Mailing Babies And Other Wacky Things People Used To Do To Kids

You'll probably find these old parenting techniques—like mailing small children and breastfeeding babies with goats—highly questionable.

August 1, 2017
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As society progresses (we hope) with time, it’s not uncommon to look back at the way things were done “in the olden days” with a hefty dose of WTF.

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Putting butter on a burn (a folk remedy that can actually make things worse), treating a croupy baby with a spoonful of sugar…garnished with a few drops of kerosene (NOPE), or raw chicken applied to a cold sore (?) would all probably strike most of us today as questionable, if not extremely foolish.

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It’s no wonder that children have often borne the brunt of our stupidity. Being completely helpless and often incapable of expressing their own perspectives, kids make the perfect guinea pigs for adults’ “innovations.” One of these that would be regarded with suspicion by modern-day people? Mailing babies and small children.

In the early 20th century, the postal service increased the weight allowance for individual packages sent through the mail to 11 pounds. It was only a matter of time before folks started pushing the envelope (heh) on what could legally be carried by the mailman.

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Smithsonian Institution/Flickr

“While private delivery companies flourished during the 19th century, the Parcel Post dramatically expanded the reach of mail-order companies to America’s many rural communities, as well as the demand for their products,” reports the Smithsonian.

“When the Post Office’s Parcel Post officially began on January 1, 1913, the new service suddenly allowed millions of Americans great access to all kinds of goods and services.”

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Smithsonian Institution/Flickr

A New York Times article from that year describes one such good—a baby boy in Ohio who was sent by mail to his grandmother:

“Vernon O. Lytle, mail carrier on rural route No. 5, is the first man to accept and deliver under parcel post conditions a live baby. The baby, a boy weighing 10-3/4 pounds, just within the 11 pound weight limit, is the child of Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Beagle of Glen Este.

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Smithsonian Institution/Flickr

“The boy was well wrapped and ready for ‘mailing’ when the carrier received him to-day. Mr. Lytle delivered the boy safely at the address on the card attached, that of the boy’s grandmother, Mrs. Louis Beagle, who lives about a mile distant. The postage was fifteen cents and the parcel was insured for $50.”

Another article, from 1915, describes a 3-year-old girl named Maude Smith who weighed 30 pounds and who was sent through the mail for 33 cents in Kentucky.

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“The child was seated on a pack of mail sacks between the mail carrier’s knees and was busily eating away at some candy it carried in a bag,” reports The Courier-Journal. “In the other hand it carried a big red apple and it smiled when the curious folks waved their hands and called to her.”

The reasoning behind some parents’ willingness to send their little ones through the Parcel Post seems to have been threefold: postage was cheaper than a train ticket, a lot of trust was placed in mailmen, and the idea of tiny living creatures carried in satchels like inanimate objects was funny and adorable (and, hey, some things never change).

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But, lest we get things twisted, mailing infants and toddlers was by no means common practice. The fact-checking site Snopes makes sure to point out that “it was neither a regular occurrence nor a routine aspect of the Parcel Post service for people to wrap up children, slap some stamps on them, and ship them cross-country.” Phew!

Snopes also reports that “the few documented examples of children being sent through the mail were nearly all publicity stunts, instances of people who knew the postal workers in their area asking them to carry their babies a relatively short distance along their routes to some nearby relatives, or cases in which children were listed as ‘mail’ so they could travel on trains without the necessity for purchasing a ticket.”

Furthermore, to our disappointment/relief, the pictures showing babies hanging in mailbags alongside stone-faced postal carriers are, as Snopes reports, “simply vintage cute posed humor shots taken from a collection of historic Smithsonian Institution (SI) photographs uploaded to Flickr.”

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Smithsonian Institution/Flickr

We’re not sure whether the relatively few instances of baby-mailing were more brilliant, comedic life hack or lax (era-appropriate?) parenting. Either way, the past holds an endless supply of ill-advised things people used to do to kids.

Here are a few more examples for your cringing pleasure.

Newborns’ worth was tested by plunging them in cold streams.

Dunking a baby into a nearby body of water (say, a cold stream) after its birth certainly sounds jarring, but this may not appear so strange in the context of ancient times, when stream-cleaning could seem like a fairly reasonable way to clean off a gunky newborn.

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Until you hear why some people were dunking their babies in streams, that is. According to Mark Sloan, MD, author of Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History, and the Wonder of Childbirth, this functioned as a test to see whether a newborn baby deserved to continue living.

Sloan points to this quote from Aristotle (384-322 B.C.):

“To accustom children to the cold from the earliest years is also an excellent practice, which greatly conduces to health, and hardens them for military service. Hence many barbarians have a custom of plunging their children at birth into a cold stream.”

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If babies couldn’t handle the plunge, Sloan says, they “were left outside to die.”

Infants were fed from bacteria-infested bottles.

If you want to see something that looks sadistic—and that actually was, unbeknownst to parents in those times—search for images of Victorian baby bottles. 

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These glass bottles equipped with rubber straws acted like petri dishes for illness and led to the death of thousands of babies in the late 1800s, when only 1 in 5 infants was expected to live to the age of 2.

The bottles weren’t always branded this way, of course. Originally they went by names like “The Little Cherub” and “Mummie’s Darling.” How did a dangerous item elicit such sweet talk?

“The long India rubber tubing that connected the bottle to the nipple made it easier for the busy housewife to feed the child,” writes the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “You didn’t have to put the bottle up to the baby’s mouth, or even hold the baby. These allowed the babies to practically feed themselves when they were hungry!”

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“This was considered a major move forward in the science of child care as well as a significant advancement for women’s rights, freeing them from the inconvenience of breastfeeding, including the difficulty of managing the mechanics with corsets and the need to be constantly accessible for feedings.”

Unfortunately, science was not well incorporated into people’s lives by this point, and many women were told that they could go weeks without washing what babies drank out of. Adding to the problem, the bottle itself had a faulty design.

“The rubber tubes connecting the bottle to the nipple were nearly impossible to clean and developed cracks over time, making them potent breeding grounds for numerous diseases that caused horrifying and painful deaths,” writes the AAP.

Livestock used to nurse babies with their animal teats.

When you read this headline, your face scrunched up and you silently mouthed “whiskey tango foxtrot” to yourself, didn’t you? Strange as it sounds, this is for real. Back in the day, if a baby couldn’t be breastfed by Mom, the options were limited.

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Animals like goats and donkeys breastfeeding human infants was especially popular between the 16th and 19th centuries, before pasteurization and before the vulcanization of rubber (the chemical processing of crude or synthetic rubber that makes it stretchy and elastic) allowed for soft artificial nipples.

Its popularity also coincided with “the era of syphilis, which in 16th-century France prompted many mothers to reject wet nurses out of fear their babies would be infected,” as The Washington Post reports.

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If the idea of a farm animal nursing a human baby strikes you as strange, we’d like to direct you to this quote from The Washington Post about human–animal breastfeeding, but in the reverse setup: “Women in the far eastern Russia peninsula of Kamchatka suckled baby bears, which they’d later kill for their meat and valuable gall bladders.”

So there’s that. Not a whole lot of words that come to mind—mainly just WTF.

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