The use of infant carriers wasn’t a novel concept in North America in the 20th century but it had a stigma of poverty or transience attached to their use in the West since the European Middle Ages. The post-war (WWII) Baby Boom seems to be the impetus for changing attitudes about infant carriers over the following half-century.
Patents for infant carrying devices were filed in quick succession after WWII ended. Even though traditional infant carriers were known of and in use, North American parents wanted innovative forms made of new materials for their modern lifestyles.
Yet even then, many people were suspicious of the use of infant carriers and the implications for the relationship between parent and child. As early as 1951, the topic of carrying infants in traditional carriers was eeking its way into American popular culture, though the prevailing attitude was that it was as ridiculous as breastfeeding and allowing a woman to be conscious during childbirth.
1950s: Natural vs Necessity
The film, Father’s Little Dividend, starring Spencer Tracy (Stanley Banks) and Elizabeth Taylor (Kay for Katherine) as his newly-wed and pregnant daughter. In the following scene, after an argument between her parents and her in-laws about how Kay should behave during pregnancy and give birth, Stanley comforts his daughter only to have her shock him with wild ideas about infant care she learned from her young obstetrician. Notice that the only examples Kay has regarding using infant carriers are “primitive women”: the women her doctor observed in the South Pacific during the war.
When Mr Banks confronts his daughter’s obstetrician we discover that all the talk about natural mothering was his way of patronizing Kay. Later in the movie, Kay, now a very conventional 1950’s mother, brings the baby around to visit grandpa in a massive baby carriage so she can go out for the afternoon. All those wild notions of rooming-in, breastfeeding, and using a papoose, as her father called it, are long forgotten. (And of course, that baby carriage acts as a plot device.)
The playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Mother of two Ruth believes herself to be pregnant but not in a financial position to care for a new child and still afford to move out of the inner city to the suburbs. She hasn’t told anyone but her mother finds out she went to a female doctor, with the implication that she was considering an abortion. When her mother confronts her about it, Ruth shouts in desperation, “I’ll strap my baby on my back if I have to and scrub all the floors in America and wash all the sheets in America if I have to—but we got to MOVE!”
Again there is the stigma of poverty that had accompanied the use of infant carriers in the west for centuries. Whereas people with wealth, like Kay in Father’s Little Dividend, could afford to parent as a leisure activity and/or pay someone (or something) else to hold an infant. When Kay considered using a carrier it was a fantasy of natural mothering to produce an ideal child. When Ruth considered using a carrier an act of desperation for those who have no other options.
1960s: Baby Toting
In 1963, the CBC’s Take 30 program, hosted by Anna Cameron, featured baby-toting enthusiast Mrs Peterson. Peterson advocated the use of traditional carriers as well as her own style of infant carrier, which was an adaptation of a mei-tai or onbuhimo style carrier. She cited some of the studies of infant carrying of the time, including that from Dr Knowles on the transport response, soothing a baby with a 90 beats per minute walk or bounce. Peterson shows examples of infant carriers in other contemporary cultures from around the world.
What is interesting to note is that the “carrier” that sparks the most interest from the presenter, towards the end of the clip, is a plywood reclining baby seat: Mrs Peterson’s Canadian Tire interpretation of a Hupa cradle board. It is built into a plywood box with ovoid holes for handles and a thin fabric pad.
For those who don’t have experience with plywood, it’s heavier than lumber of the same dimensions. This chair is not something that could be easily carried on the body of a caregiver, or easily carried period. Yet, ease of transport was the reason Mrs Peterson gave for becoming interested in Baby Toting in the first place.
In the early 1960s, something as ubiquitous today as a reclining baby chair was a novelty. Meanwhile, the concept of baby toting was becoming so popular that it was used as parody fodder in this Ivory Snow Commercial.
Ivory Snow wanted its customers to understand that carrying your baby was uncomfortable and assuming that you weren’t an “Indian”, ridiculous. The patronizing narrator claims, “You’ll both be more comfortable with this baby lounge seat.”
The message was clear, non-“Indians” don’t carry their babies on their backs, they let them “lounge” in a modern, easy-cleaning plastic chair that doubles as a car seat. It was the start of a parenting trend for placing infants in rigid plastic reclining seats which is still strong to this day.
1970s: The Snugli
“Nobody carried their babies in America. They always put them in those plastic infant seats. There is no human warmth through that. It is all plastic and hard. So we went to the fabric store and started working on the Snugli. I’d go to the grocery store, and people would say, ‘Oh my gosh, where can I get one of those?’” – Ann Moore (interviewed by John Bach for UC Magazine)
Yet many parents still saw the utility in being able to remain active while keeping their babies close. In 1969, Ann Moore, a mother from Colorado earned a patent on her infant carrier called a Snugli. Her design was an adaption of the cloth carriers she witnessed in Togo during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer. When she was unable to recreate the carries with her own daughter using plain cloth, she, with the help of her mother and neighbors, modified a backpack. She held the patent for the Snugli until 1985 when it was sold to Gerry Baby Products.
1980s: Mass Production & Babywearing
Dr William Sears claims credit for coining the term babywearing when his children were small. Dr Sears recounts how his wife would put on the carrier in the morning and not take it off until she undressed at night.
“I remember one day when Martha fabricated a sling out of material from an old bed sheet and said, ‘I really enjoy wearing Mathew. The sling is like a piece of clothing. I put it on in the morning and take it off in the evening.’ Hence the term ‘babywearing’ was born in the Sears household.”- Dr. William Sears (askdrsears.com)
Though Rayner Garner invented the unpadded ring sling in 1981, branding it as The Baby Sling, Dr Sears developed his own versions (enough padding to resemble a duvet and no way to adjust the pouch) and has sold it as the Over the Shoulder Baby Holder and The Original NoJo Babysling (the brand name changes with each safety recall).
By the mid-1980s mass-produced infant carriers and Sears’ babywearing, were fast becoming a mainstream addition to conventional infant holders in North America. The stigma of poverty that had been associated with using infant carriers diminished with the rise of mass-manufactured, expensive carriers and more importantly, the rise of the two-income household. As soon as having a stay-at-home parent became a financial impossibility for many families, the use of infant carriers became a symbol of active upwardly-mobile families: disposable income and leisure time with their children, a trend that continues today in High End Babywearing and social media influencer families.
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Bach, John. “Ann Moore, Nur ’56: Practical Inventor Influenced American Culture”. UC Magazine, August 2010. Accessed Oct 2016. http://magazine.uc.edu/issues/0810/moore.html
Father’s Little Dividend. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Culver City: MGM, 1951.
Hansberry, Lorraine. Raisin in the Sun. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2011.
Sears, William. “Babywearing in the Sears Home”. Ask Dr.Sears. No Date. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/fussy-baby/baby-wearing/babywearing-story
Take 30 (or Telescope). “Baby Toting”. Hosted by Anna Cameron. Guest, Mrs. Peterson. CBC, May 10, 1963. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/baby-toting-in-1963
Tube Outpost. “P&G- Ivory Snow- Are You A Indian?-Vintage Commercial- 1950s-1960s”. Filmed . Youtube video, 1:01. Posted Nov 16, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqgFU650_lY