Barclay B. Rice and his wife, Dee, were overjoyed when their 28-month-old daughter was chosen as the grand sweepstakes winner in the Better Babies contest at the 1913 New State Fair in Muskogee. Barclay held her high while the huge crowd cheered. It probably didn’t matter that she beat George Donald Noyes by only "one-half of one percent," or that some people were amused by the notion of judging babies like livestock. Annie Dee Rice enjoyed her moment in the spotlight and went home with money and medals.
The concept of creating better babies was based on scientific principles. Babies were judged on developmental milestones, mental attentiveness, weight and proportion, disposition, respiration, circulation, digestion, strength and other attributes. Parents filled out a lengthy questionnaire and then a doctor and a nurse examined them in person. If a baby scored low because of defects, those might be corrected and the baby reentered the next year in an older group. The Perry Republican stated that "mothers of babies who lose should be happy to learn of defects and be able to correct them."
The events were widely promoted by the Woman’s Home Companion magazine for many years. Their "Better Babies Bureau" helped with publicity, provided instructions on how to set up a contest, and even supplied score cards. At one point, there were 40 states holding contests. Most were at county fairs, but were often combined with church events and flower shows.
The Daily Oklahoman of May 18, 1913 made the point that the world respected America’s crops and products such as "cattle and hogs and well-made shoes." Now it would respect America for the "supremacy of its babies"… to be "wrought by the same methods employed in producing high-grade grain, livestock and manufactured goods- by standardization."
The magazine provided lengthy "babyology" lectures and newspaper columns to help parents adopt accepted parenting practices. Babyology taught these mothers that a "puny, sickly, fretful baby is not a dispensation of Providence, but an unnecessary family burden, and a grave reflection on the intelligence of its parents." While some of the advice was quite logical and wasn’t likely to harm the baby, other tips - like brushing their eyelashes with melted Vaseline to thicken them - certainly had risks.
The baby contest held at Caddo’s annual Corn Carnival in 1914 was quite patriotic. "The Better Babies Contest ensures a better race of Americans, because it teaches parents how to improve the physical condition of children … It promotes civic interest in children of the community." Age group winners were: William Edwards, Eagle Kelton, Lorene Johnson, Alton Boydstun and twins Charles and Frank Semple.
The Bryan County Fair had a baby contest in 1916 with Mrs. J. B. Hickman in charge. In 1924, the Methodist Church ladies of Durant included one with their annual flower show. Fifty children were examined. Winners were: Irwin Helback, Valerie Semple, Harry Haigh, and Dorothy Stratford. Winners received a photo package from Truby Studio.
Even as late as the 1930s, the events were still popular, but over time they evolved into contests based more on appearance, personality and the status of their parents rather than on health and stamina.
Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.