Today I’d like to introduce you to Beatrice Baxter Ruyl, a socialite, breastfeeding advocate as well as an artist and author who was inspired by the culture of the Zuni Pueblo.
Beatrice may be best recognized as the subject of a number of breastfeeding photos which have been preserved by the Library of Congress but beyond the few years of her breastfeeding life, Beatrice was a fascinating artist who deserves to be more widely known for her work which preserved snapshots of Zuni Pueblo life and culture as it was at the turn of the 20th century.
Baxter was born in Denver, Colorado on April 7th, 1879 to Joseph Nickerson and Edith (Shedd) Baxter. She was educated at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and went to Paris in 1900 as a student of Colarossi and Edward Strecher. She married Louis Herman Ruyl and they made a home in Hingham, Massachusetts, summering in Ogunquit, Maine where she was a member of the Ogunquit Art Association. (The area was home to the Abenaki people and “Ogunquit” means “beautiful place by the sea” in their language).
She worked as an illustrator for The Boston Herald and illustrated a number of children’s books, including her own, Little Indian Maidens at Work and Play which was published in 1909.
Beatrice was inspired by the culture of the Zuni Pueblo. In 1901, she produced a series of watercolors and charcoal sketchings of the Zuni people which may have been intended for a book that was never completed. She made special note of mothers with children, including infants in carriers. Frequently the idealized western family dynamic: helpmeet mother, breadwinner father, and children who “work and play”, were emphasized in the scenes she recorded. Beatrice wasn’t working as an anthropologist, rather she interpreted Zuni culture through her own romanticized ideas of rural family life in the American West. However, we can still gain valuable historical information from her artwork about both Zuni and Beatrice’s culture.
In 1905, her daughter Ruth was born and she posed for a number of now famous breastfeeding photos. Beatrice went on to have a second daughter, Barbara.
Why breastfeeding? In the early 20th century, the infant mortality rate in the United States from diarrhea and enteritis was very high. In 1905, there were 39,399 deaths from diarrhea and enteritis across all ages, of those deaths, 32,032 were infants under age 2. Pediatricians knew that this was caused by artificial feeding, therefore, maternal breastfeeding was strongly encouraged. It was recognized that small percentage of mothers were physiologically unable to breastfeed, however, artificial feeding was widely practiced by socialite mothers who, though physically capable of breastfeeding, felt pressure to attend and host social events that prevented them from exclusively breastfeeding their babies.
This was a time when American women had no legal access to contraception and babies were expected to remain at home and preferably in the nursery. Breastfeeding would have felt punitive to many women who had little choice in their life trajectory of daughter-wife-mother. It was common for middle and upper-class mothers to hire baby nurses or nannies to care for their children. While wet nurses were available they were difficult to come by in the United States and often suspect when it came to infant mortality from GI disease.
Yet, progressive, well-educated socialite mothers like Beatrice were choosing to breastfeed their own babies and used art as a means of influencing others to breastfeed and care for their own children. It was the start of a wider trend of making increasingly intensive motherhood fashionable for upper and middle-class women throughout the 20th century… but that is a topic for another day.
Gertrude and Fred continued to photograph the family as they grew up. Beatrice died in 1961 at age 81 in Hingham, Massachusetts. She was survived by Ruth and Barbara, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
I hope you enjoyed learning about Beatrice and if you would like to support my research, please consider becoming a patron on Patreon.