Better Babies Contests: Eugenics Goes to the Fair

Cristen Conger

Winners of a 1934 Better Babies Contest.
Winners of a 1934 Better Babies Contest.
Getty Images

Before girls started prancing, twirling and sashaying across the stages of child beauty pageants, baby parades and contests were all the rage. Child pageant historian and sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman explains how American baby parades started on the East coast in the 1890s. Turn-of-the-century folks went gaga over the sea of prams rolling through the streets, nevermind the hint of dirty diapers in the air. Thomas Edison even captured the 1904 Asbury Park baby parade on film.

Then, in the 1920s baby parades evolved into Better Babies Contests, marketed as public health initiatives. At these contests often held in rural fairgrounds, babies would be disrobed, measured, weighed and evaluated for temperament and intelligence. Winning babies might claim titles such as "Heaviest Boy Under 1 Year of Age."

If this sounds a lot like livestock competitions at homegrown fairs, that's because it was. Only with babies instead of bulls.

A Better Babies contest scale.
Courtesy: Ultimate History Project

Better Babies Contests were also rooted in eugenics. Alexandra Stern explores this relationship between eugenics and infant health initiatives in her well-researched paper "Making Better Babies: Public Health and Race Betterment in Indiana, 1920 - 1935." The Indiana Better Babies Contest was organized by the now-defunct Division of Infant and Child Hygiene, and "[it] was by far the division's most spectacular event, drawing hundreds of young entrants and thousands of curious onlookers to the state fairgrounds during the week of Labor Day." The annual contest kicked off in 1920, around the same time the U.S. Children's Bureau appointed Florence Brown Sherbon, a member of the American Eugenics Society, as a field agent to rural Indiana. Many state-level public health leaders were also eugenics advocates and supporters of state sterilization and marriage laws.

Though the Better Babies Contest taught rural mothers the importance of infant nutrition and health (good things to know!), the motivations were rooted in the "race betterment" movement that sought to build a stronger white race by restricting who's allowed to procreate (not so good things to know!). And "by excluding African American children [from the Better Babies contest], the contests reinforced patterns of segregation in Indiana and promoted the idea that only white babies could achieve perfection..." Stern writes. This eugenics-as-public-health stance was cringingly summed up by Better Babies lead organizer Dr. Ada E. Schweitzer: "You can not make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, neither can we make a citizen out of an idiot or any person who is not well born."

The scene at a Better Babies contest.
Courtesy: Indiana State University/Ultimate History Project

These eugenics-laced public health platforms circulated beyond the Better Babies Contest in the form of maternal health bulletins and pediatric publications the state government provided to its rural citizens. In 1932, the Indiana Better Babies Program was defunded and the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene closed. But Better Babies Contests were hardly restricted to the Hoosier State. A 1913 Woman's Home Companion highlights contests in Vermont, New Jersey, Arkansas and Texas, and the first "Scientific Baby Contest" took place at the Louisiana State Fair in 1908. And what did those little winners receive? A loving cup, naturally.

Although eugenics comes up most often in the history of oral contraceptives and Margaret Sanger, the Better Babies Contests were little-known -- and equally flawed -- practices in post-birth eugenics promotion.

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