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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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How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol
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Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.

THANK THE SWEDES

While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.

LOG CABIN PRIDE

But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.

FALSE MEMORIES

Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”

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Did Queen Victoria Really Save Prince Albert From Drowning in an Icy Lake?
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many British queens have also served as daring emergency rescuers. But when the moment arose, Queen Victoria was ready to save the day. In 1841, she saved her husband, Prince Albert, from an icy lake he had fallen into while skating.

The incident didn't need much dramatization when it was included in an episode of the PBS drama Victoria. It really was a life-or-death situation, and 21-year-old Victoria was the hero.

On a cold February day in 1841, Victoria and Albert, who had married almost exactly a year earlier, went for a walk around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Albert, an avid sportsman who loved to skate and play hockey, strapped on his ice skates and headed out onto the lake. In a diary entry, Victoria wrote that the ice was smooth and hard that day—mostly. As he skated toward her, she noticed that the ice around a bridge looked a little thin.

"I, standing alone on the bank," she wrote in her journal that evening, "said, ‘it is unsafe here,' and no sooner had I said this, than the ice cracked, and Albert was in the water up to his head, even for a moment below." By her own telling, Victoria screamed and reached out her arm to him, holding onto her lady-in-waiting, the only attendant present.

Albert grabbed Victoria's arm and she was able to pull him to safety. He had cut his chin and was dripping wet, but returned home, took a hot bath and a nap, and was up a few hours later to socialize when their uncle Leopold (Victoria and Albert were first cousins) came to visit.

"Her Majesty manifested the greatest courage upon the occasion, and acted with the most intrepid coolness," an account of the event that appeared in The Times a few days later proclaimed. "As soon as the Prince was safe on dry land, the queen gave way to the natural emotions of joy and thankfulness at his providential escape."

Albert recounted his side of the experience in a letter to his step-grandmother, Duchess Caroline of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. "I was making my way to Victoria, who was standing on the bank with one of her ladies," he described, when "I fell plump into the water, and had to swim for two or three minutes in order to get out. Victoria was the only person with the presence of mind to lend me assistance, her lady being more occupied in screaming for help." (Both the queen's diary entry and the newspaper account give the lady-in-waiting a little more credit, suggesting that she at least served as an anchor for the queen as she reached out to the prince.)

According to The Times, the problem was bird-related. That morning, the groundskeepers in charge of the various waterfowl that called the lake home had broken the ice around the edges of the water so that the birds could drink. By the time the queen and the prince arrived, those spots had frozen over with a deceptively thin layer of ice.

Thanks to Victoria, though, Albert emerged from the incident with little more than a bad cold and went on to live for another 20 years.

Had Albert died that day on the ice, it could have completely changed European history. Victoria and Albert had already had a daughter, and the future King Edward VII was conceived around this time. If Albert had died, seven of Victoria’s children wouldn’t have been born—children who were married to nobles and rulers across Europe (during World War I, seven of their direct descendants were on thrones as king or queen). And if the future Edward VII hadn’t been conceived, Albert died, and everything else remained the same, it’s possible Kaiser Wilhelm II may have become the ruler of both Germany and the United Kingdom.

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