With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Empathy in the Archive: Care and Disdain for Wet Nursing Mothers

Before the advent of infant formula and the regulation of the dairy industry, babies who were not breastfed faced mortal danger with every sip of cows’ milk. As a small installation I curated last year at the New York Historical Society demonstrated, medical and technological developments at the turn of the century transformed cows’ milk and infant formulas into a staple of children’s diets – and these structural changes radically impacted how⁣ mothers fed their babies. Although the social and economic circumstances shaping infant feeding practices have changed enormously, in bringing my own experience of motherhood to the archive, I recognized how the guilt and shame that often come alongside parents’ “choice”’ persist. How might uncovering stories of mothers in the past help build empathy for mothers struggling to navigate the ideological and material challenges of feeding infants today, especially in light of the ongoing formula shortage?

In the 19th century – just like today – not all mothers wanted or were able to nurse their babies themselves. Mothers with the financial means to do so hired wet nurses to nourish their babies, leading to a complex marketplace that reflected and reinforced inequality. Social reformers played a central role in supporting this market, founding new charitable organizations such as New York City’s Nursery and Child’s Hospital (NCH) to provide care for wet nurses’ children during their mothers’ employment. In northern urban centers like New York, wet nurses seeking employment were often unmarried mothers with few other economic options, forced by circumstance and the lack of a social safety net to feed other women’s children.[1] Janet Golden’s groundbreaking research has revealed the labor conditions that these poor, white, often immigrant wet nurses faced. In particular, employers preferred their own children to have exclusive access to their wet nurses’ milk around the clock, requiring the wet nurses to live in their employers’ homes. This meant that wet nurses’ own children would often languish and sometimes even starve to death. As Golden puts it, “at its core,” wet nursing “was a career track paved with misfortune.”[2]

The NCH was founded in 1854 by Mary Ann Delafield DuBois, the wife of a tobacco merchant. Its records, held at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library of the New York Historical Society, provide a fascinating and horrifying window into the emotional and material clashes of interests among wet-nursing mothers, their children, an under-funded philanthropic institution, and the burgeoning medical expertise of the day. As Lara Vapnek writes, “The mission and operations of the NCH seem paradoxical. The institution was founded to save the infants of wet nurses, yet it placed their mothers in private employment. Many babies did not survive the separation.”[3] The records reveal a prevailing moralism that blamed individual women for what the hospital’s managers saw as personal failures to care for their own children.

According to an address given by Rev. Dr. Anthon at its 1857 cornerstone-laying ceremony, the hospital was created to alleviate the negative impacts of this form of poverty that “compelled” a mother “to surrender her own flesh and blood.”[4] While this description acknowledged the dire circumstances wet nurses faced, the foundational speech admonished the mother who, as Anthon puts it, “gives nourishment to the child of the rich, while she herself fares sumptuous at the rich man’s table…while the damp cell, the fretted vault, the crowded attic, steamed with poisonous and pestilential vapors, is the home of her own child—not happy, not beautiful, not in the bloom of health, but yet innocent.” While the children of wet nurses might thus be pitied and perceived as deserving of middle-class and elite reformers’ largesse, mothers themselves were viewed with disdain even by those seeking to help them – as if the decision to become a wet nurse was a deliberate, heartless choice. Anthon’s speech continues with a short poem:

“The child whom many mothers share,
Has seldom known a mother’s care.”

This kind of contempt for the mothers of children in their care – and the acknowledgment that, while the hospital filled a necessary gap for children, a woman’s proper role was still motherhood – is present throughout the archival record of the hospital, sometimes alongside evidence of what would be considered child neglect today.

Read entire article at Nursing Clio