A toddler at a small table eat a plant of food with a large glass of milk.

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

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?

Black and white photo of a large building, eight stories on one half and 11 stories on the other. Appears ot be brick or cinderblock
This photograph of the main building of the New York Nursery and Child Hospital at 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue (New York City) appears in the Hospital’s annual report for 1924. (Underwood and Underwood photographers/Wikimedia Commons)

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.[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3] 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.

According to an address given by Rev. Dr. Anthon at its 1857 cornerstone-laying ceremony, the hospital was created to alleviate the negative impacts of this form of poverty that “compelled” a mother “to surrender her own flesh and blood.”[4] While this description acknowledged the dire circumstances wet nurses faced, the foundational speech admonished the mother who, as Anthon puts it, “gives nourishment to the child of the rich, while she herself fares sumptuous at the rich man’s table…while the damp cell, the fretted vault, the crowded attic, steamed with poisonous and pestilential vapors, is the home of her own child—not happy, not beautiful, not in the bloom of health, but yet innocent.” While the children of wet nurses might thus be pitied and perceived as deserving of middle-class and elite reformers’ largesse, mothers themselves were viewed with disdain even by those seeking to help them – as if the decision to become a wet nurse was a deliberate, heartless choice. Anthon’s speech continues with a short poem:

“The child whom many mothers share,
Has seldom known a mother’s care.”

This kind of contempt for the mothers of children in their care – and the acknowledgment that, while the hospital filled a necessary gap for children, a woman’s proper role was still motherhood – is present throughout the archival record of the hospital, sometimes alongside evidence of what would be considered child neglect today.

A 1905 letter from Superintendent Matilda Miller to Mrs. Kintzing P. Emmons, the wife of a Staten Island stockbroker, about the “Moore babies” movingly captures this dynamic. Mrs. Emmons had hired the (unnamed) mother of the Moore babies as a wet nurse, forcing the mother to leave her own infants in the hospital’s care. Miller’s letter was filed among other correspondence, including physicians’ complaints about mothers’ “ignorance” of “proper” feeding practices, and administrators’ protests of the vermin-ridden conditions of the underfunded hospital. It is a response to Emmons’s apparently alarmed inquiry about the Moore children’s health. In response to these concerns, Miller writes disdainfully, “I am sorry that you and [the Moore babies’ mother] are feeling troubled. It is not reasonable to expect them to look as well as they would if nursed by their mother, if she had wished to do so, she could have come here and nursed her own babies.”[5] This dismissive, non-apology apology blamed the mother for her children’s current state, despite their being admitted to the hospital. Miller also points out Mrs. Emmons’s own responsibility for the children’s dire state, warning, “We always consider it a risk to care for such tiny babies when separated from the mother, and if you can make any better provision for them I will be glad to have you do so.” We don’t know from the letter how Mrs. Emmons procured the mother’s services, or how the babies came to the hospital – but Miller insists that their ill health is not the fault of the hospital, but of the mother and her employer.

Despite this brush-off, Miller did seek to reassure Mrs. Emmons that the Moore babies were not so badly off: she reported that one of the twins had gained weight while the other had not lost any. To my modern eye, depending on how young these children are – and the letter does not say, except that they are “tiny” – not gaining weight could be almost as dangerous for a young infant as losing it.

The description viscerally reminds me of my own child eight years ago: at her two-month well-baby checkup, my world came crashing down when her pediatrician told me she wasn’t gaining enough weight and was at risk of the dreaded state known as “failure to thrive.” Born several weeks early and already small, my daughter hadn’t lost weight but was falling off the growth chart. Over a century later and with a panoply of resources the Moore mother could never have accessed – paid parental leave, a partner and supportive family members sharing caregiving responsibilities, the technological innovation of a breast pump, the ability to hire a lactation consultant – I remember my own guilt that my body wasn’t nourishing her properly. I remember my sense of shame that I had morally failed as a mother, just as I’d begun to take on this new identity.

Holding this letter in the archive, I found myself wanting to reach out to embrace the mother of the Moore babies. This woman, who wet nursed somebody else’s child while her own babies languished under suboptimal care and who was likely forced to do so by lack of any other economic option, does not even receive a name in the letter. She’s barely a person to Miller or Emmons, just a vessel providing – or not providing – her milk to these children competing to live. Miller wasn’t terribly concerned about the mother herself; maybe Mrs. Emmons was since she wrote on her behalf, but her own thoughts, feelings, and experiences as a mother and wet nurse are invisible. I wonder how she felt, and whether anyone offered her any empathy or care. I wish I could travel back in time to hold space for her.

The shame directed towards the Moore mother and that I felt as a mother struggling to nourish my child is a continuity that stops me in my tracks. Just like today, women’s decisions in the past about how to feed their babies were shaped by personal preference, to be sure, but the possibilities available are bounded by technological innovations, shifting medical advice, and social, cultural, and economic pressures and practices. Individual, personal “choices” for feeding are often not actual desired options but necessary for survival and can weigh heavily on women and carry serious consequences, from the deadly gastrointestinal diseases that accompanied bottle-feeding at the turn of the century to the heartbreaking realities of today’s formula crisis. Examining the monumental shifts of infant feeding practices over time illuminates how the decisions we assume are intimate and personal choices are impacted by these broader structures and cultural norms.

Notes

  1. In comparison, Stephanie Jones-Rodgers has illuminated how white women created a market for this critical form of enslaved Black women’s reproductive labor in the antebellum South. Stephanie Jones-Rodgers, “‘[S]he could … spare one ample breast for the profit of her owner’: White Mothers and Enslaved Wet Nurses’ Invisible Labor in American Slave Markets,” Slavery & Abolition 38, no. 2:(2017), pg 337-355.
  2. Janet Golden, A Social History of Wet Nursing in America, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 127.
  3. Lara Vapnek, “The Labor of Infant Feeding: Wet-Nursing at the Nursery and Child’s Hospital, 1854–1910,” Journal of American History, 109, no. 1: (2022), 93.
  4. Nursery and Child’s Hospital Records (MS 443.20), Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society, Box 1, Folder 8.
  5. Nursery and Child’s Hospital Records (MS 443.20), Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society, Box 2, folder 3.

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