Eighteenth Century Wet-Nursing Practices and Reproductive Care Chains – What Has (Not) Changed?

Date Posted: Friday 9th August 2019

Blog post by Eliska Bujokova on our ECN series 'Women and the Economy'

care workEmploymentpastreproductive work


A Wet Nurse’s Place for A Young Woman, of Twenty-two Years of Age, with a good Breast of Milk; her Child is two Months old, and she proposes to put it out: She can have a very good Character.

Please to inquire at Mr. Dunnant’s, Lapidary in King-street, St. Ann’s, Soho, by the French Change. (London, 1751)[1]

Healthy Mom for wet nursing/ fresh breastmilk sale
Location: Shelby Twp, Michigan, USA

Price: $ 100.00

More Information

Healthy new Mom of a 5-month-old available for wet nursing and to sell fresh and/or frozen breastmilk. 

No dairy and still taking prenatal vitamins, no medications. 
Prices negotiable. (USA, 2015)[2]


In just five lines the first of the above adverts epitomises the experience of many poor mothers in 18th-century London. It reveals a story of destitution faced by many women, especially those freshly migrating to the metropolis, after giving birth to a child they could not support without a kinship network or a well-paying job, which was very difficult to find with a dependent.


This advert echoes the contemporary debate, both medical and moral, on the emerging middle-class ideal of motherhood and childcare, placing new requirements on women who were to take up the position of a wet-nurse, such as age, country of origin, breast size and, most importantly, the absence of their own infant, preferably two months after its birth. It can also, however, serve as a parallel to the current ethical debate about reproductive monetised labour that uses women’s bodies, in particular the surrogacy and breast milk industries, which, as shown by the second advert quoted, have changed very little since the period studied. Marketing her good health, diet as well as her child’s age, the resemblance of the present-day wet-nurse’s advertising strategies with her 18th-century counterpart is indeed uncanny. 


This article shows an example from the past of how the female reproductive body, especially one belonging to a poor woman, was readily commodified as part of a reproductive care chain. Through focusing on the experiences of women in the past that entered monetised forms of childcare, mostly as a result of poverty and lack of support, my research also aims to draw a parallel to the current phenomenon of both local and globalised care chains that closely resemble these past practices. This article looks at the experiences of wet-nursing, defined as breastfeeding of a child by a woman other than its mother, indispensably a part of ‘body work’, a labour intensive and emotionally demanding physical care of dependents, disproportionately carried out by women in the past as well as today.[3]


In addition to contemporary newspapers, my research draws on evidence of wet-nursing arrangements from court records across the city of London. The experience of women captured within their depositions shows that the emerging ideal of tender motherhood was limited to the middle classes. It also shows the different experiences of pregnancy and childbirth of women without supportive networks.


To draw an example, in 1747 Elizabeth Fletcher was tried at the Old Bailey criminal court for infanticide when an infant body was found in the neighbourhood, and she was almost convicted as ‘they examin’d her Breast, and found Milk’, a common practice of testing whether a woman had given birth and tried to conceal it, a reason enough for convicting her of killing her child. During the trial it had been revealed that ‘the Charge upon the Prisoner appeared entirely without a Foundation, and arose from some poor, ignorant, and rash People, by whose Means this poor Creature was like to fall Sacrifice to the Mob. It seems she has a Child now in the Workhouse, whom she suckled for two Years, and has given another Child suck since, which was the Occasion of her having Milk in her Breast.’[4]


While unraveling information about Elizabeth’s participation in a care chain by earning a living as a carer, while paying for her own dependent to be cared for, this case also sheds light on the public ostracism and lack of social networks faced by single mothers like Elizabeth. As a result, many women in such circumstances were forced to abandon their children in order to find employment, often having their breastmilk as their most marketable asset. Most of these women lived in service before getting pregnant, but service wages were insufficient to provide for the maintenance of their children as well as themselves, and keeping their children with them in their employers’ home was inconceivable. Becoming a wet-nurse rather than an ordinary domestic would allow these women a surplus income they could in turn use to maintain their children at a country nurse, becoming the middle part of a three-tier class-based care chain described above.


As part of these occupational arrangements, these women often lived in households with their care-receivers and their position was influenced by their employers’ exercise of authority that emanated from their self-assumed sense of moral superiority, economic advantage but also tangible power over their care-givers. The care-givers’ own families were pushed to the background and their own maternal role as well as the fate of their children was generally left out of the picture. These children became the most disadvantaged members of these vertical care chains, often suffering from lack of care and nutrition. Stories of wet-nursing raise the necessity to acknowledge the class-based exploitation that inherently runs through the experiences of these women. Hired nurses came almost invariably from less privileged settings than their employers and their emotional involvement was largely discounted based on their perceived social and emotional deficiency. The example of London wet-nursing practices thus demonstrates the constitution of what I termed ‘class-based femininities’ that were at the core of the construction of the ideal of ‘motherliness’ and its denial to poorer women in the period studied. The plurality of femininities remains in place in present-day societies, and depends largely on the economic relations and the opportunity cost of care provision.


The tale of wet-nursing shows a historical parallel to the current phenomenon of global care networks within which women from developing countries migrate to the Global North in order to perform reproductive work within double-breadwinner families, in turn paying other (local) women to perform the same kind of work in their own families. Moreover, it resonates with the recent boom in the breastmilk industry operated by milk banks and pharmaceutical companies as well as individuals through online networks. It also closely resembles the story of many surrogacy arrangements that treat having a child as a natural prerogative of the genetic parents and a form of monetised ‘body work’ devoid of its emotional dimension for the surrogate mother, yet again establishing multiple femininities based on socio-economic status and often also ethnic origin. All these phenomena are tightly interwoven into the patterns of female employment, distribution of care responsibilities and functioning social networks, and it is the inequalities ingrained in all of the above that perpetuate the commodification of the female reproductive body.


[1] London Daily Advertiser and Literary Gazette, September 21, 1751.

[2] Only the Breast (2015, available at: https://www.onlythebreast.com)

[3] Alexandra Shepard, ‘The Pleasures and Pains of Breastfeeding in England c. 1600-c.1800’ in Braddick, M. J., Innes, J. (eds.), Suffering and Happiness in England 1550-1850: Narratives and Representations: A collection to honour Paul Slack, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 227-46, p. 230

[4] Old Bailey Proceedings Online  [OBO] (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, last accesses  20 June 2019), 1747, trial of Elizabeth Fletcher (t17470909-11).

Eliska Bujokova is an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge researching in the areas of women's economic and social history focusing predominantly on the relationship between women's productive and reproductive work in the past. (Photo by Heidi de Marco/KHN)