Friday, April 29, 2011

Samuel Sewall on Breastfeeding

It's been a wild week here. Since last Friday, I have,
  • moved to a new house with my husband, 6-month-old daughter, cat, and far, far too many boxes of useless objects that I hope to donate rather than unpack
  • presented a draft chapter of my dissertation to the Harvard Early America Workshop
  • concluded lectures and sections for the 270-student Gen Ed course for which I am head TF
  • traveled to Connecticut to celebrate Molly's first Easter
Now, I am in the midst of unpacking, revising, and advising student research projects.

Still, I am finding a little time for my own research at night. I have (re-)begun reading Samuel Sewall's diary with a particular eye toward his many descriptions of funerals and graveyards. I don't want to miss any little mentions, so I've been reading the whole thing, not just scanning.

I'm only up to 1690 (the diary runs 1674-1729), but I am already enthralled. Sewall records so many details of daily life in 17th-century Boston — not just details of his own life, but suggestive little stories that flesh out large parts of the goings on in town. In addition, he is an attentive parent and a loving husband. His writings about his children are simultaneously sweet and horrible, particularly when he laments his inability to comfort his young children when they are particularly disturbed by Bible verses he has asked them to read.

One thing I was not really expecting to find in the diary of an eminent Puritan judge was information about breastfeeding practices. At first, I just put a little check mark next to references to nursing babies (this info is not really pertinent to my dissertation), but the little check marks have added up.

Here is what Samuel Sewall has to say about breastfeeding:

On April 2, 1677, when Sewall was 25 years old, his wife (Hannah Quincy Hull Sewall, age 20) gave birth to their first child, John. In his diary, Sewall gives a long account of the birth, ending with, "The first Woman the Child sucked was Bridget Davenport." He does not record the names of other women who may have nursed little John, but "first" suggests that more may have been involved.

Apparently, there was some difficulty in getting baby John to latch on to his mother's breast. On April 7, Sewall wrote,
first laboured to cause the child to suck his mother, which he scarce did at all. In the afternoon my Wife set up, and he sucked the right Breast bravely, that had the best nipple.
Two days later, he noted,
The Child sucked his Mothers left Brest well as she laid in the Bed, notwithstanding the shortness of the Nipple.
Both of these passages were omitted from the 1878 MHS publication of the diary, but they are hardly prurient. I find these passages touching. Two young parents, earnestly coaxing their reluctant newborn into nursing, discussing specifics like nipple shape in a matter-of-fact way — it is a revelation to imagine a Puritan judge and his wife in this way. I still cannot quite shake my mental image of the elderly Sewall to imagine him as a young man, but this passage helps. This is not a pompous medical or theological tract — it is an intimate moment in the life of this young family.

The next mention of breastfeeding practices comes in 1685. The Sewalls' fifth child, Hull (b. 8 July 1684), had been ill since early infancy, suffering from fits and convulsions. On April 28, 1685, Sewall notes that his wife "Began to wean little Hull to see if it might be a means to free him of convulsions." At the time, Hull was just shy of 10 months old, and the explanation Sewall gives about his weaning indicates that he would have kept on nursing well past 10 months if his health had been better.

On January 31, 1687, Sewall notes that Joseph Brisco's wife is suckling newborn Stephen Sewall (b. 30 Jan 1687). On Sept 29, 1688, he writes, "Lydia Moodey comes hether to dwell, helping my wife to nurse the Child Joseph [b. 15 Aug. 1688]." It is not clear whether Moodey's duties include breastfeeding the baby, or if "nursing" is a more general term.

Another note from February 2, 1690 indicates a more typical weaning scenario: "Little Joseph [18 months old] sucks his last as is design'd, his Grandmother taking him into her Chamber in order to wean him." Sewall makes many other references to infants sleeping in bed with their parents, so presumably, little Joseph has gone to sleep in his Grandmother's room, where he cannot nurse. At the time of this weaning, Hannah Sewall was about 8 weeks pregnant with her next child (Judith, born a month prematurely in August of 1690). I'm not sure whether Joseph's age or his mother's new pregnancy precipitated the weaning.

There may be more references to breastfeeding in Sewall's diary. As I said, I am only up to 1690, and the Sewalls still have four children in the future (Hannah gave birth to 13 children — only 6 survived infancy).

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