A lot of older Philadelphians who once vacationed in
On the show, the lead character, Prohibition-era gangster and politician Nucky Thompson, stops for a moment on the
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
Dr. Martin Couney, the incubator impresario who created the
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,