Today's post is by guest blogger Janet Golden, a professor of history at Rutgers University who specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women, as well as American social history. She discussed her current project, the history of babies in America, in a short interview with Slate.
On a recent episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City in the Prohibition Era, the wife of the city’s boss, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, was speaking with a physician and a nun about a women’s health clinic she founded. Reviewing the language of the materials to be distributed, the nun objects to the word menstruation. Mrs. Thompson responds, “The Federal Children’s Bureau has already published a series on prenatal care and ‘menstruation’ is what they used.” A shout out to the show’s writers for acknowledging the work of this largely unknown agency (actually called the United States Children’s Bureau) on its 100th birthday.
Founded in 1912 and housed in the Department of Labor, the Children’s Bureau was the first federal agency to be run by women - and the first time the federal government committed to efforts on behalf of children’s health and welfare. The bureau had a broad mission: reducing infant and child mortality, improving child health, abolishing child labor and advocating for those with special needs, including the orphaned, abandoned, disabled, and delinquent. It also had a limited mandate: investigating and educating, while leaving intervention and services to the states.
Public support for the bureau’s work might surprise contemporary critics of federal health programs. The bureau received about 125,000 letters each year from 1915 to 1932, a huge number of them from mothers requesting advice about caring for their offspring. “Infant Care” was published in 1914, the year after “Prenatal Care” became the government’s best-selling publication of all time, with the 25 millionth copy distributed in 1942. When the bureau investigations of infant and child health in various cities and rural communities became public, civic leaders asked the agency to send agents to their towns to undertake investigations and to sponsor health demonstration programs. City and state health departments reprinted advice from the Children’s Bureau, and voluntary organizations looked to it for help with their educational endeavors, such as “baby week.”