An Eighteenth-Century Pap Boat: Breastfeeding, Pride & Maternal Love

Sarah Fox is currently studying for an AHRC-funded PhD at the University of Manchester. Her research examines the experience of childbirth at all levels of society throughout the eighteenth century. Follow her on Twitter @foxvshedgehog

Breastfeeding a newborn child is one of the most emotionally charged periods within the female lifecycle. Think of the recent twitter storm in which a breastfeeding woman was labelled a ‘tramp’ for feeding her child outside, or the pilot policy of paying breastfeeding women £200 in South Yorkshire and Derbyshire. In any other circumstances, the breast is a private area of the body and therefore the object of only sexual or medical attention but this changes the moment a baby is born. It becomes acceptable for medical professionals, friends, acquaintances, (and on one memorable occasion the driver of my National Express coach from London), to express their opinions on a mother’s choice to breastfeed her child. Her maternal affections and capabilities are often judged on that decision alone with the breast becoming both functionally and symbolically representative of maternal care.

Pap Boat 2

Cream coloured earthenware pap boat with pierced decoration, made in Leeds, 1780s, Manchester Art Gallery.

Of course, these attitudes are not new. The ‘emotional object’ that I have chosen to write about is an eighteenth-century pap boat currently on display in the Manchester Art Gallery. Pap was a breast milk substitute that was made from a wide variety of ingredients which depended mainly upon the wealth of the mother and the personal preferences of the midwife and her attendants. The 1720 edition of Hannah Woolley’s The accomplish’d lady’s delight, in preserving, physic, beautifying, cookery and gardening recommends a mixture of bread, milk, sugar and fennel seeds whilst various authors of midwifery manuals suggest a simpler mix of bread, water and cow’s milk.[1]

Pap Boat 1

Reverse view – spout depicting a moulded face with rounded cheeks.

Pap boats were used for infants and invalids and were therefore fairly common household implements well into the nineteenth century. Designs vary from extremely simple earthenware scoops to highly decorative silver items that resembled a miniature teapot. The decoration on this particular design is unusual as it is quite elaborate despite being made of relatively cheap cream earthenware. As well as the pierced decoration, the handle is designed in the shape of an animal (though precisely what kind of animal I am not sure). On the spout is a moulded face which has rounded cheeks and may be intended to be an infant. The handles on the side of this pap boat are also quite unusual, and they have a flattened disk on the top which enables them to be gripped more securely by the person drinking from it. The presence and size of these handles suggests that it was made as an infant feeder rather than for an invalid, and I can just imagine a young infant in a middling eighteenth-century household being encouraged to grab the handles while its nurse could retain control by holding the spout at the back.

The museum has dated it from around 1780, a period in which breastfeeding was considered to be the height of a good mother’s duties to her child. In 1768, Betsy Ramsden, a Lancashire clergyman’s wife detailed her determination to breastfeed her son in a letter to her friend. She clearly took great satisfaction and pride in both her dedication and ability to nurse him herself as it gave her a platform from which to showcase her maternal devotion. She wrote:

We both go on very well excepting a cold that I got going to church last Sunday which now his is almost well; for as I am a nurse I take great care of my self, and drink porter like any fishwoman.

Later in the same letter she added:

I have been almost Blind and am still dim sighted: it is thought that Suckling is the occasion of it – but I don’t care to give a heart to that subject, as my little Tommy shall not lose his only comfort, tho his mama’s peepers suffer for it.[2]

She was so dedicated to nursing her son that she allowed her own health to suffer (or at least wished her friend to believe so). It would appear that she was similarly dedicated to all her children. In 1777 Betsy wrote that:

My Little Boy has not for this three weeks been from my Bed or for half hour at a time. For to my shame (tho happy it was for him) I still sucked him… I hope I shall keep up or else my little boy will suffer as he takes no nourishment but the Breast.

The tone of her letters suggests a great deal of pride for her determination to breastfeed despite the toll it takes on her health. This association of breast feeding with good mothering is apparent in other letters within the same collection. Upon hearing of a friend’s impending delivery in 1754 Mrs Scrimshire (wife of a wealthy Lancashire merchant) asked:

I should be glad to know whether you intend the little one to suck or not. I hope you do as My Boy has hitherto by God’s permission succeeded so well. He is very forward of His feet and has got two teeth. I begin to think of weaning in about a months time as the learned say they should never suck less than half a year nor beyond a whole year.[3]

Her enquiries were quite persistent as she raised the subject again six months later upon realising that her friend had avoided the topic of breastfeeding in her answering letters.

This evident pride in the ability to breastfeed goes beyond a cultural ideal of motherhood. There is a clear suggestion that these women understood that breast milk was beneficial to the child, improving their chances of surviving infancy. Wealthy Lancashire gentlewoman Elizabeth Shackleton noted in her diary in 1780 that her Grandson ‘is oblig’d to be brought up by the spoon as his Mother has not milk for him – they say he does well with it.’[4]

Following a visit six months later she noted:

We staid and chatted upstairs till noon when my Robert was brought into the Kitchen for James, Josias and little Jim to look at. They all wondered to see him so fat and to take such notice – he came into the dining room [illegible] Porridge. Porridge pot and Boat as well – thank God he eats do’s everything so – that will I hope make him thrive.[5]

Robert’s good health despite his mother’s inability (or unwillingness) to breastfeed was clearly something remarkable, both amongst the gathering but also in the privacy of Elizabeth’s diaries.

These letters provide insights into the negative emotional meanings associated with the use of pap boats. The inability to breastfeed represented not just a failure to nourish your infant, but also implied a deficiency of maternal love. To use one was to endanger the health of your child, reducing even further their chances of surviving their first six months in the world. For some women, the pap boat held the threat of further pregnancy as the knowledge that breastfeeding suppresses fertility seems to be widespread by the end of the eighteenth century. Furthermore, it went against widely held cultural expectations of a ‘good mother’ signifying indifference (at best) and neglect (at worst). The addition of such an item to the nursery may therefore have stirred a huge number of emotions in a new mother, not least worry, fear and failure.

[1] This particular recipe is taken from William Smellie, A Treatise on the theory and practice of midwifery, (Dublin, 1764).

[2] Lancashire Archives, Preston, DDB.72.

[3] Lancashire Archives, Preston, DDB.72.

[4] Lancashire Archives, Preston, DDX.666.1.

[5] Lancashire Archives, Preston, DDX.666.1.



  1. […] An Eighteenth-Century Pap Boat: Breastfeeding, Pride & Maternal Love – A great blog post about breast vs. bottle feeding infants in the 18th century. It includes some letters written by a breastfeeding mother that wouldn’t be out of place on a modern mommy blog. […]

  2. Really enjoyed reading this post! I have seen similar examples to the pap boat mentioned above. Ceramic pap boats dating prior to the mid 18th century are however very rare. It seems the production of pap boats didn’t really take off till the end of the 18th century when large-scale manufacturers, like Wedgwood, Spode and Davenport, put them into production. As a part of my PhD research I’m looking at how these pap boats were marketed to mothers, especially as pointed out, pap boats could carry very negative associations for mothers. From looking at the production books from the Wedgwood and Spode factories, it seems that pap boats were actually really popular items to purchase in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is interesting considering that at this time maternal breastfeeding is thought to have increased in popularity.

    Another thing is, pap boats were produced regularly in silver as christening gifts from the mid 18th century. Often these silver pap boats have personalized engravings of the dates of the baby’s birth and sentimental messages. So perhaps unlike ceramic pap boats, these more expensive pap boats didn’t have negative associations, they would have actually been a symbol of wishing good health and well-being to the infant.

    (Emma O’Toole, PhD Candidate, National College of Art & Design, Dublin)

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