Have you ever seen the cult classic Harold and Maud? How about Rosemary’s Baby? Well, then you’ve seen Ruth Gordon! What does she have to do with baby history? Well, it’s not about the spawn of Satan but its still pretty evil.
Ruth Gordon was born in Massachusetts in 1896 and began her acting career in 1915, going on to star on Broadway, and in Hollywood as both actress and screenwriter. But her biggest successes came later in life in the late 1960s, she won a golden globe and an academy award for her roles in Inside Daisy Glover and Rosemary’s Baby. She starred in 22 more films and made guest appearances on TV, such as her Emmy winning role as a sugar mama in the sitcom Taxi. But her very first role was that of a model for Mellin’s Food for Infants and Invalids. In their 1905 booklet, Care and Feeding of Infants, she is pictured on page 37, one of many Mellin’s Babies.
Mellin’s Food, a powder of wheat bran and malted barley, was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. They knowingly falsely claimed their product was the “perfect substitute for mother’s milk” and that bottle-fed babies of the time were just as healthy (even healthier!) than breastfed babies– Mellin’s even took out ads disguised as front-page news during cholera epidemics claiming their product (which required mixing with the very water and/or milk transmitting cholera) would keep babies safe.
In the U.S., in 1912, 40,000 children under two died from diarrhoea or enteritis, primarily due to contaminated/infected dairy milk, unsanitary bottles, and unsafe drinking water. Bottle feeding was a deadly business even before considering nutrition. And as to the nutrition, they were promoting the same “food” for rapidly growing infants and elderly, inactive people, a clear view of how infants and invalids were perceived– and likely treated– at the time.
In 1894, the New York Times did an article on patent medicine peddlers making millions primarily through investing in print advertising instead of their products. Featured amongst them was the head of Mellin’s with a blurb about how they used the photograph of a baby girl without consent or compensation of the parents for advertising, spawning a generations-long advertising campaign about the robust health of a “Mellin’s Baby.” Though it was possibly unrelated to her early childhood diet, it should be noted that Ruth suffered from bow-legs that needed to be broken and straightened by surgery in 1920 (and remember this was before antibiotics), she couldn’t walk for over four months.
But again, it might not have been her early childhood diet, we can’t even be sure she was brought up on Mellin’s food for infants and invalids. In a Life Magazine article from 1947 about Ruth Gordon’s biopic play Years Ago, they write, “Her father, as he was in real life, is a $37.50-a-week foreman in a Mellin’s baby-food factory, who sometimes wearies of penny-pinching and dreams of his old romantic life as a sailor.” Considering the other shady marketing tactics of the company, I doubt they would have scruples about forcing employees with children to submit photos for advertising, whether or not those babies and children were raised on the product.
So I hope you found this interesting! What are your thoughts on Ruth Gordon? Predatory infant formula marketing? Were your grandparents or great (great?) grandparents Mellin Babies? Any vintage bottle collectors out there find any Mellin’s Food imprints? Let us know in the comments!
No Author. 6 Jan 1947. “Years Ago.” Life Magazine. Google.
Mellin’s Food. 1905. “Care and Feeding of Infants.” Boston: Mellin’s Food Company. Archive.org.
Mellin’s. 9 Jan 1890. “There are always new mothers.” Wellsville Allegany County Reporter, p8. Newspaper Archives.
Mellin’s. 19 Sept 1886. “Cholera Infantum.” New York Times, p9. Times Machine.
Staff. 14 Oct 1894. “In Printers’ Ink the Secret.” New York Times, pg 21. Times Machine.
International News Service. 24 Dec 1920. “Actress, To Continue Her Career, Has Bowed Legs Broken and Straightened.” Pittsburgh Press. Newspaper Archive.
Mellin’s. 21 May 1910. “Mellin’s food with cow’s milk is the equal of mother’s milk.” The Illustrated London News. historyworld.co.uk.