Monday, October 20, 2014

Kristen: 19th Century Breastfeeding Practices

This might seem an odd topic for a woman who has yet to take the plunge into motherhood. We have a few years before a mini-me streaks around the campsites, wreaking having on the 19th century. While I do not yet have children, it does seem that nearly everyone in the hobby has a little one, here or in the works ("tick tock" said my biological clock). Breastfeeding is a controversial subject in today's world, so I wanted to take a deeper look at its 19th century implications as it will have an effect on the children I care about so dearly!
Just how do you feed this thing anyway?

I have several reasons to write this post. I have an adorable little goddaughter who grows stronger every day with the art of nursing. My thoughts wander to my future children as well, as I would like to support my decisions with documentation. Finally, I want to start the conversation within the Civil War reenacting community to see if a sort of consensus can be made. If not, then I need to share breastfeeding laws that have recently come to pass in many of the states that may influence our own policies. I don't think reenactors want to gain negative attention for breaking the law!

Learning how to research this topic was an eye-opener; Sucking, suckling, breast feeding, nursing, so many names for one action. My vocabulary is expanding with every search! I've run into this issue with other topics of research as well. Just because we call it "nursing" or "breast feeding" today, does not meaning that "sucking" was not a period appropriate term. Once I adjusted my 19th century glasses, evidence came in focus.
And goodness do I look stunning!

I believe it is important to attack this evidence in a three-prong approach; visual, textual, and surviving originals all contribute to a better understanding of the actual practice of breastfeeding. 

Visual Documentation
I was shocked to find large amounts of photographic evidence supporting breastfeeding. Other ladies have written about this topic, making this part of my research much easier. So many pictures show ladies in fine clothing feeding their little ones. I keep finding new ones too, though for the sake of length I won't include every one! All of these photos can be found here.

These photos bring up so many questions, ones that we could not answer without the ladies present. Who was taking these pictures? Were they planned? Were there other people in the room? The evidence seems to suggest that these were not "fallen" women, as they are apporpriately dressed. The amount of pictures also points to the idea that nursing during such an occasion was not uncommon.

As for the public aspect of nursing, I can conclude that at the very least it wasn't obscene to have a picture of a woman doing so. These women aren't showing off underpinnings or exposing themselves in a sexual manner; it appears here that breastfeeding is just a loving aspect of motherhood.

Textual Documentation
My research continued, this time looking for actual in-text citations of breastfeeding. I found so many manuals, recommending nursing for young mothers if at all possible. Apparently it was quite a popular trend during this part of the 19th century, as it seems to be at the advice of nearly every doctor, if a woman was physically capable. Here are a few of the snippets:

The Christian Recorder, January 25 1862
As a good mother persists in suckling her own child, even though it cause her pain for a time, so also should both father and mother persist in their attention to its spiritual life, and omit nothing calculated to cherish, elevate, and preserve it. 

Health Department, Godey's December 1860
In short, all nursing women should, above all others, live naturally, physiologically, and common sensely, disregarding alike the rebellious movings of a misguided appetite, the fanciful whims of the ignorant, the baseless traditions of grandmothers, and many of the time-honored customs of the nursery-room. If nursing women would rear healthy, sweet-tempered children, they must be healthy and sweet-tempered themselves; and to be thus, requires obedience to the laws of health, not only in eating, and drinking, and moral influences, and all things mentioned in this article onNursing Women; but also in sleeping, in cleanliness, in temperature, in the regulation of the excretions, and in everything else that is pure, healthful, and of “good report.” 

Infant Feeding and Its Influence on Life: Or the Causes and Prevention of Infant Mortality
Charles Henry Felix RouthJanuary 1, 1879

The evidence seems to suggest that breastfeeding was a cultural norm for the mid-19th century lady. It had not always been this way, as women had to take care against "the baseless traditions of grandmothers." I must note that a "good mother" nurses her children, and she must live "common sensely" in order to raise "sweet-tempered children." Similar to today, the bond between mother and child is cemented by the act of nursing.

Yet these bits of advice don't allude to the public/private nature of breastfeeding. Here again I had to sift through evidence, at first looking at how the medical advice books offer suggestions for a routine. Understanding the context of motherhood just might help me better comprehend where it was okay to display it.
Health Department, Godey's April 1862
Children, therefore, should be early trained to regular habits; to regularity not only in hours of sleeping, but in eating, and everything else that can be made to conform to rule.

Infant Treatment, Godey's January 1865
EXERCISE.— By slow degrees the infant should be accustomed to exercise, both within doors and in the open air; but he should never be moved about after sucking or feeding; it will be apt to sicken him. Exercise should be given by carrying him about and gently dandling him in his mother or nurse's arms; but dancing him up and down on the knee is very fatiguing for a young child.

Hints to Mothers for the Management of Health During the Period of Pregnancy and in the Lying-in Room, Thomas Bull 1869

I can conclude that a heathy infant would be exposed to the outdoors at a relatively young age, within the time that "sucking or feeding" still constituted a large part of the child's diet. Also, the evidence points to the lady resuming her "accustomed duties," as well as going "out of doors without risk." This evidence suggests that nursing women did leave the home for periods of time, though no advice is given as to the nature of breastfeeding out of the home. What if she brought along her child and needed to nurse? I saw no documentation of nursing covers or advice to return home to feed.

My hunt continued, this time with more of a focus on nursing as a public act. I found numerous examples of ladies at home feeding in front of family or friends. Pictures/paintings depict motherhood as both an intensely personal but encouragingly public event. If the act was completely obscene, why would it be mentioned so often in the popular media?
1850 "The Gypsy Mother" engraved by E.Portbury
1863 "First Born" Gustave Leonard de Jonghe
The Handcart Company, CCA Christensen1856-60
Harvest, Leon Augustin Lhermitte, 1874
The Morning Call, Stereoview 1860

In every one of these pictures a woman nurses publicly, whether in the home or outdoors. The women vary in their station of life, from workers in the field to the lady accepting a call with the newborn on her breast. Based on these images, the nursing did not excite much attention; any direction toward the mother and her child seems to be affectionate, rather than critical. I pressed on my research...

Great Snowstorm on the Prairies, Frank Leslie's Weekly, January 30 1864
THE great snowstorm which came with the New Year raged with fearful severity on the Western prairies. The railroads were blocked up, and on the Michigan Central railroad the suffering of a train was great. As the train from Detroit on New Year's Eve approached New Buffalo, they found a freight train blocked up with snow, unable to get forward or back...Meanwhile the passengers waited and shivered...And so the hours passed. The cold grew colder, the wind howled and shrieked like mad, the snow filled the air and the frost drove in through every crevice, piercing to the quick women and children, like sharp needles. Those who had lunch baskets that were not empty carefully distributed of their stores among the little ones, and the warmest hooks were given to nursing mothers and their infants . The men found pastime in alternating between the fence and the baggage car, and between the latter and the several stoves.

The Contraband Camp, The Weekly Vincennes Western Sun, June 6 1863
In the suburbs of the city is a spectacle which t would be glad for every American to witness and consider. There are eight or ten acres of ground covered with barracks, which are occupied by between one and two thousand contrabands or fugitive slaves, embracing in their number all conceivable ages and conditions of both sexes. There are sucking infants , young girls and women decrepit women boys and men of all ages, some of whom are as helpless us infants at the mother's breast. The most of them, however, are able-bodied men and women. Here these creatures are kept in idleness, the boys playing marbles, the women lying About on heaps of straw, nursing their babes and eating the bread of filth and idleness.
Brutal and negligent? 19th century factory mothers and child care, Melanie Reynolds, 2011
Mothers at the Tean Hall Mill in Stoke-on-Trent were part of a particularly novel solution to this 
problem. As Jill Dunicliff has remarked, for 'the factory women [who] worked in the part of the mill 
near High Street ... there was a hole not much bigger than the span of a man's fingers, from thumb to 
little finger, in the wall, covered by a vertical sliding shutter and through this a nursing mother could 
feed her baby. The baby would be brought by its baby minder, usually by an aunt or an older sister, 
the foreman would fasten up the shutter on its cord, and with the baby being held to the outside of 
the hole, the feeding could be managed' (Collingridge, 2008).

The What-not; or Ladies' handy-book, 1861
Context: Male family friend enters room

The act of nursing a child does not seem to incite a riotous reactions in the authors of the many texts I examined. Newspapers, medical guides, etiquette manuals, and even Godey's Lady's Book mentions breastfeeding, with no specific advice as to the nature of the event. I will conclude thus far that, based on the evidence, public nursing greatly depended on the lady, her child, and their surroundings.

Surviving Originals
Recently there has been much discussion of maternity within the reenactor community, specifically the clothing worn during/after pregnancy. I had not even considered textiles as an element of my research until Elizabeth Stewart Clark pointed out the differences between 1840-50 dress styles and the 1860 button front. These seem to suggest that stylish dresses were adapted for maternity wear, especially the ever-popular wrapper. 

Many women would have spent a large part of their lives pregnant or nursing infants. If a woman has six children one right after another...that's four years just enduring pregnancy, not even thinking about time spent nursing. Did she spend all of those four years in her home? I highly doubt that conclusion, and as her breast milk was considered a good food source, the little one would have accompanied her on at least occasions. Also, these wrappers are just so pretty. How would she approach feeding time while not at home? Or at home accepting visitors?

In Conclusion...
 Unfortunately we cannot time travel in order to kidnap a 19th century mother and ask her about the proper etiquette of breastfeeding. The most we can do is gather sources to reach an understanding that properly reflects the 19th century to ourselves and the public. As much as many people would like to leave it out, breastfeeding was an important aspect of motherhood, the most sacred of jobs a woman could have in that time.
Pictured: Not a sacred job of womanhood
Photo by Ken Giorlando

In my research I also noted the mention of wet nurses. I did not include this in the post (another one?), though the debate about just whose milk a child should ingest came up many times. Queen Victoria, that great mother of England, found breastfeeding abhorrent and passed the job off to wet nurses for each of her children. She wasn't found of the infant part of childhood, noting that: "Abstractedly, I have no tender for them till they have become a little human; an ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful when undressed. Until about 4 months; in short as long as they have their big body and little limbs and that terrible froglike action." Her status as royalty certainly influenced her opinion.

Reenactment Implications
As for the public nature of breastfeeding at Civil War reenactments, I cannot give a specific answer for individuals. Based on my research, a nursing mother in the camp would not be remiss, especially if she sat under a tent in her "parlor." While I would not suggest that breastfeeding ladies participate in battle, I don't think it's necessarily accurate to hide them in tents. Would that not be an excellent educational moment for spectators? 

This is a time when our modern sensibilities take over, possibly blinding us from accuracy. I am not personally offended by a lady feeding her child at any time, nor would I ask her to remove herself from my company. I see so many issues with keeping these women from the open air; heat in a tent could cause issues, many event bathrooms/portables are not sanitary, and even the notorious cover-up might be harmful on a hot day. It is not my place to tell a woman who participated in the miracle of birth that she must hide her child's nourishment. Please note that these are my personal opinions and safety concerns, and I understand that yours may differ. 

However, even if you are offended by the act of public breastfeeding, you may not have the right to ask a women to cover up or leave. Many states have recently passed laws concerning public nursing, and I especially like Michigan's new law (I have cut out the wordy parts, but you can find it here):

Act No. 197
Public Acts of 2014
Approved by the Governor
June 24, 2014
AN ACT to prohibit discriminatory practices, policies, and customs in the exercise of the right to breastfeed; to provide for enforcement of the right to breastfeed; and to provide remedies.
The People of the State of Michigan enact:
Sec. 1. (1) This act shall be known and may be cited as the “breastfeeding antidiscrimination act”.
Sec. 2. Except where expressly permitted by state or federal statute or a regulation promulgated thereunder, a person with control over a public accommodation or public service shall not do any of the following:
(a) Deny the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation or public service to a woman because she is breastfeeding a child.
(b) Print, circulate, post, mail, or otherwise cause to be published a statement, advertisement, notice, or sign that indicates any of the following:
(i) That the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of a place of public accommodation or public service will be refused, withheld from, or denied a woman because she is breastfeeding a child.
(ii) That a woman’s patronage of or presence at a place of public accommodation is objectionable, unwelcome, unacceptable, or undesirable because she is breastfeeding a child.
Sec. 3. (1) A person alleging a violation of this act may bring a civil action in a court of appropriate jurisdiction for appropriate injunctive relief, actual damages or presumed damages of $200.00, or both injunctive relief and actual or presumed damages.
(2) In addition to the relief under subsection (1), a court rendering a judgment in an action brought under this act may award all or a portion of the costs of litigation, including reasonable attorney fees and witness fees, to the complainant in the action if the court determines that the award is appropriate.

As nearly every Civil War reenactment takes place at a "public accommodation," women are legally allowed to nurse at events without being asked to cover up or leave. Pennsylvania has a similar law called The Freedom to Breastfeed Act, along with 38 other states. Even if my research had concluded that women never nursed publicly in the 19th century, a modern woman could legally do so at an event today without a problem. This information is all available online so you can check out your state's laws. I suggest you do so before making a decision for you or your group. Also consider that the little one could be a future reenactor, so making his/her mother feel uncomfortable may not be the best recruitment strategy.
Food is still the best recruitment strategy
Photo by Ken Giorlando

Women nursed publicly in the 19th century in a way that reflected their class and surroundings. By including this as a part of an impression, reenactors and the public alike are exposed to the loving nature of motherhood. If you are a mother and still feel the need to remove yourself, feel free. You're very busy, and it's not my decision whether or not you want to show that to the world. On the other hand, if you're looking for a place to're always welcome under my tent fly. 



  1. Excellent post. Excellent!
    As a father of four kids, all of whom were suckled, I am a strong supporter (no pun intended - honest!) of breastfeeding.
    That being said, mothers who plan to nurse their children at reenactments should take a few considerations in hand before doing so, if for no other reason than for respecting those who may take offense. "Those" being the visitors (many who might have paid to get in) who may complain, therefore possibly creating a problem between reenactors and the hosts, whether the hosts be a historical society, museum, or whoever the grounds are owned or controlled by.
    I would suggest speaking to them first just to be on the safe side. To me that's the polite and proper thing to do in 21st century America.
    I do understand the rights of the woman to feed her child wherever and whenever the need arises, and I will stand by her in this. But I also believe in respecting the views of a host (or hostess) who is willing to share their land for our opportunity to do living history and their prospective customers.
    It's kind of like using certain language that may have been acceptable 150 years ago but can cause someone to lose a job in today's society.
    That's my two cents.
    Bravo on your post and especially for your documentation!

  2. Excellent job Kristen, if i can add my couple cents: first to the offended- what are you offended of? If you are seeing the breast as something other than what it is, for example a sexual item, shame on you. That us not what God intended.
    Second, to the nursing mother- if those around you are that upset, shouldn't social edicit move you to be discrete? I nursed 4 boys, public & private. I strongly support nursing, its Gods design. In turn, if I were in a social situation, consideration makes me conform to the environment. Its just not right to be intolerable on either side. I know my statement will probably make people unhappy with me, but i hope at least equally.



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