1. Archive


By Nicholas Day

A century ago, an Orwellian plot to subjugate all American children to federal authority was set in motion. Government bureaucrats systemically undermined the influence and the sanctity of the family: They told parents the right way to raise their children. Children no longer belonged exclusively to their parents. Uncle Sam was moving in.

At least that's how it would be described today. At the time, they called this dystopian nightmare the U.S. Children's Bureau, founded in 1912. And it was wildly popular.

In an era of high child mortality and chronically poor health, as well as rapidly changing norms for child rearing, the bureau was seen as a salvation. Parents across the country immediately inundated the Children's Bureau with letters - at its high point, the bureau received 400,000 missives a year - and got personal responses back.

Many of the letters, from mothers desperate for guidance and struggling to survive, are heartrending to read (like the one to the right).

"Some of the letters are handwritten, semiliterate, pencil letters from rural, black communities in Alabama - and then some are from Fifth Avenue," says Janet Golden, a historian at Rutgers-Camden. "Sometimes you have wealthy people who write and say, 'I took my baby to five different doctors, but I want to know what the government thinks.'"

The new scientific-minded child-rearing wisdom of the era - the new right way to raise your child - was disseminated through the bureau's wildly popular pamphlet, Infant Care. Tens of millions of copies were distributed - but that actually underestimates its reach. Early baby books, where parents kept a record of their infants, were also filled with its official advice; the publishers simply cut and pasted parts of Infant Care into their books.

No one objected to all this federal oversight. On the contrary, in the 1910s and '20s, even before the modern welfare state, people not only felt invested in government programs, they thought the job of the government was to give advice. It's a communal connection unimaginable today.

"Now we have a very privatized world," Golden says. "We don't have a collective interest in our babies. It's 'my baby.'"

And how: Just recently, MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry ignited a firestorm by saying that Americans need to have a more collective notion of our children. Perry was making what she thought was an anodyne comment. And it once would have been. But it isn't anymore.

"Today a lot of people have a 'don't tell me how to live my life' attitude toward the federal government," Golden says. "And here we have an era where people are saying, 'Please tell me how to raise my child.'"

This may be the most fundamental difference between the world for which the Children's Bureau was founded and our own. Parents then and now are still obsessed with the same things: eating, sleeping, what to buy, how to survive this madness. The advice of the authorities about these things has changed - but then again, the advice was, and is, always changing. The far bigger change is where we look for that authority.

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, "Baby Meets World," was just published. His website is He is @nicksday on Twitter.

© 2013 Slate

A plea for advice

On Oct. 19, 1916, a Wyoming mother wrote thisletter to Julia Lathrop, who was the first head of the Department of Labor's Children's Bureau. The letter writer was later visited by a public health doctor sent by the bureau.

Dear Miss Lathrop,

I should very much like all the Publications on the Care of myself, who am now pregnant, also the care of a baby, both No. 1 and No. 2 series.

I live 65 miles from a doctor and my other babies (two) were very large at birth, one 12 pounds, the other 10-1/2 pounds. I have been very badly torn each time, through the rectum the last time. My youngest child is 7-1/2 (and when I am delivered this time it will be past 8-1/2 years). I am 37 years old and I am so worried and filled with perfect horror at the prospects ahead. So many of my neighbors die at giving birth to their children. I have a baby 11 months old in my keeping now whose mother died - when I reached their cabin last November, it was 22 below zero and I had to ride 7 miles horseback. She was nearly dead when I got there and died after giving birth to a 14-pound boy. It seems awful to me to think of giving up all my work and leaving my little ones, two of which are adopted - a girl 10 and this baby. Will you please send me all the information for the care of myself before and after and at the time of delivery? I am far from a doctor and we have no means, only what we get on this rented ranch. I also want all the information on baby care especially right young newborn ones. If there is anything what I can do to escape being torn again, won't you let me know? I am just 4 months along now but haven't quickened yet.