Today moms are spoiled with choices when it comes to feeding their babies. They have the option of breastfeeding or offering the baby formula milk. When the baby comes to be weaned, there is fresh fruit and vegetables as well as sterilizers to ensure that the food we are offering the child is safe. Moms can supplement the child’s diet with pasteurized cow milk once they are old enough; children are rarely exposed to bacteria from food in the western world.
However, in the 1900s, a mother’s options were very limited. The most obvious choice was to breastfeed the child, as this was convenient and free. However, many women in poorer communities were malnourished and their milk supply was inadequate. Some women worked out of the home and therefore breastfeeding was not possible for a prolonged period. Formula milk was available but expensive and thus out of the reach of many average families. Babies would be fed inappropriate foodstuffs that were often delivered in unsterile equipment. This is one of the reasons there was so much infant illness in this era, as bacteria could easily be transferred to a baby with a delicate immune system.
Generally, upper-class women had a very different experience. The majority of them employed a wet nurse to avoid feeding the baby themselves and the children had more chance of being fed safe and appropriate food. This equally explains why life expectancy was greater for richer children, although protection against disease was minimal in all classes.
Glass bottles were standard for Victorian babies. The bottles were made with a narrow mouth and a rubber nipple could be attached from which the baby fed. Vulcanized rubber had been invented around 1850 and was used as a standard in baby’s bottles in the 1900s.
The bottles were hard to clean and so sanitation and germs were a major problem. A bottle was invented in 1894 that had an opening at both ends, one for feeding and the other to insert the milk. This was secured with a metal stopper and the producer of these bottles claimed they were easier to clean. This may have been true, but bottles were still often inappropriately cleaned and led to infections being passed to the baby through the milk or bottle, leading to illness or worse, suggests Liza O'Connor.com.
A breast pump is a common part of a 21st-century new mother’s kit. However, this is nothing new. The women of the 1900s had breast pumps as well, although they look somewhat primitive to modern eyes. The pumps were comprised of a glass bulb to collect the milk and it was attached to a rubber bulb that was pumped to release the milk, according to Victorian Collections.
There was another form of a pump that comprised a rubber tube to a collection device, and they were promoted to ease the pain of a mother with sore or full breasts. Reports from the day describe how comfortable they were, although contemporary reviews refute this. Doctors give glowing descriptions of how beneficial they are, however, as with all 1900 feeding equipment, it is debatable how easy it was to keep the pumps clean enough to be sterile.
Mothers had very limited options when feeding their babies if they could not breastfeed. By the mid-1800s a type of milk substitute was available that was marketed as a ‘milk food.’ Although the cost would have been insane for many families, there was at least an option for those who had access to it.
The composition of the substitute milk was rice or pea flour, sometimes enhanced with malt that sweetened the mixture. According to Ezine, formula milk was produced by Nestle in 1864, made from cows milk and cereal. It was promoted to support women who were not able to produce enough milk for their babies, a common problem during this era when diet was poor for many women.
Henri Nestle had visited mothers living in poverty and children living in orphanages and became convinced that a milk substitute was necessary to enhance infant nutrition. When his formula was fed to a premature baby boy whose mother was too ill to feed him and he survived, the image of this formula milk was enhanced and thrived.
Although it wasn’t until the 1920s that soft food marketed as ‘baby food’ came onto the market, in the 1900s it was possible to obtain soft food that was aimed at the elderly, babies, and those who were dealing with sickness.
The advice was to start babies on solid food at around the age of one, according to Splendid Table. Babies were fed with milk up until this age, and there are recipes for a soft mushy concoction in recipe books of the era, aimed at offering a palatable foodstuff to wean the baby.
Commercial versions of this soft food appeared in the 1900s and soft cereals, boiled fruit, or vegetables came to the market. However, poorer families who could have benefited from these safe and hygienic foods could often not afford them.
Today, most homes have a refrigerator and a freezer, and we are accustomed to being able to store food at a temperature that will keep it fresh for several days. In the 1900s, this was not common practice in most homes. Food was consumed on the day of purchase as there were few options for keeping it fresh.
However, as the trade in commercial ice took off in the nineteenth century, ice boxes for the home were invented and did make their way into some wealthier homes by the 1900s. There was a thriving trade in ice and ice houses and ice storage units were available for homes. They were replicated from commercial units that bought ice in bulk to keep their foodstuffs fresh, according to Ultimate History Project.
Upper-class ladies in the early 1900s found it distasteful to breastfeed their babies and generally employed wet nurses to do the job for them.
A wet nurse was a mother who had previously breastfed a baby and who retained the supply of her milk by working as a wet nurse for such families. Although they may be advanced in years, the continuous feeding kept their milk supply going long after their own children had outgrown breastfeeding, reveals Thoughtco.
Wet nurses were often very poor women who had been released from the workhouse and had lost their babies, thus why they had a ready supply of milk. Sometimes their babies did not survive, or they were separated from their mothers and left to the mercy of the workhouse staff and rarely reunited with their birth mothers.
There were very few hygiene precautions in the 1900s, but changes were being made. Governments were building hospitals and trying to clean up public sanitation. Attempts were made to clean up the water supply that was often contaminated. There was a measure of social reform around this time to supplement the care that was offered by churches and benevolent societies to offer relief to the poor and sick.
The lack of hygiene and crowded living conditions meant that outbreaks of diseases were common and it was a situation that needed to be addressed. According to Archives, there had been great strides in the late nineteenth century in understanding what caused disease and while hygiene was primitive, education was filtering down to improve the situation and ultimately the life expectancy of society.
Knowledge of infant feeding and infant care was mainly concentrated around the home, with friends and families offering advice and support to the majority of mothers. Midwives tended to be local women who came in to support the birth, and after that, mothers were left to cope on their own.
Visits to doctors were reserved for serious conditions or emergencies by the majority, so families took advice from their close family as to how to feed their babies. While the majority of babies were breastfed, when equipment was involved in infant feeding, there was insufficient knowledge about cleanliness to keep items sterile.
As a program of public health began to emerge, this information still took time to filter down to poorer women, according to NCBI.
For the majority of women, especially those from the working class, there was no other viable option than to breastfeed their babies. Breastfeeding was free and relatively easy to maintain, especially if the baby was swaddled in a shawl close to the mother’s breast. The mother would only encounter a problem with providing milk to her baby if they were unable to produce sufficient milk, often from being poorly nourished.
In America, breastfeeding was more popular among the middle class and more well off women, who took advantage of the advent of photography to show themselves feeding their babies, reveals Daily Mail. There was something of a revival of breastfeeding in the early 1900s that lasted until formula milk became more widely available in the 1940s.
Many mothers had to return to work much more quickly than in today’s society. Their salary could be the difference between a large family surviving and not. Therefore, the baby may not have been breastfed during the day and if no wet nurse was available, the baby would be fed on a cheap substitute for milk.
This often involved the baby being fed pap notes, which was a mixture of flour and water. This thin substance was totally incompatible with a tiny baby’s digestion and did not contain sufficient nutrition to encourage the baby to thrive. The feeding equipment may not have been sterilized and infection could be passed easily to the baby.
If the family could afford it, the baby may have been weaned on a thin porridge as early as six weeks old. Pap jugs or boats were like long jugs, into which the pap was inserted and then spooned or blown into the baby’s mouth.
Wealthy and upper-class ladies rarely breastfed their own babies. While it may be the most natural and maternal of activities to many women today, to the refined, upper-class lady of the 1900s, a lady was regarded as delicate and slightly fragile, and breastfeeding was not compatible with this image, according to Huffington Post.
A survey from the early 1900s reveals that in Boston only seventeen percent of wealthy women were breastfeeding their babies, as opposed to ninety percent of working-class women. For the wealthy mothers, it was customary to employ a wet nurse, who was paid for her services of breastfeeding the upper-class babies.
Some aristocratic mothers did notoriously feed their babies themselves, but this was very much the exception and regarded by some as unnatural!
Medical knowledge at this time was very primitive compared to what we know today. Doctors often gave treatments that had no benefit at all, but they were using the knowledge that was available to them. Patients sometimes suffered worse symptoms as a result of a doctor’s treatment, rather than improving, which contributed to general mistrust in the medical profession.
Mother and baby care were based around local knowledge, as babies would often be delivered by a community midwife who was not professionally trained, and family members and friends would be called on for advice. However, there was a growing movement towards social health reform, as local authorities saw the growing rise in disease and illness that was prevalent among poorer communities according to CDC.
Formula milk became available in the mid-nineteenth century when Liebig introduced infant formula milk and encouraged the development of around thirty varieties of milk substitute by the turn of the century.
The powdered milk was enhanced with starch and sugar. An evaporated milk was developed in the late nineteenth century by John B. Myerling, which became popular for infant feeding.
The marketing material promoted the milk substitute as a beneficial aid to baby’s health and encouraged mothers to use it if they found breastfeeding difficult. Advertisements were endorsed by doctors and health professionals to let mothers feel that the formula was safe, reveals Today.
A father’s role was very different in 1900 than the role they have today. In the 21st century, we are used to fathers being present at the birth, getting fully involved in feeding and baby care and sometimes being the primary caregiver.
In 1900 this role was much less involved. In upper-class families, the children would be taken care of by staff and may not be seen by their parents for hours on end. In a working-class family, the father and possibly mother would work, and the father was not involved in the household chores. Hence he would rarely be involved in infant feeding as he would be at work or need to rest when he came home, according to Inspire 21.
He would certainly not be present at birth, this was purely the domain of women in 1900 and hospital birth was rare.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many illnesses were treated at home or by friends and relatives. Doctors and medicines were expensive, and hospitals were feared as many people went into the hospital and never came out. Hospitals around this time had a much worse level of sanitation than today and it was revolutionary when nurses like Florence Nightingale promoted cleanliness for health.
When the self-feeding bottles were introduced on the market, parents found them an easy way to feed their babies. But then doctors realized that the bottles could contain a cocktail of bacteria because of the difficulty in washing them, and according to List Verse, many parents ignored the advice and continued using them anyway with poor consequences.
For a baby in the 1900s, life expectancy was not long. This was partly due to disease and infection, particularly in poorer areas where people lived in crowded conditions where the infection spread quickly. It was also due to poor sanitation and lack of hygiene, and poor cleaning of feeding utensils.
It was also due to the fact that babies were malnourished. If a mother couldn’t breastfeed or had to go back to work, it was customary to wean the baby much earlier than we would do so in modern times. The food that babies were given may not have been suitable and could carry infection if not prepared properly.
Storage of food was also a problem, and it was common for meat to be bought on the street that had not been chilled sufficiently. A more common diet was bread, meat drippings, and vegetables, according to Victorian Children.
In some cultures around the world it is still a common practice for parents to chew the food they are about to feed to their infant before presenting it to them. The view is that it is a safe way of ensuring that temperature and consistency are suitable for the baby, according to Undark.
However, this was a less successful strategy in 1900. If parents wanted to wean their babies because milk was not available, the caregiver would have chewed the food before feeding it to the baby, to ensure it was of a palatable consistency for the infant.
Because of a lack of oral hygiene, this was often a kindness that caused harm. Bacteria in the teeth and mouth were passed to the baby and often caused great harm and illness.
Every parent knows the torture that teething can cause to a baby and this was no different in the 1900s. However, the suggested remedies for teething pain were less than safe. Many parents put boric acid on their baby’s gums or in their milk, a substance that is found today in insecticides.
The Victorian household guru, Isabella Beeton, actually recommended the addition of boric acid to a baby’s milk reveals The Anatomy of Melancholy. The substance gave the milk a sweeter taste, so it was palatable to the baby. It had a dual effect in her opinion, of killing bacteria as well as helping with teething pain.
However, boric acid can hide the taste of milk that wasn’t at its freshest, and prolonged consumption can lead to fits, brain damage, and loss of life.
For mothers who couldn’t breastfeed and couldn’t afford a wet nurse, there were limited options. The most popular was to feed a baby with cow’s milk or goat’s milk. This was not ideal as the baby’s digestion is not designed to be able to digest cow’s milk until they are six months old, but mothers had no other option.
Some mothers diluted the cow's milk with water and added sugar. This solution was then boiled and fed to the baby, according to Mumsnet. Hopefully, if the mixture was boiled sufficiently and the equipment it was served in was sterile, the baby would remain free from illness.
However, due to the lack of regulation and hygiene knowledge, much cow’s milk was contaminated in the 1900s and bacteria could easily be passed to the baby.
As sanitation was often very primitive for many families, it was often very hard to keep baby’s bottles as clean as was required. Fortunately, many mothers in this situation breastfed their babies, but for those who attempted to clean their glass bottles, they were often passing on bacteria to their babies.
A bottle was invented in the late nineteenth century that claimed to help mothers to feed their babies more conveniently. It comprised a glass bottle with a rubber tube attached to it and a nipple on the end. This allowed the baby to feed without having to be held by an adult.
Although these bottles promised convenience to the mothers, they were so hard to keep clean that they were often breeding grounds for dangerous germs and bacteria. So many problems in infant illness arose from the use of these bottles that they were eventually banned in 1910 according to Alimentarium.