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Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Las nodrizas de las inclusas en los siglos XVIII y XIX (Wages That the City Pays to the Countryside: The Wet-Nurses of the Foundling Hospitals in the 18th and 19th Centuries)

Editor(s):Sarasúa, Carmen
Reviewer(s):Gómez-Galvarriato, Aurora

Published by EH.Net (January 2023).

Carmen Sarasúa, ed. Salarios que la ciudad paga al campo: Las nodrizas de las inclusas en los siglos XVIII y XIX. (Wages That the City Pays to the Countryside: The Wet-Nurses of the Foundling Hospitals in the 18th and 19th Centuries.) Alicante, Spain: Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante, 2021. 512 pp. € 22 (paperback), ISBN 978-8497177184.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, El Colegio de México.


There has been a growing interest on studying the historic evolution of standards of living, poverty, and inequality. However, long series of wages—a basic input for these inquiries—tend to be scarce and of poor quality, particularly for female wages, and even more so for those living in rural areas. This book is a major step to overcome this hindrance for 18th-19th century Spain. It is the result of a collective project in which several economic historians delved into archives to collect data on wages paid to wet nurses by several foundling hospitals (inclusas) of the different Spanish regions. These institutions received abandoned or exposed babies and placed them in charge of women in rural areas who breast-fed them and took care of all their needs for extended periods of time, in return for a monthly payment.

Wet-nurses’ wages are particularly fit to produce homogeneous and comparable series through long time periods for several reasons. First, the labor required was always the same: raising a child (providing food, clothing, and other needs). Second, they were exclusively money compensations paid monthly, thus avoiding the common problem of dealing with partial retributions in goods or requiring calculating the number of days worked. Third, a great number of people labored in this occupation, thus holding great representativity. Finally, despite being institutional (ecclesiastical or civilian), their wages were very sensitive to the economic juncture since they needed to adjust rapidly to price increases. The series gathered comprise the years between 1700 and 1900 and include information from between 6,602 and 28,325 wet-nurses that offered their services to between 15 to 47 foundling-hospitals.

Another plus of this book is that all chapters pursue parallel questions and follow a similar methodology to collect and analyze the information of the different regions: 1) Galicia; 2) Asturias, Cantabria y Vizcaya; 3) Navarra. Aragón, Álva y Guipúscoa; 4) Castilla; 5) Burgos, Soria y la Rioja; 6) León, Zamora y Salamanca; 7) Madrid y La Mancha; 8) Extremadura; 9) el País Valenciano y Murcia; 10) Almería, Granada, Málaga, Cádiz y Sevilla; 11) Canarias. This allows one to compare their results and place together the different regional pieces to form a picture of the whole country, observing the peculiarities of each region. The first chapter, written by the editor of the book, undertakes this task, offering a national perspective and placing the project and its results within the international debate on the subject.

Each chapter describes the evolution of foundling hospitals in the region studied, in terms of their governance, revenues, capacities, and spatial and social scope. The available sources in some cases limit the period studied, but all chapters seek to assess the number of wet-nurses employed, the areas where these women lived, the evolution of their nominal and real wages, and their relevance to the family income. Thus, the authors had to inquire beyond foundling hospitals, providing a regional mosaic of family characteristics and strategies, main occupations of the population, male wages, and costs of living across the Spanish geography.

The book makes a relevant contribution to the study of poverty, the strategies of those who suffered it, and the institutions devoted to mitigating it. The long period studied offers an extraordinary window to see the changes and difficulties these charitable institutions faced when their control passed from the church to the state, along with those that resulted from the political instability and fiscal penury that Spain suffered through the 19th century. It also shows how the different regions experienced in particular ways the institutional, political, and economic changes that took place in Spain over two centuries. Finally, it also enhances our knowledge on the economic role of women and their participation in the labor force, during an era when census data and other statistical sources are insufficient to assess it.

The richness of the information gathered is so vast that it could not be fully exploited in these chapters. Clearly, the authors that participated in this volume, as well as its editor, understood that it opened fruitful venues of research that go beyond their research scope. Thus, the book generously facilitates the use of the data collected by compiling it in its appendix. In contrast with most economic history studies that focus on analyzing the data and provide few information on how it was assembled, this book offers a thorough description of its sources and methodology. This provides future researchers with the necessary input to produce solid and rigorous analysis. It also opens the way to develop similar projects in other regions where foundling-hospitals existed, such as Latin America, and open the comparative scope of this work beyond Spain.


Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato is Professor of History at El Colegio de México at Mexico City. Her current research projects include the evolution of Mexico’s inequality, standards of living, and women’s participation in the labor force between the 18th and 20th centuries.

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Labor and Employment History
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century