Preemies: Carnival Freaks of the '40s

Boardwalk Empire
Scorsese on set with incubators
The premiere of the new HBO show Boardwalk Empire was pretty awesome. It’s great that Steve Buscemi stars in a Scorsese-helmed series. But for me, the real story was very brief scene about eight minutes into the first episode.

Buscemi’s character pauses while strolling down the Atlantic City boardwalk and gazes thoughtfully into the window of a storefront advertising “Living Infants.” “We Save the Lives of Babies,” the window says, with a 25-cent admission fee.

Wha tah fuh! Was that for real? Turns out, yes -- incubator preemies were a carnival attraction up until the 1940s.


Preemie Exhibit
Gotta admit, I did this too.
A doctor and amateur historian named Dr. William A. Silverman has done exhaustive research into this phenomenon. It seems that Dr. Mr. A. Courney invented the incubator -- basically no more than a glass box that could keep babies warm -- but couldn’t interest hospitals in buying or using them. Somehow, he came up with the idea of charging admission to see low birth-weight babies.

He exhibited the incubators around Europe, and then, upon moving to the U.S. in 1903, he began exhibiting preemies in Coney Island every year, and sporadically in other amusement parks as well -- including the Atlantic City boardwalk.

Crazy as it sounds, Courney was a pioneer in preemie care, and was close friends with other doctors who came up with techniques that led to today’s NICUs. And he never charged the parents -- instead, he more than paid for the babies’ care (a stratospheric $15 per day) by charging the public. When hospitals started creating preemie wards, interest waned, and the incubator-baby exhibits disappeared.

An interview with a nurse who worked for Courney describes the “showmanship” that was part of these incubator exhibits. For instance, the nurses used slightly oversized clothes to make the small babies look even smaller, and a super-sized diamond ring could be slipped over a baby’s wrist to get the same effect. But she couldn’t complain about the care the babies got. There seems to be no doubt that thousands of babies survived thanks to the incubator sideshows that wouldn’t have otherwise.

Crazy. Could my tiny Penelope have been a sideshow attraction if she’d been born a hundred years ago? I guess I’d be lucky if she were. And at least she wouldn’t have to swallow a sword or do a fan-dance!

For more info about HBO’s portrayal of the incubator babies, check out the videos on their site.

What do you think of the sideshow preemies? Tell us in the comments!

Images via HBO

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