A century ago, an Orwellian plot to subjugate American children to federal authority was set in motion. Government bureaucrats systemically undermined the sanctity of the family: They told parents the right way to raise their children. Children no longer belonged exclusively to their parents. Uncle Sam was moving in.
Or at least, that’s how it would be described today. At the time, they called this dystopian nightmare the U.S. Children’s Bureau, founded in 1912. And it was wildly popular.
In an era of high child mortality and chronically poor health, as well as rapidly changing norms for childrearing, the bureau was seen as a salvation. Parents across the country immediately inundated it with letters — at its high point, 400,000 a year — and got personal responses.
“Some of the letters are handwritten, semi-literate, pencil letters from rural, black communities in Alabama — and then some are from Fifth Avenue,” says Janet Golden, a historian at Rutgers-Camden. “Sometimes you have wealthy people who write and say, ‘I took my baby to five different doctors but I want to know what the government thinks.’ ”
The new scientific-minded childrearing wisdom of the era was disseminated through the bureau’s wildly popular pamphlet, “Infant Care.” Tens of millions of copies were distributed. Early baby books, where parents kept a record of their infants, were also filled with its official advice; the publishers simply cut and pasted parts of “Infant Care” into their books.
In the 1910s and ’20s, people not only felt invested in government programs — they thought the job of the government was to give advice.
“Today a lot of people have a ‘Don’t tell me how to live my life’ attitude toward the federal government,” Golden says. “And here we have an era where people are saying, ‘Please tell me how to raise my child.’ ”
This may be the most fundamental difference between the world for which the Children’s Bureau was founded and our own. Parents then and now are still obsessed with the same things: eating, sleeping, what to buy, how to survive this madness. The advice of the authorities about these things has changed — but then again, the advice was, and is, always changing. The far bigger change is where we look for that authority.
Nicholas Day is the author of “Baby Meets World,” a book about the science and history of infancy.