Era when dried milk was popular choice

Ostermilk 2 tin.
Ostermilk 2 tin.

If ever there was a time in your life when you’d like clear, authoritative advice on how to handle things, it’s when you’re the first-time mother of a new baby.

And yet that’s a time when everyone, from the next-door neighbour to the world expert, has advice to give – and much of it conflicting.

Take feeding your precious new family addition, for instance. While it’s probably generally accepted that ‘breast is best’, there comes a point when milk just isn’t enough, and weaning – gradually moving the baby onto solid foods – has to start. It’s not that long ago that breastfeeding mothers were advised to start the weaning process at around four months.

In the last decade or so, though, the NHS has started to suggest six months as the appropriate time. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but those two extra months represent a whole third of the baby’s lifetime, so to him or her, it’s a substantial difference.

Then, of course, it’s the case that not every mother can, or wants to, breastfeed. And manufactured baby milk brings its own thorny issues, moral, political and in terms of health.

As recently as 1975, the Parliamentary transcript Hansard records an MP raising a ‘question that is shattering the nation – that of baby food’.

His concern was an economic one, and slightly confused – he was worried about the availability to new mothers of both proprietary brands of baby milk, and National Dried Milk – roller-dried, powdered, full-cream milk fortified with vitamin D which was introduced during the war, partly to combat milk rationing, and partly to help mothers who may have to go to work on the war effort and thus not be free to breastfeed their baby. National Dried Milk was still available in the 1970s, finally being discontinued in 1976.

The MP quotes a health visitor as telling him: “I am very worried about recent trends concerning mothers who have recently had confinements… On leaving the hospital they are presented with a free packet of Golden Ostermilk which mothers then feel is the recommended milk for the baby. They are not informed of the cheaper brands of dried milk.”

He claimed: “It must be accepted that in some instances where a mother is told or informed or has it implied to her by a hospital that a brand of milk is suitable or better for her baby, she will take a good deal of persuading when she goes to a clinic that the very much cheaper National Dried Milk is just as good.

“Moreover, there may be some sort of social cachet in obtaining a more expensive milk, although she may not be in an easy position to afford it, on the basis – and I accept that this is a genuine aspiration of most mothers – that nothing but the best is good enough for her child, although the best might well be National Dried Milk and be much cheaper.”

Despite his arguments seeming to be in favour of the cheaper National Dried Milk, the MP was in fact concerned about the unavailability of proprietary brands in his consistuency: “Genuine choice,” he says, “works both ways.”

What’s particularly fascinating about this Hansard entry is the fact that it’s just 40 years old, yet seems from a different world. We still had National Dried Milk, a hangover from the war; and the health visitor refers to women going into hospital to have a baby as having ‘a confinement’, a word that you would imagine had died out at the turn of the century at least.

Our exhibit today is a tin which once contained the aforementioned Ostermilk, and which dates, from, at the earliest, the 1930s – it’s for Ostermilk 2, a full-cream version of the food which was introduced in 1932 as a follow-on milk for older babies. The half-cream version – which then became known as Ostermilk 1 – had been launched in 1924. The tin promotes another piece of advice which mothers today would find startling: “During and after the second month all babies should be given orange juice for its vitamin C.”

These days, the NHS is adamant: “Babies under six months old shouldn’t be given fruit juices.”

The Ostermilk tin is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on or 01723 384510.