Hands That Itch to Hold the Spoon

America’s distaste for public breast-feeding has its roots in midcentury racism and the rise of the commercial food industry.

Baby eating solid food
There was something “civilized” about baby food—not only Gerber, which held a majority of market share, but Beech-Nut, Heinz, and Clapp’s brands as well.


Excerpted from Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet by Amy Bentley. Out now from University of California Press.

In the postwar period, discussions of infant feeding were embedded with assumptions about civilization, progress, convenience, and modernity—assumptions that were conflated with whiteness and socioeconomic privilege. Advice-givers, doctors, mothers, and manufacturers pointed to the “civilized” nature of an infants’ early consumption of solids along with formula.

After all, it was implied, there was something backward, even distasteful, about the alternative—that is, breast-feeding one’s infant in mid-20th-century America.

The sexualization of the breast, already under way by the 19th century, was accelerated by the World War II pinup girl poster, postwar soft porn such as Playboy magazine, and the popularity of such Hollywood icons as Marilyn Monroe. The result created an incongruity of the breast as a source of infant nutrition. As breasts became more sexualized, they became less functional: more the purview of men as sexual objects and less the domain of infants and as a source of food. As this transformation continued, breast-feeding, especially in public, became less normal and more taboo, and by midcentury most Americans attached a vague sense of disgust to the practice. Now that breasts were primarily sexual the idea of women breast-feeding infants, especially in public but even in private, felt abnormal and destabilizing. Modernity apparently did not include breast-feeding women; by implication breasts were for men and sex.

By contrast, societies with strong breast-feeding practices tended to be developing countries, many populated with nonwhite majorities. Such countries, not surprisingly, were apt to be more tolerant of exposed breasts and breast-feeding in public, one of many factors that caused some Americans to deem them less civilized in comparison with the United States and other developed nations. To most Americans the idea of exposed breasts and suckling children elicited too much discomfort, was too reminiscent of the dark-skinned women from developing countries displayed in full color on the pages of National Geographic. “Proper breastfeeding and care of the baby is essentially a primitive activity … far removed from modern practices,” observed the medical philosopher Simon S. Levin; in other words, our modern, technologically advanced society has rendered breast-feeding obsolete.

There was something “civilized” about baby food—not only Gerber, which held a majority of market share, but Beech-Nut, Heinz, and Clapp’s brands as well. Formula and commercial baby food became conflated not only with civilized society in this period, but with whiteness as well. In fact, it was commonly thought that Western women were less able to nurse their infants because of the stresses and strains of modernity, the downside of “civilization” that made bottle feeding necessary and early feeding of solids more likely. Advertising that featured only white people visually confirmed the association, as not until the 1970s did black Americans appear in baby food marketing campaigns.

Moreover, to exist on an all-milk diet (whether breast milk or formula) devoid of solids seemed almost subhuman. Cultural mores as well as basic scientific understanding at this time found breast milk and liquid formulas to be lacking, and they were deemed incapable of adequately nourishing even young infants. The goal, for a new generation of doctors, was to eliminate an infant’s dependence on milk as soon as possible. Babies do not need to be “surrounded by archaic dietary restrictions,” observed Levin of the practice. “The use of solids illustrates the truism that babies are human.” The notion that “human-ness” could be signified by ingesting solids implied that breast-feeding, or even formula feeding, denoted that one was “non-human,” or “less than human.”

By contrast, solids, particularly commercially prepared baby food, were modern, life-giving, and efficient, the latter an especially valued quality in postwar America. “Among the greatest nutritional contributions to our civilization,” declared Lillian Saltzman, registered dietitian, in a 1953 article titled, “Not by Milk Alone,” “are commercially prepared vegetables and fruits for infants sold by manufacturers such as Gerber’s, Beech-Nut, Clapp’s, and Heinz.” According to Saltzman, among their chief virtues was that they were “efficient time-savers.”

There was a cultural and economic imperative in the mastery of solids. Not only the mastery but the early ingestion of solids implicitly signified the wealth and power of the United States, its culture, and its people. Because “solid foods other than cereals are expensive,” observed Levin, “this scheme of feeding is unsuitable for those cultures and classes who cannot afford to purchase good food for their babies.” In fact, for Americans early solids seemed to contain an air of inevitability: “The progressively earlier age for the introduction of mixed feeding is not a food fad but an historical culmination of a historical trend. It is an inevitable consequence of man’s gradual mastery—very rapid in recent years—of food technology.”

In addition to commercial baby food the material artifacts and cultural foodways surrounding them were central to the civilizing of infants. Spoons in particular became important markers. An infant is born with “hands that itch to hold the spoon,” child care experts C. Anderson Aldrich and Mary M. Aldrich informed their readers. Baby food advertisers reflected this notion as well: “How soon does Baby get Meat? Almost as soon as he starts eating from a spoon,” went a 1950 Gerber ad in the magazine Baby Talk. “The introduction to spoon-fed foods is a Big Event in Baby’s life. Starting him on Gerber’s Cereals is a very good way to begin,” went another. Along with his note of congratulations Beech-Nut President John Grammer sent to each new mother a coupon for two free jars of baby food and an offer for a long-handled spoon, “just the right size and shape for Baby’s tiny mouth.”

Mothers, too, valued the spoon as a marker of progress and civilization. Women returning home from the hospital with their newborns enjoyed and came to expect free infant spoons along with the formula, baby food jars, and bottles sent by the baby food manufacturers. Just as breast-feeding felt primitive and unnatural in midcentury America, so did eating with one’s hands, or letting one’s child eat in such a manner. Utensils signified wealth, civilization, and education. Until the child was old enough to use a spoon itself, culture dictated that mothers, or fathers when available, seat their infants in a high chair and feed them.

Infant spoons along with solid baby food thus came to symbolize a set of assumptions about postwar American society and infancy. Not only were metal (and later plastic) spoons a popular gift for newborns, but drawing significance from the centuries-old idiom “born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth,” elegant silver infant spoons from Tiffany’s and other exclusive retail establishments also were a favorite gift, as were silver infant spoons etched with the image of the Gerber baby. Just as a much earlier era featured the iconic Madonna and Child portrait of a mother leaning toward and cradling her (often breast-feeding) child in her arms, mid-20th-century baby food advertising commonly featured its own version of the Madonna and Child: a young, beautiful white woman, her hair perfectly coiffed and lips stained dark red, smiling lovingly at her baby as she readies to nourish her infant with a spoonful of rice cereal, mashed peas, or strained bananas.

Excerpted from Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet by Amy Bentley. Out now from University of California Press.