Baby books a mother lode for research
Baby’s first tooth, first words, records of doctor’s visits, favorite foods — such are the stuff of baby books. The province of doting parents, these books form an intimate, often sentimental, portrait of a child’s early years.
Unbeknown to most people, they are also a rich source of scholarly material, as evidenced by a robust interest among researchers in the official Baby Book Collection at UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, now at 1,100 books and growing. Dating back to 1882, the books are a record not merely of young lives, but open a personal window into the history of American childhood and family, medicine, art, architecture and other disciplines.
The collection had its start seven years ago with a book donated by UCLA alumna Barbara Rootenberg, an antiquarian bookseller with a specialty in the history of medicine. “Dr. Dunbar Walker’s Parents’ Medical Notebook,” published in 1884, was intended for the Biomedical Library’s holdings in the history of pediatrics.
UCLA librarian Russell Johnson has played a leading role in the collection.
“But that book — which had ledgers for parents to track a child’s diseases — got us thinking about the medical history aspects of baby books,” said Russell Johnson, librarian for history and special collections for the sciences. Johnson and his colleagues began to explore the genre of mass-produced baby books that presented parents with a fill-in-the-blanks approach to recording their child’s development. “We started thinking about how these books were used to keep track of things like height, weight, language, illnesses and immunizations — and wondering what was the interest in parents in keeping all these measurements on their children.”
After checking that no other library was collecting them — not counting examples like John F. Kennedy’s baby book at his Presidential Library and Museum in Boston — the Baby Book Collection was born. And Johnson’s ongoing quest for baby books began, taking him to such disparate sources as eBay and swap meets, booksellers and donors.
“I’m always keeping an eye out,” said Johnson. “We want to have a comprehensive collection as the place for baby books.”
Some of the books in the collection have been untouched or only partially completed. Others have been extensively and lovingly detailed and filled with birth announcements, photographs, even locks of the baby’s hair.
“The Mother’s Record of the Physical, Mental, and Moral Growth of Her Child for the First Fifteen Years,” the oldest book in the collection, was published in 1882. “The book feels like a new, unfamiliar phenomenon," Johnson said, “because it includes a ‘specimen page’ that shows the parent how to fill in the blanks.”
Interestingly, the specimen page’s suggestions include filling out the blank for “Kind and Quality of Food” with “Mellin’s baby food.” The manufacturer of this brand-name food, it turned out, offered the book as a giveaway to new parents. “Advertising was part of the whole phenomenon,” said Johnson. The book “Congratulations,” for example, was given away by the Illinois Banker’s Life Assurance Company in the 1930s to encourage parents to open a bank account.
Some of the books are collectors’ items, among them, those by famous 19th-century illustrator Maud Humphrey. Married to New York surgeon Belmont Bogart, she published “The Baby’s Record.” in 1898. (The following year she had a baby of her own, future actor Humphrey Bogart.)
The larger portion of the books is not of any particular commercial value, often finding their way into the collection when a family estate is sold or a long-neglected storage locker gets cleaned out. “Today’s generation doesn’t seem to want anything old, so they sell off their stuff on eBay or at swap meets,” Johnson noted. Sometimes, people who do value their baby books donate them, considering UCLA’s collection a good home for this bit of personal history.
"Baby's Welfare" promoted healthy-baby practices in sync with government public health campaigns.
Part of Johnson’s job is to let scholars know about the collection, as well as about a short-term research fellowship a library donor has funded to help researchers make the trip to UCLA. At a recent meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine, Johnson was pleased to attend a talk by Rutgers University historian Janet Golden, who used the Baby Book Collection as source material for a book she’s writing
. “She’s doing what I call ‘the history of baby booty,’” he said of Golden’s research on baby books as marketing tools for everything from baby products to college funds.
Other researchers have used the books to trace the reach of public health movements in the early 20th century, such as the Better Babies and Child Studies movements to educate parents in child care, hygiene and sanitation. Baby book publishers began incorporating these government guidelines into their books. For example, “Baby’s Welfare,” published around 1915, suggested a health-promoting schedule for daily juice, nursing, naps and baths.
Researchers in sociology, art and other fields find a mother lode of material in books that contain photographs — both expensive studio photography and take-your-own-snapshots promoted by Kodak in the 1890s. Noted Johnson: “Some researchers will say, ‘Wow! This is great because we get to see the baby furniture; we get to see where people live and how they dressed.’” UCLA faculty as well as teachers from around the city sometimes bring their students to view the collection in conjunction with class lectures.
This 1923 photo shows a baby holding a toy. When Johnson came upon book, the toy was with it.
Most of the collection is dated before 1950, a focus Johnson took in his acquisitions to make sure he captured as many of those earlier books as he could. Now he’s beginning to broaden his search to more recent books, from the more recent phenomenon of baby books for adopted children to online baby books.
But it’s the early books that continue to hold the greatest fascination for Johnson.
“Perhaps my favorite one is a little, beat-up copy we have of ‘Our Baby’s Book,’ a freebie from the People Savings Bank in Mississippi.” Parents filled the book with birth and genealogical information and added congratulatory telegrams on their baby’s birth and a photograph of their 7-month-old infant holding a small wooden toy.
“When I found the book, the toy was with it,” Johnson said. “To see this relic from 1923 — the book, the photo and then to have the toy, too — it’s really cool.”
Anyone over the age of 18 can see the Baby Book Collection at the Biomedical Library, Mondays through Fridays, 8:30 a.m. to noon, or afternoons by appointment. And donations of baby books are always welcome. E-mail Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org
or call him at (310) 825-6940.
For more information on the collection, visit the website