Bringing up baby in the '50s: how did we survive?

November 06, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

My mother, who bore four children in five years to a husband who traveled on business, used to restrain my adventurous baby sister in her crib with his old neckties.

So she could get a nap in the afternoon, my exhausted mother would put the four of us, all under the age of 6, out the front door. And lock it.

It is safe to say that we would be visiting my mother in jail from our foster homes if she were raising us today.

That was life in the 1950s, what humorist James Lileks calls "the Golden Age of bad parenting advice" in his new book, Mommy Knows Worst (Three Rivers Press, $18).

In this paperback, he has collected photographs, advertisements, magazine articles and government-issued parenting guides, documenting an era in child-rearing that would leave Dr. Phil speechless.

There is plenty of commentary by Lileks, a columnist for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, who dedicates the book to "all those parents who figured things out for themselves and did a fine job, experts be damned."

But he fails to improve on the hilarious -- and laughable -- principles that formed the bedrock for child-rearing in post-World War II America, including a newspaper campaign to convince readers that "the hospital is a very good place to have a baby."

For example, grandmothers often advised the new mother to calm her fussy baby with a narcotic-laced "soothing syrup." I vaguely remember getting regularly dosed with paregoric until I was, like, 12.

But the author of the 1950s How to Raise the Baby was appalled at the practice.

"... Many a woman who lifts up eyes and hands in righteous horror at tales of Chinese opium dens and their degraded inmates will, nevertheless, administer opium to her baby, for paregoric is opium," the author wrote.

Mothers were also advised not to handle their babies except during feeding or changing. If baby was crying but was not wet or hungry, let him cry, was the advice.

"Baby's bones are soft for a long time, and even holding the baby habitually may cause spinal curvature," mothers were warned.

Besides, such attention could "start the child in life with an exaggerated idea of his own importance," reads the advice in one booklet.

"If his own common sense does not correct this error later on, it is not too much to say that it may land him eventually in an insane asylum, for the 'exaggerated ego' is the most common delusion of the insane, and frequently has its origin in the first few years of the demented one's life."

Babies need plenty of sunlight and fresh air, so mothers living before the advent of tanning parlors were advised to place their naked babies under sunlamps or in front of a sunny window or on a blanket in the yard.

Lileks also uncovered an ad for Boggins' Open Air Sleeping Compartment, a kennel-type box that could be attached to the outside of a high-rise apartment window and into which a city-dwelling baby could be placed to sleep or play.

There was plenty of advice for the new father, too -- especially when he might be feeling a cramp in his style.

"Your wife needs to take things in moderation, but there's no reason to forgo your usual fun just because you're 'expecting,'" read one pamphlet. But be sure to plan for those nights after the baby arrives when you might have to stay at home.

"After Junior arrives, you will have a chance to pursue a hobby. What would you enjoy doing when you're baby-sitting? Taking up photography in a big way, maybe; or making things in a home workshop -- unless, of course, you're one of those men who prefer a game of chess or relaxing with a good book."

All this is possible because you do not attend to crying babies unless they are hungry or wet. "(Make sure) that no pins are sticking him; that hands and feet are not cold. If there is no reason for discomfort let him cry."

And finally, if the pressures of being the breadwinner get the best of you, a series of advertisements suggest, visit the doctor for tranquilizers.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.

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