Baby Talk

Janet Golden, a professor of history at Rutgers–Camden, has long studied the histories of women and children, having written well-regarded books such as A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle (Cambridge University Press, 1996) and Message in a Bottle: The Making of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Harvard University Press, 2005).

For an upcoming book, Golden is researching the history of babies in modern America, dating from the late 19th century. Her hunt has led her to baby books and folklore as well as to commercials and movies that show how income, ethnicity, and other demographic considerations shaped the rearing of American babies and how expectations of them changed over the past century.

Golden recently responded to questions about her research.

When did babies move out of the home, so to speak, and into mass culture?
After World War I, babies brought working-class families into the consumer marketplace. Of course, people bought things for the home, but thanks to social welfare programs, modern medicine, and advertising, they were buying strollers, scales, and baby furniture—items that hadn’t been a part of working-class culture. Babies helped make Americans into the consumers they are today.

Didn’t the upper classes buy things for their children before that?
The upper-class thing was to buy status gifts, like gold jewelry, for their babies to demonstrate their social standing. And from the beginning, babies of all classes had savings accounts. I looked at 800 baby books, which revealed that in the 1920s, and even the 1930s, banks and insurance companies started promoting baby savings accounts. The banks gave away baby books, which contained perforated slips for bank deposits. They had baby books with coin slots and places to write things about your baby. Money and babies is a key theme in my book.

Didn’t people keep records of their babies before that?
Sure. But the records were quite different. Back in the 1890s, say, you would see entries like “Johnny fell down the stairs,” accidents that were often conveyed as humorous events. After World War II, though, you don’t see records of little accidents like that when a cultural preoccupation with “good” parenting emerged; nothing bad was supposed to happen. Parents would be embarrassed to write something like that in a baby book. In the early part of the century, there was more focus on what babies did rather than, as was the case later, maximizing their potential.

And they became marketing phenoms?
Babies were used to advertise everything, even cigars and cigarettes. War bonds were sold using babies. They were cute and they appealed to women, who were becoming the consumers in the family. Babies are still used to sell things, but not as much as before, and, thankfully, they are not selling cigarettes.

Do you mean we are not as baby-oriented?
Politicians like to kiss babies, but they forget them as soon as they get elected. Our social programs for babies are not as far-reaching as those in other countries. In the 1910s, there were conscious public efforts to promote infant health. There were “better baby” contests, a movement by professionals to look at babies to see if they were healthy, sort of like taking an animal to the state fair to have it graded. But the bottom line was a collective effort to ensure the well-being of babies.

Do you expect to draw any conclusions about American babies over the last century?
If we put babies at the center of our history, I think we will be better able to learn about the evolution of family practices, advances in medicine and public health, the growth of the consumer market, and maybe the gap between our political rhetoric and our policymaking.

Originally published in Rutgers Magazine, Fall 2009.