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Milk: the Historical Dangers of Feeding Babies

A woman stands looking over a white crib with a baby lied inside awake. She has her right hand on the babies body and smiles down at it. She has short black hair with finger waves.
A mother watches over her baby, 1910s – 1920s. Image courtesy of Hartlepool Cultural Services, The Museum of Hartlepool.

Feeding a baby sounds like a simple thing to do, after all, they only drink milk. But before the invention of powdered milk, how did mothers cope when breastfeeding wasn’t an option for them? The alternatives available throughout history could have deadly consequences.

In this blog, we are looking at the objects in our collections which tell the story of how babies were fed when breastfeeding was difficult and how dangerous it has been to substitute a mother’s milk.


This ‘Breast Exhauster’ dates from the 1930s to 1940s. It’s designed to help a nursing mother extract breast milk to store and give to the baby later. The red rubber pump would create a suction force and the milk would collect in the glass bulb underneath which would be decanted into a baby bottle. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum.

Being able to extract milk is an incredibly important ability that has been practised since ancient times. There are many reasons a baby might need to be artificially fed, including problems and conditions with the breasts, a mother dying in childbirth, a baby too ill to feed on the breast, and, of course, a mother’s choice.

The ancient Greeks were the first to create a suction device for nursing women made from ceramic vessels called gutti. What followed was generations of different styles of breast pumps using different materials, such as metals, glass, pottery, and plastic. The ability to express milk and donate it to another woman’s child in this way could be lifesaving.

In the 1500s the use of ‘wet nurses’ became popular. This was a woman paid to breastfeed another’s child, and since it involved paying someone else it was usually the upper classes who could afford a ‘wet nurse’. Queen Victoria was so against breastfeeding that when her daughter, Princess Alice, had a child of her own and decided to breastfeed, Queen Victoria named a cow on her estate Alice after her. The practice of a mother breastfeeding her child became popular once again in the 1900s, and the practise of the ‘wet nurse’ became extinct.

By the 1930s breast pumps like this one were more easily available to purchase and use at home. Once the milk was extracted it could then be put into baby bottles which were also invented in ancient Greece.

Artificial powdered milk for babies was first invented in the 1860s in America but it developed quickly and in the 1870s Nestle brought out their powdered baby milk, which only required hot water to make it up, like powdered baby milk today.

Two light brown tins of Oystermilk one smaller than the other with black writing on the front and tarnished metal lids.

Ostermilk was a powdered formula made up with hot water for feeding babies. It was made by the Farley group who specialised in making baby rusks. 1950s/1960s. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum & Grounds.

However, at 50 cents per bottle, it wasn’t cheap, and over the centuries many babies have been reared on goats’ milk and cow’s milk, with more recent babies given carnation tinned milk. But feeding babies milk from other animals wasn’t safe as preserving it was impossible before the invention and wide distribution of refrigerators in the 1910s.

Even then many people in the UK didn’t have access to this technology until the 1930s/40s. Keeping milk fresh and sterile was difficult and many babies became ill by drinking milk that had gone bad.

A baby sits facing the cmaera wearing a romper suite with peter pan collar and arms by its side and legs out in front.


Milk was a big source of Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) and its estimated that between 1850 and 1950 half a million people died due to contracting TB through contaminated milk, most of these deaths were children under the age of 5. Not only did TB thrive in the milk of diseased cows and off-milk, but it also thrived in the bacterial incubators that were the early Victorian versions of baby bottles.

During the 1850s/60s a new baby bottle was designed consisting of a glass bottle, with a rubber tube coming out the top like a straw, attached to a ‘nipple’ which looked like a dummy. These bottles were popular with middle-class families, and they were even endorsed by household angel Mrs. Beeton who endeavoured to help Victorian housewives in her incredibly popular book ‘the Household Manual’. Mrs. Beeton advised mothers with these bottles to clean the nipple only once every 2 – 3 weeks!

Illustration from the Medical and Surgical Reporter Magazine of a baby bottle known as the ‘Murder Bottle’, Volume 18, Crissy & Markley, Printers, 1868. Public Domain.

This lack of basic hygiene allowed bacteria to thrive and incubate in the warm rubber and caused many diseases in small children, leading to the deaths of 8 out of every 10 children who used them. These bottles were nicknamed the ‘murder bottles’.


an old glass baby bottle sits in the middle of the photograph with rubber brown teats at both ends. The box for the bottle sits just above it and features and illustration of a cupid type baby laying on its front.

Baby bottles like the one dating from 1950 to 1955, are crucial as they were specially designed to be sterilised and fully cleanable. There are no corners for bacteria to get stuck and a rubber nipple, which could be removed and thoroughly sterilised. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum & Grounds.

Today baby bottles are still designed purely around the need to be as hygienic as possible. With teats made from silicone which doesn’t age or produce any odour or taste. Breast milk extractors have also come a long way, with many examples now using electricity to help women pump the milk, and powdered baby milk now comes in a variety of different styles designed around the different needs of every baby. Today all animal milk is pasteurised and tested for diseases, but it still should not be given to babies as there are safer and better options available for them now.