The first time I saw the Coney Island attraction billed as "Live Infants", I thought I was seeing things. But it was true. Premature babies in incubators were once a popular attraction of Coney Island, as well as many world expositions including the 1933 World's Fair held in Chicago, Illinois. With mixed emotions, I began my research into how it came to be that people paid hard-earned money to see a human infant.
|Luna Park at Coney Island circa 1905. Courtesy of Shorpy.com|
The man who created this popular sideshow attraction was Martin Arthur Couney, born in Krotoschin, Germany on the last day of 1869. He studied medicine with a specialty of pediatrics under the hand of Dr. Pierre Budin, a Frenchman who pioneered the use of the incubator for the treatment of premature infants. At that time in the late 1800's, incubators were being used for hatching poultry. Budin had a great idea, but hospitals were skeptical and lacked the vision to use this method of saving premature infants.
To gain attention for his invention, Budin sent Couney to the 1896 Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin in the hopes that others would see the benefits.
Baby Incubator Display at The Trans-Mississippi Exposition, 1898. Courtesy of Omahalibrary.org
Six premature babies on loan from Berlin's Charity Hospital, under the auspicies of Empress Augusta Victoria, were kept alive by artificial means, which wowed the crowds who paid money to see the infants. Three years later at the 1899 Greater Britain Exhibition, however, Couney was unable to borrow premature British infants for his exhibit and was forced to bring in three wicker baskets full of infants from Paris. (Courtesy of omahalibrary.org)
|Baby Incubator on Display, Seattle World's Fair, |
1909. Courtesy of Wikipedia
With crowds of amazed people at several world fairs and expositions gawking at the babies living in boxes, there was enough money for Couney to introduce the incubator to American hospitals. But the medical world still wasn't ready to accept the incubators. Parents, however, saw the incubators as a miracle and willingly handed over their preemies into Dr. Couney's care. He had already proved that the public was willing to pay for such an exhibit, and he knew that few parents could afford the medical bills of keeping their babies alive. Such an exhibit would also expose the public to the need for such an invention and perhaps enough people would goad the medical community into providing their own staff with incubators.
With no shortage of preemies, Dr. Couney and his staff set up the permanent exhibit at Luna Park, Coney Island which you see in the photo at the top of this blog - the one that started me on this quest. And with trained staff ready to care for the babies on the road, and deal with the public, babies in incubators were exhibited in major fairs and expositions around the world until 1941.
|Baby Incubator Exhibit at the 1909 Seattle World's Fair. Courtesy of Wikipedia|
It didn't matter to the new parents that their baby would be on display in a sterile glass and metal box. What mattered was that their baby survived!
In August 1901, the Scientific American Volume 85 Number 5 published the article, Baby Incubators at the Pan-American Exposition showing how the babies were fed through their nostrils with a gavage spoon.
Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, 1901
Another article with lots of photos is: Survivors Praise 'Incubator Doctor' Who Put Preemies on Display in Early 1900s.
Videos on the sideshow exhibit as well as the survivors are:
'Incubator Babies' Praise Doctor Who Saved Lives (https://youtu.be/rLBTOlrrubA)
Were Premature Babies Really Displayed in Coney Island? (https://youtu.be/5DzEMRngR1Y)
Also, the History Detectives TV show broadcast an episode called Sideshow Babies (Season 7, Episode 4), where the first segment is about a woman who was born prematurely and within days of her birth, the Chicago Board of Health took her away from her parents and placed her under Couney's care, where she was put in an incubator and displayed at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. She has in her possession a personalized souvenir cup commemorating the event. The history detective's quest is to find out if babies were really on display at this event.
When I started the research, I was uncomfortable with the thought that anyone would make money off the exhibition of babies in a sideshow. I changed my mind however, when I read that Couney charged money so that the babies could be cared for and their parents didn't have to worry about the expense. To a Canadian, that's a big deal. The fact that all 4 of my babies were premature ranging from 4-8 weeks early helped settle it in my mind. I would have given everything I had if there was a chance to pull them through. I was blessed with doctors and nurses in NICU's that took my hand and pulled all of us through. Back in history, they did what they could as well.
What about you? What went through your mind as you read this post?
Anita Mae Draper's historical romances are woven under the western skies of the Saskatchewan prairie where her love of research and genealogy yields fascinating truths that layer her stories with rich historical details. Anita's short story, Here We Come A-Wassailing, was a finalist for the Word Guild's 2015 Word Awards. Her novellas are included in Austen in Austin Volume 1, and The American Heiress Brides Collection. Readers can check out Anita's Pinterest boards for a visual idea of her stories to enrich their reading experience. Discover more at: