In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America into the Twentieth Century by Janet Golden
  • Lauren MacIvor Thompson, PhD

pediatrics, public health, medical policy

Janet Golden. Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America into the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018. Viii, 268 pp., hardback $30.00.

Janet Golden asks a new question for those curious about what modernity looks like in the twenty-first century: Did babies make us modern? The answer, as revealed in her carefully-researched and meticulously-argued new book Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America into the Twentieth Century, is, of course, that babies themselves cannot take all the credit. But the combination of technology, policy, and social transformations surrounding the care and keeping of babies and children did a lot to generate the trappings of modernity that we now take for granted. Her framing is a novel way to tell the story of modern American history, and the book unpacks the evolution and variety of infant paraphernalia and practice –from incubators to [End Page 239] life insurance, baby books, formula, and pureed foods, to federal funding, psychological theories, and child welfare policy.

A well-known expert on the intersections of pregnancy, childhood, and health, Golden here tackles how a distinct culture of American baby care led to a reduction in infant mortality and overall health improvements for children. Key to her argument, however, is that modern baby care influenced economic and medical advancements, as well as government welfare programs that reshaped the lives of all Americans by the end of the twentieth century. As Golden puts it, “Writing babies into history deepens our knowledge of fundamental developments in American life and reminds us of the diversity of the nation and the diversity of experiences that together shape our households, communities, and culture” (p.206).

Divided into nine chapters with an introduction, a coda, and a number of captivating (and visually striking) photographs, Babies Made Us Modern traces American infants’ entrance into an uncertain world at the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time, for every 1000 babies born, 100 would die, but by the dawn of the twenty-first century, infant mortality stood at just 5.8 out of 1000 live births. This achievement, explains Golden, is not as triumphant as it seems, especially when compared with other countries, but nevertheless represents a number of remarkable transformations in American life.

Indeed, reducing infant mortality, as Golden notes, was one of the primary goals of the Progressive Era. Reformers collected reams of data on births and deaths, and drew the public’s attention to the plight of infant health through “incubator shows.” At fairs and symposia across the United States, viewers paid a premium price – often 25 cents - to view tiny, premature infants housed in warm glass boxes, as nurses and physicians tended to them. Incubator shows physically represented how the care and keeping of babies became a central concern for American medicine, science, and government. Over the next several decades, a raft of new laws and policies emerged, reflecting new understandings of how to prevent infant and child mortality, including regulations on child labor, the purity of foods and beverages, mandatory education, vaccinations, and the establishment of child welfare agencies and social programming to address infant and childcare in private homes.

The establishment of the United States Children’s Bureau represented an early apogee of these efforts, and as Golden explains, was both an example of “social control as the Bureau’s leaders endeavored to impose white middle-class cultural values on those rearing the nation’s children and as a feminist effort that succeeded in improving the lives of women and children” (p.46). The Bureau advocated “scientific motherhood,” and sought through its literature to help working-class families provide the best living conditions and care for babies. They advised mothers how to feed babies, the best methods for bedtime routines, and urged parents to seek medical advice and care for their infants since “doctors know best.” Eugenic theory – the science of improving the human race – also took center stage within the agency, as officials sought to improve the “eugenic health” of families and encourage...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 239-242
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.