New York City, NY

Why New York Wanted "Better Babies" in 1914


Just a month before World War I began, New York City hosted an event called Baby Week, including a "Better Babies" contest. For most New Yorkers, a "better" baby simply meant a baby that would survive. But for others, a "better" baby meant something else entirely.

During Baby Week, the City aimed to educate the general population, especially mothers, about the proper way to care for infants. Babies were dying preventable deaths. Some babies died from heat exhaustion. Other babies died from spoiled milk. The New York Milk Committee distributed pamphlets with instructions such as, "Keep the baby in the fresh air."

At the end of Baby Week, there was a parade. A thousand babies participated in the "Better Babies" contest. Like animals at a state fair, the babies were judged by their physical dimensions. The award for "most perfect" baby in New York City (the two-year-old girl earned a score of 100) went to Johanna Wiggers.

Little Miss Johanna Wiggers, the heroine of Baby Week, rode up Fifth Avenue yesterday afternoon in great state in an automobile preceded by a band playing triumphal music and followed by 999 other babies. Johanna took the first prize as a perfect baby. She is two years and four months old, and ranks 100 per cent. in physical perfection. - The New York Times

Although Baby Week was new to New York, the "Better Babies" contest had been around for years. Mary DeGarmo, a children's welfare advocate, hosted the first one at the Louisiana State Fair in 1908. At that time, the eugenics movement was gaining momentum. To take a "scientific" approach, DeGarmo teamed up with a doctor who devised the qualifications of a "better" baby.

Johanna Wiggers, New York's "most perfect" baby, was featured in the book The Eugenic Marriage, where her physical dimensions were recorded, to signify her as "the type of little girl that will make the best mothers, and the better race tomorrow."

Although the "Better Babies" contest had ties to the eugenics movement, the Greater New York Baby Week emphasized the practical means for taking better care of infants. In this way, the approach was more about nurture, rather than nature.

The New York Milk Committee declared Baby Week a success, calling it "a striking demonstration of what can be accomplished when the social forces and the business interests of a city are allied for the common good."

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