French artists Marguerite Gerard (1761-1837) painted this domestic scene of a mother about to breast feed her child. The subject is unusual in that breasfeeding one’s baby was unfashionable for aristocratic and upper classes, and the act had become associated with the poor and lower classes.
Generally, wet nurses were paid to feed the babies of the wealthy. Much thought and care went into their selection, and their milk was examined for texture, color, viscosity, and taste. Some thought that aspects of a wet nurse’s personality could be passed through her milk, and therefore her character had to be impeccable. Cassandra Austen, Jane Austen’s mother, sent all her children to the nearby village of Deane to be nursed in their infancy. Although Cassandra Austen visited her babies daily, they did not return to the family fold until they were around 18 months of age.
The popularity of wet nurses stemmed from the fact that royalty often wanted large families. Wet nurses were hired to feed the newborn so that the royal mother would soon regain fertility and become pregnant again. When royals stopped breastfeeding their children, other women from wealthy families soon followed suit and began to farm their babies out to wet nurses. This practiced continued until the end of the 19th century, when it largely died out.