Milk: Life, Death, and Women’s Work

July 2 - November 28, 2021

How could such a simple substance—milk—be a matter of life or death for infants? Before innovations in refrigeration and the regulation of the dairy industry, babies who were not breastfed faced mortal danger with every sip of milk. Medical and technological developments at the turn of the century radically transformed cows’ milk and infant formulas from a death sentence to a staple of children’s diets. Just like today, women’s decisions about how to feed their babies were shaped by personal preference as well as social, cultural, and economic pressures and practices.

Photographs, ephemera from philanthropist-founded milk stations, and historical feeding supplies illustrate the shifting societal messages in how babies were fed at the turn of the century and reveal the many ways in which socioeconomic, racial, and gender hierarchies are embedded in everyday life. From the complex marketplace for wetnurses to neighborhood milk stations, this story details how through upheavals and innovations, babies’ survival depended on women’s caregiving labor—as mothers, wetnurses, and professional nurses and social workers.

Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.



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Creative: Tronvig Group