Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor


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Background: At the dawning of the Industrial age in the 18th century, female factory workersfor the first time were forced to seek out wet-nurses or to abandon their babies since taking time off of work or bringing your child to work were both not an option. Therefore, the women who did not abandon their children went for the wet-nurses, and thus breast-feeding became more of a prevalent profession. There had been jobs for working as wet-nurses ofr individual families for a long time. Women of the upper classes often hired a wetnurse to feed their babies, while they attended to their social lives. In the 10th century, though the majority of women who looked to become wetnurses, strove to work for individual bourgeoisie, artisan, and working-class families. There were never enough wet-nurses to go around for the abandoned children. At times, there were as many as five infants suckling from the same breast, thus giving the wet-nurses the derogatory name milk cow, and the term élévage humain to the raising of the abandoned children. It meant breeding, as in breeding cows (Guardia). Also, during the 19th century, the number of abandoned children began to rise. This was in part do to the industrial revolution, but it also a result of a series of crop failures, which lead to a depression and a large amount of unemployment. Since there was a rise in the number of abandoned children, the state vigorously tried to recruit wetnurses for the first time.
To Be or Not To Be...A WetNurse
Deterrent to Becoming a Wet Nurse for Abandoned Children: One of the many reasons women did not want to have an abandoned child as a nursling was due to the low wages. In 1821, they receive eighty-four francs for the year, or seven francs per month for the child's first year. However, if a women was able to secure a job as a wet nurse for a bourgeoisie family, she would receive a tremendous raise in salary.Also as seen through the name milk cow, which wqs given to the nurses, this profession was not looked upon as favorable by many people of the time, especially the bourgeoisie. There was also the threat of contracting diseases such as syphilis from the child, since generally nothing was known about the child's mother. All of these reasons, deterred women from becoming a wetnurse for the abanoned children.

Reasons for Becoming a Wet Nurse for Abandoned Children: The majority of women who became wetnurses were from improvished families, who greatly needed money because agriculture was not always making the ends meet especially with the economic instablility that rattled France during the 19th century.

Le Départ en Nourice (The Departure of the Wet Nurse) Jean Baptiste Greuze, 1780.

But, taking an infant often provided the individual women and her family with the much needed money that made the end meet. Therefore, economic needs were the primary reason for becoming a wet nurse for the majority in nineteenth century France. But since most wished to become a wet nurse for an individual bourgeois, artisan, and working-class families, the supply of wet nurses far out ceded the demand throughout the 19th century Henceforth, many of the women who came to Paris looking to become a wetnurse for an indivual family were unable to find a nursling (Fuchs 184-185). Also, only those farms well-off could afford to send a daughter away to Paris for one to two years. It was preferable for the daughter to travel to Paris, receive a child, and then come back to the farm. Often becoming a wetnurse was the only option open to poor women other than prostitution.

We Need A Slogan, Pierre: Even with the recruitment of the wetnurses, there were still not enough to go around for each child. The wetnurses that the hospices did have were all overburdened, with children that they could not give them the individual care that they needed. However, the state official continued to place the children with the wetnurses in the country because they believed that this was essential to their health (Fuchs 163).

This page created and maintained by Devon Hill