Mystery Baby – ca. 1900

what is that man doing with that black box?

Once upon a time, somebody loved this baby. Looking at his cute little button up boots and hair cut, I’m guessing boy and I’m thinking probably a bit pampered.

I don’t know who he is or who his parents were or whether this baby even grew up. Charlie Fox, a long-time resident of Walkerville and possessor of a treasure trove of this former town’s paraphernalia, passed his portrait along to me, so it was probably a Walkerville baby and judging from the clothing, style of pram and his hand-tinted cheeks (black and white and sepia photos were often painted or dyed before the invention of color film) I think this photo was taken around 1900.

I may never know who this baby was but thanks to Google, I now know a little bit about life was like when he was born:

His life expectancy was about 57 years, that is, if he survived childhood and made it to the age of 40. It was common in the 1900s for parents to have six children, or even more. Infant mortality at one time was so high that it was necessary to have several children just to replace those that died in childhood. But by the 1900s, ordinary people understood basic hygiene and most babies survived and families got bigger and bigger.

Children were seldom lonely, and never short of playmates; and unless a parent died from illness, or perhaps a father was killed in the First World War, few marriages broke up, and relatively few women were left to cope alone without the support of a family.

By 1900, thanks to Joseph Lister’s germ theory, doctors learned not to put their scalpels in their mouths when they operated. But the “wonder drugs” like antibiotics, vaccines and insulin did not exist. That meant a cut or a scratch could lead to a fatal infection, and juvenile diabetes was a death sentence.

Fortunately, the development of a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory agent called acetylsalicylic acid – Aspirin (which became the most successful medical drug in history) would prove to be a godsend.

Roentgenologists – radiologists or x-ray specialists – are just being trained, thanks to Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays in 1895.

Surgery was still very experimental, although anaesthetic has been around since the 1840s.

If he needed a doctor, his parents had to pay for one themselves. Health insurance programs didn’t exist in 1900, and a serious illness could mean financial disaster for most Canadians.

His odds of dying from cancer or heart disease were relatively low. “Lifestyle” and environmental diseases weren’t at the top of the mortality list. His chances of dying from infection or of an infectious disease such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza, whooping cough, measles or scarlet fever were relatively high, especially if you were a child. Women were at high risk of dying as a result of complications from childbirth, such as infection and bleeding.

Smallpox still took its toll, but was declining due to vaccination. The last big epidemic was in Montreal in 1885. Tuberculosis (also known as consumption) is Canada’s leading killer.

Polio, a viral disease that can lead to paralysis, and to which children in particular are vulnerable, was also relatively common. This disease will devastate North America in the decades to come.

At the dawn of the 20th century, many people lived on farms and the household was the central economic unit, not an office or factory. Children were cheap labour in agricultural families, where self-sufficiency on the land meant that feeding them was never a serious problem. Nor was looking after them; grandmother was usually nearby if not living in the same house to help look after the eldest – and then the older children would look after the younger ones, leaving the mother to concentrate solely on the newest baby. The father ruled the family without challenge, and mothers looked after the children’s religious and moral education.

Children only made up about 3.6% of the workforce – down from about 10% in the mid-1800s. Yet, by our standards, their lives were difficult. They worked harder and at a younger age, and were much less pampered. They were expected to contribute more and complain less and were subject to corporal punishment for “discipline and moral correction.” Candy was a treat, not a constant. Consumerism, as we know it just didn’t exist.

There actually was no real “childhood” in 1900 as until the mid-1800s, there wasn’t a distinction between childhood and adulthood. Times began to change and children were seen as more than little workers and are seen as emotionally and psychologically dependent beings. They become sentimentalized, and were labelled weak, innocent, and vulnerable. Laws were passed to protect them.

Juvenile courts set up a new criminal system for youth. Previously, for most crimes, children were dealt with as adults. Now, wayward youth were given special consideration and many churches set up youth groups to keep children interested in religion and out of trouble.

Flash forward 111 years: we’ve come a long way, Baby.

My sources for this story are:

About Elaine Weeks

How history was taught in my day: memorize lots of boring dates and facts, watch corny old black & white history films. There was one bright spot, however. Grade 9 history at Walkerville Collegiate with Miss Falls (Georgina) when she taught a section on local history and took us on a field trip to explore some of Windsor's built heritage. Due to a series of peculiar events, celebrating local history became part of my business. My company, Walkerville Publishing Inc., (partner is Chris Edwards) launched "The Walkerville Times" in 1999 and we produced 61 issues - the last in 2016. In 2004, we began producing local history books; that year we released "Best of The Times Magazine". Our current titles include 5000 Ways You Know You're From Detroit, 500 Ways You Know You're From Windsor, Walkerville - Whisky Town Extraordinaire, and Windsor Then - A Pictorial Essay of Windsor's Glorious Past. I also wrote a novel, Time Trespasser, that blends time travel with local history. I am working on a sequel. I am a writer, editor, blogger, photographer, mother, wife, sister, activist, traveller, gardener, knitter, glass is nearly full person.
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