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Americans Used To Have "Better Baby" Contests To Rank Who Had The Most Physically Perfect Infant

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.

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  • State Fairs Used To Give Out Awards For Human Livestock
    Photo: National Media Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    State Fairs Used To Give Out Awards For Human Livestock

    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?”

  • Babies Were Judged On The Same Scorecards Used For Livestock
    Photo: State Library of NSW / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Babies Were Judged On The Same Scorecards Used For Livestock

    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.

  • After Judging The Babies, You Could Head Over To The Canned Fruit Table
    Photo: Current location National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After Judging The Babies, You Could Head Over To The Canned Fruit Table

    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.

  • Eugenics Was All The Rage In The Early 1900s
    Photo: Second International Congress of Eugenics / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Eugenics Was All The Rage In The Early 1900s

    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.

  • The "Fitter" Babies Were Chosen Based On The Ideals Of White Supremacy
    Photo: H. Strickland Constable / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The "Fitter" Babies Were Chosen Based On The Ideals Of White Supremacy

    Black babies never won better baby contests. Eugenics argued that humanity could direct its evolution by promoting certain traits and discouraging procreation by "undesirable" people. And the undesirable were almost always poor, immigrants, or people of color. The Eugenics Records Office, established in 1911, "demonstrated" that any undesirable traits, including pauperism, were linked to genetics.

    Genes, then, relied on destiny, according to eugenicists. And the winners of better baby contests were always white babies with western and northern European heritage—the "fittest genes" in the view of eugenics supporters. In some places, Black babies were not even allowed to enter the better baby contests.

  • Baby Contests Were Necessary To Avoid "Race Suicide"
    Photo: William-Adolphe Bouguereau / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Baby Contests Were Necessary To Avoid "Race Suicide"

    In 1916, Woman's Home Companion warned that there was "quite a stir about race suicide." What, exactly, is race suicide? The magazine implied that by not valuing motherhood, white women were killing their race. And between the lines, the magazine hinted that in a race war, whites would lose if they didn't use every tool at their disposal, including breeding according to the principles of eugenics. "The Better Babies Bureau is going to help," the magazine promised, by sending information on how to make sure your baby is healthy and fit.

    As one mother wrote, "I went to... university, studied Latin and Greek, but don't know the first principles of rearing healthy children." She added, "Education needs to be changed, if we women of America are to be efficient mothers." The contests, then, were a way to promote the white race through training women that their role in life was birthing healthy white babies.