico provocaron un retroceso, y para finales de siglo el aborto estaba prohibido en casi todas las circunstancias. A pesar de su generalización, las pruebas arqueológicas del aborto se limitan a unos cuantos casos documentados, el más famoso el del retrete del burdel de Five Points. El hallazgo de restos fetales y objetos relacionados en dos retretes de viviendas particulares al norte de Nueva York brinda la oportunidad de debatir la arqueología del aborto en el contexto de la planificación familiar de la clase media, así como los problemas inherentes a la identificación del aborto desde el punto de vista arqueológico.


Au 19e siècle, les avortements étaient lucratifs. Les publicités vantant ces services et divers médicaments abortifs brevetés abondaient et ciblaient principalement les femmes mariées de la classe moyenne adeptes de la planification des naissances. Des récits de l’époque suggèrent qu’une grossesse sur cinq aurait été interrompue par un avortement au 19e siècle. La crainte d’éventuels changements démographiques a entraîné une vive réaction et l’avortement fut interdit dans la plupart des cas avant la fin du siècle. Malgré sa forte présence, les preuves archéologiques de l’avortement se limitent à quelques cas documentés seulement, le plus connu étant celui des lieux d’aisance de la maison de prostitution de Five Points. La découverte de fragments de fœtus et d’artefacts connexes dans deux lieux d’aisance domestiques situés au nord de New York offre l’occasion de discuter de l’archéologie de l’avortement dans le contexte de la planification des naissances de la classe moyenne, ainsi que des problèmes associés à l’identification archéologique dudit phénomène.



Special thanks to Nina Versaggi for her ongoing support and encouragement of this and other projects. I am also extremely grateful for the advice and critiques of Lynda Carroll, Claire Horn, Maria O’Donovan, Elizabeth Scott, two anonymous reviewers, and associate editor Kathryn Sampeck, as well as for the artifact photos produced by David Tuttle. This article was adapted from a paper presented at the 2014 Society for Historical Archaeology meeting in a session entitled “Behind Closed Doors: Exploring Taboo Subjects in Historical Archaeology.” I thank Jade Luiz and Amanda Johnson for organizing the session, and the discussants, Mary Beaudry and Rebecca Yamin, for their helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Society for Historical Archaeology 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Public Archaeology Facility, Binghamton UniversitySkaneatelesU.S.A.

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