Recently, a pair of newspaper articles from 1912-1913 have been making the rounds of pop culture blogging websites Jezebel, Gothamist, and The Huffington Post. In December of 1912 The New York Times published that Elsie Scheel, a 24 year-old co-ed at Cornell University’s College of Horticulture, was “The Perfect Girl.” Two months later, in February of 1913, a similar article was published about Elsie in The Sunday Morning Star, explaining that Elsie’s perfection was rooted in her uncanny resemblance to the Venus de Milo, brought on by “sane living.” It’s easy to see why Elsie’s story is so compelling to today’s blogs. It’s fun and quirky and all three sites highlight the articles’ more humorous aspects, including Elsie’s love of beefsteak (evidenced by the byline “Beefsteak her Mainstay”) and her claim that she “doesn’t know what fear is.” Elsie’s story also puts the ideals of the early twentieth century in stark contrast with our own modern ones, specifically regarding women’s bodies.
While these are legitimately interesting aspects of Elsie’s story, what I found to be most striking about the articles was that we had something just like them in the collections at the South End Historical Society (SEHS). We have an article, published in 1916 by an unknown paper in Lynn, MA, which declares that Edith M. O’Shea is “Lynn’s most perfect baby physically.” This article came to us as a part of the Aertsen-Blair collection, a box of old photographs (and this newspaper article) found in the rowhouse at 175 West Brookline Street and donated to the SEHS by the current residents. Through some research, we determined that these photos belonged to a former resident of the house, Beatrice Gallivan (the SEHS held a program about the house, the collection, and our journey researching it about a month ago). Edith O’Shea, Lynn’s most perfect baby, was Beatrice Gallivan’s niece. Nineteen month-old Edith was determined to be 99% physically perfect for a girl of her age (she missed that last 1% because “her tongue was coated at the time of the examination and she suffered from discoloration”), and was declared the most physically perfect of all 500 babies entered in what was then called a “Baby Show.”
Now, of course, Edith’s story taken alone seems like just another quirky and compelling artifact of times past, but that would be missing the bigger picture. What’s really interesting is that when taken in conjunction with the articles about Elsie Scheel, it becomes clear that studies of physical perfection were a trend in the early twentieth century, and that such studies were important enough to the popular culture of the time to make the newspapers. In fact, a search of Pro-Quest Historical Newspapers for an article between 1900 and 1920 with the word “perfect” in their titles yields a multitude of such articles: “How Vivian Vaugh Became ‘The Perfect Woman’” (The Chicago Daily Tribune, 1905), “Perfect Baby is Challenged: Denver’s Champion Infant Throws Down Gauntlet” (Los Angeles Times, 1913), “The Perfect Man: Ralph Rose Compared with the Apollo Belvedere” (The Atlanta Constitution, 1905). The similarities between the Edith and Elsie stories are obviously more than just a coincidence, so what is this article about Edith really telling us about American culture in the early twentieth century?
The first thing we can learn from Edith’s story is that attitudes towards women’s and girls’ health were changing drastically in the early 1900s. Edith’s mother claimed that “lots of sleep and fresh air have made Edith the prize morsel of humanity she is,” and the article insists that all of the prize-winners in the Lynn contest were “fresh air babies, accorded the best of food and care” and that none “look[ed] petted or coddled.” This is evidence of the new understanding that moderation, fresh air, and especially athleticism were important for the well-being of women and girls. This is reflected in another article from The Chicago Tribune published in 1907 titled “Chicago Producing MOST PERFECT RACE OF WOMEN in the World.” The article is about the city’s new athletic facilities for women, which were “giving to Chicago a new generation, a generation of perfect women, free from ills, strong, self-reliant, and beautiful.” The city of Chicago likewise declared that as a result of their increased numbers of playgrounds and gymnasiums for girls, “the rising generation of Chicago girls will be more beautiful, healthful, and normal than the one preceding it.” At the time this was written, it had not been long since the ideal woman would have never had the strength to take up physical tasks for their own health, let alone play basketball, as the young girls of Chicago were encouraged to do. Still, as the twentieth century got underway and the movement for women’s suffrage (which, incidentally, was a favorite cause of Elsie Scheel’s) gained traction, women were increasingly seen as strong, independent, and athletic individuals. This is seen in the two articles about Elsie, both of which emphasize her athleticism and discuss her propensity for physical labor and her “tramps” through the wilderness. Edith and Elsie are both proof that in the early twentieth Century, frail women were out and strong women were in.
The cultural obsession with physical perfection that we see in our article about little Edith is also linked to another, darker aspect of United States history at the turn of the century. Lynn’s “Baby Show,” as well as Cornell’s study of co-eds, were undertaken at the height of the American Eugenics Movement. Although most people associate it with the policies of Nazi Germany, Eugenics was very popular in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The Eugenics Movement encouraged American racism and xenophobia while influencing state health policies, which led to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of American citizens because of race, class, or mental disability. One key aspect of the American Eugenics Movement was the process of selective breeding, which involved identifying genetically perfect specimens to breed with each other. Although there is no mention of “breeding” the babies, Lynn’s contest to find the most physically perfect children is undoubtedly connected to the goal of identifying the “fittest” specimens in the city. This connection becomes all the more clear when taken in conjunction with yet another article about “perfect” babies, “Perfect Babies to Mate for the Good of the Race: Remarkable Pact Between the Mothers of Hundred-Point Infants” (Los Angeles Times, 1915). This article, which includes the byline “Parents Plan Future Union in Eugenics’ Name,” tells the story of two children whose mothers arranged their marriage soon after they both scored 100% in a “Baby Show” almost identical to the one held in Lynn. Both children were the winners of multiple “Eugenic trophies” at the time of the betrothal.
Whether Edith’s parents were consciously thinking about selective breeding when entering their children into the Lynn contest is impossible to say but probably unlikely. Likewise, based on the articles about Elsie Scheel, it’s doubtful that she was a fervent Eugenicist looking for her “perfect” mate. Still it’s important to remember that historical artifacts like these ones don’t stand alone. When one makes it onto our modern pop-culture radar, it shouldn’t just be something we giggle at and move on. Yes, the byline “Beefsteak Her Mainstay” seems funny to us now — and there’s nothing wrong with having a laugh at history — but we should also feel encouraged to think about the things we read historically. Edith and Elsie were the results of a complex culture that has since disappeared, and it’s that complexity that really makes them so compelling.