All posts by Amy McDonald

Looking at Jay Anderson’s Historical Photos of Duke

Post contributed by Tracy Jackson, Technical Services Archivist for the Duke University Archives.

The University Archives recently completed processing of the Jay Carl Anderson Photographs and Papers, a collection with many images of Duke’s campus, students, and athletic events, as well as politicians, scenes of Durham and elsewhere in North Carolina, and many other locations and subjects, mostly dating from the 1970s and 1980s. The collection is a rich new resource for researchers interested in Blue Devils men’s basketball, student life, campus protests, the city of Durham, political campaigning in NC, and photojournalism, and it offers many beautiful and fascinating new views of familiar subjects.

East Campus pavilion, circa 1980
East Campus pavilion, circa 1980

Jay Anderson was a native of New York State who enrolled at Duke in 1974. He first published a photograph in his local newspaper at 16, and by the time he was a Duke student he was working as a freelance photographer submitting images to the New York Times. He took pictures for the Chronicle and then became involved with the Chanticleer, serving as editor for the 1978 Chanticleer during his senior year. He photographed many aspects of life at Duke, taking pictures of students, classes, events, and scenes on campus, as well as representing life off campus, snapping pictures of life in the surrounding neighborhoods, downtown Durham, and elsewhere in the Triangle. He also traveled, spending about six months in Europe and going as far east as Moscow, photographing life in the Soviet Union in 1977. He brought many of these images back to the Duke community, publishing spreads in the Chronicle and showing his work in exhibits and contests.

A 1975 issue of the Chronicle featuring Anderson’s images of people in Durham.
A 1975 issue of the Chronicle featuring Anderson’s images of people in Durham.

Anderson also photographed political persons and events, attending and photographing the 1976 Democratic National Convention in New York City and capturing presidential candidates and politicians, both on and off the campaign trail.

Jimmy Carter at a 1976 Presidential Debate on the campus of the College of William and Mary.
Jimmy Carter at a 1976 Presidential Debate on the campus of the College of William and Mary.

A resident of Pegram dormitory, he took a number of photos of friends and residents. New to Durham and the South when he arrived at Duke, he took an interest in life off campus and in the surrounding areas, including residents in nearby neighborhoods, events downtown, and the State Fair in Raleigh. He documented campus protests and performances, including visits from celebrities and politicians. And he lovingly captured athletics, particularly men’s basketball, capturing many of the players and fans mid-action.

UNC-Chapel Hill vs. Duke Men's Basketball Game, January 1978.
UNC-Chapel Hill vs. Duke Men’s Basketball Game, January 14, 1978.

 

Johnny Dawkins, Colorado vs. Duke Men's Basketball Game, December 21, 1983.
Johnny Dawkins, Colorado vs. Duke Men’s Basketball Game, December 21, 1983.

Many of the images are not labeled or identified, or have only general topical labels. As with many photographic collections, identifying information can sometimes be found in the image itself. Anderson also kept copies of many publications featuring his work, which include additional description.

1980 Duke/UNC basketball game, image submitted to New York Times.
1980 Duke/UNC basketball game, image submitted to New York Times.

After graduation, Jay Anderson remained in Durham for many years, and continued to photograph Duke events, particularly men’s basketball, and he remained involved with the Chanticleer for several years. He became the official photographer for the American Dance Festival and worked as a freelance photographer for a variety of publications as well as for private commercial work (his ADF photographs can be found in the Jay Anderson Papers in the American Dance Festival Archives, also housed here at Duke).

We’re excited to make this collection available to researchers. For anyone with an interest in Duke, politics, photography, or any number of related topics, the Jay Carl Anderson Photographs and Papers offers a lot to explore.

From the History of Medicine Artifacts Collection: Perkins’s Tractors

Post contributed by Thomas Gillan, the Josiah Charles Trent Intern in the History of Medicine Collections.

Given its designation as the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, you might assume, correctly, that the library’s History of Medicine Collections consist primarily of books and manuscripts, but did you know that they also boast a large collection of historical medical instruments and artifacts? Some of these objects are reassuringly familiar. Others, however, can seem somewhat more baffling.

Perkins’s Tractors. History of Medicine artifacts collection, 1550-1980s. History of Medicine Collections.
Perkins’s Tractors. History of Medicine artifacts collection, 1550-1980s. History of Medicine Collections.

Take, for instance, the objects identified in the collection guide as “Perkins’s tractors.” At first glance, they are often mistaken for horseshoe nails. Historian James Delbourgo, who has written extensively about these so-called tractors, notes that they “were disarmingly simple things. A set consisted of two three-inch metallic rods made of brass and iron, and they sold for twenty-five continental dollars in North America, five guineas in Britain.”[1] According to Delbourgo, their very simplicity was what made the tractors so appealing.[2] At a time when doctors regularly resorted to such “heroic” measures as bleeding, blistering, vomiting, and purging, Perkins’s tractors offered a painless alternative, one that was less invasive but no less controversial.

The man behind these seemingly strange instruments was one Elisha Perkins of Connecticut. Born in 1741, Perkins received his medical training from his father, a physician in Norwich, before establishing his own practice in Plainfield. There, in the course of his practice, Perkins “discovered that, by drawing over the parts [of the body] affected in particular directions certain instruments which he formed from metallic substances into certain shapes, he could remove . . . most kinds of painful topical affections, which came under his care and observation.”[3]

Perkins, it turns out, was quite the salesman. In 1796, he patented his tractors. Thereafter, Perkins and his son took to promoting them. Together, they published a series of pamphlets touting the tractors’ efficacy. These pamphlets invariably included testimonials from satisfied clients. Prominent among them were Jedidiah Morse, a Congregational minister; John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court; and Josiah Meigs, professor of natural philosophy at Yale.[4] Even George Washington himself is reputed to have owned a set.[5]

Like other novel medical therapies, such as Galvanism and Mesmerism, Perkins’s were the subject of much popular attention, not all of it positive. Most regular physicians were skeptical of Perkins’s claims, so much so that in May of 1797, the Connecticut Medical Society expelled Perkins on grounds of quackery. Still other physicians sought to make sense of the tractors’ mysterious workings.

One such account can be found among the Benjamin Waterhouse papers. In a letter dated February 1, 1802, Abijah Richardson, a physician in Medway, Massachusetts, wrote to Benjamin Waterhouse, then a professor of medicine at Harvard, relating “an account of a Young Lady’s Case, who was relieved of a painful disorder by the use of a Metelic tractor.”[6] In 1796, Richardson explained, he had been “called in to see Miss P.T. about eighteen years of age” who for several years “had been subjected to fits of the head-ach.”[7] Having heard of Perkins’s tractors “being efficacious in relieving painful disorders,” Richardson decided to put the tractors to the test.

Abijah Richardson to Benjamin Waterhouse. 1 February 1802. Box 1, Folder 2, Benjamin Waterhouse papers, 1782-1841. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Abijah Richardson to Benjamin Waterhouse. 1 February 1802. Box 1, Folder 2, Benjamin Waterhouse papers, 1782-1841. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. (Click image to enlarge!)

Without access, however, to a real set of tractors—he apparently did not have a set of his own—Richardson offered up “an artificial magnet which I supposed was of similar efficacy with the points.”[8] After obtaining his patient’s consent, Richardson proceeded to draw “light parallel strokes from the temple & forehead above the right eye down to her neck & top of her shoulder.”[9] Richardson here followed the method laid out by Perkins himself of “drawing the Points of the Tractors over the Parts affected, and continuing them along on the Skin to a considerable Distance from the Complaint, usually towards the Extremities.”[10] Richardson went on to recount how, in the course of her treatment, his patient’s pain, following the strokes of the tractors, “gradually abated & left her.”[11] From this, Richardson “was led to suppose that the tractors relieved pain by attracting & conveying heat from the pained part.”[12]

Title page to John Haygarth’s experiment involving Perkins’s tractors.
Title page to John Haygarth’s experiment involving Perkins’s tractors.

In 1800, John Haygarth, a physician in Bath, England, published the results of an experiment that cast doubt on the tractors’ efficacy. In 1799, having “contrived two wooden Tractors of nearly the same shape as the metallick, and paints to resemble them in colour,” Haygarth set out to test whether these “fictitious tractors” could produce the same effect as “the true metalliack Tractors of Perkins.”[13]

Much to his surprise, both sets of tractors “were employed exactly in like manner, and with similar effects,” leading Haygarth to conclude that the “whole effect undoubtedly depends upon the impression which can be made upon the patient’s Imagination.”[14] Haygarth’s experiment was one of the first documented demonstrations of what later came to be known as the placebo effect.

Despite their critics, Perkins’s tractors continued to be commercially successful, even after the death of their inventor in 1799. They even went on to become the subject of a poem satirizing the medical profession.

To explore these and other items from the History of Medicine Artifacts Collection, check out the collection guide, which contains descriptions and images for many of the items. Also, stop by the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room at the Rubenstein Library to see a rotating selection of items from the collection on permanent exhibit.

Footnotes:

[1] James Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 240.

[2] Ibid., 251.

[3] Benjamin Douglas Perkins, The Influence of Metallic Tractors on the Human Body (London, 1798), 5-6.

[4] Ibid., 69, 9, 37.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Abijah Richardson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 1 February 1802, Box 1, Folder 2, Benjamin Waterhouse papers, 1782-1841, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Benjamin Perkins, Directions for Performing the Metallic Operation with Perkins’s Patent Tractors [London, 1798].

[11] Richardson to Waterhouse, 1 February 1802.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John Haygarth, Of the Imagination, as a Cause and as a Cure of Disorders of the Body; Exemplified by Fictitious Tractors and Epidemical Convulsions (Bath, 1800), 3.

[14] Ibid., 3, 4.

January 12th: The Designs of Julian Abele: Original Drawings of Duke’s Campus

Date: Thursday, January 12, 2017
Time: 2:00-4:00 PM
Location: Gothic Reading Room, Rubenstein Library, Duke West Campus (map)
Contact: Valerie Gillispie, valerie.gillispie@duke.edu

The Duke University Archives and the Facilities Management Department invite you to visit the Gothic Reading Room on Thursday, January 12th and see some of the original drawings, blueprints, and plans of Duke’s campus.

Chief designer Julian Abele of the Horace Trumbauer firm has recently been recognized at Duke with the naming of the main quad, and the open house will allow visitors to examine the details of the plans and admire the vision that Abele brought to his work.

"Study of Main Court," Duke University by the Horace Trumbauer architectural firm

This event will be an open house, and visitors are welcome to drop in any time. This event is being held in collaboration with the Duke University Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Commemoration Committee.

Post contributed by Valerie Gillispie, University Archivist.

Have You Driven a Ford Advertisement Lately?

Post contributed by Josh Larkin Rowley, Reference Archivist for the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History.

One of the heaviest circulating collections in the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History is the Domestic Advertisements collection in the J. Walter Thompson Co. (JWT) advertising agency archives.  The collection documents the print advertisements designed for magazines and newspapers for the agency’s clients in the United States.  One of the most popular clients represented in the collection is the Ford Motor Company.

"There's a Ford in Your Future" ad
https://repository.duke.edu/dc/jwtfordmotorads/jwtad010020030

JWT and the Ford Motor Company have a long standing agency/client relationship, one still active today.  The agency officially added Ford to its roster of clients in 1943 and launched the now iconic “There’s a Ford in Your Future,” campaign the following year.  In the ensuing decades, JWT helped Ford launch many new automobile models including the Thunderbird, Mustang, Pinto, Taurus, Explorer, Ranger, and Escort.  The agency crafted several well-known Ford campaigns including the first advertising “roadblock” announcing the launch of the Mustang in 1964; “Have You Driven a Ford Lately?”; the Falcon campaign incorporating Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters; and “No Boundaries.”

Ford Falcon '62 ad with Peanuts Characters, 1962
https://repository.duke.edu/dc/jwtfordmotorads/jwtad250050020

Thanks to the work of the Duke University Libraries’ Technical Services, Conservation Department, Digital Production Center, and Enterprise Services, nearly 12,000 Ford Motor Co. advertisements documenting JWT’s seven decades of creative work for Ford Motor Company are now available to students, scholars, and gearheads in our new digital collection.

Ford Mustang ad, 1964
https://repository.duke.edu/dc/jwtfordmotorads/jwtad300030050

In addition to advertisements for cars, trucks, vans and SUVs, the collection also includes ads for the company’s farm implement division, Ford Farm, Ford Motorsports, taxi cabs, school buses, and police vehicles.  Advertisements for the Ford line of genuine replacement parts, Motorcraft, Ford automotive services, promotional literature, outdoor advertising, and insertion schedules are also among the materials represented in the collection.  All ads are keyword searchable and browsable by model, vehicle category, and multiple subjects and ad formats.

The Apothecary Ledger of Hugh Mercer

Post contributed by Thomas Gillan, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern.

Apothecary Shop: Engraving by Clemens Kohl featuring the interior of an apothecary shop. History of Medicine Picture File, History of Medicine Collections.
Engraving by Clemens Kohl featuring the interior of an apothecary shop. History of Medicine Picture File, 1523-2002, History of Medicine Collections.

Among the 20,000 books and 4,000 manuscripts that together comprise the History of Medicine Collections at Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library—not to mention the collection’s hundreds of medical instruments and artifacts—is a large, leather-bound account ledger in folio kept by Hugh Mercer, an apothecary in Fredericksburg, Virginia, from 1771 to 1775.

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1725, Mercer went on to study medicine at Marischal College, graduating in 1744 before taking up a post as an assistant surgeon in the army of Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

With the Scots’ defeat at Culloden in 1746, Mercer fled to America, arriving in Philadelphia in 1747. Mercer settled in what is now Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, where he practiced medicine for eight years. During the Seven Years’ War, Mercer served in the British army, where he met and befriended Colonel George Washington. Following his service, Mercer resettled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a decision no doubt influenced by Washington.

It was in Fredericksburg that Mercer, along with his business partner and fellow physician Ewen Clements, opened his apothecary shop. On May 28, 1771, in the Virginia Gazette, Mercer and Clements, “partners in the practice of physic and surgery,” announced that they had “opened a shop on the main street, opposite to Mr. Henry Mitchell’s store, furnished with a large assortment of drugs and medicines of the best quality, just imported from London; where Gentlemen of the profession and others may be supplied at easy rates, for ready money.” Together, Mercer and Clements compounded and dispensed medicines, diagnosed patients’ disorders, and prescribed and administered treatments.

The ledger kept by Mercer, which documents the history of his practice from 1771 to 1775, is a microcosm of the social and intellectual worlds of eighteenth-century Virginia. It contains entries for more than three hundred different accounts. Below each entry, Mercer meticulously documented his visits with patients, the medicines he dispensed, the treatments he prescribed, as well as the fees he charged.

An entry in Mercer’s ledger for the account of Colonel Fielding Lewis, a Fredericksburg merchant and George Washington’s brother-in-law.
An entry in Mercer’s ledger for the account of Colonel Fielding Lewis, a Fredericksburg merchant and George Washington’s brother-in-law. Click image to enlarge.

Among Mercer’s many patients were Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother; Betty Washington Lewis, George Washington’s sister, and her husband Colonel Fielding Lewis; Thomas Ludwell Lee; John, Henry, and William Fitzhugh; and Mann Page. Mercer often noted the occupations of his patients, who ranged from merchants, planters, and gentlemen to tradesmen, schoolmasters, undertakers, and stage players. A number of women, many of them widows, kept their own accounts with Mercer. Also among Mercer’s patients were the enslaved men, women, and children whose visits were charged to their masters’ accounts.

Mercer kept a running index in the back of the ledger for each of his accounts.
Mercer kept a running index in the back of the ledger for each of his accounts. Click image to enlarge.

Mercer offered a range of treatments and services to his patients, from bleeding, purging, and pulling teeth to blistering, vomiting, and setting broken bones. He likewise dispensed a variety of compounds and medicines. These included saline mixtures, purging pills, febrifuge drops, liquid laudanum, balsam honey, magnesia, glauber salts, and stomach elixirs. In keeping with the medical science of his day, Mercer’s treatments were aimed at restoring the delicate balance of his patients’ four humors—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—and ensuring equilibrium among the body’s solids and fluids.

In all, Hugh Mercer’s ledger offers a unique window into the prevailing medical beliefs and practices of eighteenth-century Virginia society and represents only a sample of the Rubenstein Library’s rich collection in the history of medicine.

The 1954 Firing of Max Wicker

Contributed by Erin Ryan, Drill Intern for the Duke University Archives.

Max Wicker
Max Wicker

The Duke University Archives recently received the Joseph Mitchell Papers on Max Wicker, a collection of letters, news clippings, and other documents that culminate in a 2006 paper, The 1954 Firing of Max Wicker and Two Other North Carolina Student Directors, Jimmy Ray and J.C. Herrin, by Duke alumnus Joseph Mitchell.

Max Wicker, a 1952 Duke Divinity School graduate, was president of Duke’s Baptist Student Union (BSU) in 1953. After graduation, he was hired to work at Duke by Jimmy Ray, secretary of the statewide BSU.

Later that year, Baptist student leaders began planning their annual BSU conference, to be held in November 1953. Ray invited Christian theologian Dr. Nels Ferré, a Congregationalist who taught at Vanderbilt University, to be the conference’s main speaker. But some on the N.C. Baptists’ general board had heard that one of Ferré’s books cast doubt on the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Ferré’s speech was canceled.

Cover of 1953 NC Baptist Student Union Convention program.
Cover of 1953 NC Baptist Student Union Convention program.

The general board then began an investigation of the programs and leadership in the Baptist Student Union throughout the state—as TIME magazine’s April 12, 1954 issue put it, “digging into charges that the Baptist student pastors have been guiding their young congregations independent of regular church supervision.” By 1954, the board had scheduled a hearing for three student leaders—Ray, 39; Wicker, 29; and J. C. Herrin, 39, the secretary of the UNC-Chapel Hill BSU chapter.

Letter from James T. Cleland to Max Wicker, April 14, 1954
Letter from James T. Cleland, then Professor of Preaching at the Divinity School, to Max Wicker, April 14, 1954

The hearing lasted six hours, ending just after midnight on March 31, 1954. Wicker delivered a three-page statement to the board explaining his faith. (TIME magazine quoted him as saying to the board, “I do not deny the virgin birth, and I do not affirm it. My mind is still open.”) In the end, the board dismissed the three leaders from their jobs with the BSU. According to TIME, students at the meeting dissented, but “most of the 500 Southern Baptists present thought that the board was right, and that the young ministers were too ‘interdenominational’ for comfort.” The results of the hearing appeared in front-page stories in newspapers around the state.

Letter from John A. Ellis to Max Wicker, March 31, 1954
Letter from John A. Ellis to Max Wicker, March 31, 1954

After the BSU dismissed him, Wicker continued at Duke—where he remained employed—for a few months as a chaplain, then resigned and became a Methodist minister.

Joseph Mitchell had met Wicker while they were both at Duke Divinity School. (Mitchell graduated in 1953, and later returned to Duke for his doctorate in religion in the 1960s.) Mitchell was also a Methodist minister. After he and his wife Norma retired, they moved to Durham in 2001. There, they lived near Wicker and his wife Ann, and Mitchell began researching the nearly 50-year-old case of his friend’s dismissal to tell his story.

The Joseph Mitchell Papers on Max Wicker are open for research.

See: “Baptist Dismissals,” in TIME magazine’s “Religion” section, April 12, 1954. 

 

Uncovering Women’s History at Duke: A Scholars’ Brownbag with Hayley Farless and Elizabeth George

Date: Thursday, October 27, 2016
Time: 12:00-1:30 PM
Location: Rubenstein 249 (Carpenter Conference Room)
RSVP via Facebook (optional)

Five Women at Duke University, 1976. From the University Archives Photograph Collection.
Five Women at Duke University, 1976. From the University Archives Photograph Collection. (View on Flickr.)

Join two Duke undergraduate researchers from the Duke History Revisited program as they share their discoveries about women’s past experiences at Duke University.

Hayley Farless, ’17, will share highlights from her project “Right to Access: A History of the Duke University Abortion Loan Fund.” Elizabeth George, ’17 (and Rubenstein Library student worker), will share highlights from her project “Success of the Second Sex: Duke University’s Demonstrated Efforts to Empower Women.”

Please bring your own lunch; drinks and cookies will be provided.

This talk is sponsored by Duke University Archives and the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture.

Duke History Revisited was sponsored by a grant from Humanities Writ Large, with additional funding from the Dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

Duke History Revisited Round-Up: Sept. 19th

Date: Monday, September 19, 2016
Time: 7:00 PM
Location: Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, Rubenstein Library Room 153
Contact: Valerie Gillispie, valerie.gillispie@duke.edu

This summer, the University Archives offered a new program for undergraduate students called Duke History Revisited. The idea was to give students a chance to dig into the University’s history and tell the stories of people and events that were not widely known.

On September 19th, the program’s eight students will come together to recap their research projects. During this event, each student will briefly introduce his or her topic, highlight their research discoveries, and offer their own insight into Duke’s history. The presentations will be followed by refreshments and an opportunity to talk with the students in more detail.

The DHR students spent 6 weeks working with faculty members Jolie Olcott and Joshua Sosin; graduate student Will Goldsmith; and archivists Amy McDonald and Valerie Gillispie. The group met twice a week to discuss progress and share research. This special program was made possible by a grant from Humanities Writ Large and the Office of the Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.

Students and faculty discuss research strategies during a Duke History Revisited meeting.
Students and faculty discuss research strategies during a Duke History Revisited meeting.

We also welcomed a number of special guests to the program to talk about the act of doing research or reflecting on the past. Our guests included William Turner (T ’71, M.Div ’74, PhD ’84), Charles Becton (Law ‘69), Brenda Becton (WC ‘70, Law ‘74), Bob Ashley (T ’70), Steve Schewel (T ’73, PhD ’82), and Robert Korstad (Duke faculty). We were also joined by experts from the library, including Tracy Jackson and Matthew Farrell (University Archives), John Gartrell (John Hope Franklin Center for African and African American History), Laura Micham and Kelly Wooten (Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture), Hannah Rozear (Librarian for Instruction), and Michael Daul (Digital Collections).

The students pursued a wide range of topics, using archival materials from the University Archives, materials from other repositories, oral histories and interviews, and other sources. Each created a final project that they felt best expressed the content. The titles and links to the projects are below:

Sini (Nina) Chen Finding a Home for Tricky Dicky: The Nixon-Duke Presidential Library Controversy” (online exhibit)
Hayley Farless Right to Access: A History of the Duke University Abortion Loan Fund” (presentation; link to PDF)
Elizabeth George Success of the Second Sex: Duke University’s Demonstrated Efforts to Empower Women” (research paper; link to PDF)
Lara Haft (we know) (we’ve been here): uncovering a legacy of student & employee solidarity” (online exhibit)
Alan Ko ‘Cherry Blossoms Among Magnolias?’: A History of the Asian Experience at Duke” (online exhibit)
Paul Popa A Leap of Faith: Documenting the First-Generation Undergraduate Experience” (online exhibit)
Victoria Prince “Town and Gown Relations vs. Power Struggles: An Overview of How the Durham Freeway Controversy Affected Relations Between Durham, NC and Duke University”
Jesse Remedios The Politics of Identity” (podcast)

Post contributed by Valerie Gillispie, Duke University Archivist.

Measuring the Children of the Corn

“The babies are entered like any other exhibit at an agricultural fair. . . . They are examined by judges, just as live stock [sic], grain or apples are examined. . . . The result is bound to be – not prettier babies, – but better babies at each year’s fair, – a stronger, healthier race of people on the farms, in small towns and in the state.”

This excerpt from a Better Babies Bureau circular, from the papers of Victor Bassett, contains several templates for Better Baby Contest advertisements. Popular at local fairs in the early 20th century, Better Baby Contests presented a lighthearted way to challenge infant mortality and promote fitter populations. However, they also reveal governmental eugenic efforts to objectively quantify and thus improve American health.

Announcement for Better Babies Contest.
Announcement for Better Babies Contest.

Examiners judged children under five years old on their measurements and proportions, mental and developmental states, vision and hearing, and physical development. These tests set government-determined averages as the standard by encouraging families to “produce” children who met or exceeded these ideals. Additionally, they served to cement the public health as existing in the realm of scientific medicine and the government, rather than in the home. These kinds of contests illustrate the complex relationship between eugenics, popular movements, and public health.

Thanks to a generous History of Medicine travel grant, my visit to the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library allowed me to conduct research to support my dissertation, “Measuring Health: The United States Sanitary Commission, Statistics, and American Public Health in the Nineteenth Century.” I examine the statistical work of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC).

During the American Civil War, the USSC attempted to improve the health of the Union Army. The leaders of this organization understood their work as forwarding ideas about preventative medicine and improving sanitation. Yet with the entirety of the Union army at their disposal, the USSC also inspected and measured over one million soldiers and sailors. These records include tabulations not simply of height and weight, but also the distance between a man’s eyes, the size of his head, and angles of his face. The statisticians presented their findings in groups divided by race and education level, and, while they provided limited interpretation of these numbers, they were made available to the broader scientific and anthropologic communities. It was in their hands that these numbers defined medical standards for Americans and shaped the nature of American public health.

My project explores why these statistics were collected and how they were used, and, more broadly, the Commission’s public health legacy. By using these statistics as a starting point, I explore the ties between the USSC and changes in public health, and how research from a 19th century organization continues to impact later public health issues. These Better Baby Contests represent the Commission’s legacy of measuring the quality and usefulness of a human being and of using governmental authority to establish scientific authority.

Post contributed by Sara Kern, a Ph.D. candidate in History & Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University.