Imagine finding this gem in your parents’ keepsakes: “Doris Kathleen Manson has been duly examined for physical and mental development according to the Better Babies Standard Score Card…” And wee little Doris wasn’t alone. The Vancouver Exhibition’s “Better Baby Contest,” started in 1913, preyed upon the new wave of eugenics interest inspired by the radical pseudo-science of the early twentieth century, and marked a brand new low for racism and irrational immigration fears amongst Vancouver’s growing population. Striving for a “defensive naturalism of the status quo”, middle-class (white) mothers entered their tots in these contests to be examined and praised for Anglo-definitive traits and other “desirable” attributes. In these strange ranking ceremonies, which only gained in popularity before moving to New Westminster’s Queens Park in 1919, having the most beautiful baby was, in essence, a self-indulgent affirmation that your child “protected” the social landscape against the proliferation of unwanted ‘hereditary temperament”. All this excitement over beautiful babies masked a serious fear and growing focus on eugenics, “race suicide”, and finding the “premium” versions of humanity.
Baby contests were truly the tip of the iceberg. By 1916, Western Canadian responses to fears over the perceived “non-assimilable” nature of certain groups led to a campaign for a eugenics school that supported sterilization of ‘feeble-minded’ individuals and other phenomenal practices to address the “immigration problem”. Scientific racism of this period targeted “Orientals” (a blanket description for Japanese, Chinese, East Indians, and others), and Native indigenous peoples. For North American women in particular, the practices of these “Progressives” were especially appealing. Diane B. Paul notes “to many activist middle-class women, eugenics seemed a natural part of [the] wider movement to engage the state in new kinds of social reform”. In focusing on this conception of family and their own role in the propagation of a “healthy” race, it’s no surprise that many Vancouver women jumped at the chance for their babies to be examined and ranked.
Following the First World War, xenophobia and the reality that so many middle-class Anglo-Saxon men had died in the conflict contributed to a logic that viewed wives and children as “national assets” that needed protection. Vancouver didn’t invent Better Babies contests (they were held all over Canada and the United States), but we certainly loved them – so much so that they were held in conjunction with the PNE’s agricultural fair (animal breeding and baby breeding: a winning eugenics combination). It’s said that the first 1913 contest was “somewhat misunderstood by the general public” (oh really?), with babies of the same age examined side-by-side. This “display of infantile perfection”, evolved into a serious medical endeavor with many babies being disqualified for breaching the weight limits. By 1917 the contest had to limit the number of contestants to 1000, with ticket sales generating $347. Before moving to New Westminster, the 1918 “purely scientific” contest was intended “to secure constant improvement in the physical condition of the babies of Vancouver”. Like most complex histories, there’s also those who celebrate the legacy of these contests, arguing that we have them to thank for child welfare services and the Children’s Hospital. All in all, an interesting and upsetting piece of Vancouver history to think about during the next episode of Honey Boo Boo.
More information on this topic can be found in: Gerald E Thomson, “‘A Baby Show Means Work in the Hardest Sense’: The Better Baby Contests of the Vancouver and New Westminster Local Councils of Women, 1913-1929,” BC Studies no. 28, Winter 2000/2001.