Preemies: Carnival Freaks of the '40s

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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


television, baby development, baby health

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CafeS... CafeSasha

This is AWESOME. I was so curious about that.

nonmember avatar Katherine

One of my friends just posted the link to this on my wall...I had very premature twins at 24 weeks 6 days. They were a whopping 1 pound 10 ounces each. My son went to heaven 18 days later but my daughter is still here 2 1/2 years later and makes her presence known everywhere she goes! Right after they were born we were able to slide my husband's wedding band all the way up to my son's arm pit!!! It amazed me!!!! Glad we got pictures!! Such little miracles!

Javi0... Javi05Eli07

History Detectives on PBS had a lady on that was one of the incubator babies used at a World's Fair.  I thought it was very interesting and I love to hear off-beat facts about just about everything.

Bella... BellaKristy

 I think that today that would be looked down on because of the care available. But to know that this is what led to that care is just WOW! For the time that it happened and the care the babies got is amazing. I am especially amazed that care was taken to provide for the preemies health and well-being and not justa money scam where the babies were neglected! How amazing! I have never heard of this before, I am like Javio5Elio7 I love unusal facts that arent widely known.

Dawn Olson

My twin grand aunts were born in 1894 at home in a cabin in the woods. Aunt Violet was born weighing a nice 7 pounds while Aunt Pat weighed in at about 2 pounds. My great grandparents sent Violet to stay with her grandparents while they focused on Patricia's survival by keeping her warm in a shoebox kept on the open oven door and feeding her alternately with breast milk and home-brewed beer. Their technique worked and Pat grew up to be the first woman in our family to graduate from college.

nonmember avatar Kat

I wondered what that particular sequence of the film had to do with anything. It was curious to say the least. It makes sense now why it was in there.

kelli... kelli0585

This is the first I've ever heard of this!


But, think about it. . . .


The World Fair before the 40s is a great deal different than what it is today.  It was more than just freak shows.  It was a place for inventors to show their newest creations (and still is), peddlers to share their wares, and an all around hub for local and international commerce. 


Without the Internet, television JUST becoming commercially availabe in the late 30s, and other modern conveniences. . . . . . The World Fair seems like a great way to inform the masses!  Especially since the hospitals first refused them.  This let the common people know that there WAS a way to help premature babies live.  It educated them, and I'm sure had a great deal to do with hospitals eventually adopting the practice.


I think it's fascinating. 

hotic... hoticedcoffee

That is totally fascinating!  Thanks for sharing.


We don't have HBO and this is the first time I've been seriously bummed about it - I love Steve Buscemi!

Marjorie Keyishian

What a strange ans wonderful story. It is an example of what doctors who make discoveries have to go through to get them tested and accepted. And of how a freak show can accomplish something good.

Toddl... ToddlerBrain82

My husband and I watched a documentary about this not too long ago! It was so interesting. There were interviews with some of the babies, who are now elderly people of course. They talked about how fortunate they were, because many of them would have died without those incubators and the people who cared for them.

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