The Human Judging Ring At The Fair

Once again, it’s time for a trip to the Library of Congress Flickr Feed — this time with shiny old rotten ideas! Look and see what came up in the feed this week:

Wm. Chas. Flynn  (LOC)

The child in this picture (probably taken sometime near 1915) is William Charles Flynn. Young master Flynn (probably close to 3 years old in this image) was a regular Perfect Baby or Better Baby contest winner, and found himself in the news at one point for a “eugenic marriage”planned for him by his mother and the mother of a similarly “perfect” little girl named Alene Calvert Houck. These contests, along with events like the Fitter Families for Future Firesides contests (all of these events were held at state fairs), were a part of an ongoing effort in the early 1900s in the USA to popularize the eugenics movement (which was notably racist, and advocated not only the breeding of “better” Americans but the deliberate sterilization and segregation of the “unworthy”). Human beings were the livestock in the ring at such events, and were judged accordingly. Iowa was one of the original centers of this practice — the “Baby Health Examination Movement” got itself going at a Better Babies contest at the Iowa State Fair in 1911.

There’s something both disturbing and pathetic about this picture of William Charles Flynn. Here he stands, posed as human, as ideal, in the way that livestock are posed. Compare him, for example, to this lovely photo of a horse named Judge’s Criminal Justice (taken by Carrot Mama on Flickr):

Judge's Criminal Justice

Horses (and dogs, and show cattle, and other critters similarly situated) are trained to stand in ways that are intended to put on display their conformity with a certain set of ideals w/r/t the “correct” build for that critter. The horse standing here is actually loose (not currently in official stance), but illustrates the basic idea of such stances: weight more or less evenly distributed, head up, ears up, eyes alert, whole demeanor relaxed but ready. Uneven weight distribution would make it hard to see the line of the shoulder or hip properly, a lowered or otherwise positioned neck would change the line of the spine, etc.

So too has this little boy been posed. His stance is not the usual stance of a toddler. Toddlers, in the usual course of movement and (rare) stillness, do not typically look like this. He looks like shrunken, pudgy adult — or like a cherub who has been annoyed, as if he were about to chastise someone who had stolen his wings. He’s a tiny hero (in this pose), healthy and prosperous and…bizarre. His stance shows off the line of his hips and shoulders. It implies strength in the chest and abdomen. It shows the stern intelligence of his face. It’s as if someone took a look at Michaelangelo’s “David” and tried to imagine him as a very little boy. He is meant to exude potential greatness.

I find it a bit terrifying, personally — and also a bit sad. This image goes far, far beyond the already rather horrifying business of child beauty pageants (or pageants in general, which I personally find disgusting). William Charles Flynn the Perfect Baby is not the same as William Charles Flynn (maybe he’s a Billy or a Will…probably not a Henry), the little boy who throws occasional tantrums and really would like a cookie now. Which is more perfect? As annoying as the toddler might be, I think I’d pick him over the Ideal every time.

William Charles Flynn the Perfect Baby is also not really the person who William Charles Flynn became. The Perfect Baby and all of his points and measurements is infinitely less valuable than the man he became, regardless of who that man turned out to be. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to him — and perhaps that’s the best thing; the only thing I can find that might be about him is a California  birth record for a child of this name born on 2/8/1912. I hope he went from Perfect Baby to human being, perhaps in spite of that early fame. He’d be 100 years old if he still lives…who knows?

I’ve left alone the thought that perhaps there is something equally creepy about similar photos of non-human critters (like the beautiful horse above). That thought is the reader’s to continue as s/he sees fit.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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