Had you visited the Indiana State Fair between 1920 and 1932, not only would you have seen the usual judging of livestock, you could have also viewed the scientific judging of babies in the “Better Babies Contest.” This very popular event, and the ongoing work of the Indiana State Board of Health’s Division of Infant and Child Hygiene, helped achieve a major accomplishment by lowering the state’s infant mortality by one third during the 1920s. However, the roots of the whites-only contests were closely associated with the eugenics movement and Department of Health correspondence containing phrases such as “race betterment,” “feeble-minded,” and “You can not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, neither can we make a citizen out of an idiot or any person who is not well born” are shocking to today’s sensibilities.
The baby contests started at the Iowa State Fair in 1911 when a clubwoman asked “You are raising better cattle, better horses, and better hogs, why don’t you raise better babies?” In 1920, the Indiana State Board of Health inaugurated the event at the Indiana State Fair. Parents entered 78 babies the first year, but over the next decade the event became so popular that organizers had to cap the entries at 1,200 babies.
Not just looking for pretty babies, a slew of physicians, optometrists, psychologists, and otolaryngologists (head and neck specialists) scored the toddlers in a range of physical and mental tests. All scores were kept high as to not offend the adoring mama and cash prizes were donated by businesses such as milk companies hoping to promote their products. One parent recalled that the $8 prize with comments such as “knock-knees, poor posture, distended abdomen, and bad temper” made the parents madder than the $8 made them glad!
The contest was such as hit with Hoosiers that two buildings were constructed in the 1920s to house the contest and displays. Learn more about the contests in Alexandra Minna Stern’s online article Making Better Babies: Public Health and Race Betterment in Indiana, 1920-1935.
Since the 1960s the old Better Babies Building has housed the Hook’s Historic Drug Store and Pharmacy Museum (recently renamed the Hook’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain). Hook’s Drug Store began with one store in Fountain Square in 1900 and grew until the 1980s when acquired by another company. In 1966, the company gave Hook’s Historical Drug Store and Pharmacy Museum as a gift to the people of Indiana to commemorate the state’s sesquicentennial. Oodles of State Fair attendees have fond memories of old-fashioned candy, ice cream, and soda fountain drinks from the Hook’s building. Much of the old drug store display came from an 1849 pharmacy owned by the Grigsby family in Cambridge City. The building is currently owned by the Greenfield Museum Initiative and can be viewed during the State Fair, on special weekends, and rented for parties.
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