The HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, has exposed a new generation to the freak show concept of "Incubator Babies". While this whole notion of freak show and premature infants seems askew in 2010, it was de rigueur in the first forty years of the twentieth century. When the fictional Nucky Thompson, as played by Steve Buscemi,
(based on the real Enoch "Nucky" Johnson) stops on the Atlantic City Boardwalk to look at the incubator babies, curiousity is set into motion. The window says, "We Save the Lives of Babies". And indeed those caring nurses did. Oh, the admission was a hefty 25 cents, not a small sum in those days.
Premature babies were viewed by the medical establishment of that era as weaklings.
With a survival of the fittest mentality, no special services were available for the too early born in the 1920's. Hospitals then had nothing special to offer preemies. It wasn't until the 1940's that institutional medical care for the premature infant was provided. Around 1900, Dr. Mr. A. Courney developed the incubator. It was more or less a glass cabinet, which could keep a baby warm. He tried to market and sell these incubators to hospitals both in Europe and the USA. He had little success. He came up with the clever idea to set up showcases for the incubators, where the babies could be kept and cared for. After achieving some European success, Courney brought his road show to Coney Island, NY. That was in 1903. By charging admission to to see the babies, he began to reap substantial gains. And these babies, who had had a high mortality rate, began to survive with more regularity.
Among Courney's other locales of interest, he included carnivals, fairs and other tourist spots, such as the Atlantic City Boardwalk. As a result of their business and medical activities, Courney and his colleagues developed techniques of infant care, which served the babies well. Although it was certainly a peculiar way to develop medical care standards, that is exactly what happened during the era of the "Incubator Babies". As time went on, hospitals began to invest in incubators, so that the medical care of the premature born was no longer a carnival attraction. The idea of "Incubator Babies" is funny in a way, since the prematures were somehow considered not quite human, but rather more like an alternate, incomplete life form. http://designcrave.com/2010-09-17/boardwalk-empire-vintage-atlantic-city-design/
"Another quirky attraction was the “Infant Incubator Exhibit” across from the Million Dollar Pier. In the early 20th century, incubators for premature babies were a technological novelty–but hospitals needed funds to purchase them and that required public support for the idea. To raise interest, incubators were displayed to the public with the tiny preemies still inside. “Baby Hatcheries” were found at state fairs and amusement parks like Coney Island, and of course, Atlantic City. Admission was charged to view the tiny human babies in incubators as they were cared for by nurses." http://www.philly.com/inquirer/magazine/20101012_Touched_by_Nucky.html#ixzz12CG7FUUz
Well, the beauty of Atlantic City - then and now - is how the weird is intricately woven into the normal. There really were incubator babies. If you start your in-search-of-Nucky-tour in Ventnor, at the law offices of Frank J. Ferry on Atlantic Avenue, you can find one in pink-clad secretary Carol-Anne Heinisch, 68, at work.
She was an incubator baby on the Boardwalk (in the summer of 1942). A preemie, she spent two months inside the storefront across from the Million Dollar Pier (now Caesars) set up by the inventor of the incubators. He did so, in part to raise money, in part to show off his invention, and in part to expose the fragile newborns to the healing effects of the salt air. (They kept the windows open.) "It didn't bother me," says Heinisch. "What did I know?"
So, who says TV is a wasteland? There's plenty to learn and to relearn. It's funny how what fascinated people a little less than a century ago remains as fascinating today. Everything changes, nothing changes.
E cosi va...