State Fairs Of Yesteryear Often Featured Creepy Baby-Judging Contests

Image courtesy of Duke University Libraries

Just imagine: you’re standing in the crowd at the state fair, gaze fixed on a stage filled not with plump vegetables, carefully crafted pies, or prize cows, but babies. Yes, the past could get pretty creepy.

It’s true: Better Babies Contests were popular at local fairs in the early 20th Century, complete with cash prizers, writes Amy McDonald on the Duke University library blog The Devil’s Tale, though there was a vicious xenophobic and racial undertone to the contests.

“The babies are entered like any other exhibit at an agricultural fair,” reads an excerpt from a circular advertising one such competition. “They are examined by judges, just as live stock [sic], grain or apples are examined… The result is bound to be – not prettier babies, – but better babies at each year’s fair, – a stronger, healthier race of people on the farms, in small towns and in the state.”

Judges evaluated children on the age of five and younger on their measurements and proportions, mental and developmental states, vision and hearing, and physical development, writes Sara Kern, a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State.

“These tests set government-determined averages as the standard by encouraging families to ‘produce’ children who met or exceeded these ideals,” Kern writes. “Additionally, they served to cement the public health as existing in the realm of scientific medicine and the government, rather than in the home.”

That whole “healthier race” part wasn’t a reference to a healthier human race, but a not-subtle reference to promoting a belief in white supremacy. Due to an influx of large numbers of immigrants into the U.S., some in the white middle- and upper-classes worried that immigrant babies would outnumber white babies, Rachel Moran, another Ph.D. candidate at Penn State, notes on The Ultimate History Project. Such opponents of immigration often encouraged young white “native-born” women to produce healthy infants.

The baby contest of the 1910s and 1920s introduced many parents to baby growth charts for the first time, Moran explains, with charts appearing in women’s magazines like Woman’s Home Companion, which was a major proponent of Better Baby contests in the 1910s. As the contests grew, the federal government stepped in to create The Children’s Bureau, which was less focused on eugenics and more on conducting research and making recommendations on American children’s health and well-being, Moran writes.

The Bureau did away with cash prizes for babies, and instead proposed replacing the contests of yesteryear with Child Health Conferences that were more about giving parents instruction, and not ranking kids against each other. No prizes were handed out, and no baby went home with a title.

(h/t to @john_overholt for yet another fascinating blast from the past)

Measuring the Children of the Corn [The Devils Tale]
Making Perfect Children [The Ultimate History Project]