Wisconsin antique bottle and advertising club

The History of Infant Feeding

by Karen McEvoy

The history of infant feeding is quite interesting. Babies were usually breast fed. Infrequently an attempt might be made to feed an infant artificially (by hand) from a bottle or from an animal's horn with the tip cut off and a bit of skin or rag tied to the neck. Pickled cow's teats were used as nipples. Hard nipples of glass, pewter, ivory and occasionally silver were common before the rubber nipple. In 1845 the first rubber nipple was made of black rubber that tasted bad, smelled bad and went to pieces in hot water. Babies were fed pap from discarded bottles. Pap consisted of whatever they could lay then hands on which they thought was nourishing. Sometimes ground up nuts mixed with water, other times bourbon or beer. Fish when available was mashed into a liquid pap. Animal milk was not used very often, due to the fear that the infant would take on the characteristics of the animal along with the milk. Occasionally an infant was suckled directly from a goat, donkey or cow. A bottle was used as a last resort and even then only one bottle sufficed. It was simply rinsed out, reused and eventually discarded. . . .

Because of the ignorance of sanitation and dietary requirements, the infant survival rate was very low. Between 1762-1771 about 2/3 of the children born in London died before the age of 5 years, and about 75% of these deaths occurred under the age of 2 years. The infant mortality in the Pans Foundling Hospital in the late 18th century was 85% of 32,000 infants and in Dublin of 10,000 infants admitted to the hospital between 1775-1796, only 45 survived - in other words, 99.6% died. In New York City in 1865 more than 1/3 of all infants born died under the age of 5 years; most of these deaths were attributed to improper feeding. Disease and death were the usual consequences of bringing children up by hand. Scarcely one in four of these little children lived to get over the cutting of their teeth; and of those that escaped, improper nourishment generally renders them infirm or short lived.

In the 19th century, it is more acceptable to feed babies cows milk. More than half of the milk used in New York City in 1832 came from cows fed on distillers' mash. There were sheds containing 2,000 cows. The city tramps were the milkers. The cows were diseased and the milk filthy. Distillery cows produced "swill milk." This liquid made babies tipsy and caused a scandal in New York in 1870 when it was revealed that these cows had tuberculosis. The city administration would sell its garbage to a farmer who promptly fed it to his cows. Even in the early 20th century, dirty milk was usually found III all large American cities. Customers would carry the milk home in open pitchers or pails in the hottest months. There were notice boxes, so the milk was set on a table in a hot room. To improve the color of milk from diseased cattle they often added molasses, chalk or plaster of Paris. The science of bacteriology should be credited more than any other single development in reducing the death rate of hand fed infants. Pasteurization was first used in the dairy industry about 1890 more as a means of increasing the "life" of the milk than to kill the bacteria.

The infant food industry started around 1867. This was the beginning of an almost endless variety of infant foods which appeared during the last quarter of the 19th century. These were divided into 3 groups: the first group contained dried cow's milk, some cereal and sugar (Horlick's malted milk); the second group contained some form of malted carbohydrate (Mellin's Food); and the third group was composed of pure cereal to be used with fresh cow's milk (Imperial Granum). The greatest harm from these foods was they were often used as the infant's only article of diet. Since most of them contained little more than concentrated carbohydrate, the results were usually disastrous. As the 20th century began the infant morality rate was 141.4 per thousand live-born infants. A boy born in 1900 had a life expectancy of 48.2 years, and a girl born the same year 51.5 years. In 1900 there were few men, no women, devoting themselves only to the care of infants and children. There were not more that 50 medical practitioners in the whole country who took a particular interest in infants and children. Before this, doctors never saw children, only adults.

Purchase of milk on a daily basis was not the common practice and with or without pasteurization, bacterial contamination of milk was a frequent occurrence. The refrigerator is taken for granted today, but it was not until about 1910 that the kitchen icebox became commonplace in American homes. Without an icebox, storage of milk was not feasible and when attempted, milk: as usually stored on the outside window sill. Handfed infants ere given a poorly devised concoction of which cow's milk: was usually the basis. The milk was almost always dirty and unsterilized, and was put into dirty bottles and fed through dirty nipples.

As we move on through the 20th century, it was realized that cleanliness and nutrition were very important to survival of infants who were handfed. Milk and milk-free products were introduced such as: buttermilk, protein milk, butter-flour mixture, soybean, acidified milks, evaporated milk, dry milk, pasteurized milk, and single formula mixtures also known as humanized milks.
During this century infant feeding has become so simple and safe that we are likely to forget the long and dangerous road that has led to this accomplishment.
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