A Brief History of Breast Pumps

Debates about online milk exchanges wouldn't be possible without a simple—yet revolutionary—machine. 

It is unsurprising that the Internet, a place that allows commerce of pretty much every variety, would give birth to a phenomenon known as a "milk exchange." Since around 2005, sites like Only The Breast and Milk Share have acted as craigslists, of sorts, for human milk, sharing listings from both parents looking to sell excess breast milk and those looking to buy it. Exchanges like these are possible not only because of the communicative ease of the web, but also because breast milk is largely unregulated, especially compared to other body fluids like blood and semen. "Is it a food? Is it a body fluid? Is it a drug?" the Center for Biobehavioral Healths' Sarah Keim told The Verge. "The FDA really doesn't know what to do with breast milk." 

Also unsurprising, given all that, is what Keim and her colleagues found in a study published today in the journal Pediatrics: that eBay-esque breast milk, likely due to unsanitary collection and shipping practices, can cause infections in the children nourished by it. And it's unsurprising, as well, that this news has reinvigorated longstanding debates about the proper ways to regulate the breast milk market.

None of these debates can be had, however, unless you first have a particular thing: a breast pump. A device that allows for mother and milk to be mechanically de-entangled from each other—and that, in the process, helps breast milk to be transformed, essentially, from an intimacy to a commodity. The breast pump is the machine that makes human milk, in its way, marketable. 

Pumps are, at this point, culturally ubiquitous. A classic "Better Know a District" found Stephen Colbert jokingly hooking himself up to a pump as he questioned New York representative Carolyn Maloney. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sarah Palin reminded voters of her maternal qualities by remarking on her need to, "put down the BlackBerries and pick up the breast pump." Tina Fey, in her book Bossypants, recalled her attempts to "pump milk while watching Entourage on demand." Pumps-on-airplanes tales are a common subgenre of the "terrible airplane experience" story. 

The first pumps were patented in the mid-19th century, typically as medical devices used to treat inverted nipples and to help infants who were too small or too weak to nurse. But as widely available consumer products, they've been around for only a little more than 20 years. It wasn't until 1991 that the Swiss manufacturer Medela introduced its first electric-powered, vacuum-operated breast pump—a pump not intended for in-hospital use—in the U.S. Since then, Jill Lepore noted in a 2009 New Yorker piece, the device's sales quadrupled. Pumps have become such a common parental aide that new mothers, when discharged from hospitals after giving birth, are often provided with a complimentary pump as a parting gift.

As Lepore summed it up:

Pumping is no fun—whether it’s more boring or more lonesome I find hard to say—but it has recently become so common that even some women who are home with their babies all day long express their milk and feed it in a bottle. Behind closed doors, the nation begins to look like a giant human dairy farm.

It's an apt description, in part because the earliest versions of the pumps—machines that date from the mid-19th century—were essentially glorified milkers. They put advances in vacuum technology and electricity to use for humans in the same way they put those advances to use in the dairy industry. In 1854, Orwell H. Needham filed a patent for a "Breast-Pump": 

This invention is for the purpose of so connecting the pump bellows with the nipple shield or cupping shield as that any motion of the bellows from the exertion of pumping will not be communicated to the shield by means of a flexible tube, by which also the pumping apparatus can be placed in any convenient position without regard to the position of the patient, and also in the flexible shields, fitting any inequalities of surface and applying themselves to the parts conveniently.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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