Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Reading Baby Books: Medicine, Marketing, Money and the Lives of American Infants

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Reading Baby Books: Medicine, Marketing, Money and the Lives of American Infants

Article excerpt

Poor Charlie Flood! In 1914 at the age of four months he burned his face with quicklime and three months later caught a buttonhook on his tongue. As a toddler there were more accidents - a nail in his foot, and then a fall while holding a bottle that left glass in his hand. We learn of these calamities not from court records reporting neglect or from hospital files but from his mother, who carefully recorded each event in his baby book. (1) Like Charlie many babies had accidents and hurt themselves - falling down stairs, off porches, and out of high chairs and cribs. In the first half of the twentieth century mothers lovingly recorded these misadventures, and one baby book--defined simply as item with one or more printed pages for recording information about newborns--even included an entry page for "first tumble." (2) By the post World War II era, accounts of accidents largely vanished. Was it better baby-proofing? More vigilant parenting? Had infants become less curious and accident-prone? Or, in the context of new accident prevention and home safety programs, had what had once seemed commonplace or amusing become evidence of neglect, abuse, or bad parenting, leading mothers to stop recording such events? (3)

As the case of the vanishing accident reveals, baby books are a rich historical source, detailing the lives of babies and the changing expectations and practices of parents. These ephemeral publications--formatted with one or more printed pages for recording information about infants--were sold or distributed as keepsakes and were commonplace in the United States throughout the twentieth century and remain in use today. Not all baby books were, in fact, books. They ranged from expensive, large, hardbound volumes to cheaply printed pamphlets designed largely as advertising or as health department advice manuals. (4)

Situated between biographies--with their accounts of lives lived within particular historical contexts--and scrapbooks--with their displays of accumulated materials deliberately arrayed for presentation--baby books can be said to be like birder's notebooks. (5) They record information, but also include personal observations. For historians they serve as records of individual experiences seen at close range and as field guides to nursery experiences as the entry pages change. Mothers (the writers of all the baby books we viewed) were clearly conscious of writing for themselves and for the children who would inherit the books. In addition, baby books present useful accounts of daily nursery life and serve as a counterweight to information found in prescriptive literature--a source that has dominated historical analysis. (6) In some cases, mothers wrote about their attempts to follow prescribed or culturally-sanctioned childrearing practices; in other instances they clearly and consciously eschewed the advice of experts.

This article examines American baby books from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth century. We argue that these overlooked volumes are a significant historical source that both challenges and supports the current historiography. Although babies appear and are discussed extensively in the writings of reformers and physicians as well as in family papers, and while they have been studied collectively by demographers and historians examining families, motherhood, medicine and social welfare, the existing literature reveals little about the diverse and changing daily lives of infants--which we are defining as those up to one year of age. Even in the emerging field of the history of childhood, infants receive little attention, because of the emphasis on children's agency and on the larger social, political, and economic forces shaping young lives. (7) Using baby books we can place infants at the center of historical accounts, allowing us to see how medical, market and cultural forces shaped the ways they were cared for and in turn how their own behavior shaped family lives. …

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