When the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company announced in 2016 that it was laying off Snoopy, a feature of its advertising, in favor of a “clean, modern aesthetic,” I felt like I was being sent to the doghouse myself.
I’m not a Met Life policyholder, I don’t own a beagle, and I know Snoopy will still get to appear at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, but I have an archival relationship with Snoopy. While conducting research for my book on the history of babies, I used the Met Life archives, located in Queens, New York, and the wonderful archivist gave me a Snoopy plush toy.1 I’ve been in a lot of archives, and I’ve broken bread with a lot of archivists, but this was my first (and probably last) archives souvenir. Researchers using the Met Life archives, regardless of whether they get a Snoopy, will have the pleasure of the reading room, which I hope is still filled with images of Snoopy in classical paintings. I took a picture of my favorite, Snoopy as Thomas Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, and there were (and hopefully still are) other fun ones to look up and enjoy as a break from close reading.
Met Life, as many historians know, hired nurses to give health information and direct services when its more than 30 million policyholders needed care.2 It also distributed a staggering three billion pamphlets on health topics.3 The company began distributing a baby book to new parents in 1900, and updated editions appeared in 1923, 1936, and 1942. Parents could keep a record of infant development and note their payments to the Met Life agent. As the baby book explained, “From time to time the METROPOLITAN AGENT leaves a book at our house which shows us how to keep well and how to prevent disease.” Other insurance companies also handed out baby books to their policyholders. The Prudential Life Insurance Company gave out copies of Our Babies, written by Chicago Commissioner of Public Health and public health leader Herman Bundesen.
Research in the Met Life archives gave me the opportunity to examine all the booklets from the welfare division relating to infant care, including Baby’s First Days, Home Nursing Care of Babies, All About Milk, and How to Dress the Baby. In the case of fashion, Met Life turned to S. Josephine Baker, the Director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene in the New York City Board of Health. She “discovered a way to meet the difficulty of baby clothes, so simple and practical, that the wonder is no one ever thought of it before.” The discovery? It was that “all clothes open down the front.” Great idea. Much of the advice in the Met Life books came from experts or echoed information in booklets like Infant Care distributed by the United States Children’s Bureau. The range of topics and the fact that the booklets appeared in new editions over a relatively long time span made the archive’s holdings very useful.
Best of all was the Met Life booklet Sunlight the Health Giver, published in 1928. It offered readers a historical account of the healing power of sunshine, which made one feel “better and stronger.” (As a beach lover, I endorse that statement.) It also provided plenty of other unscientific information that sounded like it came straight out of the research laboratory. How does the sun provide its healing properties and what does it do? The pamphlet told readers that the sun “works mysteriously through the skin and causes certain chemical changes in the blood;” the result was “an increased number of red cells of the blood” and thus, no anemia. For much of the twentieth century, sunbathing, along with cod liver oil, was seen as vital not just for preventing rickets but for promoting health and preventing disease in a more general, ill-defined, way. Snoopy, after all, seems pretty healthy from all those years on top of his doghouse, so maybe sunshine is the key to health!
Although I can’t promise that Snoopy paintings will still be on the wall or that you’ll walk away with a stuffed Snoopy after a day of research, I can assure you that if you are a scholar of public health interested in viewing in one place the widely distributed publications produced by Met Life, this archive is terrific. And now, because I’ve always wanted to say it in a blog: “Curse You Red Baron.”
- Is Snoopy cuter than Pinky the Puppet described by historian Kelly O’Donnell? You be the judge. Return to text.
- Diane Hamilton, “The Cost of Caring: The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company’s Visiting Nurse Service, 1909-1953,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 63 (1989): 414-34. Return to text.
- On Met Life and public health see, Elizabeth Toon “Managing the Conduct of Individual Life: Public Health Education and American Public Health 1910-1940,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1998. Return to text.