Years ago, I lived with a roommate who worked as a temp at a now-defunct parenting magazine. While she was there, the magazine sponsored a cutest-baby contest, and she took to rescuing some of the nonwinning entrants from the trash—these were physical photos, back then—and affixing them to our refrigerator door. The resulting gallery was off-putting, to say the least.
I was reminded of this not long ago while I was browsing some nineteenth-century newspaper archives. An ad from a November, 1877 Brooklyn Daily Eagle caught my eye: THE GREAT NATIONAL BABY SHOW, it trumpeted. The upcoming exhibition (at a venue rejoicing in the name of “Midget Hall”) promised “infantile prodigies,” “freaks of nature”, “Fat Babies!” “Lean Babies!” as well as “beautiful triplets and elegant twins.” Cash prizes were promised.
The show apparently ran for weeks. Then, On December 5, the paper provided a comprehensive account of the event.
At ten o’clock this morning the great National Baby Show at Midget Hall, corner of Fourteenth Street and Fifth Avenue, New York, was opened. There are four hundred babies entered, and about half that number were in their places this morning. The show occupies two floors of the building, and around the sides of the rooms, on raised platforms, are the babies, with their mothers or nurses. At least one hundred and eighty of the two hundred babies spent the greater portion of the morning crying. The women vainly endeavored to pacify their youngsters, but it seemed as if there was a tacit understanding between the infants that they were not allowed themselves to be bulldozed. Nearly every child had a bottle of milk, and after they exhausted their power of suction and filled their infantile stomachs, they yelled. Dolls and other toys were thrown away on the babies, and many ladies endeavored to stop up the children’s throats by stuffing them with gum drops.
There will be distributed $1000 in prizes ranging from $10 to $150, the highest prize being given to the handsomest mother and child. The mothers, with the exception of two, are not handsome. There are many babies, children of rich New Yorkers, who are entered by their nurses. The majority of the mothers are German, and among the Germans there are a fair sprinkling of Hebrews. There are also Russian babies, Icelandic babies, Polish babies, Norwegian babies, English babies, Irish babies and one Chinese infant named Wee Boo. Many of the infants are positively hideous looking, yet their fond mothers think their offsprings the handsomest in the show. There is one baby that resembles a monkey and another with long ears and jaw, that is called the dog baby. The dog baby barks when it wants food.
Among the novelties are a set of quartets which are promised, but have not yet arrived, and a baby who attempted suicide. The suicidal youngster tried to drown himself in a bath tub. There is another baby that claims attention because it is said that baby was born ten minutes after its mother died. A two year old baby that swallowed a fork, laughed and crowed while it endeavored to bite off the end of its mother’s nose. An elfish looking baby, seventeen months old, is said to weigh less than six pounds, and its mother was proud of it. It was advertised that a baby thirteen months old, without hair or nails, would be exhibited, but the hairless youngster did not make its appearance today.
Tellingly, there are no reports of cash prizes being awarded—although adult admission was twenty-five cents, and children (and, presumably, babies) fifteen. (And it seems the show toured the nation.) Come to think of it, I don’t know who triumphed in that magazine contest either; rest assured that in their mothers’ eyes, they were all winners.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.