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Reading Baby Books: Medicine, Marketing, Money and the Lives of American Infants


This article examines American baby books from the late nineteenth through the twentieth century. Baby books are ephemeral publications—formatted with one or more printed pages for recording developmental, health, and social information about infants and often including personal observations, artifacts such as photographs or palm prints, medical and other prescriptive advice, and advertisements. For historians they serve as records of the changing social and cultural worlds of infancy, offering insights into the interplay of childrearing practices and larger social movements.

Baby books are a significant historical source both challenging and supporting current historiography, and they illustrate how medical, market and cultural forces shaped the ways babies were cared for and in turn how their won behavior shaped family lives. A typology of baby books includes the lavishly illustrated keepsake books of the late nineteenth century, commercial and public health books of the twentieth century, and on-line records of the present day. Themes that emerge over time include those of scientific medicine and infant psychology, religion and consumerism. The article relies on secondary literature and on archival sources including the collections of the UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library as well as privately held baby books.

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