August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and I've been inspired by Catherine of Her Bad Mother's recent post about receiving disapproving looks while nursing her infant son in public to pull together several early 20th century images of women breastfeeding here in North America, before the rise of formula feeding largely pushed nursing mothers out of the public eye for two generations.
The seed of this project was actually planted in my mind several months ago, when I read an article about this famous photo:
Most everyone has seen this iconic image, taken by photographer Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression as part of her work for the federal Farm Security Administration. The woman in the photo, Florence Owens Thompson, stranded by a broken-down car she was using to travel between towns looking for work, cradles her infant while two of her older children cling to her. This photograph is featured in practically every elementary school U.S. History course in the country.
But it wasn't until I'd viewed the entire series of photos taken by Dorothea Lange that day that I realized the Migrant Mother's shirt is unbuttoned.
When I saw that Lange's series included three photos of Thompson nursing her baby, it occurred to me: Not only was Thompson nursing in public, in full view of her older children and fellow campers at the site, without a blanket over her baby's head or any sort of cover, but this activity was so ordinary to her that she was willing to let a perfect stranger take her photo while she fed her baby.
Nursing in public was so normal at the time that Dorothea Lange had no qualms about asking a nursing mother she'd never met before whether she could take her photo.
And such images were so acceptable at the time that Lange turned them right in to her government employer, and they were included in the federal archives without comment.
In fact, it wasn't the last time Lange would photograph a nursing mother for the FSA:
Indeed, during the 1930s, the United States government, much like today, was very much in the business of promoting breastfeeding. Take this beautiful Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project poster:
The Library of Congress online catalog contains many wonderful examples of even earlier photographs depicting nursing mothers. In this 1910 photograph, a woman nurses her infant out in the open while hulling berries with her older children:
And the mother in this photograph, taken by photographer F. Holland Day in 1906, chose to have her portrait made as she nursed her baby: