They go by many names… Baby books, baby journals, baby milestone books, and domestic baby diaries are a few of them. To facilitate the tracking of information, memories, and storage of precious photos, designers experiment with the format and layout. Does the new mother want prompts or lots of white space to fill up with thoughts and observations? Should she start recording her experiences as soon as she knows she is pregnant, the beginning of the journey to motherhood, or wait until the baby arrives? Is a choice of bindings in a rainbow of colors important so the book will fit in with the décor of the nursery or master bedroom? Or would a completely customizable product, such as InScribe Publishing’s babEbook make the process more fun, more personal, and much easier, whatever the mother’s circumstances?
As showcases of illustration and repositories of data about individuals, these highly ephemeral books have been collectible for some time. The Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library at UCLA has been accumulating titles from the late Victorian era to the present day and now has six hundred examples spanning 125 years. Some of Cotsen’s baby books, along with the first edition of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) and other treasures, were brought out for members of Princeton’s BabyLab when they visited Special Collections in October.
Because the milestones of an infant’s first twelve months are more or less agreed upon, a baby book’s contents are relatively predictable. After recording birth weight and length comes a series of firsts: first tooth, shoe, word, etc. It’s the illustrator’s challenge to capture the excitement of the moment in a way that will evoke pleasant memories later. Ella Pipping’s Jag [Me], a Swedish baby book first published in 1937, was undoubtedly reprinted many times on the strength of its headpieces by the mother-daughter team of Signe Hammarsten-Jansson and Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins. No Swedish is necessary to figure out where to enter most of the different statistics, but no information about a baby was ever entered on this copy’s pristine pages.
Sugiura Hisiu’s Kodakara [Baby Book] (Tokyo: Misukoshi Department Store, 1909) is also perfectly preserved. I wonder if many recipients of such beautiful books felt they were too pretty to write in them, even though the more likely explanation is that the new mother was simply too tired and busy to begin, much less keep up. Many of the full-page illustrations are charming depictions of little children, full of surprising details about the coexistence of Eastern and Western fashions in Japan.The earliest of the three baby books shown to BabyLab was Baby’s Record (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, c.1898) illustrated by Maud Humphrey, beloved creator of sticky-sweet pictures of little children. It’s a well-established urban legend that the mother of Humphrey Bogart was responsible for the famous Gerber logo baby. She wasn’t. The Cotsen copy of the Record was given to “Baby,” by Mrs. Leo Fleishman (presumably a family friend or relative) and “Baby” was Edward Jacques Ruff, the son born to Joseph Ruff and Rosa Rosenthal Ruff November 22, 1910 in Mexico City. His first shoe is shown to the right. The Ruffs appear to have been devout Jews and recorded little Edward’s first prayer in transliterated Hebrew and descrubed his first visit to temple with his grandfather at age three. The handwritten memorandum reveals that Edward “was very good. Said Amen about a minute after the rest of the congregation which very much embarrassed his grandfather.”
The three books could not be more different in appearance, but they do have one thing in common: baby’s vaccination for small pox is among the milestones of the first year. In Sweden, it looks as if the doctor came to the house. Edward was just four months and three days when he was inoculated. Look carefully at the little Japanese baby and you’ll see he’s crying and picking at the red spots on his arm.Very little has been written about the history of the baby book before the 1870s, when the first ones were published. The only scholarly article I could find, “The Observing Eye;: A Century of Baby Diaries” by Doris Wallace in a 1994 issue of Human Development suggests that German psychologists who were leaders in their profession agreed agreement that the systematic observation of very young children complemented experimental and testing methodologies.
Wallace seems not to have been familiar with parent diarists in England before Charles Darwin. Novelist Mrs. Gaskell managed to cover the first six months of her daughter Marianne’s life, the very thoughtful, insightful, and loving notes making it a fascinating document to read. She was almost certainly following in the footsteps of Maria and Richard Edgeworth, who showed parents in their highly influential Practical Education (1798), the scientific value of detailed anecdotes about child behavior for the way they revealed the child’s thought processes as they matured. The compilation of such a diary, the Edgeworths argued, was the way to realize Thomas Reid’s wish to “obtain a distinct and full history of all that hath passed in the mind of a child from the beginning of life and sensation till it grows up to the use of reason.” Easier said than done, but it remains a noble goal for recording the mundane details of babyhood, when what mother really needs is a good night’s sleep.