Look at what I found tucked into a scrapbook! Apparently my grandpa Mac was a BETTER BABY. Which means just a bit more than you think it means. Or it did in 1920 at least.
When you glance at this, it appears to be an infant health development checklist—which it was—and perhaps part of some kind of public health effort—which it was as well. But the Better Babies contests were also a product of the eugenics movement in the US in the early twentieth century, the so-called science of social engineering through “breeding.” The idea was that some people, such as epileptics, alcoholics, the feeble-minded—and, well, an awful lot of poor people and immigrants and black and brown folks!—were “unfit” to marry and reproduce and should be discouraged from doing so (or, really, sterilized) for the betterment of the race. If it all sounds a tad Hitlerish it’s because Nazi Germany picked up on these theories in the 1930s and ran with them, to put it mildly. On the slightly less sinister side, eugenics councils here in the US promoted the betterment cause through state and county fair exhibits, where they distributed propaganda and held Fitter Family contests, giving people (er, white people!) cash prize incentives to measure the “fitness” of their family “stock.” This gave rise to more mainstream efforts, like the Better Babies Bureau, which was co-sponsored by a women’s magazine.
Despite everything, there were definitely some benefits to the Better Baby contests, which gave young mothers a chance to have their babies examined by physicians (in an era before checkups were routine), and which distributed valuable information on nutrition and child care. Which is likely what Nana had in mind when she brought Mac to the contest. The family was stationed at the newly established Navy installation at Dahlgren, Virginia, where resources were limited—the contest could have even been held for families on base. Plus, given that Mac was solidly above-average in height and weight, who would pass up the chance to win a little cash?
Note in the detail below the use of caliper measurements, and odd criteria for “defects.” (Which immigrant population at the time was considered to have defectively “box-shaped” heads, I wonder.)
Looking at the score card, Mac did pretty well overall, with points off only for “position of eyes,” whatever that meant, “enlarged tonsils,” and something to do with his teeth. Evidently Nana was proud enough to send this to Mac’s MacGregor grandparents, where it would have been especially interesting to Dr. MacGregor. Anna put it in one of her scrapbooks, where it was later accompanied by some of Mac’s report cards.
When I found this, my first thought was that it was just a health checkup. Then I noted the year and saw the phrase Better Babies and wondered about the eugenics connection, because it just so happens that I edited a novel this year about American eugenics called Of Better Blood. The book came out last month, and I sent this score card to Susan, the author. (Talk about worlds coming together!)
One more thing: Do you suppose Baby Mac really drank two quarts of whole milk a day like the front of that scorecard says? Maybe he was a really mighty kid, in which case perhaps his age in this news item below isn’t a typo:
Go get ’em, kid!