5 Horrifying Things Parents Used To Do To Babies
You'd think people would generally be nice to babies. They're cute, they're the future of our species, and the foreskins of the males can be used to create four football fields of human skin. You weren't expecting to hear that advantage, were you?
A human baby, seen here cultivating the playing surface of your nightmares.
But our attitude toward babies and their useful, useful foreskins hasn't always been so benevolent: We can now add "caring for the young of our own goddamn species" to the list of things humanity has managed to fuck up. For example ...
Premature Infants Were Used As Sideshow Attractions
Today, infants that are born very prematurely are forced to spend weeks or even months lying in incubators, another word for fancy baby-holders that control an infant's environment until it's ready to enter the cold, germ-ridden outside world. Today, you'll find these Containers of Tiny, Adorable Sadness where one would assume they have always been: inside hospitals. But in the early 20th century, you were more likely to find them on display in an amusement park. Really, guys? That's even more upsetting than clowns.
At the Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn, fairgoers could pay cash to file past rows of teeny, depressing premature infants. The sideshow even featured a barker who stood out front of the display and tried to entice passersby to come inside, presumably with the help of hilarious puns. It sounds insane, and luckily this infant-suffering-as-attraction was a flash in the pan, with indignant crowds gathering within months, simply repeating, "Really?" until everyone packed up and left. That's why it lasted only ... uh ... 40 years.
But we shouldn't be too harsh on the attraction that turned the cotton candy of countless fairgoers to ashes in their mouths. The sideshow's founder, a physician named Martin Couney, was desperate to bring his newfangled incubators into common, non-clown-related usage, but the medical establishment didn't take him seriously. Instead, the standard treatment for premature infants at the time was to try to distract the mother while quietly shuffling them out of view.
"Your son? Yeah, he's around here somewhere. Anyhoo, this is a drawing I did of a duck penis."
So the Coney Island sideshow was Couney's way of funding his baby-incubating project and saving as many teeny lives as possible without having to charge their parents for their care. In fact, I'm willing to bet at least some parents of preemies today would put up with the presence of corn-dog-clutching gawkers if it meant they could avoid a $30,000 medical bill.
Every Baby Wore A Dress (For Poop Reasons)
We've mentioned before that the current craze of gender-specific baby stuff is actually a recent phenomenon, and that for much of history both genders wore feminine, flowing clothes as babies. After all, babies are basically highly efficient human-waste factories, and flowing garments are easier to wrangle when you're trying to clean up said waste in an era before zippers and Velcro. But sometimes this skirts-for-everyone thing went past mere convenience and way into "my parents must have really wished I was a girl" territory. Here, for example, is the very male 18th-century French king Louis XV:
And here's young Ernest Hemingway, whose mother admittedly went a little overboard:
On the one hand, the continued survival of male humans definitely seems to prove that putting little boys in feminine clothing isn't harmful to them, which is a good reason to stop calling down the wrath of God whenever a parent paints their son's nails or when a retail chain ditches its gender-specific toy labeling. On the other, why would you dress a kid of either gender like this?
He's probably pooping, like, all over that, guys.
English-Speakers Have Always Been Terrible At Naming Kids
Even if you're not yet at the "get off my lawn" stage of human life, you probably agree that English-language names are getting weird. And it's true that "original" names are far more prevalent than they have been in the past, and that, around the country, thousands of preschool-aged Rykers and Maysons are unprepared for the nightmare of Starbucks cups and tedious phone-spellings that awaits them in adult life.
"We can't wait to meet little Joffrey Ann."
But this is far from the first unhealthy trend in English-speaking baby-naming. At one point in 14th-century England, for example, a full third of the male population was named either William or John, and it was even common to give siblings the same goddamn name: One record has a family of three living sons all named John and two living daughters both named Margaret. And you thought it was bad that there are four Jaydens in your daughter's kickboxing class.
Around the time of the Puritans, things somehow got even weirder: To distinguish themselves from their not-religious-enough countrymen, and perhaps also because everyone still remembered being so goddamn sick of John, a new type of biblical name swarmed the child-naming market. And by "biblical name," I mean "opening a page of the Bible and naming the kid the first thing you saw."
"'And the Lord said unto Chad ...' -- DAMMIT."
That probably isn't an exaggeration, by the way: Recorded Puritan names include "Fear-not," "Give-Thanks," "Fight-the-good-fight-of-faith," and other names that appear to have come from parents rummaging desperately through the Good Book like they were searching a bag for the last non-yellow Starburst.
Toilet Training (Supposedly) Caused War Crimes
In the early 1940s, anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer had an idea. An idea about poop. Gorer explained that Japanese parents potty train their children earlier than parents in the West, and that this early poop-control made them murderously repressed, which explained Japanese soldiers' excessive brutality in World War II. In other words, parents, when you're excitedly giving your child a sticker for evacuating their bowels in the musical training toilet shaped like a race car, you might think the only damage being done is the painful, nagging reminder that you used to be cool. When in fact you could be creating a future violator of the Geneva Conventions, and your child will probably one day take a dump on the killing fields.
Only the dead know the end of war (it's poop).
Unbelievably, people took Gorer seriously: He was hired as an analyst (heh) for the U.S. Office of War Information during World War II. Why? Well, his ideas were fertilized (heh) by Freudianism, which I'm starting to think was just an excuse for grown men to write about poop without all the other psychologists laughing at them. According to Freud's theories -- which people actually believed, you guys, I can't stress this enough -- toilet training a child too early could lead to lifelong damage, by "freezing" his or her personality at a stage of poop-obsession. As late as 1999, a German professor was arguing that East Germans had trouble accepting democracy after the fall of Communism because of the way they'd been toilet trained as infants, which I'm sure was the real reason, rather than, you know, being raised in a Communist state.
Above: Lenin tries in vain to explain his ideas to a baffled, normally-toilet-trained audience.
Partially as a result of this paranoia, children's potty training (which historically was usually finished by the time the child was a year old) got pushed back later and later. Manufacturers soon started producing disposable diapers for older children to accommodate the trend, and now it's not unusual for parents to keep children in diapers until they start school. In other words, a poop-covered-plastic landfill the size of Texas probably exists today at least partly because we once believed using toilets at the wrong time caused the Rape of Nanking.
Anyway, this article has been pretty lighthearted so far, but now that the Rape of Nanking has been mentioned, it's time to move on to the darker stuff. If reading about young children getting hurt is a problem for you, simply skip down to the comment section right now and describe the fluffiest goddamn bunny you ever saw. Otherwise, read about how ...
Burial Clubs Encouraged So Much Murder
"Burial clubs" might sound like a badass pastime for really organized goths, but they were actually a form of life insurance popular in 19th-century Britain. By providing payouts after death, burial clubs allowed grieving families to afford funeral expenses after their child fell inside one of those fancy top hats and suffocated. I don't have time to check right now, but I assume that was the leading cause of child death in the 19th century.
"Why don't we just all stop wearing these hats?"
"Go eat a dick, Reginald."
But then as now, the idea of instant postmortem profits did create the incentive to, well, murder people. The difference is that a person today who tries to take out six different life insurance policies on a family member will soon be dealing with, like, all the police. Back in the 1800s, however, poor and desperate parents could profit from the death of a child with almost no questions asked: The industry was too unregulated for anyone to get suspicious, and anyway, infants just dropped dead all the time back then. So one child at the time was found to be enrolled in no fewer than 19 burial clubs, and if babies were a bit smarter, it probably would have packed up all its stuff using its adorable baby hands and run far away.
"We never ask Frank about his past, but we have our suspicions. He's got that thousand-yard stare."
Technically, the punishment for infanticide was the death penalty, but as it was almost impossible to distinguish between child-murderers and grieving parents who were still haunted by recurring hat-related nightmares, actual guilty verdicts were rare. So, assuming that these people left at least some of their children alive, some of the people reading this probably had great-great-grandparents who murdered their children for cash and got away with it. Be sure to bring that up at your next family seance.
C. Coville has a terrible Twitter here and a just-as-terrible Tumblr here.
Premature babies used to be sideshow attractions, but things still aren't exactly easy for them. See why in We Can Let Babies Die: 6 Realities Of Neonatal Nursing. And learn why your baby is imbued with the moral compass of God in 5 Amazing Things You Didn't Know Babies Could Do.
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