“Invisible Mothers” And Other Bizarre Parenting Trends From The Past

You think your parents were weird? Just wait until you learn about how moms and dads did things back in the day.

January 12, 2018
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Parenting just isn’t what it used to be.

For better or worse, raising a kid today looks a whole lot different than it once did. Things that were perfectly acceptable just a generation ago seem downright unthinkable today. Putting juice in your baby’s bottle? No way. Letting your preschooler play with fireworks? Are you crazy?

“Forget sippy cups, our parents didn’t even use car seats or bike helmets!” Ilana Wiles, creator of the parenting blog Mommy Shorts, told HuffPost.

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As strange as it may seem now to look back at the parenting norms in the ’70s and ’80s, the rabbit hole goes so much deeper than you could ever imagine. These bizarre parenting trends of the past will give you a whole new level of respect for how your parents raised you.

But before you start blaming generations past, we thought we’d provide a little contemporary context on the general weirdness of parenting. We spoke to Fran Walfish, PsyD, author of The Self-Aware Parent, to get a professional take on the changing nature of parenting.

According to Walfish, some things haven’t changed at all from the days of the Invisible Mothers (more on that later). Other things are night and day.

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“Overprotective mothers, as well as harshly punitive fathers, have existed for centuries. They still do,” Walfish tells HealthyWay. “However, some things have changed. We now have a Child Protective Services reporting system in place that monitors and investigates suspected cases of child abuse.”

If that agency existed at the time of the following parenting trends, we’re pretty sure they would have locked a few of these parents up.

Now You (Don’t) See Me

In the Victorian era, family photo day led to the creation of “invisible mothers.”

Babies are naturally photogenic. Whether they’re smiling, sleeping, or crying, they’re impossibly adorable bundles of dimples and peach fuzz. These days, taking a photo of your kids is as simple as picking up your phone, but it wasn’t always so easy. Long before our phones had cameras—back when even the telephone itself was on the cutting edge of technology—getting a photograph at all was an ordeal; trying to get a photo of a squirming infant was a Sisyphean task.

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That’s because back in the 19th century, the technology of photography was still in its early stages. Only professional photographers owned cameras and knew how to use them, and even the newly-developed wet-collodion process required exposure times of up to a half-minute or so.

Because photography was such a specialized skill, it also wasn’t exactly cheap, so it was important that the subject stay perfectly still for a clear image. For photographs of adults, photographers would have the subject sit in a chair with a head clamp (sort of like an electric chair but without the electric parts) to keep them still for the necessary amount of time. But what about babies?

That’s where the invisible—or hidden—mothers, as they’re called in Linda Fregni Nagler’s collection of photographs, The Hidden Mother, come in. In order to keep infant subjects calm and still for a crisp image, mothers would hold their child. But because they wanted the child to be the focus of the picture, they’d hide themselves by shrouding themselves in dark fabric, hiding behind the chair their child was sitting in—or even going so far as to impersonate furniture.

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In contrast to the 19th century’s “invisible mothers”—an example of hands-on parenting in the most literal sense—another trend from the early 20th century was very much hands-off.

Here’s the mail, it never fails.

For a brief time, American parents could—and did—send their children in the mail.

No, you didn’t read that wrong. Yes, it actually happened.

These days, being able to send large packages via the postal service is something we take for granted, but before the early 20th century, Americans could only send items that weighed four pounds or less in the mail. That all changed on Jan. 1, 1913, when the U.S. Postal Service launched the parcel post service, allowing packages up to 11 pounds. Within months, the limit was increased to 20 pounds, then 50.

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And of course, some people just had to take it too far.

The same year, a Glen Este, Ohio, man named Jesse Beauge and his wife decided to mail their infant son to his grandmother’s house about a mile away, becoming the first Americans in history to send a child in the mail, National Postal Museum historian Nancy Pope told The Washington Post. Luckily for the Beauges, their son weighed in at 10 pounds—just under the weight limit for parcels at the time. The postage only cost them 15 cents, but they spent an additional $50 on insurance. You know, just in case.

Some children, however, traveled much, much greater distances. The following year, 6-year-old Edna Neff was mailed from her mother’s home in Pensacola, Florida, to her father’s house in Christiansburg, Virginia—720 miles away.

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Perhaps the most famous instance of a child being transported via mail, though, was that of 5-year-old May Pierstorff, commemorated in the children’s book Mailing May, published in 2000. Pierstorff’s parents had made the decision to send their daughter for a visit to her grandparents but were hesitant to pay the hefty train fare.

Being the savvy spenders they were, the Pierstorffs looked over the parcel post regulations and found that there was no prohibition on sending children—or any humans—through the postal service, so long as they didn’t exceed the 50-pound weight limit. Fortunately for them, May weighed in at 45 and a half pounds.

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So, the Pierstorffs attached the necessary 53 cents of postage stamps on their daughter’s coat and sent her on her way. May was transported from her parents’ home in Grangeville, Idaho, to her grandmother’s home in Lewiston, approximately 75 miles away.

Later in 1914, news of May Pierstorff’s travels began to spread nationally, causing then-Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson to prohibit the shipping of human parcels. That brought to an end the brief and bizarre trend of parents sending their children in the mail.

While sending your child in the mail probably isn’t the greatest parenting idea in history, it’s also probably not the worst.

Despite all their age, they’re still just a babe in a cage.

Another serious contender for that title is the practice of putting babies in cages, which were then suspended outside apartment windows—sometimes several stories above the street below.

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You see, in the late 18th century, doctors started suggesting that urban-dwelling parents increase their children’s exposure to fresh air, a practice referred to by renowned pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt as “airing.” In his 1894 book, The Care and Feeding of Children, Holt wrote that, “Fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood, and this is just as necessary for health and growth as proper food.”

As you might expect—as with the case of the postal service above—some people just had to take it too far. While Holt recommended an infant be “placed in its crib or carriage which should stand a few feet from the window,” some parents took it a step further, purchasing or building wire cages to be hung outside of windows.

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Even Eleanor Roosevelt, long before she became the first lady of the United States, got in on the “baby cage” trend. In 1906, Roosevelt purchased a chicken wire cage to hang out the window of her New York townhouse. In that cage, her first daughter, Anna, napped high above East 36th Street—until a neighbor threatened to call the authorities, that is.

Emma Read of Spokane, Washington, was the first to file a commercial patent for a baby cage in 1922, which read in part:

“It is well known that a great many difficulties rise in raising and properly housing babies and small children in crowded cities, that is to say from the health viewpoint. With these facts in view it is the purpose of the present invention to provide an article of manufacture for babies and young children, to be suspended upon the exterior of a building adjacent an open window, wherein the baby or young child may be placed.”

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Read’s patent was granted on March 13 of the following year; by the 1930s, the cages had become popular, especially among the apartment-dwelling parents of densely-populated London. In stark contrast to the reception of Roosevelt’s baby cage in New York, Londoners embraced the idea, with municipal bodies like the East Poplar Borough council proposing permanently installing the cages outside some buildings.

Eventually, the popularity of the “baby cage” began to wane. While there’s no definitive record of exactly when and why the trend fell out of vogue, growing concerns about child safety in the next few decades (as evidenced by the invention and popularization of car seats and bicycle helmets) may have had something to do with it.

Modern Airborne Parenting Mistakes

Getting back to the present, the term “helicopter parent” has been spreading throughout the zeitgeist since its 1969 appearance in Haim Ginott’s parenting manual, Between Parent and Teenager. The helicopter parent is reluctant to give their children freedom to fail; they constantly hover over the child, overseeing homework, calling teachers, and generally trying to ensure success in all their child’s endeavors.

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Recent studies have shown that modern parents spend nearly one-third more time caring for their offspring today than they did in the 1960s. Does anyone hear rotors in the sky?

While more parent-child bonding time is probably a good thing, helicopter parenting has been associated with increases in anxiety and reduced independence as the child ages.

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A 2017 study out of New Zealand seems to back up this assertion. It found that a group of 11- to 13-year-olds only tended to travel about a third of a mile from their homes, mostly just to go to school, a friend’s house, or a food outlet. Tim Chambers, the lead researcher, later told The Guardian that his study suggests that modern kids aren’t as independent or as physically active as their parents were as children.

But like the bizarre parenting trends of the past, we can consign helicopter parenting—and other detrimental habits—to the dustbin of history, says Walfish.

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“Change is possible,” she says. “Much has been speculated and written about what is required in order to make change. One thing I know for sure: Motivation and determination are prerequisites, and pain is usually the greatest motivator for change.”

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