In 1919, Cornell pioneered the first degree-granting program in the country for women called “Domestic Economics.” Its aim was to apply scientific principles to domestic tasks deemed “Mothercraft” — such as making meals, cleaning and ironing, household budgeting, and raising children. Female coeds — five or six at a time — lived together in on-campus “Homemaking Apartments” and collectively mothered the practice babies.
Ranging in age from three weeks to a few months old, babies were loaned to the college for a year. The contracts between the orphanages and Cornell stated the babies “could be returned at any time if there was dissatisfaction on the part of the college.”
Their birth names and identities were erased, and they were fatted and raised by a rotating lineup of up to six practice mothers at a time. The co-eds’ work was divided into six parts, including the job of mother and assistant mother.
Domecon babies were highly sought-after for adoption. Adoptive parents were convinced that because the babies were being raised in ideal conditions and by scientific methods it would ensure a smooth family transition. A 1923 newspaper article titled “Coeds at Cornell Mother Real, Live Practice Babies” referred to the babies as “super children.”
The program ran through 1954. In all, 119 children were raised in this manner and adopted, and Dickie Domecon was the first. Most grew up with no knowledge of having been abandoned or surrendered, or having been a Domecon baby.
All identifying records were destroyed.
This essay is excerpted from Megan Culhane Galbraith’s The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, published by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press.
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