Nourrices or Nourrissons Among Your Ancestors?
09 April 2013
A nourrice is a wet-nurse; a nourrisson is a suckling child; a nourrice mercenaire is a woman who suckles another woman's child for money, and it was a major form of employment of poor French women for centuries. Working women in the cities struggled to place and pay for their children with wet-nurses in the country. Those who rescued foundlings and ran orphanages employed wet-nurses to feed newborn babies. Wealthy women in the city paid for the wet-nurses to come from villages in the country to their homes (leaving their own babies behind with relatives or neighbours) to be dedicated full-time to their children. The historian George D. Sussman entitled his book on this subject "Selling Mother's Milk : the Wet-Nursing Business in France, 1715-1914".
As might be expected, it was a racket, in which the most vulnerable, babies and the poor women, were often brutally exploited. The Bureau du Direction des Nourrices attempted to regulate the business. It was based in Paris and charge with ensuring that wet-nurses had regular health checks. It also tried to replace the horrid recruitment agents. Most writers say that it was socio-economic change that brought about the end of the custom, but surely, there were two other contributing factors: pasteurisation of cow's milk and the invention of the baby bottle?
Thousands of babies died. So many died that later historians suspected that mothers sent their children to wet-nurses in order to get rid of them. In the 1897 guide for new mothers, Le Livre des Jeunes Mères : La Nourrice et le Nourrisson, the authors assert that "the wet-nurses of the countryside had no supervision, were poor and often unintelligent and took children to nurse for money. It often was of no benefit to them, for they had to continue their work in the fields and to suckle their own babies..." (pp 143-144). Thus, unless the parents paid extra and visited often (which they rarely could afford to do), the babies placed with country wet-nurses were often severely neglected. The babies of those wealthy families who brought the wet-nurse into their homes fared much better. However, the wet-nurse sacrificed any relationship with her own child, left back at home.
Perhaps in your French genealogy research, a baby disappeared? Or perhaps a mother did so, soon after childbirth. Perhaps you have a photograph of a relative as a baby being held by an unknown woman in a strange outfit including an odd cap and a cape? Or perhaps it is your ancestor in the cap holding an unknown baby?
- If your ancestors were artisans, such as weavers, potters, painters, then chances are that both man and woman had to work and they would have needed to put any child out to a wet-nurse. Without letters, photographs or other such documentation, the only way to find such a child may be if it died. Search the death listings for the surname during the relevant years on a large database, such as Bigenet or Geneabank. Unless it is a hopelessly common name, such as Martin, it is worth checking the child's death registration on the Departmental Archives website. Check for towns as far as a one hundred kilometer radius from where the parents lived. Towns in Oise and in Seine-et-Marne were popular places with Parisian parents.
- Certain places were considered to produce women excellent for the occupation, among them the Morvan (a mountainous region in eastern France) and Dordogne (in the southwest). The genealogy and history societies and the Departmental Archives of these places have a number of articles, lists and archives on wet-nurses from their areas:
- The wet-nurses of Périgord
- The wet-nurses of Morvand, on the Departmental Archives website of Nièvre
- The website of Patrimoine du Morvan
- A less formal article by Bernard LeComte
- The wet-nurses of Mion in Rhône
It is not always easy to find babies who were put out to wet-nurses or the wet-nurses themselves. It often involves long hours of reading birth and death registrations. Still, you might get lucky and make a breakthrough discovery.
©2013 Anne Morddel