In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the practice of baby farming came under scrutiny in both Britain and the United States. Baby farming referred to a system in which infants were sent away to be nursed and boarded by private individuals for either a flat, one-time fee or a weekly or monthly charge. Baby farmers, usually middle-aged women, solicited these infants through "adoption" advertisements in newspapers, and through nurses, midwives, and the keepers of lying-in houses (private houses where poor, unwed women could pay to give birth and arrange for the transfer of their infants to baby farmers).
In 1868, the British Medical Journal published allegations that baby farming was just a form of commercial infanticide, that the infants in the care of baby farmers were deliberately and severely neglected, leading to their deaths. A very large percentage of the infants entrusted to the care of baby farmers did die, but the extent to which those deaths were intentional is less clear. According to historian Linda Gordon, babies sent to orphan asylums were as likely to die as those cared for by baby farmers. Some baby farmers seem to have done the best they could to raise healthy children but were restricted in their ability to provide basic care for the infants by poor parents who could afford only minimal payments and did not even necessarily pay those.
Equally nebulous are the intentions of the parents who turned their babies over to the care of baby farmers. Benjamin Waugh, a British reformer writing in 1890, claimed that most mothers were snared by seemingly respectable procurers who then turned the infants over to nefarious baby farmers. Some mothers, however, "infamous creatures, mere shethings," according to Waugh, looked to baby farmers to rid them of the problem of an unwanted, sometimes illegitimate, infant. Extreme poverty caused some well-meaning women to seek the help of respectable-seeming baby farmers, sometimes hoping to maintain contact with the child and the child's caregivers. The same poverty brought other parents to clearly disreputable baby farmers as a means of committing infanticide indirectly, with the promise of infant death sometimes being openly discussed by the parents and the baby farmer. Other infants were sent to baby farmers so that the mother could attain a job as a wet nurse, a relatively easy and well-paid job. Infanticide was very difficult to prove, particularly in cases of neglect. Nonetheless, in Central Middlesex, England, in 1867, 94 percent of all murder victims were under one year old.
The attention given to baby farming, in part through some sensational cases of mass infanticide, helped to build the SOCIETIES FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TOHILDREN in the United States and the Infant Life Protection Society in Britain. Reformers fought for laws requiring the registration of all births and of baby farmers. Britain passed the Infant Life Protection Act in 1872 requiring the registration of those boarding more than one infant. In the United States, Massachusetts passed an act requiring the registration of all boarding homes and of any illegitimate children given to board in 1882, but there were still cases of large-scale infanticide through baby farming operations revealed in the press in the first decade of the twentieth century.
Gordon, Linda. 1988. Heroes of their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston 1880-1960. New York: Penguin.
Rose, Lionel. 1986. The Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Britain, 1800-1939. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Waugh, Benjamin. 1890. "Baby-Farming." Contemporary Review 57: 700-714.
Zelizer, Viviana A. 1985. "From Baby Farms to Black-Market Babies: The Changing Market for Children." In Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children, ed. Viviana A. Zelizer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
CAROLINE HINKLE MCCAMANT