Saturday, August 11, 2007

Incubation and Spectacle

For anyone who's visited a child in a modern neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), this 1904 illustration by May Wilson Preston (1873-1949) will come as a strange image. It was made for a serial in Good Housekeeping called "The Incubator Baby" by Ellis Parker Butler (1869-1937), which was published in book form in 1906:

What are all those people doing there? Shouldn't they be wearing gloves, or even masks? Where are the infernal beeping monitors?

In the early 20th century, incubators for premature babies were considered a fascinating technological novelty--but hospitals needed funds to purchase them, and that required public support for the idea. To raise interest, incubators were displayed to the public, with the babies still inside, many of them under 3 lbs at birth. "Baby hatcheries" were found at state fairs, and amusement parks like Coney Island. Admission was charged (10 cents), ostensibly to pay for the costs of maintaining the display, and for the lesson imparted by the "experts" on site, who answered questions about the babies and the technology. Some visitors returned again and again to follow the progress of particular babies; twins were especially popular. When babies reached a healthy weight, they were returned to their parents (who were not generally involved in the baby's daily care during incubation).

The Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children objected to the Coney Island exhibit early on, but it remained every summer into the 1940s. The Oral History Archive at the Coney Island History Project has audio interviews with several former "incubator babies" who were displayed in their earliest days. (Quality isn't terrific--one is a recording of a phone conversations.)

For further reading:

Hannah Lieberman, "Incubator Baby Shows: A Medical and Social Frontier," The History Teacher 35(1)(November 2001): 81-88. NOTE: Lieberman was a high school student in Minneapolis when she wrote this essay, which won the National History Day 2001 Competition for Senior Division Historical Paper.

A. J. Liebling, "A Patron of the Preemies," New Yorker (June 3, 1939): 20-24.


Anonymous said...

"baby hatcheries" wow.

people being used as a public spectacle.... why does that sound familiar? :P

Anonymous said...

Incubator Babies... seems closely related to side show performers who had to sell their images (in-person and in photographs)to make a living. I have an old postcard collection of many of them.I have never seen one of an incubator baby.

Thanks for this post Penny. Very interesting.

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