Real, Live Practice Babies

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Once upon a time, infants were quietly removed from orphanages and delivered to the home economics programs at elite U.S. colleges, where young women were eager to learn the science of mothering. These infants became “practice babies,” living in “practice apartments,” where a gaggle of young “practice mothers” took turns caring for them. After a year or two of such rearing, the babies would be returned to orphanages, where they apparently were in great demand; adoptive parents were eager to take home an infant that had been cared for with the latest “scientific” childcare methods.

This scenario is the premise of The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald. The lovely novel, which I had the delight to read over my holiday vacation, charts the life of Henry, a orphan who started his life as a practice baby at a women’s college. But the “practice baby” idea is more than just a fictional device–it is, bizarrely enough, a historical fact.

I didn’t know that until I had reached the end of the book and saw “A Note From the Author.” “This novel,” Grunwald writes, “started with a real photograph.” Then, she includes the following image.

Grunwald’s author note continues:

I found it, quite by accident, on a Cornell University website about the history of home economics. On the opening page of the online exhibit, among other thumbnail images, was the captivating snapshot of a baby with a beguiling smile and roguish eyes. I clicked on the photograph and learned that “Bobby Domecon” (the last name short for Domestic Economics) had been a “practice baby”…

As Grunwald discovered, practice baby programs were in place not only at Cornell but at all sorts of other colleges. As she did her research into this phenomenon, she discovered “one case that drew national attention when an Illinois child welfare superintendent questioned what the effects of this kind of upbringing might be. My wish for an answer is what inspired this book.”

As Grunwald tries to provide an answer, she delves into plenty of science, ranging from the influence of the famous Dr. Spock to the attachment experiments run by Harry Harlow. The novel’s a great read, but it also inspired me to want to know more about the whole practice baby phenomenon, so I did a little reading of my own.

My first stop was the online Cornell exhibit that Grunwald mentioned. The material is all still online, and I encourage you to check it out. Cornell’s program ran from 1919 to 1969 (which strikes me as incomprehensibly recent). At Cornell, eight female students at a time spent a full semester living in a fully-kitted out practice apartment. The women were there to learn the entire spectrum of homemaking skills, and, the exhibit says, “an early proponent of the program, believed that babies were essential to replicate the full domestic experience. Albert Mann, Dean of the College of Agriculture, called the apartments ‘essential laboratory practice for women students.’”

The Cornell exhibit has more photos of Bobby Domecon, as well as several other practice babies: Edna Mae, Denny, and Troy Domecon. You can also find pages from the baby books that the student mothers kept for each child, meticulously charting their development.

During this time, homemaking (as the name home or domestic economics makes clear) was considered to be something that could be conquered by science. Running a home based on instinct was considered to be woefully old-fashioned; the idea that raising a child and maintaining a home could be optimized by following a set of scientific rules was gaining currency. And these practice apartments were designed to teach young women the latest, scientifically “proven” techniques for running a home.

Accordingly, the practice babies were raised according to strict rules that governed everything from naps to diets. A paper published in The Journal of Home Economics in 1920, reveals this kind of thinking. The report, called “The Training of Children as A Part of Laboratory Work in Home Management,” chronicles the practice baby program at the University of Minnesota during the 1918-19 school year.

The work was undertaken (1) to show that laboratory work in the care of children can be fitted into a college program; (2) to demonstrate methods of child care, both physical and mental, which are known to result in the well-being and development of the child; and (3) to work out some management problems involved in the care of children.

The paper details the strict rules that governed the care of the babies. Consider the daily schedules to which the babies were held:

METHODS OF CARE EMPLOYED
Daily program

Russell Earl
Waken 6:30 Waken 6:00
Breakfast 6:30- 7:30 Breakfast 6:00- 6:00
Quiet play in crib 7:30-8:30 Quiet play in crib 6:30-7:30
Bath 8:30- 8:50 Bath 7:30- 8:00
Play 8:50-9:30 Play, ride 8:00-11:00
Sleep 9:30-12:00 Dinner 11:00-12:00
Dinner 12:00- 1:00 Sleep 12:00- 3:00
Play, ride 1:00-5:00 Play, ride 3:00- 5:00
Supper 5:00- 6:00 Supper 5:00- 6:00
Bed 6:00 Bed 6:00

The babies’ diets are similarly specific. Here, for instance, is what baby Russell, 13-months-old, ate every day:

Milk (skimmed), one pint.
Toast, crackers, both white and graham.
Cereal thoroughly cooked but not strained.
Fruit juice and pulp, two kinds each day, especially orange juice and prune pulp.
Potatoes, mashed or baked, served without butter.
Vegetables other than potatoes, almost any kind, especially spinach, carrots, tomatoes.
Meat in the form of scraped beef, veal, or chicken, two or three times per week or
Eggs 2 or 3 times per week or
Custards 2 or 3 times per week.
Cod liver oil, 3 tsp. per day.

Of course, these sorts of practice baby programs would not last. As the Cornell exhibit puts it, “As time passed, however, new research in child development pointed to the need for a primary bond with a single caregiver, and social changes in the lives of women made the practice house focus on domesticity seem old-fashioned.”

And a Time article from 1954 reveals some of the doubts experts were beginning to have about such programs.

“Imagine,” cried Mrs. Babette Penner, director of the Women’s Services Division of United Charities, “what anxieties there are in a child who is given a bottle in twelve or more pairs of arms.”… Meanwhile, as the experts wrangled, little David went right on risking future neuroses, and his assorted mothers went right on gaining some worthwhile “practical experience.”

Indeed, though the minutiae of the infants’ lives were recorded while they were practice babies, it doesn’t seem as though anyone thought to follow up on these children after they were adopted. So we’re left to wonder about the big questions: How did these babies actually turn out? What were they like as adults? Did they bear any evidence of their early upbringing? The best we may be able to do is read Grunwald’s imaginative take on these questions. The Irresistible Henry House is a great novel but it is, obviously, fiction. How I’d love to know the facts.

Further Reading

Cornell University Library’s online exhibit about practice apartments and babies.

Babies Serve as Laboratory Material at ‘U’: Home Economics Classes Will Use Babies to Practice On.” Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. March 23, 1919.

The Training of Children as A Part of Laboratory Work in Home Management,” The Journal of Home Economics. 1920.

Education: Case of the Resident Baby.” Time. January 25, 1954.

Grunwald discusses her discovery of the Cornell practice baby program.

The New York Times review of The Irresistible Henry House.

Images: 1. Cornell Library 2. Cornell Library

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