The hidden history of baby books


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The baby book is a humble domestic item, with places to fill in immunization records and growth progress. But UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library has collected more than 1,100 of them in what may be the nation’s only university library baby book collection.

“The Mother’s Record of the Physical, Mental, and Moral Growth of Her Child for the First Fifteen Years,” published in 1882, is the oldest book in the collection. The book was a giveaway by Mellin’s Baby Food -- which in the early 1900s featured baby Humphrey Bogart in their advertising -- and appears to be early in the genre, because it includes prompts for how to fill in the blanks.


“We started thinking about how these books were used to keep track of things like height, weight, language, illnesses and immunizations — and wondering what was the interest in parents in keeping all these measurements on their children,’ Russell Johnson, librarian for history and special collections for the sciences, told UCLA Today. The collection was launched by donor Barbara Rootenberg, an alum and antiquarian bookseller focused on the history of medicine.

Baby books are the kind of ephemera that don’t have a place. Technically books, they’re not exactly plot-driven, thrill-a-minute reads. Although they contain useful information, once the baby has grown into a healthy child, the book isn’t needed -- many in the collection are only partially completed. And few people have room on their shelves for baby books of now-deceased relatives.

The collection, does, though, if you’ve got some you want to de-acquisition.

UCLA’s collection helps show how families thought about the health of their children -- which measurements were thought to be important, which diseases were concerns, the perception of breast feeding and how these things changed over time. The books also reveal what kinds of health information filtered from official sources into the everyday lives of families.

But as much as the collection is about medicine, it is also about culture. Baby books that include photographs may reveal under-chronicled aspects of home life, such as baby furniture and casual dress. A New Jersey historian used the collection for a book she’s writing about consumer culture and babies. Many baby books were giveaways from companies that sold baby-related products, from Mellin baby food to bank accounts.

A few, however, were intended to be keepsakes passed on to generations. ‘Most persons regret that the little items of babyhood, so interesting, to the parents at least, pass into oblivion,’ reads the introduction to 1889’s ‘Baby’s Record: a Twofold Gift for Mothers and Children.’ ‘The book is not intended to be a family record, but an individual one, which will form a part of the outfit of each newcomer in the household, and which can afterward be given to the child, to be preserved as a source of interest and entertainment for himself and his own children in after years.’ Or, better yet, librarians.

-- Carolyn Kellogg