Treasured to Taboo: 30 Rare Glimpses of Victorian Mothers Breastfeeding

Women’s breasts are a bone of contention in most cultures; revealing the nipple in some societies is even considered a taboo. Over-sexualizing breasts has led to enormous debates in recent years on whether or not a woman should be permitted to breastfeed in public. Arguments against allowing public exposure of breasts for a child’s nutritional need include indecency and relating breasts to be sexual objects. However, many experts and even the general population agree that the nutritional value of breastfeeding is significant.

Women who support public breastfeeding- particularly in American and European cultures- argue this stance is hypocritical. Walking down the streets, you see more breasts in advertisements than Kentucky Fried Chicken ever imagined. A study from the US Attorney General analyzed data from a national public opinion survey in 2001. Although the overwhelming majority agreed that breastfeeding was important for a child, 57 percent of US adults believed women should not have the right to breastfeed in public places and should even be kicked out of stores and restaurants if caught.

This mindset of not exposing breasts in public may seem like a “traditional” value, but I’m here to show you that stigmatizing breastfeeding is a very recent fad. In fact, during the Victorian Era, there was a craze of women posing for photos while breastfeeding. Sometimes, breastfeeding mothers were even featured on postcards- without an envelope! Gasp! The following photographs were taken during the 1840s-1890s and show that breastfeeding in public and private was once considered a beautiful part of life and motherhood.

Small framed print of mother breastfeeding. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
A young mother embraces role of breastfeeding her infant. Women in America were much more likely to breastfeed their children than use a wet nurse. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
Posing for photographs while breastfeeding became a fad during the Victorian Era. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
In Europe, it was much more common for women to employ wet nurses for their babies. Vintage Everyday.
Breastfeeding your own child became a central measure of your worth as a mother. Vintage Everyday.
The beauty of the breastfeeding mother was fully embraced. Vintage Everyday.
Cultural constructions of femininity became highly centered on motherhood and the special bond between a mother and her children in the Victorian era. Wikimedia.
Within decades, women suddenly seemed to be unable to feed their babies naturally. The introduction of formula began to stigmatize breastfeeding mothers. Vintage Everyday.
Women were now told by Doctors to continue breastfeeding, but social norms swayed their opinions. Vintage Everyday.
Soon, the idea of fragility and femininity overtook the idea of motherhood. Vintage Everyday.
In Boston, very few upper class women breastfed. Vintage Everyday.
Breastfeeding continued almost exclusively among the poor. Vintage Everyday.
An African American woman breastfeeds her child on her porch. Vintage Everyday.
Breastfeeding soon became considered “animalistic” and uncivilized. Wikimedia.
Many women still enjoyed the connection they felt to their children; embracing their motherly duties. Vintage Everyday.