What once-common jobs can you think of that are now obsolete or nearly so? Town crier. Lamp lighter. Phone company switchboard operator. Wet nurse, a woman who breastfed someone else’s baby.
A less desirable alternative was to feed the baby milk from goats, cows, mares, or donkeys. Compared to human milk, cow’s milk contains fewer easy-to-digest carbohydrates, and more protein in the form of hard-to-digest casein. Milk spoils quickly without refrigeration or pasteurization. Babies fed only cow’s milk were less likely to survive infancy.
In 1865, the German chemist Justus von Liebig introduced Liebig’s Soup for Infants. Formulated to make cow’s milk more like human milk, it added wheat flour, malt flour, and potassium carbonate. A powdered version to mix with cow’s milk and water resolved the problem of spoilage. Soon afterward, Nestlé in Switzerland introduced a cereal composed of cow’s milk, wheat flour, and sugar, for infants who could not be breastfed. Such products were expensive. Most caregivers preferred to mix their own at home.
Harvard professor Thomas Morgan Rotch taught pediatricians to direct infant nutrition according to a “percentage method.” Caregivers should dilute cow’s milk with water to reduce the percentage of casein, then add sugar and cream to restore their concentration. It was cumbersome to do at home but reached a close match to the percentages of protein, sugar, and fat in human milk.
By the 1950s, many hospitals gave new mothers recipes for formula made of evaporated milk, water, and sugar or corn syrup, with a liquid vitamin supplement on the side. Perhaps our present emergency has caregivers reviving such recipes. (Consult your pediatrician.) On the borderline between food and pharmaceuticals, commercial formula is closely regulated to keep babies safe. That makes the industry difficult to enter. Like so much in life, it’s all tradeoffs.
Image: The bureau of wet nurses in Paris - wet nurses waiting to be selected. Aquatint, 1822. Wellcome Collection.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.