“Will your stock or your children carry off prizes at the Fair this fall, or will both?”
This is the question asked in the 1923 Rockbridge County Fair Association’s brochure. The two contests, both under the category “Public Health”: one a baby show judging both the “handsomest boy” and “prettiest girl” baby (presumably both white since no distinction is made) and the other a dental contest with separate sections for “white children” and “colored children.”
It might seem odd to have a cutest baby contest listed under public health alongside a dental examination – or to give a blue ribbon for a dental exam at all. But in the early years of the twentieth century, the cultural ideas of beauty and health were closely linked – a phenomena that can be seen very clearly in the Better Baby Contests that popped up in many county and state fairs at the time.
The Better Baby Campaign began as a federal initiative to curb infant mortality and promote pediatric health. This of course was an important topic as it is estimated that 100 out of 1000 children in the country died before their first birthday.1 Spreading information regarding children’s health to a large audience was imperative and large audiences were found at the fairs.
The fields of health and social welfare at the time, however, were infused with the theory of eugenics. Many saw health as inextricably linked with “good genes” and “good genes” inextricably linked with Anglo-Saxon lineage.
For some the early death of so many infants was not just a horrible tragedy but a societal problem of “race suicide” that would eventually lead to white people being in the minority. In her book, Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia, Elizabeth Catte, citing historian Gregory Dorrs, points out that the adoption of eugenic theories allowed the South to preserve a racist (and this author would add, ableist) social hierarchy while being “viewed as modern and scientific”.2
The Better Baby Contests were envisioned as a way to promote health, but in many cases they promoted eugenics as well. They fit well into the set-up of an agricultural fair where animals were judged based on scientific measures. Similarly, a baby or child could be judged by “scientific” measures such as whether their ears were “too small” or if they had a “waddling gait.”3 Although the Better Babies Contest slogan was “Looks Don’t Count,” eighteen out of the twenty categories could see deductions for unspecified physical defects on different areas of the body whether or not those “defects” even interfered with the overall physical health of the child. These included such things as “pallor,” “flat feet,” or even being “too short or too tall.”4 It was all done in the name of science, as the Times Dispatch reported in 1913: “It is only by the establishment of these standards that parents will be able to know definitely wherein their offspring is deficient, and such knowledge is necessary if inefficient babies are to be made efficient.”5
Standards and statistics can be applied unscientifically. The public still had an idea that the winner would be what they would deem an attractive child. In fact, one newspaper ad in Farmville in 1927 urging the need for adoptive parents spoke of the “splendid specimen of babyhood” that could be found at the Roanoke Children’s Home; a child that could “win blue at any ‘better baby’ contest” with “blue eyes and medium light hair, which is inclined to curl,” a “combination of coloring” that “statistics show that more foster parents request…than any other.”6
At the Virginia State Fair, hosted in Richmond in 1914, the infamous Walter Plecker, registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, announced the winners of the Better Baby Contest. His remarks are imbued with his eugenic beliefs: “A baby, to rank high in the aim at bodily perfection, must first be born well. The parent must be of sound body, free from the taints of inherited or acquired transmittable weakness…”7 Plecker tied the contest to his campaign for birth registrations in the state, another initiative hampered by racist motivations and underpinnings.
In 1922, Rose M. Ehrenfield, a North Carolina public health official, pointed out the Better Baby Contests were not serving their stated purpose in promoting good health since they “appealed largely to mothers of babies least in need of medical observation or attention,” serving largely as a way for wealthier parents to show off their well-fed children, although her (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) suggestion of a “Poor Baby Contest” hardly seems preferable to the modern reader.8
The Better Baby Contests not only dehumanized the children being judged by placing them on equal footing with all the animals at the fair, but it also implied that some children were not even good enough to be judged like animals. It also sharply showed society’s conflation of “beauty” with health, something we still struggle with today.
Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia explores the many ways Virginia embraced eugenics and the legacies both physical and emotional it has left us with. Join us on virtually on Tuesday, March 15th as we discuss Pure America and have a Q&A with author Elizabeth Catte. Registration is free but required.
Blog Posts & Exhibitions
- Two Faces: The Personal Files Of Dr. Joseph S. DeJarnette (September 19, 2012)
- You Have No Right: Law & Justice in Virginia (September 2012–May 2013)
- Sterilization At The Virginia State Penitentiary (March 4, 2015)
- Who Do You Love?: Race And Marriage In Virginia Before The Loving Decision (September 16, 2019)
- Endeavor To Restore Them” : Accessing The Records Of Virginia’s State Hospitals (April 28, 2021)
In addition to photographs, these materials include survey reports from the 1930s-era Virginia Historical Inventory.
- Shenandoah National Park images
- Staunton, VA images
- Arthur Rothstein’s Virginia photographs (Library of Congress)
- Buck v. Bell (1927) (Encyclopedia Virginia)
- Compensating for the Priceless (Richmond Magazine)
- Finding Carrie Buck (WGBH)
- Earnest Sevier Cox (1880–1966) (Encyclopedia Virginia)
- Eugenics in Virginia: Buck v. Bell and Forced Sterilization (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library)
Eugenics Record Office (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)
- Joseph S. DeJarnette (1866–1957) (Encyclopedia Virginia)
- Racial Integrity Laws (1924–1930) (Encyclopedia Virginia)
Legislation, Case Law, and State Documents
- Mental Defectives in Virginia: A Special Report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections (1915) (Georgia State University College of Law)
- Sterilization Act (1924) (Encyclopedia Virginia)
- Buck v. Bell (1927) (Oyez)
- Repeal of Sterilization Act (1974) (HathiTrust)
- House Joint Resolution No. 607: Expressing the General Assembly’s regret for Virginia’s experience with eugenics (2001)
- Victims of Eugenics Sterilization Compensation Program
- Thomasinsa E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017
Cohen, Adam. Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck. New York: Penguin Press, 2016.
Coleman, Arica L. That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Dorr, Gregory Michael. Segregation’s Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
Green, Bryan Clark, and Thomas R. Blackburn. In Jefferson’s Shadow: The Architecture of Thomas R. Blackburn. 1st ed. Richmond, Va: Virginia Historical Society, 2006.
Eisenfeld, Sue. Shenandoah: A Story of Conservation and Betrayal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.
Lombardo, Paul A. Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck V. Bell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Star Company. (1913, May 18). To Make Scientifically Efficient Babies. The Times-Dispatch. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=TD19130518.1.10&srpos=88&e=——-en-20–81.
1Uenuma, F. (2019, January 17). ‘better babies’ contests pushed for much-needed infant health but also played into the eugenics movement. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/better-babies-contests-pushed-infant-health-also-played-eugenics-movement-180971288/
2Catte, E. (2022). Pure America: Eugenics and the making of modern Virginia. Belt Publishing.
3Star Company. (1913, May 18). To Make Scientifically Efficient Babies. The Times-Dispatch. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=TD19130518.1.10&srpos=88&e=——-en-20–81.
6Splendid Specimen of Babyhood Found at Children’s Home. (1927, February 18). Farmville Herald, p. 5. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=FH19270218.1.5&srpos=9&e=——-en-20–1.
7Prize Winners in Better Baby Show At State Fair And Official Scores Of All Who Registered 95% Or Better. (1914, October 17). The News Leader, p. 6. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://virginiachronicle.com/?a=d&d=NEL19141017.1.6&srpos=1&e=——191-en-20–1.
8Ehrenfeld, R. M. (1922). Not “Bettery Baby Contests” – Why? The Health Bulletin, XXXVII(2), 10–12. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://archive.org/details/healthbulletinse37nort/page/n31/mode/2up?q=%22Better+Baby%22.