American Babies: Their Life and Times in the 20th Century.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Grant, Julia
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: American Babies: Their Life and Times in the 20th Century (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Reedy, Elizabeth A.
Accession Number: 230778718
Full Text: American Babies: Their Life and Times in the 20th Century. By Elizabeth A. Reedy (Prager: Westport, Conn, 2007. 216 pp.).

Everyone loves a baby--except for a few misanthropic baby haters. Which makes it all the more surprising that few historians have tried to penetrate the baby's domain: a place that psychologists by the score have tried to describe and understand. Reedy defines the term baby as compromising children who are up to one year of age, the most difficult of all age groups to write about. Illiterate and nonverbal, babies leave little in the way of a paper trail as they age out of infancy. Parents' diaries and letters sometimes yield information about the different temperaments and behaviors of babies, and these documents have been effectively plumbed by many historians, most notably Linda Pollock in her Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. (1) Medical historians such as Rima Apple and Richard Meckel have documented the changing technologies of infant care in the U.S., where scientists have been particularly influential in guiding practices, It is within this tradition that Elizabeth Reedy, with a Ph.D. in pediatric nursing, takes her bearings. For those of us in children's history who are especially interested in probing the more evocative dimensions of children's lives, this book will disappoint. While the subheading of the book claims to provide insight into the "life and times" of babies in the twentieth century, the conclusion of the book is probably more accurate in terms of what the book purports to do, when it suggests that "babies have been a barometer of sorts, allowing us to measure ourselves against other nations and societies" (168). If we use babies as a barometer, we can, as Reedy does, speculate about the impact of changes in health care, reproductive technology, immigration and welfare policies on twentieth-century American infants.

In examining babies as a barometer of social change in the twentieth century, Reedy has drawn on a range of existing scholarship, but her strength is in documenting changes in infant's health care. Lest we fall into the trap of assuming that 1901--the year in which the narrative begins--was a less stressful period in which to live one's life, Reedy reminds us that many babies would not have survived to live good lives, given the high infant death rate. The twentieth century witnessed a dramatic drop in infant mortality, with the rate falling as much as 90% during the course of the century. Reedy provides us with a range of explanations, including medical solutions such as antibiotics, fluid replacement therapies, surgeries for heart conditions and other maladies, and, more recently, effective cancer treatments. Public health measures such as immunizations, cleaner water supplies, improved sewage systems, and even the telephone, which enabled patents to quickly call for help in the case of accidents or sudden illness, also contributed to the decline. In a chapter entitled "From Weaklings to Fighters," Reedy gives special attention to the case of premature infants, whose survival rates took astounding leaps in the late twentieth century due to advances in medical technology.

All population groups experienced improvements in infant health care throughout the century, but there has also been great variability between races, ethnicities, and classes. Two chapters "Racism and the American Baby" and "Population and Immigration" address these issues. During the early twentieth century faulty birth registration processes ensured that many rural African-American children's births were unaccounted for, meaning that it was difficult to provide them with preventive health services or evaluate their standards of health. When the Sheppard-Towner Act was passed in 1921, preventive services for pregnant women and their babies were provided, but not uniformly, and African-American lay midwives were disparaged, rather than given access to technology and information that might have helped them save lives. In the end, the improvements in infant health care made in the 1920s barely made a dent in the African-American community. In the chapter on "Population and Immigration," Reedy touches on the early twentieth-century eugenics debates about which populations should procreate and immigrate based on their genetics. The chapter also discusses the withholding of treatment of disabled babies' as late as the 1980s for Downs Syndrome and other maladies, noting that it was not until 1984 that withholding life-saving treatment for such babies was defined by Congress as child abuse.

At the end of the book, Reedy deals with changes in fertility treatments and what she defines as the American dream to have a baby of "one's own" (156). Reedy documents without really critiquing how medicine has rushed in to fill, the demand for Americans to have a biological baby. Although the author does discuss adoption, she does not do so in the context of her analysis of fertility; nor does she question the assumption that having a baby of "one's own" means that one must do so biologically. The author examines the economic and environmental factors that impinge on the health and wellbeing of children, but I would have liked to see her wrestle more with the valuation of different babies based on their genetics and health status. Babies born biologically to the parents who rear them have greater status in our society. Similarly, some babies are deemed less worthy of adoption or even of being born based on their health status.

In the end the author has synthesized a number of issues relating to infants' health and well being, but she hasn't gone into sufficient depth on a number of issues to produce debate or deep reflection. However, this is a good overview for the less knowledgeable reader, including students, who might be inspired to research further into any one of the myriad number of issues that are touched on here. Reading this book certainly inspires historians to think more deeply about the study of babies and the ways in which their bodies are already politicized upon leaving the womb.


(1.) Linda Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (Cambridge, 1984).

Julia Grant

Michigan State University
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