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

The complex story of wet nurses and their children in the time before the advent of baby formula.

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. 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.”

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.” 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.