Real, Live Practice Babies

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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58 Responses to Real, Live Practice Babies

  1. Michele says:

    Isn’t it interesting that while society insisted women’s only proper role was wife-and-motherhood, people also thought women needed professional training for those jobs. I was a young woman in 1969. It is in no way coincidental that the second wave of feminism was gathering momentum at the time.

  2. Words fail to describe how completely horrified I am this this existed…

  3. Gaythia says:

    I think that before we get too horrified about the excesses of the past we ought to consider the present. The individual babies above had multiple, concerned caregivers. The science-y attitudes were recommended by physicians at that time and permeated into into some homes as well. That aside, was this like an oddly constituted extended family?

    What happens at a modern commercial daycare center where one caregiver has multiple babies under his/her responsibility? (state standards vary, but I believe commonly are at about 4 infants per caregiver, but some are larger and I think some are still not regulated for group size). I’m not criticizing the parents here, who need to make a living, but I believe as a society we need to better support all of our children.

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  5. Barbara Delaney says:

    You can actually see one of these infants in a short feature shown on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s titled “The Home Economics Story” and follows the adventures of four young women off to college in the 1950′s.

    I often wondered who that child was. I thought perhaps it was the offspring of a couple of faculty members. As creepy as that would have been this is far worse.

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  7. Tru says:

    “Henry House” is not the first “practice baby” to serve as a fictional protagonist. “The Republic of Love,” by the late Carol Shields, tells the story of a romantic relationship in which the male half, Tom Avery, is a 39-year-old ex-”practice baby.” At three weeks of age, Tom was taken from his hospitalized mother by a social worker and installed at the University of Manitoba’s home economics “practice house.” The prologue describes how Baby Tom was ever-so-scientifically cared for, coddled and adored by his “twenty-seven mothers.” However, as an adult he suffers from “surprising insecurities,” and has already been married and divorced three times. Suffice it to say, he makes for an interesting romantic partner.

  8. mangrist says:

    Wow. What an amazing story. It’s easy to see why it would attract fiction writers. It reminds me a little of TC Boyle’s fictionalized account of Alfred Kinsey.

  9. Emily Anthes says:

    Interesting–I’ll have to check that out.

  10. Emily Anthes says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. Sounds like an interesting read.

  11. A nun, a mouse says:

    When my wife and I were considering adoption, I read a manual for pediatricians on evaluating infant health. One issue they found for some types of many-provider nurseries is that the children would sometimes develop a “anyone will do” type of attachment. That is, the adopted child wouldn’t really bond with one or two parents, but they would approach literally anyone as a source of care.

    I do not recall the name of the syndrome — or if it was reversible — but this type of care foment it in the little babies, it would seem. Ironically, I’m here in the car with my sleeping baby so I can’t check the book…

  12. Dede says:

    Fabulous find. Hope u keep researching and writing on this topic – seems like a potentially consequential perspective about human behavior. Cool

  13. Kat says:

    I have mixed feelings about the practice and would love to find out what happened to these children after they were adopted and grew up. Some of the later ones would only be in their mid 40′s – 50′s so it’s possible that there are a few around to tell their stories – maybe some of them don’t even know that they were practice babies?

    All the feminist stuff aside and the rights and wrongs of the practice houses and babies stuff – I would have loved to have someone teach me how to run a household! I have a good mum and I observed her in every day life (and still do), but she didn’t really sit me down and ‘teach’ me. Even if running a household and bringing up children isn’t a science, it could help us understand the hurdles that can arise in everyday life so we may be able to find other solutions that better suit us and our families. And what about those people who grew up without mothers? I have just spent 2 weeks on holiday at my mum and dads house with my 18 month old daughter. While we were there it was like baby boot camp and MaMar was the leader! I didn’t agree with everything that she told me I should do, but it gave me ideas on what things to try. I was still the mum so had the final say on what we did, but it was nice to have someone with experience to help out in a hands on way. Anyway, my daughter is eating well, sleeping well and chucking far less tantrums now. She seems heaps happier, plays better, is more creative and energetic and I am dealing with motherhood a lot better too. There are many things that I will be doing different with bub #2 right from the start.

    And don’t you think that it would have been better for these babies, who were already in orphanages to be loved and cared for by many ‘mothers’ in a home environment rather than only half cared for by one caregiver in an institution? I think it would have been the lesser of 2 evils. Also, as indicated these babies were in high demand from prospective parents, so had a higher chance of being adopted out into a proper family rather than staying in the orphanage until they were 16 when they would of been discharged. Once again, the lesser of 2 evils I believe.

    Maybe if we could track down some of these practice babies we would find out that they did turn out ok!

  14. Emily Anthes says:

    Oh, definitely. I am not at all convinced that all–or any–of these babies suffered irreparable harm by being part of these programs. But it would have been fascinating to find out whether and how this kind of upbringing did affect their development. I’m mostly just sad that no one seems to have tracked these babies, so we may never know.

  15. Mia says:

    Believe me that those babies were probably used as Lab Rats in all kinds of experimentation by researchers at Cornell.

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  17. Jen Deckert says:

    This is fascinating, Emily. Great find. I share your hope that someone somewhere tracked at least one of the babies after the program.

  18. Shanon says:

    Wow, how fascinating. This reminds me of another book that I read years ago about forced adoption in the 40′s and 50′s and the houses pregnant teenagers and young adults would go to. It was heartbreaking. I can’t remember the name, but it was another “forgotton” part of American history.

  19. Anna says:

    Was it The Girls Who Went Away? That one was heartbreaking.

  20. tk says:

    I was listening to NPR just last night and heard the interview with Grunwald about her book. Fascinated, I immediately started researching these programs. I cannot believe these programs existed yet no one seems to know about them! I agree with many of your replies…I see the positives and the negatives to this type of training. When looking back in history, I always believe it is imperative to remember that people did not have the same knowledge we have today. What we believe to be cutting edge education today will surely be looked at as ineffective in the future. Hind sight is 20/20, remember? Although, it seems bizarre to us today, I have to have hope that the people involved truly had good intentions. I do believe life for the practice babies had to be better than if they had been in the orphanage. Oh to learn the fate of these babies…

    Thank you so much for writing about this.

  21. anonymouse says:

    Let us never forget to condemn the past for not acting according to our present day concepts of right and wrong.

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  23. deborah says:

    Is it “The Home Economics Story” (1951) available online at Archive.org?

  24. Seth says:

    You have to be careful about superimposing your sensibilities onto other generations. As a society, as a species, humans are evolving. It is not realistic for you to expect our species to have been “born wise”. Likely some of our descendants will look back on you and I and be filled with the horror you are now experiencing.

  25. Seth says:

    Why should we believe you?

  26. Seth says:

    Exactly.

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  28. Alana says:

    Child care being a perfect example, at the same time I may be old fashioned by saying this but for me, Child Care is a last resort option.

    However I live in society that supports the idea of mothers wanting to see their child’s important developmental mile stones happening instead of coming home from work and picking up their child to discover it.

    Those early years are amazing, and I don’t think any parent should miss them!

    It saddens me to think that while it may have been how we know so much about babies now, that we had to go that way in the first place.

  29. Alana says:

    Proof of this?

    I try not to believe the most extreme negativities in such a horror-thought stirring scenario…

  30. Alana says:

    Furthermore, WHAT WAS THE FREAKING OBSESSION WITH COD LIVER OIL!!!
    While I understand it was thought to be a good health tonic, I can’t imagine it would have been fun changing those diapers?

  31. Ken Pidcock says:

    I, too, would love to know the life stories of the children involved. I’m just not ready to call this a tragedy comparable to the Ryan report. The 1954 Time piece is fascinating. Neuroses, neuroses. Says who? While I know that I wouldn’t want my daughter spending her time in college caring for an anonymous baby, I can’t say for certain that my baby wouldn’t benefit from spending her first year being cared for by anonymous college students. Funny world, ain’t it? Anyway, a truly compelling bit of history.

  32. Mariavictoria Garcia Taylor says:

    You’re thinking of Reactive Attachment Disorder. It isn’t reversible. Much like post-traumatic stress disorder it is something that is with you always, but you can certainly live a full life with it.

    I used to babysit a little girl who was adopted from India who had it. Her two siblings who were also adopted from India did not. While she certainly did have some issues, they did not cause her to have behavioral problems. It’s likely she would have needed some counseling down the line as she had some abandonment issues (she had been cared by her birth mother for the first few months of her life before she was relinquished to the orphanage and knew some of this story).

  33. Mariavictoria Garcia Taylor says:

    By the way, she did manage to bond with both of her parents, but wasn’t quite as attached to them as you might expect. At the age of five, this only made her seem as if she had an outgoing personality and independent nature (which she did).

  34. Manish Sharma says:

    They all ended up on Wall Street and caused the financial crisis.

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  36. daedalus2u says:

    Mothers really do get better with practice. Even terrible mothers get better with practice. Even absolutely terrible, horrible, inadequate, infant neglecting, infant killing mothers get better with practice.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2691539/

    This paper is about monkeys growing up in isolation and being absolutely terrible mothers with their early born offspring and getting much better with practice.

    My hypothesis is that there is such a “pull” for mothering behaviors, that even total socially deprived monkeys still have the neurodevelopmental pathways to do it, they just need the stimulus of a newborn baby to pull it out.

    I think a baby that had been a practice baby would do much better than a baby that had been neglected.

  37. Cobalt-Blue says:

    Actually, this is a pretty good idea. The work of Doctor Fritz Mingert in human brain development points to the fact that infants raised in Romanian orphanages who were given the minimum amount of human contact, failed to develop the part of the brain that controls empathy. This is one of the best things that could have happened to those babies.

  38. tryingtoheal says:

    I wonder how many of these babies first mothers were made aware of their fate. Orphans? It appears that most of them were the babies of young unwed mothers, who to this day are coerced and shamed into giving up their children to adoption. So, do you really think that these babies grew up without any issues? I can tell you for a fact that their mothers didn’t.

  39. Sally says:

    It’s a sad fact that children are still being used. Children are a financial commodity for Child Services. Innocent children are being kidnapped for flippant reasons, totally ignoring parents’ constitutional rights to their children, and passing them around to myriad foster homes. Propaganda has the masses believing that these parents are criminals and it just isn’t true. Child Services is THE horror story of our time but will only be realized in the future. There are so many young lives being destroyed at this very moment.

  40. Elle says:

    This is truly fascinating to me, and like many others, I wish that someone had kept track of these babies. I also wonder how these temporary mothers felt– did they ever get frustrated on Friday nights if they couldn’t go out, did they rotate, how did they feel leaving their little charges?

    It’s interesting that a similar “experiment” happened in my house when I was a teenager. My mom started taking in all our friends, until we had four to five teenage girls living here including my sister and I. An exotic dancer that my sister met through mutual acquaintances literally just dropped her three-month-old baby off with us one day, and she lived here for the next eight months. That first day we didn’t even know her name.

    It was truly an interesting experiment, to say the least. My mom was quite easy-going and didn’t mind the baby as long as we were taking care of her. She had no crib, so she would sleep and nap in one of our beds. Instead of a domestic economics instructor to guide me, I had my own mother and the internet. Thus Baby was brought up in the school of “attachment parenting” which was and is the latest fashion, which is how I came to be walking around shopping malls and my neighborhood at 17 wearing Baby in a homemade sling. We had a schedule that we kept to for simplicity’s sake, and it involved all five of us at different times of the day. We also utilized her infant swimming reflex and taught her to swim, another thing I learned about online.

    Her mother during this time was in and out, but rarely was she around longer than it took to drop off a pack of diapers and a can of powdered formula. My sister was her primary caregiver. Her mother eventually stopped doing drugs long enough to remember she had a daughter, and managed to get an apartment and took Baby to live with her just before she turned 12 months.

    However, apparently unlike the practice mothers in these programs, I have kept in touch with our practice baby, who is now nearly eight years of age. I can say that she has no attachment disorders, she is quite attached to her mother now, and still quite attached to my sister and I. She does have some emotional problems, but it’s hard to say if it was her early upbringing or later upbringing that caused it. She shows symptoms of depression and has suffered a few panic attacks. Her mother is less than the ideal parent, and as Baby said to me just the other day “I don’t think I’m going to get a chance to have a happy childhood.”

    Other than that, though, she is a healthy and very social child of average intelligence. Jury’s still out on what her emotional state will be as she reaches adulthood.

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  45. Kit says:

    This is absolutely fascinating – thank you for sharing! How can one find out further information including which schools offered these programs? Thank you again -

  46. Emily Anthes says:

    Thanks for the feedback–glad you found this interesting.

    I’m not entirely sure where you can find out about other schools–I’d suggest getting in touch with the Cornell library. Perhaps the librarians or researchers who helped put together the exhibit have more information.

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  48. Maya says:

    I recall reading a book by Kurt Vonnegut (might have been Timequake) where he mentions an interesting anthropological observation.

    In one African tribe–Igbo, if memory serves–the birth of a baby is celebrated with the child being passed around between relatives of the extended family and among all the village’s people, from the arms of one person to another, with each briefly coddling the baby and pronouncing a blessing for the child’s health, happiness, and so on, until the circuit is complete and the baby returned to its mother. The implication is that the child can expect the support of the entire village throughout its life, and remains a beloved part of society.

    If today’s children really were raised by “the whole village,” I imagine they would be better-adjusted. Still, the concept of “practice babies” connotes a very brief time period of a village approach to parenting, and we have no idea what happens to them once they enter a nuclear family.

    I find it rather difficult to believe that a child would spontaneously develop anxieties/insecurities just by being handled by multiple caregivers. I do believe, however, that certain extended families make a habit of micromanaging their children, which would, obviously, cause the youngsters great distress.

    Interesting topic. Great post. Thanks for opening my eyes to this obscure topic!

  49. peyronnin says:

    It’s strange to me that they both didn’t consider the obvious truth that it would be detrimental to a baby’s mental health to have twenty seven mothers in its first two years of life, and didn’t think to study the baby’s development as it matured. If they were trying to implement scientific experiments, wouldn’t that be part of the “experiment” ?

  50. Chris Domecon says:

    Hi -

    I was a Cornell practice baby in 1955. And I was not an orphan. At some point in the mid-50s, Cornell started using the children of faculty and students in the practice apartments. Most nights we went home to our parents. I read the book and it left me with a lot of questions. And yes, I think it impacted my life.

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  54. catherine says:

    The University of Manitoba had a practice house for many years, and this is the one featured in Carol Shields’ novel. It was a beautiful house, that was taken over by the Alumni Association in recent years, and became known as The Alumni House. Many women can still recall their days as students at The Practice House, where they cared for many babies. The University of Manitoba decided to tear down the house two years ago, without consultation, nor investigation, though it was aware of its cultural significance (it had ironically prepared a heritage plaque for the building only a few years earlier). It is very sad that the University took its responsibilities so lightly, and failed to protect such a significant monument to the history of women. Clearly, the University of Manitoba’s regard for women has not changed that much since the 1930′s.

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  56. alemonnamedscott says:

    Can someone please explain how this is horrific? It’s like having a bunch of babysitters or something.. You people act like they tortured the kids.. but to me, it seems more like they spoiled them.

  57. Don Aldinger says:

    I was a “practice baby” at Cedar Crest College (all women) in Allentown, Pennsylvania, from the age of 11 days until I reached the age of 13 months, at which time I was placed in a foster home. In 1993, I met a number of my “practice mommies” as we enjoyed a very warm, heart-warming breakfast together. Subsequently, I grew up, educated myself, became a high school teacher and coach. I never met or have seen photographs of my birth parents. Each and every day, I “thank” the Cedar Crest College home economics’ program for the love and nurturing which my “practice mommies” gave me during the first year of my life. I never felt used, only appreciative!

  58. Emily Anthes says:

    Wow–thanks for sharing your story!