His name is in the dictionary, defined as “ingeniously or unnecessarily complicated in design or construction.” Artist-engineer Rube Goldberg imagined creative but convoluted machines for simple tasks such as preparing toast.
Today, videos of successful, or hilariously unsuccessful, Rube Goldberg machines are used for advertisements, “gender” reveals, and music videos. In honour of his 139th birthday, I want to introduce you to Rube Goldberg and look at how babies feature either as cogs in his machines or as subjects of them.
Table of Contents
- About Rube Goldberg
- Baby History
- Feeding Baby
- Sunning Baby
- Kissing Babies (Don’t)
- The War on Flies
- Active Baby Care
- Legacy of Public Health
About Rube Goldberg
Rube Goldberg was born July 4, 1883, in San Franciso, the third of seven children and one of four who survived childhood. He earned a degree in engineering in 1904 from the University of California at Berkely and he briefly worked in the sewer and sanitation department for the city before getting work at a local newspaper.
After moving to New York City in 1907, he took a job at the New York Evening Mail. His work was wildly famous and by 1915, a bidding war began between the giant newspapers. As a result, he landed a $50k salary, which is equivalent to a little under $1.5 million today (in 2022).
While his first machines were featured in comics from at least 1912, it was in January of 1929 that he began his most famous comic series The Inventions of Professor Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, A.K. which continued until 1949.
Meanwhile, Rube married in 1917 and had two sons. As a man who lived through WWI (“The War to End All Wars”) only to have his sons enlisted in WWII, he had strong feelings about geopolitical tensions which he translated into more serious cartoons. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for Peace Today, which featured the stereotypical American nuclear family enjoying their backyard leisure atop a massive atomic bomb teetering on the precipice of World Control and a chasm of World Destruction.
In the 1960s, a new generation was introduced to Rube Goldberg’s style with the board game Mouse Trap and Professor Butts hobby kits. He retired in 1963 and began to focus on sculpture.
Rube Goldberg died on December 7, 1970. He was survived by his wife, two sons, and five grandchildren. His sons, who changed their surnames at the insistence of their father to avoid antisemitism during WWII, became well-respected creative professionals themselves: Thomas George, became an internationally acclaimed semi-abstract painter and George W. George became a producer for film, theatre, and Broadway.
Of course, this is The Baby Historian and what I want to look at are the babies featured in Rube Goldberg’s work. Through his comics we get an idea of how babies and baby care were thought of in the early 20th century: infants weren’t to be handled unless absolutely necessary, consigned to cradles, beds, chairs and prams; babies were immobile but high maintenance. This isn’t to say that babies were neglected, in fact, they were the focus of early 20th-century public health programs whose influence is seen in many of Rube’s comics.
Anti-Floor Walking Paraphernalia (undated)
The professor’s brain tosses off his latest anti-floor walking paraphernalia–
Pull string (A) which discharges pistor (B) and bullet (C) hits switch on electric stove (D), warming pot of milk (E). Vapor from milk melts candle (F) which drips on handle of pot causing it to upset and spill milk down trough (G) and into can (H) weight bears down on level (I) pulling string (J) which brings nursing nipple (K) within baby’s reach.
In the meantime baby’s yelling has awakened two pet crown (L & M) and they discover rubber worm (N) which they proceed to eat. Unable to masticate it, they pull it back and forth causing cradle to rock and put baby to sleep.
Put cotton in your ears so you will not be bothered if baby wakes again.
Before electronic baby soothers, there was floor-walking. I find it interesting that Rube’s character of Prof Butts is known for creating these ridiculous machines for doing simple tasks, yet in this case, being able to get sleep and still feed and soothe an infant overnight, is not considered a simple task by most Americans, then or now (even with our new gadgets).
In a way, the comic is kind of a jab at parents who use a bunch of gadgets that are more disruptive and energy-intensive than just “walking the floor” so to speak. Of course, anyone who’s struggled to get a good night’s sleep with a fussy baby might give his schematics a second look.
I also want to point out the nursing nipple. This was a 19th-century baby gadget, rubber tubing attached a nipple to a vessel containing food or water. These nursing nipple bottles were long known to kill infants because they couldn’t be properly cleaned and encouraged caregivers to leave milk out for long periods, sometimes referred to as “murder bottles”. But they continued to be used because they made feeding a hands-off affair. Marketing for it associated it with rich and even royal parents, ironically the kind of parents who didn’t need the convenience of hands-off feeding and/or who could afford to replace the tubing after each use making it less likely to kill their infants. We can still see these in use today, albeit with modern materials (though cleaning them is still a bish).
A Simple Way to Feed Baby Automatically (Undated)
Sliding sword (A) down sword swallower’s mouth (B) causes string (C) to open meat grinder lid (D) this allows meatball (E) to run down steps (F) into catcher’s mitt (G) as see-saw (H) rises. “Helping Hand” (I) trips fishing pole (J) and baby bottle (K) falls gently into baby’s mouth (L). If this simple device doesn’t stop the baby’s crying, try singing a lullaby.
Once again there is a hint that Rube thinks attempts to avoid directly caring for the baby are silly, thus the comic. Just walk the floor, just feed the baby, just sing a lullaby.
In the previous two comics, the objective is feeding the baby in its crib or bed to soothe them to sleep without inconveniencing caregivers, and to do this milk is left out until the baby cries. Usually, Rube’s comics featuring infant care echo the public health concerns of the era but in these two comics, he seems unaware of the issues around milk safety (which became very politically charged, known as “the milk wars”). This is likely due to him being rich and living in New York City. In 1913 a milk-bourne typhoid epidemic broke out in New York City, which finally pushed the city to require milk pasteurization, and his first child wasn’t born until 1918. In other parts of the country, unsafe milk was implicated in tens of thousands of deaths of children under two due to diarrhea and enteritis.
Unsafe milk wasn’t just about the dairy producers’ practices, it was also an issue of in-home handling. I’ve already mentioned the issues with feeding devices, like the nursing nipple, that can’t be properly cleaned. The bottle featured in the second comic/kit was known as a “coffin bottle” both for the tapered shape but also the result of its improper cleaning. Paediatricians recommended wide-mouth bottles with wide base nipples that could be thoroughly cleaned and home-sterilized (a bit like home-canning jar prep).
Another concern with regards to home handling of milk for infants was leaving it out at room temperature and leaving it uncovered. During the transition between ice boxes and home refrigerators, paediatricians encouraged keeping even the safer pasteurized milk cold until it was warmed for use. Milk that was left at room temperature is a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause dangerous illnesses in infants. Uncovered milk can become contaminated with microorganisms in the air as well as from flying insects or even rodents. I imagine that a public-health-minded caregiver of the early 20th century would consider that uncovered pan of milk in the first comic to be as dangerous as the gun.
An Easy Way to Make Toast (March 1, 1930)
“Professor Butts, being a poor old bachelor, is forced to dope out this simple way to make his own toast.
Wait patiently for snowstorm. As snow (A) falls on shovel (B) it causes string (C) to turn on electric switch (D) which lights sun ray lamp (E). Heat rays start toasting slice of bread and also cover baby (F) with coat of tan. Near sighted mother (G), mistaking tan for dirt, throws water over baby. Water, splashing on millwheel (H), causes it to revolve and roate forks (I) which keep toasted bread turning.
Wind from revolving toast blows against sail (J), which forces butcher’s cleaver (K) down against string (L), thereby cutting string and causing boxing glove (M) to shoot out and force shoe (N) to kick toasted bread onto plate.
Before trying this method be sure you are in a country where they have snow. Otherwise, you will wait around until you starve to death.”Rube Goldberg, “An Easy Way to Make Toast” March 1, 1930
The thing that stood out to me in this comic was the sun lamp and its giving the baby a “coat of tan”. Throughout the 20th century, getting babies tanned was considered healthy. It was believed that sun exposure could prevent rickets which resulted in bone deformities. However, modern research shows that no amount of sun exposure can make up for a dietary deficiency of vitamin d (Jindal, et al 2020) and that there is no such thing as a “safe” tan when it comes to the very serious risks of skin cancer.
/steps up on soapbox/ Skin cancer is not benign: melanoma (the primary cause of which is UV exposure) kills an average of 7,650 each year in the United States alone; just one blistering sunburn in childhood doubles the risk of developing melanoma, and darker skin tones do not protect from skin cancer, in fact, the darker the skin the more difficult it is to identify in early stages.
Lecture over, for now, wearsunscreenandprotectiveclothingpleaseandthankyou!
But before all that was discovered, well-meaning parents and childcare facilities put nude babies out on blankets in the sunshine for hours; apartment dwellers would put babies in direct sunlight or use window cages for more sun exposure. When and where babies could not get sunshine on a regular basis, tanning lamps, like the one in the comic, could be used while infants and young children napped, GE produced sun lamps that clipped to infant cribs. Not sure how well it would toast bread though.
In fact, following the Great Chicago Baby Mix-Up, in the 1930s some hospitals started using sunburns to identify babies by “branding” them with high-powered ultraviolet lamps.
Automatic Babysitting Machine (Oct 18, 1930)
“Professor Butts forgets to leave a building which is being demolished and when they dig him out of the debris he has an idea for keeping the baby happy while you are out to the movies.
As you go out, door (A) pulls cord (B) causing tennis racket (C) to hit ball (D) which swings against roly-poly (E) causing it to sway to and fro and pull string (F) which works jumping-jack (G). Jumping-jack’s foot kicked trigger of pop gun (H) and shoots cork (I) against chest of cymbal playing clown (J) who claps his symbols together and squeezes rubber ball (K) which is attached to toy rabbit (L) causing it to hop. Zipple pup (M) thinking the rabbit is alive jumps up and down to catch it and jerks cord (N) which is attached to hobby horse (O) causing it to rock and pull horse riens (P) thereby swinging the cradle which finally puts baby to sleep after an evening of fun.
You will not have to bother doing this after the baby is three. Then he will be inviting his friends in to play poker and drink your gin.”Rube Goldberg, “Automatic Babysitting Machine” Oct 18, 1930.
This all seems very sound indeed, especially the note about the Poker and Gin Phase of early childhood development. I imagine the well-advised parents went to see a Charlie Chaplin or Three Stooges documentary.
Kissing Babies (Don’t)
Weekly Inventions (predating 1930s)
Simple Way to Keep A Visitor from Kissing the Baby
As visitor leans on rod (A) to kiss baby, thumb (B) lights automatic lighter (C)- Flame (D) burns string (E), releasing pendulum (F) – hand (G) plays oriental music on Indian ukelele (H) — Whirling Dervish (I) starts whirling, winding rope (J) around himself and pulling crib away from admiring visitor!Rube Goldberg
Preventing strangers from kissing the baby was a serious public health concern in the early 20th century. The U.S. Children’s Bureau put out booklets explaining that under no circumstances was anyone to kiss the baby because it could spread disease. There are photos of American and British babies being wheeled about with signs pinned to their clothing or their buggies warning people not to kiss them. I wonder if this was more political signalling (showing others that their families were well-educated about public health) or if strangers suddenly laying a wet one on a baby was a legitimate threat.
A Few Gadgets to Put a Little Joy Into an Election Campaign
“Armored baby carriage to protect infants from being kissed by candidates.”Rube Goldberg
In the United States, the first record of a politician kissing a baby was Andrew Jackson, and in that case, he foisted the duty onto his Secretary of War as described in an 1888 article, “The Tours of the Presidents” in The Cosmopolitan magazine:
“The coachmen were about to whip up their horses, when Jackson, seeing the woman, called out in stentorian tones, ‘Halt!’
As the carriage stopped, he said to Eaton: ‘Don’t you see that lady; she wishes to meet us.’
At this moment the poor bareheaded woman, with a little baby under her arm, had reached the fence. As she crawled through and stood looking anxiously from one face of the party to the other, General Jackson raised his tall white hat and courteously said, ‘Madam, can we do anything for you?’
Rather abashed, the poor woman replied, ‘I want to see the President.’
At this Jackson again raised his hat, and said, ‘I am he, and I am glad to know you. And is that fine boy your baby? Let me have him.’
The woman handed the dirty-faced infant to Old Hickory. Jackson took it, and held it up before him. ‘Ah! There is a fine specimen of American childhood. I think, madam, your boy will make a fine man some day.’ Then, with a quick gesture, he put the dirty face of the infant close to the face of Secretary Eaton, saying quickly and soberly, ‘Eaton, kiss him?’
General Eaton pretended to do so with a wry face, amid the laughter of the crowd, and Jackson then handed the baby back to the happy mother. Judge Boteler once told this story to President Hayes, and he profited by it. There is no reason why Secretaries Whitney, Fairchild, and Endicott should not render the same assistance to President Cleveland.”Frank G. Carpenter, 1888, “The Tours of the Presidents” The Cosmopolitan, pg 159
And so it would seem the trend began to appease the electorate (or their husbands, since women couldn’t vote), but by Rube Goldberg’s time voters weren’t too pleased to risk their baby’s health to help a politician’s street cred.
The War on Flies
It is a Very Simple Matter to Keep the Flies Off the Babies (1913)
“Fly enters door, attracted by milk coming from bottle (A)- slides down trough (B) to platform (C) is tickled in ribs by revolving tickler (D) laughs until he falls over into one of buckets on endless chain (E) is hoisted over wheel into bottle of hair-tonic (F) which raises a beard on his chin- goes to platform (G) where he shaves himself with rusty razor – looks in mirror (G) and discovers he has contracted the barber’s itch- scratches himself to death along board (G) and falls lifeless into waste basket (H).Rube Goldberg, It is a very simple matter to keep the flies off the babies, 1913
(Note: the G and H are messed up in the comic’s text, I’m just the messenger. )
Fly-borne diseases were another public health issue at the time. Advertisements against the fly were plastered around towns and in newspapers, and some went for the jugular: “A Fly In The Milk May Mean A Baby In The Grave”.
The U.S. Children’s Bureau put out a booklet on infant care in 1914 with repeated warnings about using screens or netting to completely shield infants from flies and had a section dedicated to the prevention and destruction of flies, which included trading horses for cars:
Active Baby Care
Foolish Questions, c1910
And for the most ineffable of Rube’s comics:
Legacy of Public Health
Rube Goldberg’s inert but high-maintenance babies reflected the infant care ideas of this era. Reducing infant mortality became a cause celebre in the late 19th and early 20th century, it even had a hand in promoting the eugenics movement (a troubling topic for another day).
The public health measures were wide-ranging, including the aforementioned prohibition on kissing babies and the prevention of flies. These efforts to reduce child mortality would have been salient to Rube himself, having lost three siblings in childhood and having children of his own.
But Rube Goldberg wasn’t the only cartoonist creating ridiculously complex machines involving infants or dealing with infant care, across the pond, W. Heath Robinson was too, but he deserves his own post.
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Carpenter, Frank G. 1888. “The Tours of the Presidents” The Cosmopolitan, v4: p159. Google Books.
Dept of Maternal and Child Health Libraries (Georgetown University). “Children’s Bureau Publications.” Department of Health and Human Services.
Jindal, Ankur K., Aman Gupta, Keshavamurthy Vinay, Anuradha Bishnoi. Jan 2020. “Sun Exposure in Children: Balancing the Benefits and Harms.” Indian Dermatology Online, 11(1): p94-94. PMC
Library of Congress.
Spellen, Suzanne. 10 Nov 2011. “Walk About: The Great Milk Wars, pt 2.” Brownstoner, LLC.
Turney, Paul C. 2014. “Rube Goldberg.” Screwball Comics/Blogspot. Accessed 25 June 2022.