Monday, August 11, 2008

Images of Breastfeeding Before the Taboo

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:


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post -- and history lesson. When was it that we got so weird about women nursing their children?

Anonymous said...

I think it was in the early 50's wasn't it when the government starting promoting formula? I know for sure by the time I was born ('73) my mom was viewed as some radical hippy for breast-feeding me and then nearly 10 years later my sister, it was really crazy.

I wish I had been able to BF, but I had had surgery on the girls and it just wasn't possible.

Jaelithe said...

From what I've read, it was actually during the 1930s that canned condensed milk became widely available, making it possible for women to make safer formula at home. At around that point in time the composition of most commercially prepared formulas also improved dramatically-- i.e., formula-fed babies stopped dying in large numbers from malnutrition-- and so doctors stopped encouraging breastfeeding and many even began to see formula as a better alternative, because they could control what nutrients went into it, and they felt this meant children would get more consistent nutrition.

Of course so little was actually known about proper nutrition at the time that formula still lacked adequate quantities of some nutrients, and had too much of others. But doctors couldn't see the long-term consequences until much later.

Today's formulas are sooooo much better and I think it's a blessing for women who do have a medical complication or other serious impediment to nursing.

Jaelithe said...

Oh P.S. My mother was viewed as a radical hippy for nursing me in 1980, too.

Anonymous said...

I think it's fascinating how businesses have shaped motherhood--not just the milk industry influencing breastfeeding, but HMOs and the medical industry with childbirth. Can you tell I just watched The Business of Being Born?

Anonymous said...

My mother had that painted plate at the bottom of the pictures.

I think she had a whole series of breastfeeding plates.

Man, she'd get pissed when I'd eat cookies off those plates.

Her Bad Mother said...

This is a trillion kinds of awesome, it really really is. I had NO IDEA. THANK YOU.

Anonymous said...

I've been wondering about this for so long! Thanks for such a great post.

My mom recently threw a blanket over my shoulder when I was breastfeeding in a restaurant and I was so steaming mad (but didn't say anything's a long story). Even though she breastfed. I guess it's just a generational thing. My grandmother, who's so traditional in so many ways (tells me that children "aren't enough" to make working mothers happy, implication being that sahm love their children more), has never said anything about me breastfeeding in public.

Jaelithe said...

Dwight, I would TOTALLY be willing to believe that story if it weren't for the fact that that image is a photo and not a plate painting :P

(If you enlarge it, you can see it's a photo by the grain. It just looks painterly because it's a very early photo and the resolution was not excellent at that time.)

Anonymous said...

Wow. Coulda sworn that was one of the series.

I can only remember the Victorian woman and a native american woman/papoose.

I remember thinking as a little kid, "What a bizzare thing to put on a comemorative plate. What happened to Elvis?"

Listen Up, MoFos! said...

Very timely post, please read this one about public breastfeeding and how women fought back in Vancouver!

Leighann of Multi-Minding Mom said...

Beautiful and intelligent post. Thank you for bringing all those images together. It's always interesting to see what happened before and after iconic images.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. I can't think of another word to describe the photos & history you've put together here.
Well done!!

My mom was a hippie in the 70's and she breastfeed my sister & I.

I breastfeed both of my daughters and am so glad that I was able to do so. Although I never was brave enough to nurse in public.

Thanks for such a lovely post.

Anonymous said...

I love this post! You inspired me. Here are a bunch more photos.

Anonymous said...

Well, I wouldn't say my wife and I were (are?) hippies in any sense (though I did sport some really long hair for quite a long time), but she openly nursed in public. Our first child was born in 1995, second in 2001.

We have a couple of pictures of her nursing that friends took, one of which is still on our 'fridge.

I even remember shopping in Target, with her walking down the aisle nursing away. As far as I know, we (or her) never got any flak for it.

I think the whole formula thing probably took off in the late 70's/early 80's when it was more common to have two income families. In the late 60's/early 70's, most of my parents friends were breast-feeding.

It wasn't considered any big thing in my household, and still isn't.

Anonymous said...

Excellent! This is the best post that I've ever read on this subject. Ever! You so rock.

Anonymous said...

Even as recently as 1995 when I tried to nurse my daughter I wasn't as much called a "hippie" but formula was pushed on me SO hard by the doctor, and the nurses at the hospital had already given my daughter formula by the time I was back in my room after my c-section! This was with full knowledge that I intended to nurse. She had a lot of issues with nipple confusion and we only nursed a couple weeks.

With my 2 year old I was asked to watch breastfeeding videos during my GTT test time, and strongly encouraged to breastfeed. In fact I was nursing my son just 20 minutes after my VBAC, and we nursed quite successfully until he was 14 months old and I was 9 weeks pregnant with our angel baby and my supply dwindled.

It has been an amazingly eye opening experience having babies so far apart and what both the medical profession and our society see as what is "best" for baby.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. :) A wonderful post.

Anonymous said...

This was a beautiful post. I am inspired to write something about nursing and motherhood just to link to this because everyone should read this. I never knew the full story behind Lange's photos of Thompson.
Awesome story :)

sugaredharpy said...


I like to make my students look at these. And Madonna and Child's with a nursing Madonna. I figure exposure equals normalizing it.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Breastfeeding goes in cycles like everything else. My mother breastfed me in 1949. I breastfed my children born in 1984 and 1987. If I nursed them in public, I always used some modesty, just because it felt right. I don't care that it is a natural thing to do...I wasn't flopping my breasts out in public. Urinating is natural but I prefer some privacy! Now, I heard that doctors are saying that there is no benefit to breastfeeding. Here we go again. Give it another few years and it will be popular again. Every woman has to do what she feels is right and what she can work into her schedule.

Anonymous said...

This is beautiful. I was unable to nurse but did try drop by drop for six weeks until my son lost an alarming amount of weight and needed supplemental formula. Nonetheless, glad I got to experience it if only for a bit.

the mad momma said...

beautiful. the more we progress, the more we regress in other ways. in India the maids feed openly sitting on the roadside and in buses. And we lock the doors and feed behind them. sad.

Nelson Melle said...

This got me teared up. It is horrible that mother's are made to feel bad about doing what is best for their child. Thank you for this!!!!