This object came to light recently when my mother was packing up her house to move. It has probably been passed on a few times when houses were packed up because I don’t think it has been in use for a long time and I don’t know who the original owner was. Suffice to say that many women in 19th and early 20th century Australia would have owned such a device.
It’s a pump for expressing breast milk, very different in appearance from the modern version.
My first thought on realising what it was:
What would a 19th century woman want with a breast pump? Women in the 19th century Australia didn’t go out to work, leaving their babies with carers. They certainly worked and maybe they left the baby at the house with big sisters or grandmothers while they went out to milk cows, tend crops or work in the family business but they wouldn’t have gone far enough away from their babies to need to express milk.
Of course there are other reasons for expressing milk, just as there are today. Illnesses like mastitis or milk fever were common enough, babies don’t always attach well, cracked nipples are painful but the short and sad answer is that babies died.
More babies died at or soon after birth than is common in developed countries today. It’s a tragedy when any baby dies but it wouldn’t have been the absolutely shocking and unexpected event that it is today.
Just to give an idea of statistics, my great-grandmother Mary Ann Smith was one of 14 children.
The eldest sibling (a boy) died as a baby. Ellen died aged 3. Mary Ann (Annie) had 7 surviving sisters. There is no evidence of children born to her sisters, Agnes, Henrietta, Emma or Louisa dying young but:
- Rose lost Victor E A Headrick (1907-1908)
- Matilda lost Mary J Ford (1915-1916)
- Phyllis lost Lucy Eliza Elliott (1905-1906)
- And Annie herself lost Maude Ellen Payne (1895-1895), Percival Edward Payne (1913-1913) and Charles Ernest Payne (1915-1915).
- There is also a family story that Annie gave birth to another stillborn baby whose birth and death were not registered.In Australia in 1901, 103.6 out of every 1000 babies died within the first year of life. Lack of medical knowledge, distance from medical assistance, and spread of infection through lack of hygiene all played a part.
Figures from Australians: historical statistics, Broadway, 1987, p58, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.