The Baby Show in Midget Hall That Sparked a Riot

The Baby Show in Midget Hall That Sparked a Riot

Why you should care

Because it’s good to be reminded that parenting has come a long way.

Mrs. McFlathery was angry. She had arrived early at the exhibition hall to give herself plenty of time to display her prized possession to best advantage. When an organizer tried to set her up in a dark, out-of-the-way corner, she wouldn’t have it.

“When some of yer slab-sided, cross-eyed, slim-waisted, knock-kneed little brats comes in, that there corner’ll do for them, but it won’t do for Mrs. McFlathery,” she informed the organizer, according to an eavesdropping New York Times reporter who was covering the National Baby Show at Meade’s Midget Hall in Manhattan.

The idea of comparing babies certainly hasn’t disappeared.

Kathleen Jones, Virginia Tech

The world is populated by strange and silly exhibitions — International Cake Exploration Societé, anyone? World Toilet Summit & Expo? But the late 19th century has our pallid era beat. It was the age of P.T. Barnum, dime museums full of frauds and “freaks,” and traveling menageries. And yet there was nothing quite like the National Baby Show, which seems to have taken place only once, in November 1877, when 400 to 500 babies (reports differ) and their mothers or nurses filled two floors of the hall where James Meade occasionally presented diminutive people to the paying public.

The contestants’ guardians were gunning for $1,000 in prizes. Top honor: a gold chain and $150 for the mother and child voted most handsome. The show doled out a dozen lesser awards. Each visitor received a ballot so they could vote in some two dozen categories of competition that included prettiest 2-, 4- and 5-year-old; prettiest twins; finest triplets; fattest; smallest; homeliest; and greatest novelty.

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the infants’ ethnic heritage ranged from Irish to Icelandic, German to Russian, with “a fair sprinkling of Hebrews” and “one Chinese infant named Wee Boo.” What was universal was the noise — a deafening cacophony of shrieks and screaming. The statistically minded reporter from the Daily Eagle counted at least 180 tots who spent the majority of the morning crying. “Nearly every child had a bottle of milk,” the reporter noted, “and after they exhausted their power of suction and filled their infantile stomachs, they yelled.” Twins on display caught the eyes and ears of the Times reporter: “The little dumplings nicely balanced one on each arm of the tender mamma, one laughing and one crying, or both yelling for dear life.…”

The reporters had trouble tracking down fathers at the event, but Daily Eagle found the author of George Theodore Franklin Thurlow Washington Rutherford beaming with pride over an infant “so pug-nosed it looked like it had been flattened by a brick.” Another father who brought his date to Midget Hall was surprised to discover that the wife and son he had abandoned were entered in the competition.

It may seem difficult to fathom why 30,000 visitors over the course of two weeks would buy a ticket to see specimens they could find on any street, in any park — or at home. But baby shows have long held the public’s fascination. “This early date for such a contest is unusual, as is the comment that it attracted participants from different social classes,” says Virginia Tech professor Kathleen Jones, who studies the history of childhood. “But the idea of comparing babies certainly hasn’t disappeared.” In the early 20th century, Better Baby contests were often held at state fairs with a focus on healthy rather than pretty babies. And the appeal lives on in current offerings like the Toddlers & Tiaras reality TV show.

In addition to tiny, tall and obese babies, one tyke reportedly resembled a monkey and another a dog — although coverage of the event hinted at the rampant racism that infected the age. It’s easy and disturbing to imagine any nonwhite baby being labeled an oddity. Organizers even attempted to recruit a neglected and beaten orphan from the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; not surprisingly, the organization declined to participate.

Despite the press coverage, the winners remain a mystery — no word if Mrs. McFlathery’s strategy did any good. It seems most reporters covering the event left before the prizes were passed out. Maybe they had to make their deadlines. If so, they missed out on the best part of the story. When the mothers of also-rans discovered they were getting stiffed on tickets to the awards ceremony as well as the promised but unspecified consolation prizes, they rioted so vigorously that the police were summoned, according to America’s Forgotten History, published by Reader’s Digest.

Yet what parent can’t understand such disappointment and fury? After all, “each baby was a perfect wonder. There is no doubt about this, for the Times reporter asked each of the mothers.”

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