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About Those Boardwalk Baby Incubators

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A lot of older Philadelphians who once vacationed in Atlantic City had a jolt of recognition when they saw the "Incubator Exhibit" on the opening episode of the television series "Boardwalk Empire." Other viewers may have been thinking: "Can that be for real?"  They should ask Grandma or Grandpa.

On the show, the lead character, Prohibition-era gangster and politician Nucky Thompson, stops for a moment on the Atlantic City boardwalk to gaze into the window of a baby exhibit. Thompson watches a nurse weigh a premature baby before returning it to its incubator--a crude metal and glass cabinet that looks looking something like a pie safe.

Viewers who phoned their older relatives after the show learned that "back in the day" incubator babies could be found on the boardwalk surrounded by hotel speakeasies, gambling dens, vaudeville houses, and other attractions.

Infant incubators came to American by way of Europe.  Developed in France and adapted from devices used to keep poultry warm, they first appeared at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska in 1898. Viewers paid 25-cents admission. Other shows quickly followed--the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901 and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. Minneapolis' Wonderland Amusement Park included an "Infantorium" from 1905 to 1912. Thumbnail image for Incubator use this.jpg

Dr. Martin Couney, the incubator impresario who created the Omaha show, established his summer exhibit at Coney Island's Luna Park in Brooklyn in 1903. It ran for forty years. Couney, referred to as "A Patron of the Preemies" by New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling, also displayed his babies for visitors to the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair.  It was his daughter, a registered nurse, who helped organize the summer show in Atlantic City that inspired the televised scene.

Incubator shows joined the midway custom of human display--most often taking the form of freak shows or "primitive peoples" in their native garb--with the World's Fair tradition of displaying futuristic new technologies like electrical machinery. Small, wrinkled, and tightly swaddled preemies were hardly the cute babies Americans loved to view in boardwalk stroller parades but the drama of their fight for survival was hard to beat. Customers peering through the glass got to watch a life-and-death struggle that had a mostly satisfying ending.  The exhibit's steep admission fee helped pay for the machines and the nurses. 

What about hospitals?  Didn't they have incubators?  No.  Until the 1930s most women gave birth at home.  Premature babies did not go to the infants' hospitals that existed in large American cities; doctors did not believe they could do much to help the infants they called "weaklings."  As for incubators, American pediatricians believed incubators to be of little value, or viewed them (with some hostility) as boardwalk entertainment, not valuable medical technologies.

Incubator shows continued through the Great Depression, as crowds came to the midways and amusement parks for a momentary escape from hard times. But, by the 1940's they no longer turned a profit; the customers stopped coming.  By then incubators found a place in hospitals. Boardwalk baby shows were forgotten.

Now, thanks to television this episode of medical history and seaside showmanship has come back to life.  

 

Janet Golden, a medical historian, is professor of history at Rutgers University, Camden.

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