Foundling hospitals spread across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, taking in hundreds of thousands of children each year. In Spain, the hospitals of major cities had staffs of more than 1,000 external wet nurses, who worked mainly in rural localities. Their cash wages were key for the household economies of the poor rural and urban populations.

The raising of hundreds of thousands of abandoned children (and the education and medical care of those that survived) was a pillar of social care, a precursor to what we know as the welfare state. The wages and employment they offered to women in cities and in the countryside are an extraordinary means of understanding the economy of the poorest sector of the population—which is to say, the majority of the population—in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Our research also demonstrates the spread of wage work in the 18th century, both in cities and rural zones. The labour of wet nurses transferred considerable monetary resources to the rural economy, particularly to the poorest strata, which helped to reduce indebtedness and to compensate for low agricultural day wages, subemployment, and unemployment among men. The wages of rural wet nurses stimulated the circulation of cash (and recourse to credit and pawning), facilitated the payment of taxes and rents, and contributed to the diversification of economic activity and the reduction of poverty. These wages were an important source of income for rural households, even for those that possessed or rented land. They represented an income that was neither ancillary nor seasonal and could frequently sustain a family, as demonstrated by the complaints of wet nurses and their husbands when payments were delayed.

In recent years, studies on the evolution of European living standards during the modern and contemporary periods have given a leading role to wages that women provided to family economies, although such studies note the many documentation difficulties in finding reliable, representative, homogenous, and sufficiently long wage series for jobs undertaken by women (Humphries, 2013). To alleviate this problem, we propose the use of wages earned by the external wet nurses of foundling hospitals during the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the classic problems of working with wages is not having complete certainty that the occupation being studied is always the same. This problem, for example, affects construction workers, who are the most utilized in the literature. In our case, the job being remunerated is always the same, as it concerns the rearing of a child, including the child’s feeding, clothing, cleaning, and general care. Therefore, the wages are completely comparable across regions and countries.

Secondly, wet nurses are workers who always do the same job at the same speed and with the same intensity. The challenge of assigning value to a worker’s productivity, that is, to the intensity, speed, and skill with which she does her job; and then figuring out to what extent differences in productivity are reflected in hourly wages, also disappears in the case of wet nurses. Their wages pay for a month’s worth of breastfeeding and childcare. Undoubtedly, some children were better fed and cared for than others, but this ‘extra care’ was not compensated.

Thirdly, these are exclusively monetary wages, so the problem of attributing a value to payments-in-kind disappears. In-kind payments that show up in some foundling hospitals are limited to clothing given to wet nurses when they took out children. Such payments were not part of their wages, which is confirmed by the fact that the women were required to return the clothing when a child died, or the clothing would be discounted upon final settlement to prevent its being resold. Another of the advantages of receiving monetary wages was the ability to meet unforeseen expenditures that otherwise would have been difficult to handle. It is possible that covering these payments was one of the main incentives for working as a foundling-hospital wet nurse. In an economy of extreme poverty, any unexpected expense (debt, tithe payments, land or house rent …) caused a crisis situation, and cash from these wages could be effective in alleviating the effects.

Another factor in favour of using these wages is that they always refer to monthly payments, though they might be collected by the quarter or half-year in order to avoid the costs of traveling to the city. In this manner, we can precisely calculate daily wages, monthly wages, and annual wages, and thus establish comparisons with wages for other jobs. With regard to the number of months worked, it was the very worker who decided. If a foundling died, the wet nurse could take out another one immediately, without losing a single day of wages.

Finally, wet-nurse wages are wages for workers without formal skills, so the skill premium problem does not appear. In contrast to other wages used in historiography, there is no urban premium, either. The wage for a wet nurse in the city was the same as the wage for a wet nurse outside the city. In fact, in the few exceptions for which there was a difference, the premium was reversed, with a triple justification: to offset the costs of wet nurses’ travel to the city to collect their wages; to create incentives for the rearing of children far from cities, where there were more chances for children’s survival; and to remove them from the poverty of the urban setting, which was frowned upon by the incipient bourgeois society.

In 18th and 19th centuries Spain, wet-nurses were free workers, legally capable to contract their work, with two limitations: as married women, their husbands were also legally entitled to collect their wives’ wages, as they often did. Secondly, poverty, extreme material need in many cases, appears as the main factor accounting for the supply of wet-nurses labour. To what extent extremely poor married women can be identified as ‘free workers’ when entering the labour market remains for discussion.

Foundling hospital wet nurses, pictured on the book cover of Carmen Sarasúa, Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Los salarios de las nodrizas de las inclusas en España, 1700–1900 (2021).

Carmen Sarasúa is professor of Economic History at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain. Her main lines of research are the long-term transformation of occupational structure, and women’s labor force participation and its relation to economic growth. Sarasúa has been a visiting professor and researcher at various universities; and Visiting Fellow at All Souls (Oxford) in 2016-2017. She is the principal investigator of the research project, “Occupational Structure and Income in the Long Run: Redefining Economic Modernization and Living Standards in Spain, 1750–1975.”  Her most recent publications include a chapter co-authored with Jane Humphries in The Routledge Handbook of Feminist Economics, “The Feminization of the Labor Force and Five Associated Myths” (2021); and a book on the wages of wet nurses who worked for foundling hospital, Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Los salarios de las nodrizas de las inclusas en España, 1700–1900 (2021).