New Yorkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries loved babies so much, they paid an admission fee to see them in museums and side shows. Hard to believe, but it was perfectly acceptable for showmen to display infants, especially preemies and multiples, for public enjoyment.
Barnum’s Museum, on Broadway and Ann Street, drew throngs of tourists in the 1860s. They gawked at attractions such as General Tom Thumb, a “Fe-jee” mermaid, and the Baby Show, below. Apparently Barnum had to pay parents to show off their infants, kind of like a pageant.
(From Incredible New York, by Lloyd Harris)
Barnum’s museum burned down in the 1880s, after which he went into the circus business. Taking its place in 1903 was the Coney Island baby exhibit. Run like a hospital, here preemies were placed in incubators, cared for by registered nurses, nursed by new mothers other than their own, and shown off to anyone willing to pay a quarter. Another baby display was built a decade later at Coney Island’s Dreamland park; about 8,000 babies passed through both parks until the practice was discontinued in the 1940s.
The Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children investigated the Luna Park exhibit when it opened. But the promoter, a German doctor, convinced his critics that he was actually helping the babies, as incubators were not used in hospitals at that time. Maybe he was right; more than 80 percent of the premature babies survived.