Today we have all sorts of solutions for getting babies fresh air, from SUV-style strollers to Baby Bjorns. But from the 1920s through the ’50s, there was another option.
That option was to hang a cage from your window and put a baby in it.
So what was the deal with these baby cages? We don't know a lot. As the video above shows, many baby cages appeared in London in the 1930s, where they appeared to be embraced by some city councils, as well as by the Chelsea Baby Club, a child care organization that distributed the cages around the city. Later, some British architects incorporated the “baby balconies” into their designs for middle-class homes.
The phenomenon was never particularly widespread, though it was common enough in 1953 that the news film service British Pathé made a film about the trend (meaning that baby cages were reinstalled even after the World War II blitz on London).
Where did this completely reasonable idea come from?
Our best guess is that baby cages were inspired by a desire to give city kids some fresh air. That's in line with the philosophy of Emma Read, a Spokane, Washington, woman who invented one of the first portable baby cages in 1922. As she wrote in her patent application, her dream was to give babies an escape from crowded urban environments ... by suspending them in a cage over crowded urban environments.
Beyond that, we can only guess at the intellectual climate that made baby cages seem appealing. It can probably be attributed, in part, to the growth of American cities in the 20th century, where babies had to get outdoor time any way they could.
Some trace the outdoor focus to eminent pediatrician Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, who held a position at the Rockefeller Foundation and whose influential 1897 book, The Care and Feeding of Children, recommended plenty of sunlight and fresh air for babies. Holt believed that with fresh air “the appetite is improved, the digestion is better, the cheeks become red, and all signs of health are seen.” People listened: In 1904, parents were already putting babies on their roofs.
We don't know if Read or the Chelsea Baby Club were inspired by Holt, but as an influential early pediatrician, he reflected an appreciation of fresh air that was, probably, in the air. So that meant putting babies in the air, too.
Watch the above video to learn the history of the baby cage. You can find this video and all of Vox’s Almanac series on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.