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Nurses with babies
Harris & Ewing, photographer. NURSES WITH BABIES. [Between 1916 and 1919] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016854442/.

Something for Everyone in the Library’s Historic Photo Collections: Babies

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Babies are big in the Informal Learning Office at the moment. With the recent arrival of three new extended family members, infants are featuring prominently in our conversations. I’ve been indulging my current baby fervor by mining the collections for related items from years past. In this post, we’ll celebrate the youngest members in our families by sharing different collections you can explore with your own.

The Prints and Photographs Reading Room online catalog (PPOC) is a great place to  browse for images on any topic, as previously outlined in this blog. Babies show up in many guises, from posed studio portraits to more candid shots. Pictures also document different cultural traditions, family relationships, and show an extensive range of clothing and baby merchandise. Wider Library collections are also full of all kinds of baby-related materials and cast an interesting light on child-rearing practices of years ago, some of them very much at odds with current practices. Below is just a selection from the many resources available.

A smiling baby seated on a fur rug.
A smiling “Dulany Baby”, from the C.M. Bell Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Most of the adults featured with babies throughout the collections are women, but proud fathers or other male relatives appear in these images from 1900, 1909,1920, and 1956. Their rarity makes the bond they portray between grownup and child particularly touching, even if some of the poses are more of the hands off than the snuggling variety. A number reflect the environment in which they were taken, like these two photographs from the World War II era showing a uniformed soldier with triplets, and another offering his medal to a baby.

A young man holding a baby.
Wellington Koo and baby, February 9, 1922. Prints and Photographs Division.

A collection from the studio of Washington D.C. photographer C. M. Bell includes several hundred charming images of babies and children among thousands of glass negatives from the late 19th and early 20th century. Some feature family or sibling groups, but most are of youngsters posing alone. Details are sparse; there is no information about age, or first name, just the family’s last name, and a sense of their parents’ tastes from the props and clothing chosen.

A baby seated on a chair.
“Joy Baby” is taking her photo session at the C.M Bell studio seriously. Prints and Photographs Division.

Marketing different styles of baby equipment to parents is nothing new, as is shown by the remarkable variety of baby carriages pictured in the collections. Families could choose versions with wheels in small, medium, and large sizes, or in combination. This model from 1911 was built in the style of a horse drawn carriage. Wicker was a popular material for strollers, if photos from 1903, and 1912, and this 1919 newspaper ad are anything to go by.

Woman with an umbrella and baby in a carriage
Woman, holding umbrella, pushing baby in carriage equipped with rain cover, possibly an advertisement from the early 1900s. Prints and Photographs Division.

However, not all the images of babies are charming and carefree; some have discomforting subtexts. Photographs of Native American babies from 1891, 1899, and 1906 record a vanishing way of life even as they document close familial bonds.

Navajo woman and baby
A Navajo woman and baby, ca 1914. Photographer Pennington and Rowland, Prints and Photograph Division.

A set of pictures from the 1940s provide another example of a backstory that differs from what might be assumed from a first glance. These images showing a newborn, a mother and baby, and parents with two children seem simply to show happy, thriving families – until you realize that they are part of a collection taken by photographer Ansel Adams to document Japanese-American internment during World War II. A picture from the 1933 Chicago World Fair advertising “Infant Incubators with Living Babies” is disturbing to modern day sensibilities, as are the pictures in this 1913 newspaper piece with eugenicist overtones common in early 20th century America.

An illustration showing 1910 as a baby on skis.
A newspaper image and poem welcoming Baby New Year 1910. From The Salt Lake Herald-Republican, December 26, 1909

Early January is an ideal time to remember that babies have long been a symbol of the New Year, providing a contrast with the figure of an elderly man representing the old year on its way out. This proved an ideal way to illustrate cartoons on current affairs, or to make political points, such as supporting women’s suffrage. A poster for New Year 1919 included a fervent wish for “World Peace with Liberty and Prosperity”, an understandable desire after the end of World War I just a few weeks previously.

An illustration from 1912 showing the New Year as a baby suffragist.
A Puck magazine illustration showing New Year 1912 arriving with a sign saying, “Votes for Women”.
Artist L.M. Glackens, published by Keppler & Schwartzman. Prints and Photographs Division.

Newspaper advertisements from 1922, 1937, and 1957 also include the New Year baby theme. Some papers offered prizes for the first babies born at the turn of the year, as in these examples from 1945 and 1948.

Additional resources:

Newspapers and books provide more insight on parenting habits or trends and the advice given to families and caregivers.

Eight babies sitting in a basket.
A basket of babies, Harris and Ewing Photographer, 1923. Prints and Photographs Division.
  • Modern caregivers wouldn’t dream of following the dietary advice in this 1948 advertisement, which recommended feeding babies meat from the age of six weeks. By 1957, the same company was promoting fruit-flavored meat products for babies, such as ham and raisin, and pork with apple.
  • A method from 1916 that claimed to produce “patented non-crying” babies requires that “the babies are never fondled” – a complete reversal from today’s practices of skin-to-skin bonding and contact napping.
  • An article from 1913 describes the daily routine, diet and entertainment of babies and small children in a Chicago nursery.
  • Baby contests seem to have been popular. In March 1938, “The Waterbury Democrat” asked readers to count the number of infants’ faces pictured on the front of the “Baby Edition.” Competitions took place in person too, as recorded in images and reports documenting baby shows in Washington, D.C.; Miami, FL; and in an unnamed location in 1920.
  • Digitized examples of books on childcare in the collections include:
    • “Mother and Child: Their Comfort and Care”; looking through this book left me with a profound sense of relief that knowledge and attitudes have completely changed since its publication in 1894. There are some ludicrous claims, such as that a painful delivery is due to a woman’s lifestyle and that “by right living, childbirth can be robbed of its suffering” (page 22). However, a detailed description of conception must have been helpful if a woman of the time had limited knowledge about the process – even if the author admits that much of the information “is chiefly gathered from experimentation with rabbits” (Chapter 2). Subsequent chapters on pregnancy and labor were probably enlightening too.
    • “Physical Culture for Babies”, (1904), aimed to address “a prevalent and alarming want of knowledge…of the rearing and training of babies” (page xii). There are chapters on “Baby’s Wardrobe” (page 67), “Baby’s Environment” (page 134), “Popular Mistakes of Mothers” (page 271), and much more.
    • “A Baby’s Day” (1917), sets out a daily schedule from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., with detailed advice on diapering (page 28), food preparation (page 370), and equipping a baby carriage (page 50).
Smiling baby lying on a rug.
“Clifton Baby”, from the C.M. Bell Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

We hope you enjoyed perusing the baby pictures and resources here and that you might be inspired to look for more in the collections. If there are any new babies joining your families in 2024, we wish them – and you – all the very best. Happy New Year!

Man with a baby in a carriage.
A man and baby in New York, 1953. A. Rizzuto, photographer, Prints and Photographs Division.

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