Life wasn't easy for the Victorian-era housewife. An average day could consist of raising young children, cooking, cleaning the house, washing and mending clothing, and tending to animals. Anything to lessen the daily load was appreciated, and much to their relief, a newly designed self-feeding infant bottle was introduced to the market.
These glass or earthenware bottles, often shaped like a teardrop or banjo, could be laid next to a small child (or sat on their lap) as a rubber tube and nipple allowed them to drink from the bottle in nearly any position. Traditionally, bottles had to be held upright at an angle by someone else while the child fed. This new bottle design allowed for babies to drink more freely, giving whoever was feeding the baby free time to do other things.
There was no reason to not trust these bottles. Names such as The Alexandria, Mummies Darling, Feed the Baby, and The Little Cherub gave these bottles a gentle and caring element to them, while manufacturers printed statements on the boxes claiming that they were "sold by all respectable chemists". In 1861, Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management was published and brought more publicity to these new bottles. This reference guide was written by Isabella Beeton and gave tips to women on how to better run a Victorian Household. In this particular publication, under the section Rearing by Hand, it reads, in reference to these bottles "the nipple need never be removed till replaced by a new one, which will hardly be necessary oftener than once a fortnight, though with care one will last for several weeks. The nursing-bottle should be thoroughly washed and cleaned every day, and always rinsed out before and after using it, the warm water being squeezed through the nipple, to wash out any particles of food that might lodge in the aperture, and become sour.”
The idea behind not washing the nipple frequently was meant to save a mothers time on needless washing, and to not wear down the rubber nipple quickly. Although well-intended, this tip for how frequently one should remove and wash the nipple came with a tragic consequence... To not properly wash the rubber tubing and nipple every day meant that bacteria and mold could thrive in the apparatus. Infant mortality rates were already high during this time, with only two out of every ten infants living to their second birthday. But some of these deaths would eventually be labeled as the result of using these bottles. Some doctors even began to condemn these bottles, linking them to bacterial infections from these bottles which were used just before the infant or child suddenly fell ill. Some cities, like Buffalo, New York, went so far as to put bans on the use of these bottles in 1897, decades after they first hit the market, with other cities following in their footsteps.
It is impossible to know exactly how many infants or children died because of these bottles. Cronobacter is a likely culprit that could thrive in these bottles which weren't being cleaned properly. Cronobacter is a germ found naturally in the environment which can infect powdered milk and infant formula. The presence of this germ is still a threat to these same products today, with infection being treated with antibiotics. But for a Victorian-era child who has found themselves exposed to it, antibiotics are out of the question as this medical advancement wouldn't occur until decades later.
The first signs of cronobacter infection in infants and children are fever, poor feeding, crying, and having low energy; symptoms which are all-too common in other illnesses and diseases, making it very difficult to know which deaths were caused by chronobacter, and which were caused by something else entirely. But with how popular these bottles were, and with the lack of proper cleaning and sanitization tools/knowledge they had, it is very possible that they did contribute to a considerable number of infant and child deaths.
Later publications of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management did advise much stricter cleaning of these bottles and the nipple, and they remained somewhat popular up until the 1920s. As time went on, and as we learned more about the germs and bacteria that can be present in items such as these, the bottles picked up a new name: Murder Bottles, or Killer Bottles. Today, these bottles are a common item to see on the shelves of a macabre collector, and they can be found for sale on websites like Etsy and eBay.
Want to learn a little more about these bottles, or life as a Victorian housewife? Check out my sources listed below. You can also check out the three-part "Deadly" series on the Ghouls Trip podcast for more on Murder Bottles, and other deadly topics...