Ever heard of ‘Practice Babies?’

Real, Live Practice Babies
[Via PLoS Blogs]

Once upon a time, infants were quietly removed from orphanages and delivered to the home economics programs at elite U.S. colleges, where young women were eager to learn the science of mothering. These infants became “practice babies,” living in “practice apartments,” where a gaggle of young “practice mothers” took turns caring for them. After a year or two of such rearing, the babies would be returned to orphanages, where they apparently were in great demand; adoptive parents were eager to take home an infant that had been cared for with the latest “scientific” childcare methods.

This scenario is the premise of The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald. The lovely novel, which I had the delight to read over my holiday vacation, charts the life of Henry, a orphan who started his life as a practice baby at a women’s college. But the “practice baby” idea is more than just a fictional device–it is, bizarrely enough, a historical fact.

I didn’t know that until I had reached the end of the book and saw “A Note From the Author.” “This novel,” Grunwald writes, “started with a real photograph.” Then, she includes the following image.

Grunwald’s author note continues:

I found it, quite by accident, on a Cornell University website about the history of home economics. On the opening page of the online exhibit, among other thumbnail images, was the captivating snapshot of a baby with a beguiling smile and roguish eyes. I clicked on the photograph and learned that “Bobby Domecon” (the last name short for Domestic Economics) had been a “practice baby”…

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I’m going to suggest this for my wife’s book club. Sounds like a fascinating premise based on the reality of university home economics departments in the 50s. Unfortunately, no one followed what effects on their later lives any of this communal child rearing had. So, not only did they raise these children in an unorthodox fashion but they did not even attempt to verify that there was no harm done.

As with so many comparisons with what was done with human experimentation in the 40s and 50s to what is done today, it is really hard to understand just what sorts of considerations were given to the human subject of the experiment. In this case, they do not even seem to have understood that they were experimenting to begin with.

One thought on “Ever heard of ‘Practice Babies?’

  1. Where did this happen? On the East Coast among sorority girls going to one of the Seven Sisters? Sounds like the daughters of the wealthy. When they had their own babies, they would have nannies, maids, etc. This would be their only chance to actually hold a baby. And even then, there were plenty of servants to help with the practice babies. We certainly wouldn’t want to ruin the girls social life.

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