By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
I admittedly, and ashamedly so, have spent some time watching TV shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras” in utter horror. I don’t get the point of putting makeup on your infant so a panel of judges in a sad hotel ballroom can give them a trophy. But my personal feelings on the subject aside, baby shows aren’t a new idea. Certainly, modern kiddie pageants operate in the realm of extremes (Fake teeth? Really?!?), but baby contests date back more than a century, and for periods, were very popular locally.
|See #16? Babies like winning contests! From 1907.|
Baby shows started in England in the 1880s and soon became popular on our side of the Atlantic. The earliest mentions of baby contests I have found in Chemung County are from the mid-1890s. These earliest shows were primarily held at the County fair. As the newspaper reported, “The baby show is usually a howling success.”
|Handbill from the 1896 Chemung County Fair that highlights the baby show.|
By the 1900s and 1910s, the contests started to evolve, but many still were in place to find the cutest or most popular baby. A 1905 baby contest at Bethel A.M.E. Church ended when judges “found all so pretty” that it was unfair to choose a winner, so they instead awarded them all prizes. Local babies placed in larger regional or national competitions, too. In 1913, Elmiran Jacob Levine won a baby contest in Scranton, PA, defeating 800 other babies. That same year, Phyllis Jane Dixon won one of the largest national contests at Asbury Park, NJ, earning a gold medal and $15 in gold. She won “not for beauty alone, but for physical and mental perfection.” Other types of contests began to emerge: in the 1910s, the Gerity’s Pharmacy awarded prizes to the first baby born in Elmira each New Year.
|Gerity's 1915 winner|
In the 1920s and 1930s, the shows morphed into “Better Baby” contests. Building on some of the less destructive ideas of the eugenics movement, Better Baby shows were developed to identify and award healthy babies and to educate mothers about best child-rearing practices. Still, the winners were almost exclusively from white, middle-to-upper class families, so the ideals of the eugenics movement were definitely adhered to. These contests were judged by doctors who gave each child a physical examination.
|Dr. Dale examines a baby at a Chemung County contest in 1924.|
The competition was fierce and a lot of maternal pride was on the line. As Elmira Telegram opined in 1923, “The man who can act as a judge at a baby show and escape without a scratch is a born diplomat.”
|Winners of a 1925 Chemung County Better Baby Contest (the crying girl on the left probably wouldn't have won if she cried like that in judging).|
In 1929, one-year-old Edgar Allen Terwilliger defeated 200 other babies to win the Chemung County Better Baby Contest. The show's real purpose was said to be educational. 40 of the 200 babies were deemed “defective,” which was a warning to their families to “keep closer watch of their health.” In 1925, 10-month-old Ruth Barber won 3rd place in the national Nestle’s Food Healthy Baby Show. She won her picture and story in the “Pictoral Review,” a sterling silver loving cup, and $25 cash.
|Nurses hold winning babies of a contest at St. Joseph's Hospital in 1937.|
By the late 1930s through the 1950s, many of the contests again turned back towards popularity- or beauty-based judging. In 1939, the Big Flats Baptist Ladies Aid Society held a contest to “determine the most popular baby.” Other local organizations held similar contests.
|Advertisement for entrants for the 1938 Daughters of America Baby Show (note the prizes for cutest and most popular babies).|
|Baby photo contest, 1945.|
In 1954, the Big Flats American Legion Auxiliary hosted a snapshot photograph baby contest at Community Days. Photos were posted on a bulletin board at Minier’s Grocery Store and judging was done by a penny vote. The winners got to ride on a special parade float.
|A rebellious 1938 local winner.|
The baby show craze started to fade away after the 1950s, but clearly didn’t disappear entirely. Early baby shows certainly had some positives, including putting a spotlight on infant health and wellness. The wit and wisdom section of the Star Gazette suggested one other positive in 1928:
“Your baby may not win
In the Baby Show,
If you enter him. But he’ll meet
Some nice babies.”