A number of figurines depicting a mother and her child but, above all, a whole set of babies’ feeding bottles, make up the centre pieces of this collection of artefacts from ancient times until the end of the 1960s. Upon the death of her husband in 1998, Valéria Rossi was aware of the scientific interest in the items and donated her spouse’s collection to the Alimentarium to complete its first series of feeding bottles from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Director of the University Hospital for Children in Berne from 1957 to 1985, Ettore Rossi had a significant influence on Swiss paediatrics. Passionate about history, this professor from the canton of Ticino collated a great deal of information on child care and feeding practices from ancient times through to the present day. These feeding bottles are not just beautiful and unusual artefacts but offer insight into the status of infants and how they have been fed over the centuries.
Maternal breastfeeding and substitutes
Evidence of using wet nurses dates back to the 18th century B.C. in Babylon. It was a practice that became the norm among the wealthy classes in Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Soranos of Ephesus, a Greek doctor from the 2nd century A.D., described the ideal wet nurse: "She is between 20 and 40 years of age, honest, even-tempered, pleasant, in good health, has a good complexion, is of average size; her child is less than two months old, she is clean and her milk is neither too clear nor too thick."(1) A wet nurse was carefully chosen because it was thought that she would pass her qualities, or her vices, onto the child through her milk. Whether its origins were for cultural, moral or medical reasons, this trend was initially restricted to urban areas but was to filter into all levels of society between the 10th and 16th centuries. At the start of the modern era, the whole of Europe went on to adopt this practice: known as nourrices in France, they were called bala in Italy and nodriza or ama in Portugal. There was even talk of a real ‘wet nurse industry’ in the 19th century(2).
There is also evidence that feeding bottles were used during ancient times. An Egyptian papyrus dating from the 15th century B.C. includes a recommendation to use a drink made with "cow's milk and boiled wheat kernels", undoubtedly in the event that maternal milk was lacking(3). Soranos provided a lot of information on methods for feeding newborns during the Roman era. The colostrum was considered toxic to infants due to its thick consistency and the fact that it was difficult to digest. He advised introducing semi-solid food, such as breadcrumbs soaked in milk, mead, sweet wine or wine sweetened with honey, into the diet from the age of six months, at the onset of teething and to later introduce "gruel, very runny purée and a soft-boiled egg"(4). Texts written by Avicenna, a Persian doctor and philosopher, provide us with information about the practices in the Middle Ages: he recommended breastfeeding infants for two years and then gradually weaning until the child was able to eat all kinds of food. Infants were often fed animal milk, from cows or goats, as well as clear porridge made from milk and flour, served in horns or receptacles with cloth teats(5).
To address the lack of wet nurses who were highly sought-after between the 18th and 19th centuries, artificial feeding then became extremely popular. Wet nurses often looked after a number of children, raised "on small pots of food, porridge or the family's indigestible soup"(6). From the mid-19th century, breastfeeding substitutes based on animal milk — donkey, sheep, goat or cow — became increasingly popular in order to combat infant mortality. The discoveries of Pasteur and the subsequent techniques for sterilising feeding bottles significantly improved the sanitary risks associated with artificial feeding. The use of feeding bottles became widespread and they were initially made from pewter, tin plate, earthenware and porcelain, with glass bottles gradually becoming popular at the start of the 20th century.