Fitter family contests were a popular form of eugenics education in the 1920s. Modelled on the better baby contests popular in the 1910s, they exemplified the “positive eugenics” strategy of encouraging the “fit” to have larger families. The contests were held mostly at agricultural exhibitions and state fairs, received strong support from public health departments, women’s groups, and charities, and reflected the idealization of the farm family. Providing medical and childrearing advice as well as information about “better breeding,” the Fitter Family Contests embody the intersection of eugenics and public health.
How did Fitter Family Contests begin?
The first “Fitter Families for Future Firesides” contest was held at the Kansas State Fair in 1920. It was developed by eugenicists Mary T. Watts, a leader of the Iowa Parent-Teacher Association, and Dr. Florence Brown Sherbon, a former field worker with the U.S. Children’s Bureau. The two women had organized baby contests throughout the 1910s, but were frustrated by the contests’ focus on the environment; they thought heredity should also be taken into account. Working in consultation with Charles Davenport of the Eugenic Record Office, Watts and Sherbon developed a contest that used traditions from agricultural fairs and baby shows to promote “better breeding” and eugenics education.
Agricultural fairs were important cultural events in rural communities, for they provided an opportunity to share information about farming techniques and celebrate the rural lifestyle. There were skills competitions, prizes for the best livestock, and ribbons for the tastiest jam, pickles, or pies. Drawing on these traditions, eugenicists developed a contest that evaluated the health and heredity (or “stock”) of farm families who were (1) assumed to be fit and (2) already accustomed to animal breeding and the examination of livestock at agricultural exhibitions and state fairs. As Watts remarked, it was “about time people had a little of the attention that is given to animals” at state fairs.
Baby beauty pageants and parades were a popular form of working-class entertainment in the nineteenth century, but in the 1910s health reformers invested them with the higher moral and scientific purpose of combatting infant mortality. The U.S. Children’s Bureau, founded in 1912, made “baby-saving” its first priority and refashioned the traditional baby contest into a vehicle for public health education. Babies received a free health examination, and mothers received medical advice about breast-feeding, hygiene, a healthy home environment, and children’s “normal” growth and development. Better baby contests disseminated these emerging pediatric norms of child health in many parts of the world. In designing the Fitter Family Contest, Watts and Sherbon added a detailed assessment of the family’s eugenic pedigree to the “better baby” contest format.
What Took Place at a Fitter Family Contest?
The farm families who entered a Fitter Family Contest were a self-selected group. They were almost always white, native-born, Protestant, educated, and from a rural background; they had no family member with a congenital disability and surely already considered themselves to be fit. The visual displays at the Eugenics Exhibit would have reinforced their sense of superiority. While waiting for their examination, contestants could learn about heredity in Mendel’s Theatre or watch a display of flashing light bulbs that supposedly illustrated the alarming social cost of the high birth rate of the unfit.
Before they could enter a Fitter Family Contest, participants had to make an advance appointment and fill out a Record of Family Traits; at the Kansas State Fair, the entire examination took three and a half hours. Participants were guided through the Eugenics Building, where one expert after another recorded each family member’s social history and medical history, ascertained their temperament and personality, took blood and urine samples, and tested their IQ. Specialists measured each person’s height and weight, looked for spinal defects, and asked about exercise, diet, and daily habits. After the examination, each family received a grade. The winners had their pictures published in the local newspaper and received a medallion, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” (Psalms 16.6) Those who did not win were given specific instructions, such as to drink more milk, and encouraged to enter the contest again the next year. In 1924, one-third of the entrants in the Kansas Fitter Family Contest were repeaters.
Conclusion: Eugenics and Public Health Redefine the “Healthy, Normal” Baby
The Fitter Family Contests sat at the intersection of eugenics and public health education. The American Eugenics Society formally sponsored the contests as part of its eugenics education program and saw them as a way to collect family pedigree data for eugenics research. At the same time, the eugenic contests also had much in common with baby health conferences that focused on fixable health concerns, such as breast-feeding, diet, and sleep. Fitter Family Contests evaluated the home environment as well as the family inheritance, and many baby health clinics were also aligned with eugenics. For example, baby contest organizers in Vancouver worked actively to implement “negative” eugenic policies, such as sterilization. Even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which used baby contests to showcase the fitness of black babies and fundraise for its anti-lynching campaign, limited the contestants to the black community’s “Talented Tenth.”
Although the Fitter Family Contests accentuated heredity, their assessments of infant health relied on the same increasingly standardized pediatric measure of “normal” height, weight, and intellectual development as the public health advocates of “better babies.” Both initiatives thus helped to narrow the definition of a “healthy, normal” baby to one that allowed little deviation from supposedly scientific norms. Fitter family contests appealed to a select group of families assumed to come from good “stock,” with the aim of differentiating them from potential “losers” who did not fit the norm.
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