For two weeks in late November 1877, New York caught the baby flu. At Meade’s Midget Hall there were Icelandic babies, Jewish babies, Polish babies, Welsh babies, English babies, Irish babies, one Chinese baby known as Wee Boo, fat babies, skinny babies, homely babies, angelic babies, triplets, phenomena babies, noisy babies, supercilious babies, laughing babies and mostly, crying babies.
Meade, a pale imitation of P.T. Barnum (and all the paler after two weeks listening to infants cry for ten hours a day), was putting on the National Baby Show, wherein mother and child competed for a prizes with a combined worth of a thousand dollars.
Some five hundred mothers lined the walls of the Meade’s Hall, sharing two hundred rocking chairs as spectators examined the small specimens. Upon entrance, each visitor received a ballot, which entitled them to one vote for handsomest mother, prettiest baby, finest triplets, prettiest twins, greatest novelty, prettiest two year old, prettiest four year old, and prettiest five year old. The terrible threes must have been terrible indeed, for their category was omitted.
Above the Exhibition Hall, meals were provided for the mothers, consisting mainly of cold roast beef and mince pie, with a glass of milk. A full time nurse was on-hand. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which had given hints it disapproved of the event, was even invited to provide one of their wards, as an exhibition of a baby neglected and beaten…they declined.
Few fathers were in attendance, but the Brooklyn Eagle managed to secure one for an interview. His infant bore the name George Theodore Franklin Thurlow Washington Rutherford. The father told how his wife strolled the bed chamber with babe in arms; “George Theodore Franklin Thurlow Washington Rutherford, you are mama’s little popsey wapsey woopsey, ain’t you George Theodore Franklin Thurlow Washington Rutherford.” The Eagle’s man, obviously a bachelor, showed enough sensitivity to female sensibilities to wait until the next day’s paper to remark that the baby was so pug-nosed it looked like it had been flattened by a brick.
A few minutes later, a shrill piercing “Henry” went through the Exhibition Hall. Audible even over the crying of five hundred infants, it came from a tall, red-headed woman, pushing her way through the crowd. Another father had been spotted, this one escorting a young lady who was not the mother of the infant on display. The Eagle reporter learned that he’d abandoned mother and son, named Tommy, a few weeks before; he’d had no idea that his child would be on display at the Baby Fair when he went there on a date.
One sweet little cherub with curly hair excited much admiration from the crowd; a young bachelor declared, “If I had such a bright little fellow as that, I should call him George Washington. There’s high physical courage, if ever a pair of eyes told of such a thing. And look at that forehead. There’s true manliness even in babyhood.” A fellow bachelor disagreed; “that boy is no more like George Washington than you are; he’s a young Bonaparte, a short stout determined man…you should call him Napoleon Bonaparte.” The debate, which threatened to devolve into fisticuffs, only ceased when the parties were informed that the mother had already named the child “Mary.”
After “Floory” a blonde haired sweet little girl of two years age started running away with the lead for the votes for the most beautiful baby, competition in the other categories heated up. Floory’s mother, also blonde, was a lead contender for the most beautiful mother, her fiercest competition was a woman from Albany, who had no baby with her; questioned as to how she could win most beautiful mother, she noted she had a ten year old child upstate.
It was the phenomena babies which earned the most attention. A five month old baby, weighing fifty pounds (a future member of the New York Fat Men’s Association no doubt) was exhibited next to a five week old weighing a scant three pounds. Women flocked around the small thing. There was an toddler that purportedly tried to commit suicide by drowning itself in a bath tub, a child aged thirteen months with no hair or nails, two sets of triplets, a baby who looked like an elf, one who looked like a monkey, a baby who couldn’t stop laughing and the dog baby, who had a long ears and jaw, and barked when he wanted food.
The Eagle’s man didn’t stick around to see who won the various prizes; the sound of screaming infants drove him from the building, and it wasn’t until he was two blocks away that the piercing squalling faded from ear-shot.