“Alarming shortage of baby formula,” scream today’s headlines.

In some areas of the country, store shelves are empty.

Modern-day parents have come to depend on the convenience of boxed or canned products. In the past, parents asked their doctors for a recipe, and made their own formula.

In 1907, Dr. Emelyn Lincoln Coolidge wrote a newspaper column for “the young mother in the home,” covering a wide range of topics.

For the drooler, “thin waterproof material” was recommended to be added under the baby’s bib.

At four months of age, “the baby’s milk formula was changed to the following: two ounces of milk taken from the upper half of a quart bottle, three ounces of boiled water, a quarter teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of bicarbonate of soda.”


Dr. Coolidge, in a separate article, suggested that, while nursing, it would be a good idea to give a newborn a bottle of formula each day in order to make the transition easier, down the road.

“By very gradually accustoming the digestive organs to cow's milk, the danger of a bad attack of indigestion when the child must be weaned, is lessened to a great degree, and is generally obviated entirely.”

Ruth Danenhower Wilson, writing for the Lakeland (Florida) Evening Telegram, recommended that nursing continue for eight or nine months, but – if not possible – “fresh cow’s milk properly modified is the best substitute.”

The paper cautioned, “A physician’s advice should always be sought in weaning a baby and the change should be made very gradually.” Experienced mothers, the report continued, “still seek such a physician’s advice in feeding their babies till the first year is safely over. They call it ‘baby insurance.’ ”

Great Falls Daily Tribune, August 22, 1920
Great Falls Daily Tribune, August 22, 1920


At a child welfare clinic in Boston in 1918, Dr. Marian Williams addressed young mothers about “The care of the New Born.” Many of those attending were “surprised to learn how very little they knew.”

One session dealt with “milk modification,” in which the participants learned “how to prepare the baby’s formula in a clean and scientific manner in the average home.”

Near the end of World War 1, the British government published an extensive report on the use of milk powder.

“A baby weighing seven pounds or less is fed a number of teaspoons of dried milk equal to 9 plus the baby’s weight” over the course of 24 hours.

In 1920, the U. S. Public Health Service published a “sample formula for a six-months-old baby” consisting of 24 ounces of milk, 12 ounces of water, and 3 tablespoons of malt sugar, spread over five feedings daily.

Evening Journal, August 18, 1920
Evening Journal, August 18, 1920

The addition of sugar to cow’s milk in a baby formula was not to make it more appealing, but to minimize constipation.

For well-to-do parents traveling by train in the 1920s, “milk laboratories (would) prepare a baby’s usual formula in as many bottles as will be needed and deliver them to the train in an iced container.”

The Washington D. C. Star newspaper noted,“This is safe,” but admittedly “bulky (and) expensive. Such bottles can be used for the entire trip, though.”

In the end, each formula needed to be adjusted regularly by a doctor to suit each baby’s stomach, “just as his shoes are (fitted) to his feet – and almost as often to meet the marvel of growth needs.”

Perhaps, as in the old days, your doctor could help out with some individualized advice during this temporary shortage of mass-produced formula.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.