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For the sake of this post, the wet nursing history I reference is European and American. The scope of writing an article about wet nursing in other cultures was too immense for me to take on right now, but it is something I would like to read and write about in the future. All of the information in this post, except for that I’ve otherwise referenced, comes from the book I am currently reading called A History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the female breast was highly eroticized for its beauty. It was the Renaissance period, the time of the nude paintings we often see decorating the walls of European art museums, turned into posters to fit our own walls. Poets likened breasts to “balls of ivory,” “strawberries,” “cherries,” pearls,” and “orbs of desire.” Poets and painters found their muse in the breast and women themselves were no stranger to the sexual power beheld in their breasts.
Not unsurprising, many upper-class women living in England, Scotland, Italy and France employed wet nurses. They did this as a status symbol. They did it because authoritarian husbands forebade it because it interfered with sex. (Breastmilk was assumed to have been a product of menstral blood, transformed from blood to milk as it travelled from womb to breasts. Having sex was thought to curdle the milk). Women also assumed that breastfeeding disfigured breasts, and since upper class women were subservient to the eroticized ideal of maintaining youthful breasts, many chose not to nurse. Furthermore, during this time of high child-mortality, upper class families were encouraged to have as many children as possible to ensure the survival of an heir. Since breastfeeding was the only form of birth control, as it can enable child-spacing by preventing ovulation, people thought it was best to outsource breastfeeding so the mother could become pregnant again as soon as possible. Babies were often sent away to the wet nurse’s home for eighteeen to twenty-four months, where she could have possibly been feeding many children at a time, including her own. Some of these women were not paid, others earned as much as their labouring husbands. Only a few of the richest families employed a wet nurse to work in the home.
During Renaissance times, a body of literature sprang up condemning wet nursing on medical and moral grounds, suggesting that the use of a wet nurse was a risky substitute for the biological mother (lower class women were seen as filthy and disease carrying) as well as a sin (especially believed among Protestants in England and Germany).
In the Elizabethan era, most British infants were being breastfed by their own mothers, although some affluent women still chose to employ wet nurses. In the 17th century, some women started to become more outspoken about breastfeeding and encourage all mothers to breastfeed their own children on the religious grounds that biblical mothers, Eve, Sarah, Hannah and Mary all breastfed their offspring. There was a rising of thought that babies would take on the characteristics of whomever nursed them and did mothers want their children to have the traits of a lower-class women, or those of a proper woman?
Dutch medical, religious and moral authorities were all staunch advocates of maternal breastfeeding, especially within Protestant communities. “They believed that a nursing mother was pleasing to God and that a mother who refused to nurse her own child was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.” (p. 93) Breastfeeding was the hallmark of a pious mother.
By the 1800′s the number of babies who were being nursed by their mothers skyrocketed due to an outcry against wet nursing as the reason for high infant mortality rates. This would not be surprising if wet nurses were breastfeeding many children for many years on end. Poor women without the ability to make choices for themselves could understandably lose interest in caring for children not their own. “Baby farmers,” was a derogatory term for people who took in many infants and children for a small sum and were expected to nurse and care for them, but who instead usually treated the children poorly. Illegitimacy and the stigma attached were usually the impetus for a mother’s decision to “farm out” her child. The death of any child meant less work for the employer and/or an opening (and more money) for another child. Therefore, it became a political necessity to breastfeed one’s own child and even fathers were assigned as a watchdog to ensure their wives nursed responsibly, as it was assumed that women, left to their own devices could not be trusted with the “troublesome task of sucking their own children” (p. 85) thus hindering the growth of the nation’s future working citizens.
In America wet nursing was not as popular as it was in Europe, but it certainly was not rare either. Mid-18th century newspaper advertisements offered services of newly arriving immigrants looking for jobs. As well, in the South, black slaves, who had no say in the matter, served as wet nurses usually while the mother recuperated after childbirth, when she was ill, or if she died. To read more about the history of wet nursing in America, consider reading Janet Golden’s book, A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle. You can read an overview and review here.
Thursday’s post will bring the past and the present together where I will discuss the difference between wet nursing and cross nursing. Stay tuned!
The caption under the photo attached to this post reads Gabrielle d’Estrees at her bath. Early seventeenth century. Gabrielle d’Estrees, the mistress of Henri IV, displays her “unused” breasts. In the background, a wet nurse offers a large, globular breast to a babe in swaddling clothes, one of the three children born to Gabrielle from her liason with Henri IV.
I love learning about the history of wet nursing, even if only from the Western perspective. Do you know anything about the history of wet nursing that I didn’t cover here? Please share!