Hundreds of cloth panels suspended on makeshift clotheslines, reminiscent of old fashioned nappies and of prayer flags spreading goodwill. Each represents the life of one of the hundreds of women and girls who had to disappear to the now-defunct Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester, Nova Scotia, during the 1920s-1940s to conceal out-of-wedlock pregnancies…. Read more in the Artist Statement.
• View as Beacon Project for Nocturne 10 | Vanish, October 14, 2018, Halifax Waterfront in Halifax, NS.
• View as Headlining Project for Antigonight Art After Dark, September 13, 2018, Underground Parking in Antigonish, NS.
Hundreds of cloth panels suspended on makeshift clotheslines, reminiscent of old fashioned nappies and of prayer flags spreading goodwill. Each represents the life of one of the hundreds of women and girls who had to disappear to the now-defunct Ideal Maternity Home in East Chester, Nova Scotia, during the 1920s-1940s to conceal out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
If you’ve read Bette Cahill’s book, “Butterbox Babies,” you already know that the children born to these women and girls were either sold for thousands of dollars to wealthy American couples under the guise of adoption, or left to perish and later buried around the grounds in wooden grocery crates used to deliver butter to the Home.
At that time, unwed pregnancy cast a long shadow of shame across a woman and her family, and with it would come grave social and financial consequences. The couple who ran the Home became wealthy off the backs and labour of women and girls who had no choice but to come to them for anonymity and help.
The burden of their family’s reputations on their shoulders, their babies gone without a trace, and their lives changed forever, these women were expected to return home and never speak of their experience or their child again.
Airing their laundry in this way allows us to witness and recognize how hundreds of women’s life stories were changed by social mores that trapped them in traumatic circumstances and to identify shame as a tool that enables opportunists to control and exploit vulnerable people.
Much that has been written about the Ideal Maternity Home describes the surviving babies as those who were “more marketable.” That is, to be valued enough to be nurtured until a home was available, the babies had, among other “sought after qualities,” complexions that closely matched those of the couples who bought them.
While a discerning reader can detect the implicit corollary, it is critical that we be explicit about the nature of the harms done at the Ideal Maternity Home: Nonwhite, and especially Black and Indigenous, babies were overrepresented among those who died. They were neglected, starved, and eventually buried largely because of the colour of their skin.