|Stays altered for nursing c.1765 from|
Colonial Williamsburg's collections
(Accession Number 1986-111)
My little one turned one this fall and I completed the 21st century version of a weaning journey. In celebration I'm sharing thoughts / experiences with breastfeeding along with some research about nursing in the 18th century--because not one day went by where I didn't wonder...
How did people in the 18th century (and before our modern era) manage this?
The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America, which chronicles the life of the Connecticut woman Mary Fish Silliman, cites Mary has as having written about her infant child, "lives almost Intirely on the Breast and is a fine little fat fellow" (p161).
I can relate to that.
|Woman's dress or gown for nursing 1825-1830|
Accession Number 1988-231
By the 1820s, many daytime dresses
had high necklines and back
closures, which required modifications
to their design for nursing.
In this example, the bodice front
was made with a loose panel
that could be unfastened
at the waist and raised for nursing.
My schedule was dictated by my chest. It was nearly impossible to go to the bank, the grocery store, run to Target for more diapers, etc. without getting that painful letdown feeling. And then not having a suitable place to feed the baby or privately pull out my pump made it impossible to run errands.
I discovered that scheduling things around the letdown time was a necessity. Because if I tried to skip a session, it felt like [spoiler alert -- this is brutally honest] the girls were being punched. Or pinched.
I imagine that the challenges of scheduling must have been quite similar for ladies like Mrs. Silliman.
2. It's literally hard to do.
I had the world's best lactation consultant.
I took herbal supplements.
I took prescription drugs.
I killed three Medela Freestyle pumps and wore holes in my Simple Wishes bra.
I needed all these things to get started because:
|Glass feeding bottle, late 19th century|
Museum of Welsh Life
Accession Number GTJ31003
b) When I did establish a supply, it was low. I could only produce about 2/3 the milk she needed so I had to supplement with formula. (Which was terribly frustrating to do all the work and still have to buy formula tubs that read, "Experts agree that breastfeeding is best".)
So for our 18th century ancestors, was this kind of situation one that would lead to infant death? If so, did only full term babies survive? I hate to think that, but am inclined to think that that was the case. (And if that is the case, I probably wouldn't have survived labor.)
Once I got used to the pain of the letdown (which often feels like a pulled or strained muscle) I couldn't wake-up without feeling full. And it was virtually impossible to sleep in.
Many mommas suffer from clogged or blocked ducts. If left untreated this can lead to mastitis. Fortunately, with my lactation consultant's help, I worked through this issue (Tylenol, massages and hot showers) without major complications. How did 18th century mommies work through this issue?
One challenge that I regularly faced when wearing my stays for more than a few hours was that the girls would get terribly engorged and I almost always ended up with a clogged duct. I wonder if this is:
a) a result of my modern shaped body being accustomed to modern undies, and as a result my body not adapting well to the 18th century conical shape.
b) if 18th century women had this problem as well. (From my perspective, there's little or no place for the girls to grow in stays, so it seems feasible.)
If you're still reading this, thank you. I know this isn't a common topic for costume bloggers but it's one that has been on my mind for a looooooooooong time and is something 18th century women--and women from nearly all centuries--had to contend with.
I can only imagine the amount of pressure women once felt being the sole source of their baby's food and means of survival. And even when their baby would hit the 12 month mark, I cringe in pain at the thought of the 18th century weaning journey. (From my understanding, the mother and baby were separated for two weeks. She dried up (OUCH!) and the child was expected to master solid foods.)
In the book Daily Life in 18th-Century England, Kristen Olsen writes, "The baby's nourishment might come from several sources. In well-off families, particularly in the first half of the century, it was likely to be turned over to a wet nurse". She continues, "In richer families, the wet nurse lived in the baby's home; in middle-class families, the baby lived with the wet nurse until weaned...A wet nurse might also be used by a working mother who could not bring her baby to work with her. From the middle of the century, however, there was an increasing tendency for even middle- and upper-class women to nurse their own babies" (p52).
While I admire the 18th century, I am quite thankful for 21st century modernity.
If you're nuts about nursing and looking for more sources:
- There's a facebook group about "Historic Photos & Prints of Breastfeeding."
- Interesting article from NewScientist featuring new research about 18th and 19th century breastfeeding trends using isotope analysis.
- Check out the book, A Social History of Wet Nursing: from breast to bottle
Do you have thoughts or resources on nursing to share?