Black and white photo of a white woman holding a baby.

Can every baby be a Gerber Baby? A century of American baby contests and eugenics

In 2018, Gerber made headlines for selecting baby Lucas as the winner of its Spokesbaby Contest, making Lucas the first Gerber baby with Down syndrome in the company’s 95-year history. As then-President and CEO of the well-known baby food company Bill Partyka explained in a 2018 press release, “Every year, we choose the baby who best exemplifies Gerber’s long-standing heritage of recognizing that every baby is a Gerber baby, and this year, Lucas is the perfect fit.”

Gerber has intentionally worked to make their Spokesbaby contests inclusive since the foundation of the contest in 2011, transcending the singular “Gerber baby” with which their brand is so strongly associated. Yet, over the past few years, contest winners have faced online backlash. The 2022 Gerber Spokesbaby Contest, for example, erupted in controversy last month as mothers took to Instagram to criticize Gerber’s choice of winner baby Isa, an adorable eight-month-old from Oklahoma who happens to be missing a femur and fibula in her right leg. Many felt the decision was made suspiciously quickly, while others claimed it reflected a “liberal agenda.” As one Instagram mother explained, “My children are white children with no problems and healthy. They won’t pick them because they are just that and afraid of the backlash they will get if they did.” For such commentors, the non-white winners or winners with disabilities should have had no real chance of winning over their own able-bodied, white babies. The fact that they won, then, must mean foul play on Gerber’s part, not that the contest winners reflect a cultural shift towards embracing diversity and difference.

The reactions to Isa’s win are, in part, a response to our own cultural moment, where white supremacist conspiracies have become part of mainstream political consciousness. Yet, like white supremacy itself, baby contests are also part of a long tradition of eugenic spectacle in the United States, which has always aimed to construct ideal bodies defined by white supremacy and able-bodiedness.

Though they sound quaint today, baby contests have been a crucial site where ideas about what constitutes the “ideal baby” were produced, debated, and negotiated. Since the nineteenth century, public health organizations, women’s social clubs, and corporations have used baby contests to grab mothers’ attention and encourage them to have more children, especially in white, rural communities. They were often modeled after livestock contests and held at farming shows. Held next to contests for the biggest pumpkin or the fattest cow, baby contests awarded prizes to mothers who had raised the healthiest “human crops.”[1]

Black and white photo of a white woman holding a baby and two white men looking at them.
The winner of the first Better Baby Contest at the North Carolina State Fair in 1913, receiving a medal. (Courtesy Archive.org)

After the Civil War, white supremacist fears around “racial degeneration” grew alongside an influx of immigrants and African Americans to Northern cities during the Great Migration. As a result, baby contests became even more explicit in encouraging Anglo-American women to reproduce to maintain a white majority.[2] By the early twentieth century, baby contests across the country incorporated the language of racial science, celebrating the reproduction of the supposedly eugenically fit and educating mothers in hygiene, sanitation, and nutrition.[3] As one 1917 bulletin of the Illinois Department of Health explained, the baby contest’s aim was “the development of the good points and the correction of the weak points of the young, ‘human animal’” for the “betterment of the human race.”[4]

Despite the contests’ scientific overtures, the baby winners were chosen for far more than their robust health. Like the Gerber Spokesbaby contest, early baby contest organizers and spectators placed their bodily ideals and hopes for the future onto the winners. More than simply spectacles at the fair, baby contests were intended to convey an intangible ideal, at once a universal stand-in for the every-baby, as well as a specific, embodied vision of what an infant should be.

At one 1913 baby contest in New York City, the eugenic stakes of the contest were made plain by the entrance of two infants who were “obviously not up to the standard.” As reported by The Evening World, “One had a twisted foot and the other, a babe of ten months, was woefully undersized for its age. When the registration officials asked the mothers why they desired to enter babies that obviously could not prove prize-winners they replied that they hoped through entering the contest to learn how they had failed in the care and upbringing of their offspring.”[5] These mothers, who readily accepted that their disabled children could never be winners, had not yet given up on their own reproductive and child-rearing capabilities. The contests, therefore, offered them hope for a more eugenic future, either through decreased disability for their current children or for future able-bodied, average-sized offspring.

These Progressive Era baby contests, known as “Better Babies” or “Well Baby” contests, proved incredibly popular. Inspired by the contests, Good Housekeeping printed advice columns for mothers on how to raise “Better Babies,” and local contests were covered in the national and local press throughout the country. It didn’t take long for corporations, including Borden’s Milk and Colgate Toothpaste, to capitalize on the events with advertisements and sponsorships. Companies adopted the language of the events, claiming that their products could help mothers produce “better babies” and become “better mothers.”

With such widespread popularity, baby contests themselves took on multiple lives, no longer reserved for Anglo-American mothers and babies. The contests themselves, deeply imbued with racial meaning, were recast and reappropriated. Some, like the baby contests held by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were used to impose Anglo-American standards on Indigenous bodies while simultaneously exoticizing the very cultural practices they hoped to eradicate for white spectators.[6] Yet others, like the mail-in contests hosted by The New York Age, an African-American newspaper in the 1910s and 1920s, reflected the racial ideology and ideal futures of black communities across the country.[7] Alongside typical baby show commentary (“She has a good appetite and sleeps well”), The New York Age published Black parents’ frustration with the white baby contests in their own neighborhood. Parents often suggested that no matter how eugenically fit their child was, their contests would never award a Black baby. Another parent explained that after her daughter scored high marks at a local contest, the judges kept referring to her as an “Italian.”[8] Like other early twentieth-century baby contests, The New York Age’s Better Babies Contests offered participants the opportunity for their child and their community to be recognized and celebrated by others as eugenically fit.

A century later, the cultural resonance of an “ideal baby” remains. Reactions to non-white Gerber Spokesbaby winners or Spokesbabies with disabilities reveal how much Americans continue to associate idealized futures with idealized infant bodies. If Lucas and Isa represent a future that not only accepts but embraces mental and physical disability, the outrage directed at Gerber for choosing them demonstrates just how far we have to go to achieve it. The long history of American baby contests shows that the desire to distill anxieties about health, wellness, race, and the future into a serviceable ideal has been and remains powerful today.

Notes

  1. Annette K. Vance Dorey. Better Baby Contests: The Scientific Quest for Perfect Childhood Health in the Early Twentieth Century (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1999), 9.
  2. Daniel E. Bender, American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 188-89.
  3. Alexandra Minna Stern, “From Legislation to Lived Experience: Eugenic Sterilization in California and Indiana, 1907–79,” in A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, ed. Paul A. Lombardo (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2011), 45-67.; Laura L. Lovett, “‘Fitter Families for Future Firesides’: Florence Sherbon and Popular Eugenics.” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (2007): 69-85.
  4. “Better Babies: Suggestions for Organizing and Conducting Better Baby Conferences.” Illinois Health News, (Springfield, Illinois: Illinois State Board of Health, March 1917), 52.
  5. “Rush of Entries on Final Day,” The Evening World,. August 30, 1913, 3.
  6. Mary Klann, “Babies in Baskets: Motherhood, Tourism, and American Identity in Indian Baby Shows, 1916–1949” Journal of Women’s History 29, no. 2 (2017): 38-61.
  7. Gregory Michael Door and Angela Logan, “‘Quality, Not Mere Quantity Counts’: Black Eugenics and the NAACP Baby Contests, in A Century of Eugenics in America: from the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, edited by Paul A. Lombardo. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011).
  8. “Photos from All Sections of the U.S.,” The New York Age, August 19, 1915, 2.

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