A Brief History of 7 Baby Basics

Let’s take a look at the origins of some of the baby basics on every new parent’s baby shower registry.

1. Stroller

The first perambulator, also known as a “pram,” was built in 1733 by famed architect William Kent as a way to entertain the children of the Duke of Devonshire. The pram consisted of a wicker basket set on an ornately decorated wooden frame with four wheels and a harness so it could be pulled by a pony, goat, or dog. The novelty vehicle caught on with the English elite, who commissioned similar models from local craftsmen who put their own spin on the design.

One of the first changes was replacing the harness with two handles, so an adult pulled the child instead of a pony. Later, after too many children fell out of prams, a bar was placed between the handles, allowing parents to push the cart in order to keep an eye on their little one. One design change was made to skirt the law: It was illegal to operate four-wheeled vehicles on footpaths, so after many mothers and nannies received citations for pushing a pram, manufacturers produced two- or three-wheeled prams to keep their patrons out of trouble.

Prams became more popular after World War I thanks to a post-war baby boom, as well as breakthroughs in plastic production. Replacing expensive wood and wicker bassinets with plastic shells, and brass fittings with chromed metal, meant the price of a pram came down considerably. More changes were made to the design too, including deeper baskets, thicker wheels, lower clearance to the ground, and foot brakes.

In the 1940s, strollers, or pushchairs, designed for toddlers were introduced.  Kids in strollers faced forward, rather than the more common parent-facing seats of prams. Early designs were little more than wheeled chairs with a metal hoop around the child.  But a major redesign occurred in 1965 when Owen Maclaren, an English aeronautical engineer, heard his daughter complaining about the struggles of taking a pram on an airplane.  Using his knowledge of aircraft manufacturing, Maclaren designed a stroller from lightweight aluminum that could be folded when not in use.  His “umbrella stroller” became a huge hit and is still popular today.

Another major design shift came in 1984, when Phil Baechler tried jogging with his infant son in tow.  Baechler soon realized that strollers were “awful for running and they come to a complete stop on grass or sand.”  So he began experimenting with aluminum tubing and bicycle wheels, eventually coming up with the three-wheeled Baby Jogger, which he initially sold out of the back of running magazines for $200 a piece.

2. Baby Monitor

Slate

Spurred by paranoia after the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., head of General Electric, asked his engineers to come up with a way for him to listen in on his newborn daughter. The new gadget, called the Radio Nurse, was released in 1937 and consisted of two pieces: the Guardian Ear, which sat by the crib and served as the transmitter, and the Radio Nurse, the receiver, which could stand on a bedside table or hang over the headboard. Although the Guardian Ear isn’t much to look at, the Radio Nurse, with its striking, human-like appearance, is an example of the early work of designer Isamu Noguchi, now best known for his iconic coffee table

Unlike today’s monitors, the signal from the Ear to the Nurse was not broadcast over the air. Instead, the signal was sent through the home’s electrical wiring. However, the system wasn’t perfect, as it was not unusual to pick up other radio signals in the area. In addition, at $19.95 (about $325 today), it was too expensive for most people’s pocketbooks, so the Radio Nurse didn’t last long. The baby monitor would have to wait another 50 years, around the same time that wireless phones were coming into vogue in the 1980s, to became a staple in the nursery.

3. Infant Formula

For centuries, about the only options for women who were unable or chose not to breastfeed were to use whole cow’s milk, or find a wetnurse to handle the duties instead.  But as the Industrial Revolution ramped up, and the science of food became better understood, many companies began producing breastmilk replacements that were said to provide more nutritional value than plain old milk.

One of the most successful was Henri Nestlé.  A German pharmacist living in Switzerland, who would one day help revolutionize the chocolate business, he used wheat flour, milk, and sugar for his Farine Lactée Henri Nestlé (Henri Nestlé’s Milk Flour) released in 1867. Whereas most formula was difficult for babies to digest, Nestlé was able to remove the starch and acid from the flour to make it easier on little tummies, which helped make it a favorite. The formula sold for 50 cents a can (approximately $10.50 today), but mothers could try it first by sending away for a free sample that was good for about 12 meals.

4. Disposable Diapers

As Valerie Hunter Gordon was about to have her third child in 1947, she decided she’d had enough of the time-consuming duty of washing dirty cloth diapers. Using a bit of ingenuity and her trusty Singer sewing machine, Gordon came up with the Paddi, the first disposable diaper system. The Paddi consisted of two parts: a strip of inexpensive, cellulose-based gauze as an absorbing pad, and a nylon outer shell that held the pad in place, made from an old parachute she was able to procure on the Army base where her husband was stationed. To eliminate the need for cumbersome and dangerous safety pins, she added snap closures to make the shell adjust to nearly any size infant.

With her system, instead of washing the entire diaper, the gauze, which started to break down once it was soaked, could be removed and simply flushed down the toilet. The nylon shell could then be wiped off and reused with a new pad in place.

The Paddi was a major hit with her homemaker friends, and she wound up sewing over 400 sets for them at her kitchen table.  Although the diapers proved popular, Gordon couldn’t convince a company to manufacture them because it was thought there was little market for them. Finally, in 1949, Gordon was able to sell the idea to Robinson and Sons, a company that was one of the first to make disposable sanitary napkins. After a slow start, Paddi’s became quite popular, which led other companies to tweak Gordon’s two-part design and release their own disposable diapers. In fact, it wasn’t until 1961, when Pampers were introduced, that the completely disposable diaper became the norm.

Oddly enough, things are coming full circle, as the public has become more aware of the environmental impact of disposable diapers. Today, eco-friendly parents have a variety of choices, including new style cloth diapers, or gDiapers, which feature a flushable pad and a waterproof outer cover, proving that good ideas never truly die.

5. Pacifier

Met Museum

It’s impossible to know just how far back pacifiers go, but some believe the first were “sugar rags” or “sugar tits,” tied-off scraps of linen covering a lump of animal fat or bread mixed with honey or sugar. The child would suck on the fabric and their saliva would slowly dissolve the sugar for a sweet treat.  Sometimes the rags were dipped in brandy or whiskey to alleviate the pain of teething, with the unintended, but not unwelcome, side effect of helping the baby fall asleep.

In the 18th Century, commoners used wood or animal bones to keep kids quiet, but the rich had custom soothers called “corals,” made of polished coral, ivory, or mother of pearl with a gold or silver handle. It was not unusual for the handle to double as a whistle and a rattle, with small bells attached in order to keep the child entertained, but to also ward off evil spirits. Some believe silver corals might be the origin of the phrase “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”

The pacifier we know today got its start around 1900.  Inspired by the hard rubber teething rings of the 19th Century, a patent filed by Christian Meinecke for a “baby comforter” features a rubber nipple, a circular guard, and a hard plastic handle, giving kids the option of sucking and chewing on either side.  Using a similar design, Sears & Roebuck sold a teething toy in 1902 that featured a hard, faux ivory ring with a soft rubber nipple attached.

6. Baby Bottles

Museum of Childhood

In the past, due to high rates of mortality among women during childbirth, it was not unusual for babies to be fed by artificial means. Until the late 19th Century, baby bottles made from ceramic or metal and shaped like flattened tea pots—tapered to a point for suckling, with a hole in the top to pour in the breastmilk substitute.  Unfortunately, because sanitary conditions were so poor, bottlefed babies often died after getting sick from bacteria built up inside improperly cleaned bottles.

The first glass baby bottle in the U.S. was patented by Charles Windship of Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1841. His design featured a teardrop-shaped bottle with a glass tube coming down from the neck to act as a straw.  Attached to the neck was a rubber hose, leading up to a bone mouth guard and a rubber nipple. Busy moms loved it because the baby could sit up with the bottle between his legs and suck on the nipple to eat; no adult assistance required. However, the rubber hose was nearly impossible to clean, so bacteria built up inside, and the baby inevitably fell ill. The design caused so many infant deaths that it earned the nickname “the killer bottle.” Despite its terrible reputation, and the insistence by doctors not to use that type of bottle, it was popular well into the 1920s.

7. Car Seats

For decades after the automobile’s invention, child seats were less about safety and more about keeping the kid contained in the car. Early child seats were nothing more than burlap sacks with a drawstring that hung over the headrest on the passenger’s seat. Later models, like the one produced by the Bunny Bear Company in 1933, were basically booster seats, propping backseat riders up so parents could keep an eye them. In the 40s, many manufacturers released canvas seats on a metal frame that attached to the car’s front seat so Junior could get a better view out the windshield.  To help complete the illusion, a toy steering wheel was often added to the frame so he could pretend to drive.

The first true safety seat for kids appeared in 1962 when Britain’s Jean Ames created a rear-facing car seat, complete with a Y-shaped strap system to securely hold the baby in an accident. He chose rear-facing because he was operating on the concept of “ride down,” which essentially says it’s safest to decelerate in the same direction the car is moving.  At about the same time, Leonard Rivkin of Denver, Colorado invented the Strolee National Safety Car Seat for Children, which saw the child buckled into a chair surrounded by a metal frame.  It could be used on the front or back bench seat, and even between the new-fangled bucket seats that were becoming popular at the time.

But probably the closest thing to a modern car seat is 1968’s “Tot-Guard” made by the Ford Motor Company. The molded plastic chair was buckled into place by the existing seat belt, and featured a padded console in front of the child to cushion the impact in an accident. General Motors soon came out with their own safety seat, the Loveseat for Toddlers, followed closely by the rear-facing Loveseat for Infants. 

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
14 Facts About Margaret Sanger
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Born in 1879, activist Margaret Sanger sparked both revolution and controversy when she began pushing for legalized access to birth control and founded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger remains a controversial figure even today, more than 50 years after her death.

1. SHE BLAMED HER FATHER FOR HER MOTHER'S DEATH.

Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins, the sixth of 11 children. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, also had seven miscarriages, for a grand total of 18 pregnancies within 22 years. She suffered from poor health for much of that time, and when Anne died of tuberculosis at age 50, Margaret was just 19 years old. According to TIME Magazine, Margaret confronted her father at her mother's coffin and said, "You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children."

2. SHE WANTED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Margaret Sanger sitting at a table.
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Sadly, medical school was too expensive, so instead she entered a probationary nursing program in 1900. In early 1902, she met architect William Sanger. The two got married later that year and moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, a suburb about 20 miles away from New York City. They had three children.

3. HER HOUSE CAUGHT FIRE, LEADING HER TO MOVE TO THE CITY.

After the Sangers' house in Hastings-on-Hudson caught fire, Sanger stopped enjoying life in the suburbs. By 1911 the couple had decided to start a new life in Greenwich Village, where Sanger joined the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist Party. There, she met fellow radicals and reformers—like novelist Upton Sinclair, anarchist Emma Goldman, art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, and intellectual Max Eastman—who supported her ambitions to help working women.

In New York City, Sanger decided to jump back into her career by working as a visiting nurse in the Lower East Side tenements. She often treated women who attempted to give themselves abortions because they didn't have the money to care for another child. Dismayed by the poor health and poverty she saw among immigrants there, she developed opinions that would later lead to her advocacy for birth control.

4. SHE BELIEVED BIRTH CONTROL WAS A FREE SPEECH ISSUE.

Soon after arriving in Greenwich Village, Sanger began writing sex education columns for the New York Call, a socialist newspaper. Her frank discussion of women's sexuality and reproduction offended some readers. In 1913, politician and post office official Anthony Comstock censored her column because he considered her usage of words like syphilis and gonorrhea too vulgar.

A year after her column in the New York Call was banned, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newsletter advocating contraceptive use. Operating under the slogan "No gods, no masters," Sanger used the newsletter to openly defy Comstock's eponymous 1873 laws. (The Comstock laws made it illegal to use the United States Postal Service to send anything containing information about contraceptives or anything else deemed obscene.) She was indicted in August 1914, but she fled to Europe to avoid arrest. She would eventually return to the United States to face trial, but in February 1916 the prosecution dropped the charges.

5. SHE WAS AGAINST ABORTION.

Despite her advocacy for family limitation, Sanger disliked the idea of abortion. She believed proper education and legalized contraceptives would reduce the need for the procedure. In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger described her experience treating Sadie Sachs, one of the women in the East Side tenements. In 1912, Sachs's husband called for Sanger's help after he found Sachs unconscious from a self-induced abortion. After three weeks of treatment from both Sanger and a local doctor, the only advice the doctor could offer Sachs was to avoid "any more such capers" and have her husband sleep on the roof.

Three months later, Sachs became comatose from another self-induced abortion, and Sachs's husband again reached out to Sanger for help. The woman died within 10 minutes of Sanger's arrival. Frustrated by the lack of resources and information available to lower-class women, Sanger resolved to make changes. From that time forward, she wrote, she wanted to "do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the skies."

6. SHE POPULARIZED THE TERM BIRTH CONTROL.

Sanger is often credited for coining the term, but that honor actually goes to Robert Parker, a friend of hers who helped create The Woman Rebel. In her 1979 biography on Sanger, author Madeline Gray described Parker as a polio victim who studied yoga with the hopes of gaining more control over his partly paralyzed hand. Gray wrote:

"It occurred to him that control might apply to birth as well. 'Birth control,' he mused. 'Birth control … I think I like it.' They all liked it. As they put on their hats and left, they agreed that birth control was the best name for the movement."

Otto Bobsien, another of Sanger's colleagues, was the first to use the term to proclaim the start of the Birth Control League of America, a new organization he later said "never had more than a nominal existence." In 1915, when Sanger was away in Europe, Bobsien joined the National Birth Control League and offered the fledgling organization use of the movement's new name. When Sanger returned from Europe later that year, she helped popularize the term, considering it more straightforward than phrases like "family limitation."

7. SHE OPENED THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN THE U.S.

Historical image of Margaret Sanger standing on a street in New York City
Sanger outside of her trial on January 30, 1917.
Bain News Service, Library of Congress

In October 1916, Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn with the help of her sister, Ethel Byrne, and interpreter Fania Mindell. It was the first of its kind in the U.S., and she modeled it after a Dutch clinic she had visited while evading American police. In the Netherlands, Sanger had learned about pessaries and diaphragms and became convinced they were more effective than the suppositories and douches she promoted in the United States. Sanger brought that new knowledge to her Brooklyn clinic, which served more than 100 women on its first day. For a cover charge of 10 cents, Sanger gave every woman a pamphlet of her New York Call column on "What Every Girl Should Know," a lecture on the female reproductive system, and instructions on several types of contraceptive use. The clinic closed just nine days later when Sanger was once again arrested for violating the Comstock laws. Sanger immediately attempted to reopen the clinic after being released on bail, but, as she wrote, she was promptly re-arrested and charged as a public nuisance.

8. SHE ONCE TOLD A JUDGE SHE COULDN'T RESPECT EXISTING LAWS.

Sanger and Byrne's court trials began in January 1917. Sanger's sister was tried first and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse, but she immediately went on a hunger strike; Byrne fasted for a week before being force-fed by prison staff. When Sanger went to trial on January 29, she was supported in court by several Greenwich Village socialites and about 50 of the women she'd treated in the Brooklyn clinic. Presiding Justice John J. Freschi offered her a lenient sentence if she promised to obey the law, but Sanger responded by saying, "I cannot respect the law as it exists today." Sanger was found guilty and Freschi also sentenced her to 30 days in a prison workhouse.

In 1918, Sanger appealed the court decision and won a victory for the birth control movement. Although the court upheld Sanger's conviction and she still had to serve her 30 day sentence, Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals also ruled that doctors could prescribe contraceptives and disseminate information about birth control under certain conditions. Sanger ran with the new loophole in 1923, when she established a new clinic staffed largely by female doctors. The new clinic operated alongside the American Birth Control League. Almost two decades later, in 1939, the league and the clinic merged, forming the Birth Control Federation of America, and in 1942 this new organization officially became known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

9. THE ROCKEFELLERS ANONYMOUSLY SUPPORTED HER CAUSE.

In the mid-1920s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. anonymously donated $10,000 to the American Birth Control League to fund research into contraceptives. Rockefeller's son, John D. Rockefeller III, continued his father's early support of Sanger's work, albeit more publicly. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund donated money to Planned Parenthood until 1981, when it decided to start funding agricultural research—which was decidedly less controversial—instead.

10. LIKE MANY WELL-KNOWN INTELLECTUALS OF HER DAY, SANGER SUPPORTED EUGENICS.

Many historians believe Sanger's support of eugenics was part strategic and part ideological. Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin's, initiated the Western eugenics movement by suggesting that traits like "talent and character" could be passed down to children through intentional breeding. Several British and American academics latched onto the idea, including figures like Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Alexander Graham Bell. Sanger's support for sterilizing the diseased and "feebleminded" legitimized the birth control movement by aligning her ideas with those of contemporary intellectuals.

Sanger's belief in eugenics was a little different from other intellectuals', though. Eugenicists, she said, believed a woman's first duty should be to the state, and that all "fit" women should bear children. Sanger, on the other hand, thought a woman's first duty should be to herself. She contended the primary reason for birth control was to prevent pregnancies among women who couldn't support a child financially. Sanger believed her ideal of economic eugenics was morally superior to the views posed by traditional eugenicists.

The modern-day Planned Parenthood doesn’t hide Sanger's controversial support of the eugenics movement, but it doesn't endorse it, either. In a document published in 2016 [PDF], the organization said, "We believe that [those ideas] are wrong. Furthermore, we hope that this acknowledgement fosters an open conversation on racism and ableism—both inside and out of our organization."

11. HER BOOKS WERE AMONG THE FIRST BURNED BY NAZIS.

In May 1933, Nazis sanctioned the burning of more than 25,000 books deemed "un-German." Sanger had published at least nine books by that point, and they were all among that number, as were titles by Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and dozens of others. Sanger's books, which advocated for women's choice in everything from childbirth to politics, directly contradicted everything the Third Reich believed. Adolf Hitler supported traditional gender roles and wanted to maintain high birth rates, ideas Sanger decried in her books.

12. HER NIECE WAS PART OF THE INSPIRATION FOR WONDER WOMAN.

A panel of a Wonder Woman comic from 1978.
Tom Simpson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Olive Byrne, Sanger's niece, was involved in a polyamorous relationship with Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston. Marston credited both Olive and Elizabeth as his muses, according to historian Jill Lepore. In her 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore wrote that Marston based part of Wonder Woman's costume on the silver bracelets Olive often wore. Lepore also suggested Sanger herself may have been an influence on the popular comic book character. Feminist movements in the early 1900s often symbolized female oppression with chains, and Sanger was quick to adopt such symbolism with books like Motherhood in Bondage. Wonder Woman's use of chains and ropes as weapons echoed Sanger's vision for female liberation.

13. SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE 31 TIMES.

Margaret Sanger received 31 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize between 1953 and 1963. In 1960 alone, she received 20 nominations from 16 university professors and four members of India's parliament (Sanger took several trips to India, where she worked with people like Gandhi to discuss birth control).

14. SHE LIVED JUST LONG ENOUGH TO SEE HER LIFE'S WORK COME TO FRUITION.

Planned Parenthood's publicity director looks over a poster in 1967.
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Two important legal milestones happened after Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. In December 1936, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively overturned all federal restrictions on birth control, making it legal for doctors throughout the United States to provide access to contraception. On the state level, contraception was legal in some form or another everywhere except Connecticut, Mississippi, and Massachusetts. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the state laws preventing married women from accessing birth control. Griswold v. Connecticut later served as precedent for cases like Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which gave unmarried couples unrestricted access to contraception; Roe v. Wade (1973), which legalized abortion; and Carey v. Population Services International (1977), which made it legal for doctors and pharmacists to distribute contraceptives to minors.

Sanger died on September 6, 1966, about a year after the Supreme Court decided on Griswold v. Connecticut. The next day, Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening spoke about Sanger in Congress. In an address to the president, Gruening said Sanger was "a great woman, a courageous and indomitable person who lived to see one of the most remarkable revolutions of modern times—a revolution which her torch kindled."

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