As part of a local art project, I was looking for old photographs of the Mt. Pleasant and Eglinton neighbourhood in Toronto.
What I found was a “Google Streetview Time Machine” of sorts. A project called OldTO which places over 30,000 photos from the City of Toronto Archives on an interactive map of the city. (Just like Streetwiew, it was created by Google. This one, as part of Sidewalklabs’ aborted attempt to romance our city into an unwholesome who-knows-what.)
I was puzzled by one of the first photos I saw.
In it, a woman sits and looks directly at the camera. Her haircut is an odd, wavy asymmetrical cut. On her knees is a chubby baby wearing a bonnet. A real old timey baby, like from early 20th century America. Or Russia in the 1980s.
The year is 1930, and we are looking at a picture from a Baby Show.
An informative article by the Toronto Star explains that Baby Shows were a kind of baby health pageant. At the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), these shows went on from 1910 until 1972.
The competitions appear to come from the same tradition as agricultural shows. Only, instead of choosing the best parsnips or pigs, the judges were doctors who picked the healthiest baby.
These competitions were also supported by the government as a venue for teaching parents about the latest and best ways of raising children. Child mortality was very high at the time. By imitating the parents of the healthiest prize-winning babies, the public could improve their own kids’ chances.
During the First World War, Canada was in the midst of a health crisis. Young men showing up to enlist weren’t meeting basic requirements for height and overall health, and the Canadian government realized it needed to play a bigger role in keeping its citizens healthy, she explains. The baby show gained steam with the idea “that as long as they’re well bred and healthy when they’re young, we can help to assure we have a healthy population,” she says.
Beautiful Baby contests were tinged with ideas from eugenics, and the winners were mostly Anglo-Saxon. Despite Toronto becoming more diverse, the standard of “baby beauty” doesn’t seem to have gone beyond that original benchmark.
These shows did not keep up with the changing makeup of the city; people were losing the appetite for these kinds of events; and the government found more modern ways of spreading public-health messages around childcare. The Toronto’s CNE stopped putting on Baby Shows.
Looking back at that picture of a determined mother in 1930 – the picture was not taken at the CNE. The caption places her at a Police Picnic.
Beyond the CNE, there were other places to show your baby. If you search the City of Toronto Archives database with the keyword “baby show” you will see about 4 other venues.
These fairs, picnics and community gatherings must’ve been a welcome break from the daily grind. An excuse to visit another part of the city. A way for a proud mom to tell everyone: “This is my baby. Isn’t she the cutest?!”
Note: although OldTO situated the picture on the map at 804 Mt. Pleasant road, this is actually the residential address of the lady in the picture. The baby show took place elsewhere, at the Police Picnic.