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A Brief History of 7 Baby Basics

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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. 

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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