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What do historians do?
What do historians do?

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2.4 Babies and the state

Despite the development of local children’s services, healthcare, particularly doctors, remained expensive and one concern of local health authorities was that they came into contact with sickly infants too late to help them. In order to know how many babies were born, where they were and which ones were at risk (usually in the poorest areas), the Notification of Births Act was passed in 1907. This legislation allowed local authorities to require families to register a birth within 48 hours. In 1915 this was made compulsory across the four nations of the UK allowing health visitors to identify underweight or unwell babies in the first ten days of their life.

As you can see, moving forward along a timeline from our original artefact, the topic of bottle feeding can lead us to ideas of public health, local provision, erroneous but powerful concepts of social degeneracy and the intervention of the state into the earliest days of family life. You have not even considered the growing role of large manufacturers and brands in this market.

Activity 7

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Have a look at this advertisement and notice the year of publication. What topics or concerns might a historian identify in this evidence?

Tip: Notice the flag symbolism.

A black and white advertisement. At the top of the image are the words: ‘Throughout the British Empire, babies that cannot be breast-fed are being reared on British made and British owned Glaxo the food that “Builds Bonnie Babies”.’ Glaxo is described as ‘enriched milk’, ‘a complete food for baby from birth.’ The text in the lower right of the image says: “Ask your doctor!”. The company’s address in King’s Road, London, is listed below. On the left side of the advertisement is a photograph of a baby labelled ‘An Irish baby reared on Glaxo- the food that builds bonnie babies.’ Behind the baby is a flag, with the Union Jack in the upper left and an Irish harp on the right.
Figure 16 An advertisement for Glaxo baby food (i.e. milk or formula), published in the Illustrated War News, 4 November 1914.
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Here you can see the clear impact of nationalism and the wartime context; there is a real emphasis on the United Kingdom with both the Union Flag and the Irish harp represented, and ‘British made’ and ‘British owned’ are promoted as hallmarks of quality as well as being patriotic. The advertisement unites babies across the British Empire and suggests that healthy babies are ‘built’ with the right food. We might also notice the appeal to science and medicine in ‘germ-free’, ‘ask your doctor’ and the use of the word ‘particles’ instead of the phrase powdered milk. Glaxo were the biggest suppliers of powdered milk to local health authorities so were probably anxious to use different language when appealing to the private customer (note the implicit promise of an undisturbed night for parents!).