Most people agree: babies are cute. Much like kittens and puppies, attractive babies and babies doing funny things prompt smiles or laughter. You can find evidence of their popularity in the millions of photos and videos posted on social media sites and shared with friends and family. But which baby is the cutest?
Earlier this year I heard an ad for this adorable baby contest on the radio while on my way to give a presentation about itinerant glassworkers. Source: cbelmira.com
Today, a Google search for “adorable baby contest” produces 42.6 million results. There’s the “Cutest Baby Contest” page on Facebook, the Bidiboo “Baby Photo Contest” (with live voting results), and a baby photo contest on thecutekid.com with a $25,000 modeling contract prize. Parents who want to enter photos of their baby in a contest can find tips for winning shots on parenting websites and cautionary tales about stolen entry fees and voting fraud on scam detection sites.
What might surprise you is that these competitions have a long past. One hundred and fifty years ago, itinerant glassworking troupes like those of Madam Nora, Madam J. Reith, and the Woodroffe brothers hosted adorable baby contests of their own. Although they sometimes had grander titles – “Grand Carnival of Croesus and Contest of Infantile Beauty,” for example – the concept, popularity, and controversy they could cause is remarkably similar to the baby competitions of today.
Madam Nora’s troupe was one of many that held these baby beauty competitions. Detail of Madame Nora’s Original Troupe of Glassblowers, 1876? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 132079.
The idea behind adorable baby contests is simple: gather a group of babies or young children together and vote to determine which one is the cutest. Today, people upload photos to websites and social media platforms, where viewers all over the world can vote on their favorite baby. Some 19th-century competitions relied on photographs or allowed voters to submit any name they wished. During the last week of an 1881 show in Buffalo, New York, each attendee wrote the name of the most popular local baby under five years old on a card. The polls closed on Saturday at 4pm, and the winning baby received a piece of glass worth $75.
Local photography studios cashed in on the competitions as well, offering enlargements of photographs and extra deals for devoted parents. Advertisement from the May 30, 1907 issue of Webster’s Weekly, Reidsville, North Carolina. Source: Newspapers.com
Many competitions required the contestants to be on view at the glassworkers’ shows. An 1887 article about a competition run by Madam Nora’s troupe in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, documented the hazards of such an arrangement: “The crowd was so great that much difficulty was experienced in displaying the babies with any comfort either to the little ones or to the spectators.” Despite the packed room, 40 children under two years of age were entered into the competition and, according to the reporter, “their fond mothers had very good reason to feel proud of them, for they were beautiful babies . . . most of them were exhibited in handsome carriages and all were prettily attired.” The winning baby, Martha Howells, was presented her prize by a “committee of five disinterested ladies” selected by the troupe’s manager, Duncan C. Katen.
Madam J. Reith’s troupe was another that routinely held baby shows. Advertisement from the October 12, 1887 issue of The Morning Journal-Courier, New Haven, Connecticut. Source: Newspapers.com
Often, one vote was free, but in some cases additional votes could be purchased. At a show put on by Woodroffe’s Original Bohemian Glass Blowers, extra votes cost ten cents a piece. This was a smart way for the glassworkers to make some additional money from attendees, especially those determined to see their favorite baby win first place. In this particular competition, the grand prize was a case of glass work worth $100 and the second prize was a fleet of glass ships worth $50, so many may have justified spending a few extra dollars on votes in hopes they would go home with a much more valuable prize.
At the 1881 show in Buffalo mentioned above, a grand total of 1,046 votes were cast. Assuming admission was at least ten cents (although it was likely more) and extra votes were ten cents, the glassworkers made over $100 just for the baby show, not counting the money they made the rest of the week on regular admissions and sales of glass souvenirs. This was a lucrative entertainment for any troupe to add to their act.
Adorable baby contests were as popular in the 19th century as they are today, and newspaper writers reported on the events with great gusto.
An 1881 contest in Binghamton, New York, was reported on like an election. The Broome Republican stated: “the contest, which became more and more animated each succeeding day, culminated Saturday afternoon in a scene of feminine electioneering, which outdid in enthusiasm the greatest effort ever made at a political caucus by a lot of office seekers. Money was no object compared to votes for the favorites, and the large tin ballot box was full to the top when at 4 o’clock the polls were declared closed, and the votes were counted.” An astonishing 4,400 votes were cast, and the results were clear: the “little favorite” Mabel Dunn won by a margin of around 600 votes.
Advertisement from the February 2, 1889, issue of The Daily Review, Wilmington, North Carolina. Source: Newspapers.com
Another contest held by Madam Nora’s troupe had over 101 entries. At that contest, The Hazelton Sentinel reported: “From the time the doors opened at 2:30 until the prettiest babe had been found and declared, the rink was filled to its utmost capacity. Married men, would-be married men, widowers, widows, and squealing babies were there in numbers and (excepting the old bachelors, who are as much afraid of babies as they are of women) all remained until the fun was non est.“ Unusually, the contest resulted in a tie between babies Lawrence Eisenhuth and Theo Guth, each with 110 votes. To resolve the contest, a committee of nine women each cast one vote. Theo, at 21 months old, was declared victorious with a total of five votes to Lawrence’s four, and was awarded a “handsome glass shade, covering numerous glass ornaments that only dainty hands manufactured.”
These competitions are not without their drama. Today, some parents balk at the idea of buying votes (no doubt many 19th century parents would agree).
Others are convinced their baby should win, and that any other result is a scam.
It’s no wonder some people avoid participating, especially as judges or contest organizers. An 1898 article in the Gibson City Courier joked: “We were inveigled into acting as a judge one year before we knew enough to ‘flee from the wrath to come,’ and in making one woman happy secured the everlasting enmity of nineteen. Now, we watch the baby show through a field glass.”
While adorable baby contests were only one type of competition offered by itinerant glassworkers, they were by far the most popular, causing passionate participation and enthusiastic reporting. For glassworkers, the contests garnered a great deal of local attention, a healthy amount of revenue, and plenty of free publicity. And the winning babies (and parents) got the great distinction of being the most adorable – plus some beautiful glass.
Detail of Second and Positively Last Week of Woodroffe’s Original Bohemian Glass Blowers! Utica, New York: Grove & Bailey, 1881. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 151258.