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Chapter 1 Better Babies

"If a hog is worth saving, why not a baby?" commented Mary Watts during the 1912 Iowa State Fair. And, by the time the next Fair rolled around, Watts, who was president of the Iowa Congress of Mothers, had gotten the organizers to designate a tent where physicians could evaluate babies in some of the same ways that judges were evaluating livestock. "If there is a standard for calves and colts, why not for babies, in order that each mother may strive toward (that standard) for her child," wrote Outlook Magazine in 1913.

The 'scientific' baby contests during the early years of the 20th century typically took place in conjunction with state fairs and flower shows. The fairs and shows touted the accomplishments of the community-flowers, cattle, pigs, and ultimately human 'stock'-promoted wholesome living, and provided local residents with information about new agricultural and homemaking practices. The baby contests gave parents guidelines for raising healthy children and gave doctors checklists of criteria to look for in such children. Few doctors at the time specialized in pediatrics, and those who did rarely paid attention to babies who were not sick. The shows differed from 19th century 'pretty baby' contests, because they emphasized health rather than beauty.

At the fairs, doctors would fill out a Better Babies Standard Score Card for each child who came to their tent. A baby's scores in mental and developmental tests, various measurements, and the physical examinations could add up to 'perfection'-some maximum number of points-or to a lower score.

Fairly soon after the contests began, so did the wrangling. At some fairs, points were deducted if the baby seemed 'highly nervous' or 'unmanageable,' deviated from the prescribed height measurements for the age group by as little as one quarter of an inch, had a pimple, scanty hair, stubby fingers, flabby muscles, or skin that was not 'soft and smooth.' "The Eastern authorities," noted Julia Lathrop in 1913 (she was Chief of the Children's Bureau), "have questioned the advisability [of baby contests] on the general ground that such contests [are] not really dignified and educative ? the way the contest is managed [determines] whether it is useful or demoralizing." If prizes were awarded-for example, for the 'best' this or that-and if contests were competitive, then most parents would end up going home disappointed. Competitive contests failed to promote infant health or good child-rearing practices. Most contests also failed to provide follow up when the doctor actually discovered that a baby had a genuine health problem. As the merits and flaws of the contests surfaced, focus shifted toward honoring all babies who met certain standards and who showed improvements from year to year.

The scientific Better Baby Contests were grassroots reflections of the eugenics movement, the push to improve the human stock and better the 'race.' Well-baby clinics in the United States today actually developed out of the tent-based physical examinations of babies that began at state fairs.

Attention to the production of 'eugenic' babies-babies who were well born, with good heredity-focused people's attention on their personal genetic endowments and those of their marriage partners. ('Eugenic' comes from the Greek 'eu' meaning 'well' and 'genus' meaning 'born.') The corollary of this positive eugenic movement was that some marriages and some individuals-the 'dysgenic' or 'cacogenic' ones-were judged not to be suited at all for parenthood. ('Kakos' is Greek for 'bad.') One obvious issue was this: Who should make the judgement calls?

Participation in the baby contests plummeted in 1918, not because interest had flagged, but because the flu was devastating the country. Frightened citizens simply stayed away from crowds and fairs.

Today, baby contests in the United States differ markedly from the scientific baby contests. Oddly, they most resemble the beauty-based 'pretty baby' contests from the mid 1800s. Retail stores and magazines sometimes sponsor them, and the goals include fund raising (for charities) and recruitment of models. Child health and fitness, tips for parents, and training for doctors are nowhere on the agendas. Instead, babies get prizes for the "cutest waddle, brightest eyes, puckered pout, biggest biceps ?"

Included References

  1. 100 Superfine Babies, George Dawson, Good Housekeeping, Feb 1912, 238-241. (First page only)

Additional Resources

  1. Better Baby Contests, Annette K. Vance Dorey, McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, 199
  2. (This book includes the quotation cited from Outlook Magazine, Aug 16, 1913, 104.)


Students should understand the following:
  • Baby contests were grassroots efforts to improve human stock
  • Agricultural principles were applied to the breeding of better babies
  • Contest agendas differed: some emphasized health and fitness; others focused on beauty
  • Well-baby clinics and the medical specialty of pediatrics arose, in part, out of these contests

Suggested Questions for Discussion

  1. What features of the better baby contests were good for children? What features were not?
  2. What effects might the better baby contests have had on parents? Which of these can lead to positive actions on the part of parents and which to destructive or counterproductive activities?
  3. How do 'human stock' and 'livestock' differ? What do they have in common?
  4. Many people named their baby sons 'Eugene' in the early 20th century. What's in a name? What might these parents have been hoping for for their babies? What other names connote some trait or characteristic? How important is a person's name to the development of the person's character?
  5. Do people look for certain traits in the partners they choose? What traits does American society prize? Which ones do you prize? Which ones might you seek in a mate? Are choices that people make about marriage and dating subtle or subliminal forms of eugenics?

Topics for Discussion/Written Assessment

  • If you were designing an ideal baby contest, what would its features be? What would you make sure were NOT features of the contest? Explain your choices.
  • In 1913, the magazine Woman's Home Companion printed the following: "Better babies mean better mothers and fathers, better homes, better cities, a better nation, a better world." Explain this quotation. How would better babies lead to a better world? What assumptions are implied in this quotation?
  • The first noncompetitive "pretty baby" show on record took place in Ohio in 185
  • What might have been the motivations of the organizers? What are some reasons why beauty is so highly prized in American society?
  • The first competitive baby show was held in Blue Earth, Minnesota, in 1861. How might the motivations of its organizers differed from those of the Ohio group? This show was originally scheduled for the State Fair in Minnesota but had to be moved to Blue Earth because of the Civil War. How entwined are social and political events? Cite other examples of social or cultural events that have been altered by political conditions. Is politics ever separate from cultural activities? Why?

Extension Questions for Additional Research

  1. In 1925, Herbert Hoover helped draft the Child's Bill of Rights. The Bill included the following promises: There should be no child in America
  2. that has not been born under proper conditions
  3. that does not live in hygienic surroundings
  4. that ever suffers from undernourishment
  5. that does not have prompt and efficient medical attention and inspection
  6. that has not the complete birthright of a sound mind in a sound body How close to having all of these rights are children who are born in the United States today? What factors are preventing children from having these rights? Propose steps (legal, social, other) that people could take to make these rights available to all children.
  7. After the better baby contests got underway, the contest idea caught on for adults as well. A strongman nicknamed Charles Atlas won the first two adult body-building contests. Who was Charles Atlas? What is his story? When and for how long were such contests for adults in vogue? What is behind his nickname?
  8. Choose a developing country. How close are children in that country to having some or all of the rights that Hoover listed for children? What about the adults in that country? Are conditions equal for children, women, and men in the country?
  9. How do infant mortality rates differ in developed and developing countries? In what countries do infants thrive? What approaches to infant health account for these successes?
  10. Is a long life span a basic human right? Defend your answer.

Topics for Teacher Preparation

  • Roots of the U.S. eugenics movement
  • County and state fairs as forums for promoting community values
  • Trait selection
  • Human rights
  • Changing perspectives on children
  • Cultural differences in attitudes about children


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