Thursday, 15 July 2010

Rate my baby

I did this piece on baby shows for the FT magazine last weekend:

The image, from a 1952 edition of Picture Post, is of a lost ritual: the baby show at the summer fĂȘte, with a group of proud mothers in their best floral frocks – and one father in the vanguard of social change – dandling bonny babies on their knees.

These infant carnivals were first staged in the early years of the last century, to encourage standards of mothercraft. They were often held in the first week of July, unofficially “Baby Week”. The babies would be examined by doctors and public health officers and judged on age, weight, general fitness and cleanliness. There was an award for best baby, but often every child who showed that they – and their parents – met general standards set by the judges would win some kind of prize, such as baby clothes, presented by the local mayor in his chain and robes.

By 1952, however, the baby show was no longer a useful form of health propaganda. The infant death rate had fallen dramatically and all these babies look the picture of health, a tribute to the post-natal care of the new National Health Service. The baby show became more of a simple “bonny baby” competition, the entrants judged on the quality of their rosy cheeks and wide eyes, with no sign of a white-coated public health official among the judges.

Sometime in the 1970s – perhaps not coincidentally, at the same time that the ethics of women’s beauty contests were also being challenged – it became unacceptable to hold a beauty parade of babies and award a prize for best in show. Mothercraft was outsourced to childcare manuals and eventually to television supernannies.

Yet the “best in show” ethos is making something of a US-led comeback, in virtual form. Parents can post pictures on websites such as ratemybaby and crazyaboutmybaby. Visitors are asked to vote on the children’s cuteness – and ratemybaby displays not only a top 10 ranking but a bottom 10. The Baby Show, held at Earls Court in October, is already soliciting entries for the 2011 “Face of the Baby Show”. The prize for this “perfect little smiler”, a sort of national bonniest baby, will be a contract with the child modelling agency Truly Scrumptious.


  1. I had never heard of this, thank you for an enlightening post. It reminded me that some weeks ago somebody mentioned "baby farms" to me which were apparently boarding houses for babies in which parents paid by the day for babies to be cared for (although I wonder rather what the standard of care was) in an institutional environment - it sounded from the description that I was given to be a bit like a pawn shop - parents tended to be financially desperate and whilst getting rid of the children made it easier for their mothers to work - al the same time, the children were ticking up like taxis and so difficult to "pay off" and get home... I have never read anything about this so would be interested to hear if you have.... A bit of a tangent I know, but I thought that you may have an inkling.
    thanks for sharing

  2. Thanks Hannah. Never heard of baby farms before - heard of wet nurses which sounds a bit similar, but not on this scale.

  3. It may have become unacceptable in the 70's but I know of a seaside town that still has a Bonny Baby competition as part of its carnival. I never entered mine despite their beauty - as I told my older child: "We know our baby is the most beautiful baby in the world. Let's let some parents who really need to hear that their baby is the most bonny win today."