If you read my post Inspiration on Location you know I discovered a unique institution. I researched the State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded near Lynchburg, Virginia. Synchronicity struck again. First, I learned about Carrie Buck (more on her later). Then I learned about the history of eugenics in the United States of America. Yes, you read that right. Eugenics, here in the U.S.A. During my research, I learned about a bit of arcane history: Better Baby contests. Part of the state fair, the babies’ were judged on the state of their health.
Mary de Garmo (1865-1953) was a former school teacher and social activist in Louisiana. In 1980, she formed the Mothers Union in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Mothers Union intended to improve child welfare. Her desire to improve children’s health was the reason she created the Better Baby contests.
Better Baby Contests Begin
De Garmo organized the first Better Baby contest. It was held at the Louisiana State Fair in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1908. She introduced the idea to Mary Watts who held the first contest in Iowa. The antagonist in my story mentions both of these women.
Initially, contestants were ages 6 to 36 months. After 1914 boys and girls up to age five could compete. The competitions were aimed at improving the health of future generations. They were held at county and state fairs and in settlement houses across the country.
Based on judging livestock in state fairs, these contests aimed for a scientific way to raise healthy babies. This science also determined who should and should not reproduce. According to the contest, the genetically inferior included the poor and non-white groups.
De Garmo and pediatrician, Jacob Bodenheimer, developed an evaluation and scorecard. They used Luther Emmett Holt’s average body properties. (Holt was a founder of the American Pediatrics Society.)
Physicians and nurses examined the children. Judges awarded up to 1000 points based on the child’s measurements and interactions. Evaluations included height, weight, symmetry, quality of skin, fat and bones, length of head, shape, and size of ears, lips, forehead, and nose. Psychological attributes were important as well. They rated disposition, energy, facial and ocular expression and attention. They had “typical measurements” for boys, girls, urban, and rural children. Bad behavior, nervousness, or fussiness earned negative points.
Education was an important part of the contest. Parents learned about best sanitation practices. Also taught were infection control, principles of good parenting, and good nutrition.
In 1913, Women’s Home Companion magazine co-sponsored contests across the country. They further developed and standardized the Better Babies Score Card. They distributed pamphlets with instructions on how to hold contests. The magazine also provided awards. Cash prizes ranged from $25 to $100. There were also gold, silver, and bronze medals and certificates of award.
By the 1930s, Better Baby contests evolved into Fitter Family contests. But the Better Baby contests had achieved their goal. People took babies to doctors for regular checkups. Babies were healthier.
My research into Better Baby contests inspired me. I included this bit of history in my alternate world novel, My Soul to Keep. My antagonist recruits losers of Better Baby contests to create an army that will do as she wishes. More about how she planned to do that in another post.
I hope you enjoyed this bit of history about Better Baby contests. Had you heard about these contests before? What do you think? Would you have taken your baby to a Better Baby contest?