Mac was a Better Baby

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.

IMG_7502

(Click on these images to see details. Fun to read!)

IMG_7503

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?

IMG_7816

Mac: a pretty good baby!

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.)

betterbaby2

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:

IMG_0836

(Okay, it probably IS a typo. He was likely around 1o.)

Go get ’em, kid!

Advertisements

Who are all these people again?

If you’ve just recently joined us (ME) here at this blog, here’s a fresh introduction to the folks whose lives I’ve been researching, as well as few I plan to talk about soon.

All of these people are related to me through my mother’s father, Malcolm MacGregor Jameson, known to me as “Grandpa Mac” and to others in the family as MacGregor. He didn’t talk much about his family and the relationship I had to him and my grandmother wasn’t a close one. So some of this stuff I’m learning is very new to me.

On Mac’s dad’s side is my great-great-grandfather Joe Lee Jameson, a Texas bureaucrat who had been bookkeeper at an insane asylum, the State Revenue Agent of Texas, endorser for an adding machine, and had recently become an oil company executive when he died of typhoid fever at the age of thirty-four. He was married to Amaryllis Routh Jameson (whose later married name was Ward and who took the nickname “Jamie”), and at least half the stuff I know about this family comes from her scrapbooks, so she is my hero.

Joe_Jee_Jameson_1890s(?)_NEW

Joe Lee Jameson, looking very important

They had three children,* all born in Texas:

The eldest, Malcolm Routh Jameson (my great-grandfather), also died relatively young, in his fifties. He had been a Naval officer during WWI and later in life became a science-fiction writer. I’ve built a web site for him and I’ll sometimes call him MRJ for short.

The second child was Vida Jameson (or “Vida I” because MRJ named his daughter after her). She died when she was just five. *There were also twin boys in the family who were born and died (or else were stillborn) in 1901. They’re the ones with unsettling little angel baby jpegs on their Ancestry.com profiles (no, I don’t know who put them there).

A year after the twins, and two years after Vida’s death, House Baker Jameson (named for his father’s mentor, Colonel Edward M. House), was born. He became an actor and worked on stage, radio, TV and film from the 1930s into the late 60s. His first wife was Edith (Edie) Taliaferro, a stage actress who had been a child star and who also had appeared in a handful of silent films, only one of which survives. After she died, House remarried, to actress and dancer Liz Mears. (And while he’s not a blood relative, I’ll tell you about her dad sometime, because… well, you’ll see.)

MRJ was the only one of his siblings to have children of his own: my Grandpa Mac (the second born), and Vida Jameson (aka Vida II), who as a young adult became friends with some Golden Age sci-fi writers her father knew, and eventually published stories of her own.

Vida and Mac’s mother was my great-grandmother Mary MacGregor Jameson (I grew up hearing her referred to as “Nana”), who first met MRJ when they were kids, when both his family and hers were living in the administrative staff quarters of the Southwestern Insane Asylum in San Antonio, Texas, around 1897. If you’re following along, you’ll remember my great-great-grandfather Joe Lee Jameson was the bookkeeper; my other great-great grandfather was the superintendent.

MRJ_and_Nana

MRJ and Nana (Mary), 1920s: “Of course we’re crazy about each other. We met at the insane asylum!”

Like MRJ, Mary was the only one of her siblings to have children. She was the second of five sisters, the four others being:

  • Anna MacGregor Collins, the oldest, who was the family archivist and genealogist, and whom I have to thank for saving a lot of this stuff.
  • Helen MacGregor, who never married and became a schoolteacher (oh, but she left some compelling stuff).
  • Margaret MacGregor Morgan, who moved to New York City in the 1930s. Still trying to figure out her story.
  • Kathryn MacGregor Burgess, who along with her sister Anna married military officers stationed in the Philippines.

The MacGregor sisters’ parents (see how I pivoted and am now going backward through the generations of my Grandpa Mac’s mother’s line?), were my great-great grandfather Dr. William Wallace MacGregor, a physician and surgeon, and Anna Jones MacGregor, my great-great grandmother (whose birth was celebrated in this lovely letter).

Beyond this generation and going backward, Anna Jones’s line is the most well-documented—most of the material I have from the 1880s and earlier is from her side, and she and some of her daughters claimed DAR membership based on her ancestors (the Moores, the Markses, and the Meriwethers). We’ve already had a glimpse of Anna’s maternal relatives, and there are some letters from her father and his people too.

I’ve also started to find out a little more about Dr. MacGregor’s family, who I think came over to the US from Glasgow, Scotland, around 1850. I have a few scraps (and I mean, literally, scraps) from that side.

And then, jumping ahead about a century (oh, the whiplash!), I have some stuff that provides some interesting glimpses of my mother’s very early childhood in New York, when she and my grandmother lived with MRJ and Nana while Grandpa Mac was off in the Pacific in WWII.

I’ve set up a category list in the sidebar to be a sort of index, so feel free to click on those names (or places or details) to see where else they come up. And I’ll be updating the family tree info when I get a chance. Until then, consider this your cheat sheet. Any questions?

The New York City years (Part 1) with bonus House & Edie mystery!

Way back in late 2012 I promised to post my photos from New York, where I’d visited places where the Jamesons and MacGregors (well, Margaret at least) had lived in the 1930s and 40s. So here’s 244 E. 48th Street in Manhattan. The building shows up in a photo album that belonged to (my great-great uncle) House Jameson and his wife. Edith:

2016-02-20 21.51.53 But since there are almost no notes or captions the album (shakes fist at ancestors ) I didn’t know this was the 48th Street place until I went there myself, using an address that I’d found for House in the 1930 census. And as it happened, it looked almost exactly the same:

DSCF5358

Obviously this was an ideal location for House and Edie, who were both performing in Broadway plays on a regular basis at the time (and House’s radio career might have started by then too).

But apparently, for a time, House’s brother and his family lived in the building too. Here’s the 1930 listing for all four of them—Malcolm and Mary (my great-grandparents), 13 year-old Vida, and 11 year-old Mac, my grandfather.

recordWhich is why the row of buildings across the street from the 244 building looked so familiar:

MRJ_AnnaMacG_NYC

Malcolm (my great-grandfather) and his mother-in-law, Anna Jones MacGregor (who must have been visiting)

Mary_Vida_MRJ_Anna

Mary (my great-grandmother), her daughter Vida, her sister Anna, and her mother.

The family posted for several photos at this spot. When I visited this street, I noticed  those ornaments between the windows on the top story of one of the buildings across the street, and they helped me confirm I was in the right place. Cool, huh?

According to the census record, Malcolm was working as a salesman for International Correspondence Schools at the time. He had retired from the Navy just a few years before for health reasons, and after working various jobs in Texas (I think), perhaps it seemed a good idea to join his younger brother in the city. I also found a brief mention of this time in a journal written in the 1990s by my grandmother (Mac’s wife), who said that Malcolm and Mary had originally come to New York with plans to open a Mexican restaurant. Really?

House had been in the city after graduating from Columbia in the late 1920s (except for the times he toured with theater companies around the US and Australia). I’ve found a couple of other Manhattan addresses for House, but in at least one case the entire block had been razed for office buildings. This block on East 48th is relatively unchanged, although the 244 building has since been rehabbed into a single-family home that sold for over four million dollars a few years ago. (It originally listed for $12M!) But at the time the Jamesons lived there the building had several units, with Malcolm and Mary and the kids in one apartment and House and Edie in another. At least that’s what it seems when you go by the 1930 Census, which visited Malcolm’s place one day, and House’s place a few weeks later.

Which brings me to the little mystery about House and Edie that arose from reading their census record! See below. (I know, it’s hard to read. You can look here, too. And here, and here.)

facts

You’ll notice that Edie is listed as head of household, and House is a “roomer.” Interesting! But weren’t they married to each other by then? We thought so, but the census lists “Edith Brown Taliaferro” as married and House as single. Oh my. Of course census records get stuff wrong all the time, and it’s possible that the census-taker didn’t know how else to list two people with two different last names (which House and Edie had for professional reasons) living in the same place. Or perhaps the place had been Edie’s first and her name was on the lease. (She was ten years older than House, after all.) Or maybe House and Edie were having a bit of fun with the census-taker. At any rate it makes me realize that we don’t seem to have a record or even a date for when House and Edie got hitched. Edie’s Wikipedia page says she married House in 1912, but that would have been when House was ten, so let’s assume that was wrong. Perhaps Edie married someone in 1912…maybe that’s where the odd “Brown” in her name in the census record (which I’ve never seen anywhere else) comes from. But I guess I’ll have to add House and Edie’s marriage record/date to the list of things I need to look for.

Stay tuned for more New York photos (at some point), including one photo—the only one I’ve ever found!—that shows Edie with other Jameson family members. And I bet you want to see more House and Edie, too, don’t you?

How’s this for starters? IMG_7477