Sunday, February 13, 2011

Breastfeeding history moment: Mormon handcart pioneers

In 1900, Danish artist CCA Christensen painted "The Handcart Company." From 1856 to 1860, around 3,000 Mormon (LDS) pioneers crossed the Great Plains on foot, pulling handcarts behind them for 1,400 miles. (Incidentally, the handcart companies departed from Iowa City, where I did my PhD. The town has a Mormon Handcart Park and holds an annual celebration honoring the pioneers.)

In this painting, you see a woman nursing her baby uncovered in mixed company. She is sitting on the left side of the painting near the wagon. Her dress is unbuttoned, exposing the breast. While this painting is not necessarily a snapshot of breastfeeding norms in the mid-1800s, it does reveal cultural attitudes towards nursing in public around the turn of the 20th century.

Full painting:
 Zooming in:
Full zoom:

I wish I had a better quality image of the mother & child. If anyone had access to it, please send it my way.


  1. That baby is older than newborn, likely a toddler. Love to see older babies nursing. :-)

    I hear a lot of talk among conservative Christians about modesty (which the Bible is clear about), but they are imposing their own views about what defines biblical modesty. Many use this as a reason for why ALL nursing moms should use nursing covers. This clearly is a new-ish cultural phenomenon and was not how Americans viewed breastfeeding even 100 years ago. This is why older breastfeeding images (paintings and photographs) have so much value, in my opinion. I love the Historical Breastfeeding Images page on Facebook for showing how breastfeeding anywhere, any time, was the societal norm until the semi-recent past.

  2. I think the Bible's take on modesty is in relation to forms of dress, etc. and not in relation to breastfeeding. Many passages mention breastfeeding in a positive way.

    This is an awesome find, BTW! I love to see breastfeeding positively portrayed in art and this is such a neat peek into the past.

  3. I'm curious what the references are of passages that talk about breastfeeding! I love having unique passages that back up things that are important in my life such as breastfeeding...please share!

  4. I just did a Google search :) but I do know in the book of Job, he mentions being at his mother's breast; Sarah also mentions giving suck to a child to Abraham in her surprise at having a child at such an old age.

    There are some references to midwives also - I love the passage in the book of Exodus when the midwives are ordered by Pharaoh to kill the newborn Hebrew babies, but they refuse to do so and tell him that the Hebrew women give birth too soon for the midwives to get there. :)

    Here's a link to some passages I found:

  5. I get the feeling that in the past breasts were not sexualized the way that they are in our culture today. Also, there was no alternative - it was either the mother's breast or someone else's breast. So there would have been enormous exposure (Ha!) to breastfeeding women.

    I wonder how that shift occurred in our culture and what it's relation to the spread of formula-feeding was.

    It's a great picture - the way it's just one part of life on the trail - and also great that it does look like an older baby/toddler.

  6. Chingona,

    I agree -- it's not that breasts were not considered sexual in the past [there are passages in the Bible which speak of the sexual nature of the breasts -- for instance, one of the Proverbs urging men to be chaste before marriage and remain faithful within marriage, says for a man to "be satisfied with her breasts"; and I think it amply evident with the style of dress that women have chosen through the years, which emphasizes the breasts, that they were considered sexual in the 1500s-1800s]; but that they were accepted as **dual-function**, and not (as I'm afraid is too much the case these days), sexual *only*.

    It's not that we are so prudish these days -- I can only imagine the horror and shame that people [at least in America or Europe] might feel, were they suddenly time-transported from just about any time from 1500-1900, to today, and see what women are wearing on the streets, not to mention on beaches, on magazine covers, etc. Yet these societies, in which women so covered themselves that it may have been considered indecent not to wear two or three petticoats underneath the skirt and over pantaloons (it certainly was that way in the late Victorian era), they had little or no problem with public breastfeeding.

    In fact, in Dickens' "David Copperfield," he introduces Mrs. Micawber while she is breastfeeding twins, and the narrative says that he never saw her but that she was nursing one or both babies. Yet we in our society can apparently only accept that breasts are sexual; and it is allowed that women can go around practically naked, but not if they are breastfeeding.

    It's like the picture of Miranda Kerr, who is a Victoria's Secret model -- someone wrote in an article about the picture she released of her nursing her newborn son, covered in a satin bathrobe -- apparently there was a furor about this, as some people claimed the picture was indecent; yet the author of that article pointed out that this was probably the *most* covered that Kerr had ever been photographed... yet apparently all the pictures of her in Victoria's Secret negligees and lingerie were fine, but not a picture where she's almost completely covered except for one breast, just because she's nursing!

    [/soapbox] ;-)


  7. Love it. I've seen that picture so many times, but never noticed the nursing mother in the back, so wonderful.

  8. Totally off topic....why didn't they use horses?

    1. Handcarts were for those too poor to own any horses. The poorest suffered greatly during the forced migration of the "Mormons" (LDS church members), but if you know your history, you will know that even the wealthiest of the early Mormons were literally forced out of their homes, due to Illinois governor Boggs executive order, or "extermination order", which made it legal to kill Mormons, which was only rescinded in 1976! Sadly, many Mormons died during the migration to Utah, particularly those who were forced of necessity, to use handcarts to carry what necessities they were blessed with. Anyway, that's why pioneers didn't all use horses.

  9. Chinonga is right. The very long dresses of the 1800's were because people thought showing too much ANKLE was provocative! In the mid-1700's, French high fashion included dresses cut BELOW the breasts! And even non-high fashion dresses showed a lot of cleavage.

  10. @TracyKM: a lot of them couldn't afford horses. For a lot of the Mormons, this was their second migration in only a few years...and we all know what moving does to the ol' finances. Also, while people think of horses pulling the pioneers' wagons, oxen were probably used at least as often, because they could pull more weight.

  11. That child seems more like a toddler or at the very least, a much older baby. It's feet are practically touching the ground, just like my toddler when he nurses!

    Super cute! I love seeing pictures of toddler nursing. So beautiful!


  12. Great post. Do you know the reference for the painting, by chance? Title/author? Thank you!

  13. The info is at the beginning of the post.


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