Better Babies Contests

At the beginning of the 20th century, citizens concerned about high infant mortality in the United States took up the call of "baby saving." These initiatives relied on standards for normal child development, as well as input from healthcare professionals and public health officials. Better Babies Contests addressed this concern for child welfare and physical development, becoming the first eugenic competitions held at state fairs.

The first "Scientific Baby Contest" to combine these standards was initiated by Mary DeGarmo in 1908 at the Louisiana State Fair. DeGarmo linked the competitions to the social efficiency movement and its call for standardized homes, roads, and schools. Many Progressives believed that such standardization would improve the lives of young children.

With the assistance of Dr. Jacob Bodenheimer, measures of contestants' physical and intellectual development were carefully recorded. Winning contestants often appeared in graduation gowns and were presented with "loving cups" to mark their achievement. By 1913, the Woman's Home Companion magazine co-sponsored the contests, which were simply known as "Better Babies Contests." The magazine presented certificates signed by DeGarmo and Bodenheimer documenting that winners had "a sound mind in a sound body."

Mary T. Watts and Florence Brown Sherbon had organized Better Babies in Iowa in 1911. However, in 1920 they were provided new evaluation forms by Charles Davenport, who was then a member of the American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality (AASPIM). Using Davenport's forms, they organized the first "Fitter Families for Future Firesides Competition" at the Kansas State Free Fair.

Watts and Sherbon added a hereditarian explanation for human differences to the Better Babies Contests' earlier focus on child development and welfare. Thus completed the transformation of Scientific Baby Contests as a vehicle popularizing eugenic ideas.


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