At its heart every State Fair is a celebration of mankind’s control of nature. Proud farmers from across the state come to Indianapolis with the best of their hybrid crops and selectively bread flocks, judges tally up pluses and minuses based on how well each conforms to established breed standards, and ribbons and prizes are awarded for the best representatives in each category from cabbage to cattle. It’s a tradition that’s nearly as old as agriculture itself – pride and competitiveness paired with a festival on the downhill side of the growing season and I enjoy digging through the records of the past to bring up little quirks and interesting tidbits. Unfortunately, not every aspect of the Indiana State Fair’s history is quaint, bright, and nostalgic. Our American past is troubled and murky, and as a people we've stumbled in the darkness of ignorance as often as we've stood tall in the sunlight. I end this year’s fair season with a post about a shadowy facet of the Indiana State Fair, one that combines advances in healthcare with the ignorance of bigotry and pseudoscience.
In the early 20th century a growing awareness of the importance of the health of mothers and babies swept across Indiana and in 1920 this new wave of awareness manifested in the form of a new competition at the Indiana State Fair. I’ll admit, when I first saw pictures of the Better Baby Contest I thought that’d I’d be writing a comic piece. Frankly, the thought of mothers and fathers displaying their offspring for a panel of judges in an attempt to win a blue ribbon and cash prize sounded like fodder for a mocumentary or maybe one of those child beauty contests that plague reality television.
But the Better Baby Contest was a symptom of something more sinister. Yes, it marked a shift in the understanding of the nature of childhood and motherhood, but it also embodied an attempt legislate the sort of selective breeding that had to that point only been seen in raising livestock on the human population. Eugenics sought to “strengthen” humanity by restricting and controlling procreation. It sorted people based on measures of genetic worthiness and desirability. The poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally challenged were deemed “defective” and a danger to the strength and purity of mankind. Likewise women deemed promiscuous, homosexuals, and non-whites were identified as “degenerate” and, therefore potentially dangerous to the health of the nation’s population as a whole. Under the guise of racial improvement governments put in place policies of segregation, institutionalization, sterilization, and even euthanasia.
In Indiana the eugenics movement took the guise of a drive for better Hoosier children and a direct outgrowth of this was the Better Babies Contest held at the Indiana State Fair from 1920 through its discontinuation in 1932. Parents from every county in the state brought their children to the Better Baby Pavilion located on what is now the western end of the Fairground’s Main Street where they would be would be weighed, measured, and tested by physicians and psychologists affiliated with the State Board of Health's Division of Infant and Child Hygiene.
At the forefront of Indiana’s better babies program was Dr. Ada E. Schweitzer, a rare feminine presence in the medical profession who worked tirelessly and in the course of just over a decade constructed a nationally recognized health agency which promoted the application scientific methods and modern medicine to motherhood and child rearing. By 1907 Indiana enacted its own Pure Food and Drug act as well as a Vital Statistics act requiring accurate birth and death records. The dark side of the movement showed through and that same year Indiana put in place the country's first eugenic sterilization law. By 1915 The American Medical Association (AMA) ranked the Indiana State Board of Health sixth in the nation and it seemed there would be no stopping her Division of Infant and Child Hygiene.
The Better Babies Contest acquainted Hoosiers with the current opinions of child specialists, reinforced pediatric norms, and gave university-trained experts a sort of unquestionable authority in all matters pertaining to the biology, physiology, and psychology of children. The introduction of sponsorship into the contest helped connect consumerism with motherhood and childhood and Indiana businesses such as the Hoosier Fence Company and the Weber Milk Company became Better Babies Contest sponsors. The contest excluded African American children, reinforcing segregation in Indiana and promoting the idea only white babies could achieve perfection. Schweitzer herself declared the contest “a school of education in eugenics”, promoting racial intolerance and prejudice while purportedly seeking the betterment of Hoosier children.
It’s important to state that though immensely popular; the Better Babies Contest isn't a product of Indiana. The first contest was held at the Iowa State Fair in 1911 with Mary T. Watts’ question to Iowans, “You are raising better cattle, better horses, and better hogs, why don't you raise better babies?” Watts used the model applied to livestock to judge superior infants, developing scorecards which tallied physical health, anthropometric traits, and mental development. Soon after Woman's Home Companion magazine embarked a better baby campaign of its own, sending an editor to promote the contests in Colorado. By 1914 the contests had become a fad and Woman's Home Companion proudly proclaimed that the existence of contests in every state (except West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Utah) and the examination of more than 100,000 children a laudable mark of progress.
In Indiana Children’s Bureau workers took part in organizing, officiating, and facilitating the Better Babies Contest joining with the AMA to standardize a scoring system acceptable to the pediatric establishment. This collaboration led to alternative children's health conferences, which conformed to the credo and flawed assumptions of the contest but lacked the competitiveness. Still, by the mid-1920's, Schweitzer went on the radio airwaves and in magazine articles promoting Better Babies Contests as a means for establishing a yardstick for childhood heath standards against which parents could compare their own children. She promoted the eugenic theme that race betterment (referring to the white race only, of course) depended on restricting the right to bear children to only the fittest and “protecting” genetic health through marriage and sterilization laws. Chillingly she stated, “You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, neither can we make a citizen out of an idiot or any person who is not well born.”
I’d love to say that this contest met its end when its inherent racism and classism were recognized for what they were and that the good and honest people of Indiana rejected the tenants of eugenics, but I can’t. To be honest, the last Better Babies Contest held in 1932 was wildly popular. Its end came at the hands of the sexism of a medical establishment which could not tolerate the predominately female Indiana Children’s Bureau and the financial strictures of the Great Depression. The bureau ultimately was disbanded and its chief architects run out of healthcare. Indiana’s eugenic-driven sterilization laws would remain in place until 1974 when it was struck down by Governor Otis Bowen. The last concrete legacy of the contest is the two pavilions constructed to accommodate judging and a plaque on the statehouse lawn commemorating the end of the Sterilization Act.