Baby Toting vs. Babywearing: carrying infants in 20th Century North America

Dr. William Sears claims credit for coining the term babywearing when his children were small. Dr. Sears recounts how his wife would put on the carrier in the morning and not take it off until she undressed at night.

“I remember one day when Martha fabricated a sling out of material from an old bed sheet and said, ‘I really enjoy wearing Mathew. The sling is like a piece of clothing. I put it on in the morning and take it off in the evening.’ Hence the term ‘babywearing’ was born in the Sears household.”- Dr. William Sears (askdrsears.com)

Though Rayner Garner invented the ringsling in 1981, branding it as The Baby Sling, Dr. Sears developed his own versions (albeit with enough padding to resemble a duvet and prevent the user from adjusting the pouch effectively) and has sold it as the Over the Shoulder Baby Holder and The Original NoJo Babysling. 

The use of infant carriers wasn’t a novel concept in North America in the 1980’s but previously it had a stigma of poverty or transience attached since the European Middle Ages, to those who by choice or necessity carried their infants on their bodies. The Baby Boom seems to be the impetus for changing this attitude over the next half century. Patents for infant carrying devices were filed in quick succession after WWII ended– though traditional infant carriers were known of and in use, North American parents wanted innovated new forms made of new materials for their modern lifestyles. Yet even then, many people were suspicious of their use and its implications for the relationships between parent and child. 

As early as 1951, the topic of carrying infants in traditional carriers was eeking its way into American popular culture– though the prevailing attitude was that it was as ridiculous as breastfeeding and allowing a woman to be conscious during childbirth. In the film, Father’s Little Dividend, starring Spencer Tracy (Stanley Banks) and Elizabeth Taylor (Ellie) as his newly-wed and pregnant daughter. In the following scene, after an argument between parents and her in-laws about how Ellie should behave during pregnancy and give birth, Stanley comforts his daughter only to have her shock him with wild ideas about infant care she learned from her young obstetrician. Notice that the only examples Ellie has regarding using infant carriers are “primitive women”– the women her doctor observed in the South Pacific during the war. 

Later in the movie,  Ellie, now a very conventional 1950’s mother, brings the baby around to visit grandpa in a large pram so she can go out for the afternoon. All those wild notions of rooming-in, breastfeeding, and using a papoose, as her father called it, are long forgotten.

The playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote Raisin in the Sun in 1959. During a scene in which Ruth believes herself to be pregnant but not in a financial position to care for a new child and still afford to move, she shouts in desperation, “I’ll strap my baby on my back if I have to and scrub all the floors in America and wash all the sheets in America if I have to—but we got to MOVE!”. In this instance, infant carriers are both a sign and an act of desperation for those who have no other options. Again there is the stigma of poverty that had accompanied the use of infant carriers in the west for centuries, people with wealth could afford to be at leisure and/or pay someone (or something) else to hold an infant. 

In 1963, the CBC’s Take 30 program, hosted by Anna Cameron, featured Mrs. Peterson. Peterson advocated the use of traditional carriers as well as her own style of infant carrier– an adaptation of a mei-tai or onbuhimo style carrier. She cites some of the studies of infant carrying of the time, including that from Dr. Knowles on the transport response, soothing a baby with a 90 beats per minute walk or bounce. Peterson shows examples of infant carriers in other contemporary cultures from around the world.

screenshot-2016-10-26-at-4-59-40-pm
Opens link to CBC Digital Archive video page in new tab. 

What is interesting to note is that the “carrier” that sparks the most interest from the presenter, towards the end of the clip, is a reclining chair– Mrs. Peterson’s interpretation of a Hupa cradle board. It is built into a plywood box with ovoid holes for handles and a thin fabric pad. It is not something that could be easily carried on the body of a caregiver, yet ease of transport was the reason Mrs. Peterson gave for becoming interested in Baby Toting in the first place. In the early 1960’s, something as ubiquitous today as a reclining baby chair was a novelty. The concept of baby toting was becoming more popular and therefore fodder for parody by advertisers in this Ivory Snow Commercial.

Ivory Snow wanted its customers to understand that carrying your baby was uncomfortable and assuming that you weren’t an “Indian”, kind of ridiculous. The patronizing narrator claims, “You’ll both be more comfortable with this baby lounge seat.” The message was clear, non-“Indians” don’t carry their babies on their backs, they let them “lounge” in a modern, easy cleaning plastic chair that doubles as a car seat. It was the start of a parenting trend for placing infants in rigid plastic reclining seats which is still strong to this day. 

Ann moore with snugli.jpg

“Nobody carried their babies in America. They always put them in those plastic infant seats. There is no human warmth through that. It is all plastic and hard. So we went to the fabric store and started working on the Snugli. I’d go to the grocery store, and people would say, ‘Oh my gosh, where can I get one of those?'” – Ann Moore (interviewed by John Bach for UC Magazine)

Yet many parents still saw the utility in being able to remain active while keeping their babies close. In 1969, Ann Moore, a mother from Colorado earned a patent on her infant carrier called a Snugli. Her design was an adaption of the cloth carriers she witnessed in Togo during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer. When she was unable to recreate the carries with her own daughter using plain cloth, she, with the help of her mother and neighbors, modified a backpack. She held the patent for the Snugli until 1985 when it was sold to Gerry Baby Products.

By the mid-1980’s mass produced infant carriers, and Sears’ babywearing, were fast becoming a mainstream addition to conventional infant holders in North America. The stigma of poverty that had been associated with using infant carriers diminished with the rise of mass manufactured, expensive carriers– as well as the rise of the two-income household. As being able to stay home to care for an infant became a financial impossibility for many families, the use of infant carriers became a symbol of active upwardly-mobile families, with disposable income and leisure time with their children– a trend that continues today in High End Babywearing.

References:

Bach, John. “Ann Moore, Nur ’56: Practical Inventor Influenced American Culture”. UC Magazine, August 2010. Accessed Oct 2016. http://magazine.uc.edu/issues/0810/moore.html

Father’s Little Dividend. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Culver City: MGM, 1951. 

Hansberry, Lorraine. Raisin in the Sun. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2011. 

Sears, William. “Babywearing in the Sears Home”. Ask Dr.Sears. No Date. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/fussy-baby/baby-wearing/babywearing-story

Take 30 (or Telescope). “Baby Toting”. Hosted by Anna Cameron. Guest, Mrs. Peterson. CBC, May 10, 1963. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/baby-toting-in-1963

Tube Outpost. “P&G- Ivory Snow- Are You A Indian?-Vintage Commercial- 1950s-1960s”. Filmed []. Youtube video, 1:01. Posted Nov 16, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqgFU650_lY

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