QUESTION: I discovered an unusual bottle in a box lot I bought at a local house sale. The bottle is about six or seven inches long, pale green, and oval but doesn’t have a flat bottom, so it must lay on its front or back. Do you have any idea what this little bottle would have contained or been used for?
ANSWER: Believe it or not, your little bottle once held baby’s milk.
The development of baby bottles took centuries to transform into the sterile plastic throwaways in use today. As knowledge of germs and hygiene developed, so did the infant feeder. While parents of earlier times sensed that babies who were breast fed had a better chance at surviving, it wasn't until the early 20th century that mothers and bottle makers realized that clean, sterile feeders were necessary to protect a baby's health.
Nipples, made of wood, ivory, bone, sterling, pewter, leather„ rags, sponge, rubber, and yes, a pickled cow's teat, were nothing like those in use today.
Much like today, bottles were necessary because some mothers couldn’t breast feed, and, unlike today, it wasn’t always fashionable to nurse. When a friend asked Queen Victoria if she intended to breast feed, she reportedly said she had no intention of making a cow of herself.
One manufacturer immortalized Victoria’s image on a stoneware bottle that’s now prized by collectors. But the queen hated that her likeness appeared on a nursing bottle.
Besides a dislike, of nursing, there were other reasons for women to use baby bottles. Many women thought that nursing would destroy their figures. It also inhibited them socially since they couldn’t travel and leave the baby at home.
Fathers weren’t too keen on breast feeding, either, because doctors and midwives often advised mothers to refrain from sex during nursing.
Wealthier families employed wet nurses, usually young women who had a child and could nurse another. Since parents believed that a milk giver’s personality traits could be transferred to an infant through their milk, choosing the right one was important.
The ideal wet nurse was a plump rosy-cheeked young woman. Many people believed that red-headed girls gave bitter milk and produced ill-tempered babies. They even suspected animal milk, believing that infants took on the attributes of the cow or goat. French nobles gave the title of “contessa” to a wet nurse so that their infants could be nursed by milk of noble origin. Those who couldn’t afford to hire a wet nurse, turned to a variety of infant feeders, many of them unsafe by modern standards.
Though a china submarine-shaped bottle with blue transferware is beautiful, being completely opaque it was hard to clean. Fermenting milk curds could be lodged in the corners and mothers would never see them.
Charles M. Windship of Roxbury, Massachusetts, developed the first glass baby bottle, a small turtle shell-shaped: feeder, in 1841. Women thought the shape would fool their infants into thinking it was a real breast.
To use the Windship bottle, a woman wore it on a harness on her breast. It was probably difficult to use because girls with tender, post-childbirth breasts wouldn’t want to place any weight on their on top of them. Because of its shape, the Windship bottle became known as a mammary bottle. Today, they’re highly prized by collectors and sell for nearly $500 each.
But the Windship bottle wasn’t safe for the baby. The Windship and some subsequent bottles came with a long rubber tube, topped off with a rubber nipple. The tube allowed for hands-free feeding for mothers. These devices also had their problems. Dried formula would clog the tube which was too small to be cleaned, so bacteria blossomed. This feeder became known by the onerous name of the “murder bottle.” New York State banned them in 1906, and other states rapidly followed suit.
The turtle-shaped bottles, begun with the Windship model, remained in use from around 1860 to 1910. The bottles had vents, sometimes on both ends, so that air bubbles wouldn’t enter the milk. A nipple went on one end and a tiny cork on the other.
Most bottles became cylindrical by the beginning of the 20th century. Sterilization also became routine. And by the 1930s, bottle makers began embossing their glass bottles with puppies and kittens. These continued to be used until the invention of the disposable plastic bottle.