Original publish date: August 3, 2012
Last week, we discussed the Eugenics movement in America. The idea that by monitoring, charting and “tweaking” a person’s family tree through systematic genetic engineering in the form of sterilization, society could create a perfect race of people. It should come as no surprise that the movement, most prevalent in the first half of the 20th century, coincides with the birth of the “Superhero” culture so ingrained in the hearts and minds of the baby boomer and succeeding generations. Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Aquaman, the Hulk, and Thing; all genetically enhanced human beings imparted with “Superhuman” powers. The debate continues today in the medical community with genetic testing, “test tube babies”, In Vitro fertilization and stem cell research. Regardless of how you feel about the subject, can you imagine going to the state fair to witness state sponsored “Natural Selection” in person?
The program was called the “Better Babies” program and crowds flocked to the State Fairgrounds to participate, both as spectators and participants. Indiana was one of the leaders in the National Eugenics movement whose goal was the “improvement of the human race.” In those days, supporters of eugenics considered their work humanitarian, today we consider their methods radical, drastic, and even cruel. During the 1920s, Indiana launched a multifaceted program of “child saving” and maternal education, including radio talks, mother’s classes, the screening of hygiene films, statistical reports, and consultation clinics.
Indiana’s most relevant participating institution was Central State Hospital, now the Indiana Medical History Museum but others included the Eastern Indiana Hospital for the Insane, now Richmond State Hospital, the Indiana State Reformatory at Jeffersonville, Indiana Village for Epileptics in New Castle and the School for Feebleminded Youth in Fort Wayne. The Medical and Law Enforcement associated institutional names somehow helped soften the shock of the experimental program. After all, a Eugenics program in the Indianapolis Public School system, area YMCAs and local churches would elicit an entirely different response, wouldn’t it? However, the state was seeking a vehicle to introduce the idea of Eugenics to the masses in a positive public forum.
In 1920, the first Better Babies Contest, sponsored by the state’s “Division of Infant and Child Hygiene”, was “born” at the Indiana State Fair. For the next dozen years, these contests were the centerpiece of the state’s “dynamic infant and maternal welfare program” that was really Eugenics in disguise. More than just another exhibit for fairgoers, these contests brought public health, “race betterment,” and animal breeding together for public consumption. For the next twelve years, Better Baby Contests became the most popular expression of public health and race betterment in rural America. Almost a century after that first contest, the Better Babies Contest continues to spark debate about the connection between hereditarian and medical conceptions of human improvement in respect to child breeding and rearing.
By 1928, the Better Babies Contest had become so popular with Hoosiers visiting the fair that the State Fair board built the program a brand new building all it’s own. The “Better Babies” pavilion was built in the style of a bungalow house and originally housed information and exhibits about infant health literally designed to create “better babies.” As the Eugenics project fell out of favor during the Great Depression, the State Board of Health used the building for exhibits. In 1966, it was remodeled into an old-fashioned drug store and now operates as the Hook’s Drug Store museum. Visitors to the fair have no idea of the building’s dark history as they browse the exhibits it now contains and sip blissfully on root beer floats within it’s walls.
An early morning Labor Day Week trip to the State Fair during the “Roaring Twenties” would reveal the original building’s dark charter. When the gates opened at 8 AM, dozens of anxious mothers balancing fidgety babies on their hips rushed forward to line up in front of the doors (often the lines circling around the building) in hopes of entering their children in the Better Babies Contest. Within the walls of this unassuming little building, babies from nearly every county in the state were then weighed, measured, and tested by physicians and psychologists affiliated with the State Board of Health’s Division of Infant and Child Hygiene.
The contest was one of the most spectacular and beloved events at the fair, drawing hundreds of young entrants and thousands of curious onlookers to the state fair. Visitors watched nurses demonstrate proper infant feeding techniques, collected free pamphlets such as the Indiana Mother’s Baby Book, or perused displays about nutrition and the virtues of sterilized and sparkling bathrooms and kitchens. While individual girls and boys, twins, and triplets competed for blue ribbons, cash prizes and trophy cups. Tired, anxious mothers tried to relax at the rest tent as they fretted about the imagined fate and placement of their children. The families non-contestant children could romp in the playground or nap peacefully in the nursery.
The program was supervised by Dr. Ada E. Schweitzer, the newly appointed director of the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene. Before the division was disbanded in 1933, Dr. Schweitzer counted 4 physicians, 4 nurses, and 5 assistants on her state funded payroll. To her credit, Dr. Schweitzer worked tirelessly to lower infant and maternal death rates and convince Hoosiers of the importance of scientific motherhood and child rearing. She lectured to hundreds of neighborhood and civic associations, authored countless articles and poems, assessed the physical condition of babies in all 92 counties; all while she diligently managed the state’s newest public health division. Dr. Schweitzer’s efforts proved fruitful as Indiana’s infant mortality dropped by one third, from 8.2% in 1920 to 5.7% in 1930. (Compared to the rate of 4.5 infant deaths per 1,000 live births today)
The State Fair’s newest building was the pride and joy of Indiana health reformers who were collectively frightened by what they perceived to be an escalating menace of the feeble-minded. The Better Babies Program was created by Indiana Progressives who sought to control procreation and promote the birth of only the “best” and healthiest babies. For many Hoosiers, born and raised as farmers, breeding superior children was a natural extension of producing heartier crops and livestock.
If the criteria were based solely on demography and topography, Indiana was the perfect test case for the larger National Eugenics movement. In 1920, the state’s population approached 3 million residents, 95% of whom were native-born and 97% of whom were White. The bulk of Indiana’s African American and immigrant communities lived in segregated communities within the cities of Indianapolis, Gary, and East Chicago. Unlike other more racially diverse, multilingual states such as New York, Illinois, and California, Indiana’ Eugenics project did not have to translate their message into foreign languages or tailor their “Americanization” campaigns to foreign speaking populations. Instead, the Hoosier project targeted poor and working-class Whites, especially impoverished farm dwellers living in undeveloped rural communities. (Keep in mind that most rural Hoosier farms and homes did not have indoor plumbing or electricity until the 1940s.)
Despite the rural setting, the 1920s were an important time in Indiana history. The steel and iron industries enjoyed success. Despite stiff competition from Henry Ford’s Model T, Indiana car makers Marmon, Duesenberg, and Studebaker continued to pump out high-end vehicles. It is no mere coincidence that the Indiana Eugenics project’s Better Babies Contest coincides directly with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in state and local politics. Klan members espoused 100-percent Americanism by seeking to rid the state of immigrants, Catholics, Jews and African-Americans. The Eugenics theory fit right into the charter of the KKK. The Indiana Klan embraced eugenics as a vehicle for destroying crime, pauperism, and bad behavior.
As a Hoosier, although others may argue otherwise, the connection between Eugenics and the Ku Klux Klan cannot be denied. Implicit to be sure, both organizations shared undeniable common goals, the first being the assurance of racial purity and the second being the improved survival of the Anglo-Saxon race. Luckily for us, the fall from favor of the Eugenics movement in our state and nation coincides with the fall of the KKK.
Every good eastside historian knows how Irvington facilitated the death of the Klan with the sacrifice of one of her own back in 1925. But the death of the Better Babies Contest and the Indiana Eugenics project was much less spectacular. As the Depression droned on throughout the 1930s, the good citizens of Indiana figured out that putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads was far more important than breeding perfect Aryan babies. When the newly elected Democratic Governor Paul McNutt took office in 1933, he fired Dr. Schweitzer and replaced her with a male director. He then wrested control of the Division of Infant and Child Hygiene and turned it over to the Indiana University School of Medicine, who ironically use the amphitheatre in the Medical History Museum on the grounds of the old Central State Hospital as a teaching facility today. The program faded from the public eye and the State Fair Better Babies Contest was discontinued. Adolph Hitler cinched the deal by taking Eugenics to horrific new heights in the gas chambers of rural Germany. So next time you visit the fair and amble through the old Hook’s museum at the State Fairgrounds, take a good look around and try to imagine that building full of perfect little babies, Eugenics style.