Breast Pump (From the Collection #30)

The Story

For centuries, mothers have used a number of different tools to relieve the pain of engorged breasts, correct inverted nipples, and increase milk production. Women in Ancient Greece used ceramic cups called gutti (dual purpose pumps and feeding bottles) to express milk. A mother would fill the cup with water, place it over her nipple and drain the water to create a weak vacuum that would force small amounts of milk out of the breast and into the cup. The Romans invented sucking glasses – glassware tools that worked like drinking straws. Mothers held the bulb end on their breasts while sucking on a long spout until milk was drawn out. Cups were not the only instruments available to help ease the discomfort of lactation. In the fifteenth century, women in many cultures were discouraged from feeding their children colostrum (the yellowish fluid that is produced a few days before and after childbirth, and before the milk). As a result, small dogs called whelps suckled mothers in order to get rid of the colostrum, while providing relief from the pressure and pain of full breasts. In order to provide children with food during this time, other women called wet nurses fed babies using their own fully formed milk.

The pump pictured here, used in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century, consists of a glass cup attached to a brass syringe. The open end of the cup was placed over the nipple and the plunger in the syringe pulled back to draw out the milk. An increase in American patents for breast pumps at this time suggests their popularity. These documents reveal a variety of different designs that ultimately create a vacuum or area of low pressure around a woman’s nipple. This action forces milk into a receptacle, where it can be collected by the user and stored for later use. Today, breast pumps still employ suction to express milk, but also mimic the sucking action of children, with suck-release-relax phases.

Reading List

  1. Dowling, Donna A. “Lessons From the Past: A Brief History of the Influence of Social, Economic, and Scientific Factors on Infant Feeding.” Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews 5 no. 1 (2005): 2-9.
  2. Fildes, Valerie A. Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding. Edinburgh: EdinburghUniversity Press, 1986.
  3. Medela Incorporated, Breastfeeding Information Guide. McHenry, Illinois: Medela Incorporated, 1993.
  4. Obladen, Michael. “Guttus, trialatte and téterelle: a history of breast pumps.” Journal of Prenatal Medicine 40 (2012): 669-675.

The Specs

ACCESSION # (Web Link):1941.5.1 a-b
Object Name:Breast Pump
Manufacturer (Country):W. & H. Hutchinson (Unknown)
Date Made:1800-1899
MESH Code:Breast Feeding; Milk, Human; Infant Food

About “From the Collection”

“From the Collection” was a project originally published in 2010 to the Museum of Health Care’s website by former Curator Paul Robertson, with the goal being to highlight some the Museum’s most unique items that might be missed in our collection. Each artifact is presented as a bite-sized story, related information, and a link to it’s fully detailed entry on our free online digital catalogue!

Posts in the “From the Collection” series were originally created with support from Funded by the Ontario Museums and Technology Fund. The support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, is acknowledged.

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