My recent attempts to delve into the life of Jane Austen and her contemporaries hit a setback recently when our daughter came 3 weeks early. As I noted above, I had intended to make my daughter a Regency-style dress and believed that a month should be enough time. Alas, after finding the pattern and preparing to make a run to the fabric store, our dear daughter decided to make her appearance.
For the last 5 weeks, I’ve had nothing but baby on the brain, so naturally I found myself wondering: what was child-rearing like in Jane Austen’s day? One thing that still holds true from Austen’s time to this was the very great resource we have in our families. In our own family, my wife’s parents came out and stayed for approximately two weeks. This was also the case in Austen’s era, though rather than parents and in-laws, the visiting help at the time of laying-in were the unmarried sisters, and they often resided with their family (travel being both difficult and costly) for many weeks or even months at a time. In fact, the reason we have such wonderful letters from Austen at all is because of the many times Jane and Cassandra were separated as one or the other of them went to assist with a brother’s wife’s delivery and recovery. Of course, there were often just family trips and visits, but quite a bit of these letters are the result of keeping in touch while they were separated and helping their sisters-in-law.
There are really two big concerns occupying most of my brain space, and these are the same two that would have occupied most parents’ concerns as they enter new babyhood. Eating and Diapering. First, how did the food get into the baby? Second, how did one contain it when it needed to come back out?
Breastfeeding one’s own children was not often the standard of care for women in the gentry classes or higher. The blog JaneAustensWorld.wordpress.com suggests that this is largely because royalty would often employ a wet nurse so as to return the queen to a fertile state sooner and thus continue building the royal family. Therefore, as the royalty did, so followed the ranks below to the extent that they were able. It is well known that Jane Austen and her brothers were all sent to Deane for wet nursing. It’s believed that Mrs. Austen visited her children daily or the children were brought to her, but they would not have returned home permanently until they were around 18 months of age or about the time they could walk and follow basic commands. Most biographers refer to Jane being wet-nursed, but in a new biography, Lucy Worsley posits that Jane would have been “dry-nursed” – fed milk from a bottle-like apparatus or spoon, but not from the wet-nurse’s actual breast. According to this hypothesis, all the Austen children were initially kept at home for about the first two-three months until they were weaned from the breast. Thus, Jane may not have been fed at the breast by another woman at all. What’s interesting to me, but which I could not discover, was: how much would Jane’s wet nurse have been compensated? JaneAustensWorld.wordpress.com suggests they were paid, but does not specific how or how much. That is, could it have been possible that Mrs. Littleworth (the name of the family who cared for the Austen babies, as proposed by Worsley) accepted a trade in goods or schooling? Hard to say. What I did discover, though, is that wet-nursing is not entirely a thing of the past and contemporary wet-nurses can receive upwards of $1000/week for their services.
As many readers know or could guess, children are not ready to eat solid foods at 2-3 months, thus even though Jane may not have been wet-nursed, she still needed breastmilk as her main sustenance. Fortunatly, there were bottles (sort of) in the Regency era. This would have been necessary of course should a mother die in childbirth and a wet-nurse could not be supplied for a while. At this blog, pictures are provided of Regency era bottles (made of glass or porcelain!). Looking at this and knowing that infants need a very slow flow, I would imagine that when the milk was placed in the reservoir, the feeder could place a finger over the hole to control the rate of flow, as well as by tipping forward and back. Interesting!
Compared to modern feeding methods, the world of wet-nursing, dry-nursing, and pap (a mixture of bread, milk, water, and sugar warmed and mashed together as an early baby food) sounds…well, antiquated and preposterous. We now know that breast really is the best, a philosophy that was actually well in circulation by Jean Jacques Roussea, but what are medical and philosophical recommendations to following the habits of the ton?. But even more importantly, we understand that frequent close nurturing contact with parents is critical for a strong positive attachment. One has to imagine that Jane and her siblings suffered from this lack of parental attachment – because even daily visits would have been short and likely would have ended when the baby began to fuss, leaving the wet-nurse to perform most of the nurturing and consoling duties as the Austen parents excused themselves and breathed a sigh of relief. In addition, we must consider that Jane and siblings likely spent hours in a bassinet as Mrs. Littleworth went about the business of caring for her own children and managing the household duties, which would have included significant levels of cooking and cleaning inside the home, as well as caring for the animals and maintaining a household garden. It’s of little wonder that Austen’s letters frequently display a rather distanced and difficult relationship with her mother and a much closer, more attached, and nurturing relationship with her sister Cassandra. However, to be fair, it’s very likely that Jane would have spent little time in her mother’s arms as Mrs. Austen was herself busy with the duties of her home and schooling the boarders.
Something that is always of interest is how did people diaper their children. Again, Lucy Worsley suggests that baby clothing would have been very simple: a cloth diaper and a blanket for swaddling. Though doctors at the time had begun to advocate against swaddling in favor of allowing the child’s arms and limbs to be free, it’s likely that Mrs. Austen followed the advice of her midwives and the practices of country mothers, which was to continue swaddling (Worsley). As a new mom, I can tell you that swaddling can make a huge difference between an inconsolable baby and one that’s tenderly wrapped up snug and tight, just like the womb. It’s not called the fourth trimester for nothing, folks, and most modern parenting books suggest swaddling as a means of comforting, though at the hospital our pediatrician did recommend not swaddling the legs up tightly as this can cause hip dysplasia. Soooo, while the doctors of Austen’s time may not have fully understood all the mechanics behind why we do or don’t swaddle, they did have the right intuition about the need for free movement. Oh dear, off track.
One thing we know is that infant clothing was simple and identical for both genders: simple white cotton or muslin gowns. This makes a lot of sense. Who needs to fuss with pants or pantaloons or any of that business when there’s a stinky diaper needing changed? However, how did the diapers really work?
In our family, we’re cloth diapering our newest daughter, but we have the benefit of synthetic, rubber-lined diaper covers that keep the wet (for the most part) inside and away from baby’s clothes. They couldn’t have had this in Austen’s time, so did you have to do a full wardrobe change with each diaper change? Also, how did those diapers stay on?
Turning once again to the great resource that is JaneAustensWorld.wordpress.com, we learn that babies were diapered in a thick linen cloth called a clout and this was held on either by a straight pin (ummm, no thank you!) or ties. In addition, they did have a covering called a pilcher, which was likely another diaper placed on top, or possibly some kind of coarser fabric (think potato sacking) that would have covered the diaper and largely kept urine and feces away from the clothes. However, what I also learned was that Georgian and Regency parents were not as averse to urine as we are today, thinking of it as a disinfectant. Hmmm, well, I know that urine is (most of the time) sterile, but I wouldn’t trust it’s disinfecting properties…especially since breastfed babies let loose a messy puddle of poo just about every time they pee. (Yeah, it’s a lot of fun over here right now.)
So that covers the bases! And while the idea of wet-nursing and having my child spend all her time away from my home is absolutely out of the question, I have to admit that my wife (the dairy cow who gets 0 sleep) and myself (also not sleeping) see some “benefit” to the practice. As for diapering, we certainly benefit from those lovely rubber-lined diaper covers.
Before we end this exploration into Regency parenting practices, I wanted to discover more about the types of clothing babies and children would wear. As mentioned before, male and female children were garbed in the same clothing: a long shirt and then a longer gown of bedclothes. Now, rather than repeat all that I’ve discovered, I’m going to point you to this wonderful article on children’s clothing. What I found interesting was the pudding cap and images. I have to say, that little helmet-like apparatus makes a lot of sense for bumping bumbling toddlers.
All right, I think I’ve covered most of what was on my mind and I had a lot of fun doing some research and learning more. If anyone has a resource or site to contribute or wants to comment, feel free to do so!