A “scientific baby contest” was among the novelties used to attract shoppers to the Queen City of the East a century ago during the worst days of winter. Portland and Lewiston both claimed to be the convention centers of Maine, but might not Bangor be the top contender for that title? Of course, but it might take a little ingenuity to attract attention, like scientific babies.
The Bangor Daily Commercial in an editorial suggested such a possibility on Feb. 20, 1914. “Indeed, while Portland and Lewiston are arguing the merits of the question … Bangor is proving that this city, with its central location, is the actual convention city of the state,” argued the newspaper. By “central location,” the writer was referring to the fact that Bangor was located in the center of the state geographically, if not populationwise.
Back then many towns north of Bangor, way up to the Canadian border, were bigger and wealthier than they are today because of their burgeoning paper and lumber industries, potato and other crop harvests and the expanding rail system that sewed everything together. One key to maintaining Bangor’s wealth lay in attracting rich farmers and lumbermen and their wives to shop in the Queen City of the East, the hub of the region’s steamboat, railroad and trolley lines.
Bangor had hosted many major events worthy of a convention city that fall. They included the Eastern Maine State Fair, the Maine Music Festival (which featured world-famous opera stars in the city’s wooden auditorium), the Maine State Teachers Association, the Annual Bangor Fruit Show, the Maine State Grange, the First State Potato Day, Convocation Week at the renowned Bangor Theological Seminary and the annual Food Fair and Winter Carnival.
Still to come were the Fruit Institute, the Bangor Automobile Show, the First State Road Meeting (as Maine sought to plan a coherent and affordable road system) and the New England United Commercial Travelers (traveling salesmen) annual convention.
Bangor had “unexcelled hotels and restaurants.” It had demonstrated its ability to handle even the largest groups, including the Grange and the teachers.
If the city ran out of hotel rooms, Bangor hospitality was famous. Rooms in more than 500 homes had been made available for the accommodations of grangers and teachers attending these two big conventions. (As for the state fair, some families camped out in tents on the fairgrounds and others rented cots in the hallways of overcrowded hotels.)
“This city has no fear of the future as the logical and geographical convention center,” concluded the optimistic editorial writer.
Clever ideas for bringing in customers were always helpful. The Bangor area’s annual healthy crop of babies was one such attraction at the United Commercial Travelers’ Food Fair in February 1914. Called a Better Babies Contest, it was modeled after an idea invented in Iowa, according to a Commercial story on Jan. 24. Members of the Bangor Federation of Women’s Clubs sponsored the event at the UCT fair.
One hundred and sixty babies, a much larger number than anticipated, were entered by their parents. The idea was “to judge babies as human beings and not as overdressed dolls,” the newspaper explained. Most baby contests were “beauty shows.” This contest, however, emphasized physical and mental health and development. The judges were local doctors.
Over a three-day period, a rotating army of volunteer doctors and nurses examined each baby in different rooms at city hall, ranging from the mayor’s to the city engineer’s office, looking for “defects.” The babies were poked and prodded, weighed and measured, their eyes, ears and throats examined, their teeth scrutinized, their mental abilities tested and so on. Scorecards were kept.
Doctors also gave lectures on raising healthy children. One Bangor medical man, Dr. E.B. Sanger, gave some timely advice. “You should not sacrifice the health of the little one to make a beautiful, fat baby, because the fat babies are not always the healthy ones,” he said.
Dr. J.B. Woods suggested the results of the contest might have been more “instructive” if babies from poor families had been included among the contest entrants. Of course, the babies in the contest mostly belonged to ambitious, middle-class parents. More “defects” would have been found among the lower classes, and “the ends would have justified the trouble of arranging something of this sort.”
Of course, the UCT fair planners had another goal.
“It is hoped that all grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, not to mention closer relatives will be present to see this array of baby loveliness that will be massed on the stage at City Hall,” reported the Commercial’s scribe.
The city’s two daily newspapers promoted the contest day after day. The beneficiaries included food companies like Daniel Webster Flour, Oakland Butterine and Moxie soda, who sponsored the show with their commercial booths.
The winners were announced in both of the city’s newspapers on Feb. 10. The Commercial, which appeared in the afternoon, ran photographs of the award-winning babies as well. The prize winners in the 18-36-month category were Donald Ashley MacLeod, son of Mr. and Mrs. Walter MacLeod of South Brewer, and Ruth Redman, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Redman of Orono. Both won “$10 in gold.”
In the 6-18-month category, with the same awards, were Nathaniel W. Sawyer, son of Mr. and Mrs. W.F. Sawyer of 477 Essex St., Bangor, and Eleanor Clare Blake, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Blake of 52 Fern St., Bangor.
Consolation prizes went to Stanley R. Doane, son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Doane, 37 Elm St., South Brewer, and Lawrence M. Hunt, son of Mr. and Mrs. J. A. Hunt, 233 Park View Ave., Bangor.
Various other awards including a bronze medal from the Women’s Home Companion magazine and a silver cup from the Imperial Granum Company were distributed along with free photographs of the babies by Hopkins Studio of Bangor.
Many free samples and awards were handed out at the UCT food show that year, including bags of flour and the like. The UCT fellows also provided vaudeville acts with names like The Tango Girls and Mildred the Mystic. Local musical groups like Pullen’s Orchestra and the Bangor Band rounded out the program. But it’s safe to say the traveling salesmen would have to go a long way next year to top the Better Baby Contest for crowd appeal at their annual winter fair.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His newest book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com.