The 1913 Better Babies Medal

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As America entered the 20th Century, our nation began to turn its attention towards addressing a number of social issues. Among the issues we addressed as a nation was our high infant mortality rate. As a means to educate and encourage parents concerning the proper care and hygiene of their children, contests were held at popular public venues. These contests were then used to measure child development among the contestants and gather statistics. Cash prizes and a medal were awarded to the parents of those babies with the highest scores when compared to scientifically established developmental standards.


To promote and conduct the contests the "Better Babies Bureau" and the popular Woman's magazine, "Woman's Home Companion" sponsored "Better Babies" contests in a number of county and state fairs across the country. The following is an excerpt from the September 1913 issue of "Woman's Home Companion" concerning the bronze "Better Babies" award medal designed by then sculptor Laura Gardin. (This medal was issued shortly before Laura Gardin's marriage to James Earle Fraser.)


And all this time another branch of the Better Babies Bureau had been working out plans for prizes, medals, and certificates of award which will be used this year at all state fairs holding Better Babies contests.


" A Better Babies Medal, to be cast in gold, silver and Bronze!"


A very pleasing Idea, and one which ought, by good rights, to be entrusted to a woman. So one of the Companion's art editors went hunting for just the right sculptress to design it. He found her in that quaint section of old New York known as Greenwich Village, perched under a skylight, far above the roar of the elevated railway traffic.


Her name is Laura Gardin, and she ranks among the most successful of America's young sculptors. Her mother was a water-color artist of considerable note and her grandfather was Theodore Tilton, artist, poet, and journalist, equally well known in America and in France, where he spent his declining years.


Miss Gardin began to study sculpture at the Art League when at seventeen years of age. There she captured the St. Gaudens prizes for composition and for figure from life, with the corresponding scholarships. After three years' work at the League she studied with J. E. Fraser, who, by the way, designed the new nickel for the United States Government.


She has exhibited regularly at the spring and fall exhibitions of the Art League. Some of her best known works are: a heroic figure of Booth as "Hamlet"; "Timidity," a charmingly graceful female figure; "The Wrestlers," shown at the recent Gorham exhibit of bronzes, and the official medal of Cardinal Farley, done in 1912 to celebrate his elevation to the cardinalate. It was this medal which won for Miss Gardin the very desirable distinction of membership in the National Sculpture Society.


When she undertook the commission of designing the Better Babies medal, Miss Gardin decided to employ no one model but to study babies collectively--babies of the rich and babies of the poor, babies on parade and babies rolling on the sand and in gutters, and particularly babies splashing in their bath. The result is the wonderfully human pair of babies which make the Better Babies medal greatly admired by artists. They are real flesh and blood babies, not idealized cherubs.


Miss Gardin watched jealously every step in the casting of the medals.


"No harsh lines," she warned the workers, "Better Babies have soft, vague lines. Their dimples come and go. Their curves are changeable, elusive and, whether they be blond or brunette, they have what I call a blond softness which is expressed in the single word innocence." [1]


Concerning the artistic appeal of the Better Babies medal, Elaine J. Leotti in The American Woman Medalist, A Critical Survey comments, "Fraser's Better Babies medal done in 1913 for the Woman's Home Companion is her only piece which can truly be called feminine. It is a well-balanced medal, nicely executed if a bit on the sentimental side. The babies' bare flesh is soft, almost palpable; their curls and dimpled elbows invite touch, thus appealing exactly to the audience the medal was meant to impress." [2]


[1] "Woman's Home Companion" Vol 40, September 1913 pg. 22

[2] "The American Woman Medalist, A Critical Survey" by Elaine J. Leotti pg. 212



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The Better Babies contests were also part of the Eugenics movement of the early 20th century.


I'm glad you mentioned that, I had intended to add an addendum to this post. When I research a piece in my collection, I try to discover just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Sometimes, and this piece is one of those times, I don't particularly like where the rabbit hole has taken me.


Something that may have started with good intentions, like reducing the infant mortality rate soon grew into a monster in the 1920's and beyond. The following is a general progression and the logical bitter end of eugenics.


Better Babies evolved into Fitter Families based on genetic heredity. From that came laws requiring forced sterilization of those the eugenicists thought should not be reproducing. This grew into euthanizing those deemed undesirable primarily through abortion and euthanasia. The bitter end played itself out in Nazi Germany with the attempted genocide of the Jews.


Now back to my medal and Laura Gardin Fraser. Had it not been for this medal, I would not have discovered the ugly truth about our eugenic past that people like Hitler used as a model for Germany and in this country others used to fan the flames of racism. So much of collecting coins and medals tells the story of the past without all the biased editorializing, just the raw facts. This is one of the aspects of this hobby that I love so much, digging for the truth no matter where it goes or which bubbles it bursts. The truth is what I am interested in and the coins and medals we collect testify to the past.


As for Laura Gardin Fraser, I don't know for sure whether she was a eugenicist or not. However, I do know that she was a very close friend of Mrs. E.H. Harriman who was. Beyond the Better Babies medal I don't see too much to lead me to believe that she was.


Finally, I personally find eugenics abhorrent and I think that fairs and contests were the wrong way to go in the effort to lower the infant mortality rate. Human beings are much more complex than cattle and should not have been treated as such. I also have personal first hand experience that would turn eugenic theory on its head. I may share my story at a later date. As for my medal, I'll probably add a paragraph on eugenics at the end of the description when I decide what and how to write it.


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So much of collecting coins and medals tells the story of the past without all the biased editorializing, just the raw facts.


Thanks for the follow-up post with the unvarnished details, Gary. I certainly hope we [the human race] can advance beyond these cruel programs to suppress diversity.

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