State fairs in the early 20th century hosted so-called 'better baby contests,' and they were incredibly popular. Despite the name, however, babies weren't just being judged on their chubby cheeks and toothless grins. The contests used the principles of eugenics and scientific racism to pick the most "fit" infants. Parents were literally entering human livestock into competitions to win prizes.
The history of eugenics in America is a dark brush with white supremacy in the guise of science. And while eugenics promoted sterilizing the unfit until the 1970s, it was incredibly popular. Even Helen Keller supported eugenics. The better baby contests were one of many ways in which America kept racism alive after the Civil War, since the prizes only went to white babies.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Americans turned to science to solve every problem, which led to the invention of transportation innovations like automobiles as well as new agricultural methods. Among those agricultural methods were the development of new seeds as well as breeds of animals. The government regularly sponsored agricultural fairs to compare the best livestock and hand out awards. The government, people agreed, had an interest in strengthening American farms.
But these agricultural fairs didn't just put animals on display. The competitions also included human livestock in the form of "better baby" contests to celebrate the healthiest, most perfect infants. As Mary T. Watts said at the Iowa State Fair in 1911, “You are raising better cattle, better horses, and better hogs, why don't you raise better babies?”
The first better baby contest was held in 1908 at the Louisiana State Fair. Originally, the competition was limited to babies between the ages of 6 and 48 months. One of the goals was to establish standards for judging infant health, an essential part of modern pediatrics. The judges were physicians and nurses who evaluated babies on several standards, including physical health, physical appearance, and mental health.
The idea took off, spreading to state fairs across the country. Within a few years, 40 states held better baby contests. Babies were measured, weighed, poked, and prodded to determine which were the most fit. Doctors checked their tonsils, the symmetry of their features, and their temperament, then jotted their notes down on scorecards—the same scorecards used for livestock.
Babies were lined up at state fairs and judged for their fitness next to horses, pigs, and other livestock. On the other side of the fair, judges inspected canned fruits to hand out blue ribbons. While it seems discordant today, the state fair was a logical place to judge humans physically. After all, many believed the same scientific principles that improved crops and livestock could be applied to people, which led to the promise of eugenics and social Darwinism.
Long before it became associated with the Nazis, eugenics was incredibly popular in the United States. For many Americans, eugenics promised to use science to improve mankind—and with automobiles, radios, telegraphs, and airplanes all showing the power of science, it didn't seem like a stretch to believe that humans bodies themselves could reap the benefits.
The root of the better baby and fitter family competitions was eugenics. The "science of human evolution" promised that mankind could control its own evolution. The term was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, a British scholar and cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton's concept was simple: if you could breed animals to strengthen certain traits, why not humans? The theory went that encouraging two people with "desired" traits to procreate, would make humanity itself stronger.
But from the beginning, eugenics had a dark side. Eugenicists argued that certain people should be sterilized or even executed to prevent them from procreating. And while the better baby contests seemed like a harmless way to celebrate cute babies, only certain infants won.