Tender Trades: Wet Nursing, Urban Domestic Economies & the Intimate Politics of Inequity in the Anglo-Atlantic, 1750-1815
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This dissertation explores the process of class- and race-formation within the private homes of the respectable classes and those who aspired to respectability in late-eighteenth-century London and Philadelphia. It finds that live-in wet nursing and sentimental motherhood were not at odds, rather, the two were tools used by aspirational classes to achieve social distinction. Initially, sentimental motherhood was wielded by middling and aspirational classes against hereditary elites. People used new modes of servant-hunting and place-finding that destabilized the institution of wet nursing and established media literacy as integral to domestic labor negotiations. In Philadelphia, wet nursing was conflated with care work by bonded laborers and occupied an important place in quickly forming racial hierarchies. In London, wet nurses became increasingly subject to the criteria of live-in domestics despite their unique circumstances. As the respectable classes gained influence on both sides of the Atlantic, they used it to formulate structural and ideological limitations on the lives of poor mothers. The systematic devaluation of the maternal labors of the poor allowed the respectable classes to enforce mother-infant separation of the poor in order to achieve the wet nurse arrangements they desired. Respectable London families served as references for petitioners to the London Foundling Hospital whereby they systematically executed mother-infant separation among the poor. In Philadelphia, this process was executed piece-meal by the Philadelphia Almshouse and Overseers of the Poor. This was complicated by fears of racial mixing and the unwelcome burden of mixed race bastards on Philadelphia taxpayers. As the wet nurse trade changed, home medical guides increasingly portrayed wet nurses’ bodies as sites whereby venereal disease, racial mixing, or hereditary disease might disrupt the integrity of respectable families. Wet nurses were, therefore, subject to routine bodily examinations, which gave householders the opportunity to witness and postulate on theories of human difference.