By Jamie Marsella, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University, and the Library’s 2022 Paul Klemperer Fellow
Ms. Marsella completed her Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present her research by Zoom on September 7 at 4:00 pm (EDT). To attend her talk, “‘Where Once There Was Only Friction’: Religion, Eugenic Maternalism, and the Babies’ Welfare Association, 1908–1920,” register through the Academy’s Events page.
I’ll start this blog post with a confession: before sitting down in the NYAM Rare Book Room, I was worried there might not be enough materials to keep me busy for a full month. How profoundly wrong I was!
I arrived at NYAM to conduct research for my dissertation—an exploration of the New York Babies’ Welfare Association (1912–1920). The BWA was an organization that aimed to standardize maternal and pediatric public health programs while remaining a loose federation of public health and child welfare organizations, including private philanthropic and religious groups.
The Babies’ Welfare Association was created by the New York City Bureau of Child Hygiene in 1912. Neither organization has a stand-alone archival collection, nor do most of the 120+ individual organizations within the BWA. Before arriving, I could not have known that the NYAM Library would hold more relevant materials than I could ever have imagined.
The BWA was abundantly represented within the NYAM collections. This makes sense since, for the first two decades of the twentieth century, the BWA was a well-known, highly publicized organization in New York City. The Chief of the Bureau and President of the BWA, Dr. Sara Josephine Baker (1873–1945), was a household name not only in New York, but throughout the country, with movie reels produced by Fox Studios, a monthly Good Housekeeping column, multiple books on child health and parenting, a regular radio broadcast, and constant coverage in the local and national press.
Unlike negative eugenic programs (i.e., sterilization, anti-miscegenation laws) that came to dominate later in the century, early twentieth-century reformers understood eugenic reform as a combination of heredity and environmental conditions. In this framework, improved sanitation, nutrition, and hygiene could improve individuals and enable them to pass on these improvements to their future offspring. The BWA emphasized these changes in the environment, promoting them as eugenic maternalism. In other words, the BWA understood mothers as the family’s first line of defense against disease and, therefore, an essential part in preventing “racial degeneration.” The BWA, therefore, targeted immigrant neighborhoods with the explicit desire to “improve” white-ethnic communities and prevent future supposedly dysgenic generations.
I came to NYAM hoping to better understand why Catholic and Jewish organizations might be interested in participating in this eugenic standardization project and how their participation may have shaped how the BWA understood and operationalized eugenics. I also hoped to clarify the role that Black reformers and patients played within the BWA. Based on what I had gleaned from digitized sources, the BWA’s work with Black philanthropic groups was inconsistent, and their relationships were unclear.
The materials I’ve reviewed at NYAM paint a complicated and nuanced picture. Some religious organizations, like the New York Foundling Asylum and other benevolent institutions run by women religious, understood their own religious missions as Catholics in a way that blended nicely with the assimilationist goals of eugenic maternalism.
Similarly, Jewish organizations like the United Hebrew Charities or the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities understood their work as both a religious mission and an assimilating force. Such groups were eager to associate their religious and cultural practices with Americanism, especially in the face of rising antisemitism.
Most BWA members held a capacious view of their work beyond childcare, health and hygiene, or charitable aid. As I continued to work through the Library’s documents, it became clear that members of the BWA were pursuing something far broader than public health or bodily hygiene. These programs were about “right living”—teaching women and children how to conduct themselves in public and private, how to understand one’s role as a (future) citizen, or how to raise and nurture the future citizens in their care.
Within these different organizational records, there were also small glimpses of public health work specifically targeting the Black community. While the connections between the BWA and Black New Yorkers remained muddled, my time at NYAM has helped me understand this reflects the nature of the work, which was sporadic at best and exploitative at worst. The Lincoln Hospital and Home (a BWA member) is one exception to this general rule. The hospital trained Black nurses, many of whom then worked in the hospital treating both Black and white patients or worked with the Henry Street Settlement House (another member) in their Visiting Nursing Service.
Ultimately, my time at NYAM was invaluable. The materials there allowed me to better understand how the members of the BWA negotiated amongst themselves to create a standardized eugenic program that could encompass different ethnicities and religions.
 For more information on S. Josephine Baker, see “Highlighting NYAM Women in Medical History: Sara Josephine Baker, MD, DrPh” on the NYAM blog “Books, Health, and History.”