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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. 

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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