In the late 1800s, the world was a lot deadlier. Almost one in five babies in the United States died before childhood — which was an improvement from the previous decades. At the turn of the century, 19 out of 20 births were still happening at home.
Incubator baby show? Who was Dr. Couney?Some carnival showmen bought knock-off incubator machines based on Lion’s design and started charging entry to their own premature baby shows. But raising a baby is not easy, and most of them got out of the business quickly. One showman, however, was hooked on this idea. In 1897, Dr. Martin Couney put on his first incubator baby show in London. Unlike the other showmen, Couney’s show had more of a refined air. He hired nurses to hold the babies and feed them breastmilk. The show was a hit so Dr. Couney decided to give it a try in the United States at the Omaha World’s Fair.
Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?!In the spring of 1905, Couney traveled to Chicago, Denver, and Minneapolis to set up new exhibits. While the new exhibits made Dr. Couney rich, he also made a lot of decisions not driven by profit. Saving babies became Dr. Couney’s mission, as he would tell many colleagues. In his travels, Couney would often wine and dine other doctors, and give them demonstrations of the incubators. On multiple occasions, Dr. Couney tried to donate his incubators to local health departments after the local fair was over, but no one would take them.
Doctors had all sorts of reasons for rejecting the technology. One reason was the disgraceful influence of the Eugenics Movement. In 1901, an anonymous editorial made the rounds in medical journals, disparaging the incubators. The author wrote that the human race suffered by keeping alive babies who the medical community literally referred to as “weaklings”. The author lamented Couney’s babies would “transmit their deficiencies, deformities and vices” to the next generation. Eugenics was hateful pseudoscience. And it was not a fringe movement. A lot of the fairs where Couney showed his babies also featured eugenics exhibits.
There were lots of other concerns about Couney’s approach. Many were concerned that amusement parks weren’t safe. One time in 1911, a Coney Island park with one of Couney’s shows went up in flames. The staff of doctors and nurses were able to save all the babies, but the incident only solidified the fear that these parks were too hazardous. Many of the parks were built quickly and were pretty shoddy. Four years earlier, a different park at Coney Island also burned down, and it burned down again in 1936 and again in 1939. Luna Park burned down in 1944. Around this time, amusement parks all over the country were going up in flames.
Beyond the safety concerns, there’s something deeply unsettling to modern eyes about the whole concept of incubator sideshows.
Today, it’s clear that putting babies on display and profiting off of them is exploitative. In many ways, Couney’s exhibits were in line with some of the worst parts of amusement parks and World’s Fairs. In addition to the rides, many fairs and parks had “ethnological villages”, where Native Americans or people from faraway nations would live on-site in stereotyped caricatures of their homes. Some were literally caged and incarcerated on the grounds, with no record of payment. On a lot of midways, there was a despicable willingness to exploit human life for the entertainment of others. Charging money to see tiny infants was a small part of that.