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Recently, 400 breastfeeding nipples were illuminated outside Facebook’s Madrid offices as a protest of the social media company’s nudity policies, which have repeatedly resulted in the removal of nursing images. Meanwhile, Pope Francis caused a bit of a stir last month when he said women waiting to baptize their children in the Sistine Chapel were welcome to breastfeed in the church “without fear.” And in the UK this year, the Health Minister Michelle O’Neill of the Northern Ireland Executive announced planned legislation to protect women who breastfeed in public. Which is all to say, the public perception and censorship of the female body in regards to breastfeeding remains complicated.
So I was surprised when I came across a small 2015 album of 19th-century breastfeeding photographs from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America on Flickr Commons. The research library, part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, acquired the three daguerreotypes and one tintype in 2006. Like most daguerreotype portraits of the 1800s, the women’s faces are staring and somewhat stern, with their heavy silk dresses covering them to the neck. That is, except where their breasts are exposed for the baby in their arms.
In a 2012 New Yorker article, Jill Lepore described the daguerreotype at the top of this post, where a child’s light dress is luminous against the woman’s dark dress with its pristine white collar:
Cover the middle of the picture with the fingers of your hand and it looks like every other daguerreotype you’ve ever seen, worn, charming, and more than a little sad: Emily Dickinson, more or less. But under your hand, the unexpected: the undone buttons, the sucking mouth, the bared breast.
Lepore further explored this history in her 2013 book The Mansion of Happiness, noting that the daguerreotypes were something of a fad in the United States, where wet nursing was not as common as in Europe, and these visuals may have reinforced the emphasis on maternal femininity and motherhood. There were exceptions, notably enslaved or lower class black and white women who were employed as wet nurses. These individuals sometimes appear in daguerreotypes with the children they served. The George Eastman Museum shared one example from 1860 in its “Photography and African American History and Culture” online exhibition at the Google Cultural Institute. The nurse’s bodice is intimately open, and the Eastman Museum notes that the “woman’s owner or employer probably supplied her with the dress and most likely also commissioned the photograph. Both served as reminders of her perceived ‘function’ — to provide nourishment to the child.”
It may seem strange that the Victorian era with its heavily layered clothing and modesty would have not decried these photographs as obscenity, so it’s important to consider the personal meaning of a daguerreotype. These were not public images, but private mementos, folded in their metal velvet-lined cases and kept as close as lockets. The Schlesinger Library dates its four images from 1848 to the 1860s, just a few years after the daguerreotype arrived in the United States in 1839. Frequently in these early portraits, men posed with indicators of their occupations; for women their main role was often restricted to being a mother.
The introduction of bottle feeding and formula, the hyper sexualization of women’s breasts in World War II pin-ups, and numerous other cultural moments have contributed to how we might currently view these mid-19th century images today. Yet overall there is a candid tenderness to them, with one woman’s white-gloved hand cradling a child, the details of a woman’s dangling earrings and the baby below’s clenched fist in another, that offers a rare glimpse into the now anonymous lives of these 19th-century women.
View more images from the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America on Flickr Commons.