Material Histories of Home Economics, a Center for Design and Material Culture Research Workshop, 2021-2022
During the 2021-2022 academic year the Center for Design and Material Culture in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison invited proposals for essays and other research-based projects that explore the material culture foundation of home economics and its subsequent transformations as schools of human ecology (application window closed August 1, 2021). Participants met and workshopped their projects with an eye to publishing an edited collection on this topic. Led by Professors Sarah Anne Carter and Marina Moskowitz, the edited collection will explore the connections between material culture and human ecology, and the ways in which these historical connections inform the present and future of both areas of study.
Home economics developed in the late nineteenth century as a course of study on US university campuses focused on applying Progressive Era desires for efficiency and social care to all aspects of home life. While scholars have looked at the ways in which this movement allowed women to engage in academic pursuits with new authority, or to reimagine the home as scientific, among other topics, an important aspect of this movement has been overlooked: its material history.
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“’Steadying to one’s nerves:’ Veva (Fleek) Fink Teaches the Craft of Weaving, 1941-42.”
Graduate Student, University of of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Danielle Burke is an artist and folklorist. She is currently a 2022 Center for Craft Career Advancement Fellow and is completing her Masters in Folklore from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Burke received her BFA in Fiber & Humanistic Studies from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2015, and was awarded a Windgate-Lamar Fellowship the same year. Her artwork has been shown nationally and internationally. She will begin at UW-Madison in the fall of 2022 to pursue a PhD in Design Studies.
Nora Ellen Carleson
“American Fashion for American Women and Home Economics: Crafting the Modern American Fashion Style and Industry”
Nora Ellen Carleson
Ph.D. Candidate, University of Delaware
This project posits that fashion design and education, including at-home courses, prescriptive literature on style and dress, and patterns like that discussed above, along with home economic textbooks written by designers and educators, like Collins, and of course, the garments themselves created what would be known as the “American style” of dress. Moreover, these designers were associated with the American Fashion for American Women campaign (AFFAW), which reflected the Progressive Era ideologies of scientific management, eugenic and euthenics theories, and was steeped in racial science, nationalism, and nativism. Moreover, this era of education fundamentally shaped the modern American fashion industry, with lasting effects still seen in clothing today.
Created by Edward Bok, editor of the Ladies Home Journal, AFFAW (c.1909-1925) attempted to create a distinctly American style of dress for the “true” American woman who was white, Anglo-Saxon, and middle-class. Stemming from the “simple life” movement and Bok’s re-creation of the modern euthenic “American” home emphasizing efficiency and cleanliness, the AFFAW likewise embraced Progressive Era reform ideologies. However, unlike architecture, few schools in the United States taught fashion design.
The AFFAW members created and bolstered fashion design programs to boost the American industry to create new educational opportunities. However, knowing that most women and girls were home sewers and either learned from a family member or in new home economic courses in high schools and colleges, the campaign emphasized creating and distributing home sew patterns and prescriptive literature. It is no coincidence then that 1923 saw Harry Collins publish his textbook f
or home-ec courses, The ABCs of Dress, and Women’s Wear reported that Dr. Louise Stanley, chief of the national new Bureau of Home Economics, announced “Apparel and Textiles” would feature in the science of “Home Study.” As the science of home ecology also came from Progressive Era reform, Stanley noted that apparel and textiles were taught alongside food and nutrition, household management, art in the home, eugenics, and euthenics.
As the following generations of designers and home sewers learned that the fundamental tenants of American clothing design were simplicity, functionality, and fitness, “American style” reflected the AFFAW campaign’s ideological framework of national identity. Today, while most associated with athleisure clothing such as leggings and tunic style tops that can be worn in the gym, running errands, or any other number of activities, the core design principles of American dress, and their inherent discriminatory messages of “American” identity, remain the same.
Nora Ellen Carleson
Nora Ellen Carleson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of American Civilization at the University of Delaware. Her dissertation is tentatively titled “From Paul Revere to Plains Indians, and Peruvian Patterns: The Politics of Progressive Era American Fashion: 1880-1930.” Her work shows how American fashion campaigns of the Progressive Era embraced nativism, nationalism, white supremacy, and eugenic theory to shape politics and culture in the United States. Carleson’s most recent essay, “Lottie Barton, Nineteenth-Century Baltimore’s Premier Modiste and Fashion Smuggler,” can be found in the Maryland Center for History and Culture exhibition catalog Spectrum of Fashion.
“Down the Drain: Garbage disposers, home economics, and emerging environmental consciousness, 1945-1975”
Ph.D. Candidate, Boston University
My work for the Material Histories of Home Economics Workshop examines the rising popularity of the in-sink garbage disposer in the decades following the Second World War, and how those appliances promised to reshape both the domestic and infrastructural processes of food waste disposal. To consumers, disposer companies promoted fantasies of cleanliness, convenience, and domestic bliss in ways which reinforced normative ideologies of gender, race, and modernity, while downplaying fears and concerns about wastefulness, class anxiety, and unnecessary technology. Meanwhile, to developers and municipalities, disposer companies played to infrastructural concerns about the environmental and economic impacts of solid waste dumps, the labor involved in garbage collection, and the shifting costs (both public and private) of domestic waste disposal. By producing and selling these appliances, then, companies like GE, Wasteking, and Insinkerator worked to bring about material and cultural changes on multiple scales – not just within the home, but also in the relationship between the home and the infrastructural networks the home is connected to.
Reading the garbage disposer in multiple registers (both within and without the home) requires working with a variety of sources, from consumer psychology reports, advertisements and representations of disposers on film and television, to engineering journals, city ordinances and plumbing conventions. In particular, the relationship between garbage disposers in consumer literature, filtered through domestic ideology associated with commercial Home Economics departments, and garbage disposers in sanitation engineering literature reveals the interesting gendered terrain of domestic disposal. By looking at the materiality of the garbage disposer, and its meditative function between the interior world of the home and the exterior world of infrastructural networks, this work will critically examine the intersection of economies of the home and those of municipal infrastructures.
Max Clee is a PhD student in American and New England Studies at Boston University, whose work engages with domestic waste in a cultural and environmental context. Coming to Boston from Edinburgh, Scotland, Max received both his MA and MLitt degrees from the University of Glasgow, during which time he wrote about baseball stadiums from a cultural landscapes perspective. Recently his work has taken him more towards environmental and material culture approaches to looking at both the act and the implications of throwing things away in postwar America.
Gail Dunbrow, Laura Leppink, & Sarah Pawlicki
“Eugenics at the ‘Great Minnesotan Get-Together’: ‘Better Babies,’ ‘Fitter Families,’ and ‘Purebred People’ at the Minnesota State Fair, 1905-1925”
Gail Dubrow, Professor of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Public Affairs and Planning and History, The University of Minnesota
Sarah Pawlicki, PhD Candidate, University of Minnesota
Laura Leppink, MA, University of Minnesota
Known as the “Great Minnesota Get-Together,” the Minnesota State Fair has been part of the state’s identity since its establishment as a territorial fair in 1856 and as a state fair in 1859. Today, it is a point of pride as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region. However, these proud histories elide stories of Dakota dispossession, of indigent laborers at the Ramsey County Poor Farm which once occupied the land where the state fair is currently housed, and of the fair’s role in popularizing eugenic improvement regimes for “breeding better people.”
Throughout the 1920s, the eugenics movement, responsible for advancing pseudoscientific theories surrounding “race betterment,” was ubiquitous in classrooms, kitchens, and legislatures across the United States. This project argues that state fairs were key venues at which eugenicists provided propagandistic edutainment about “better breeding” methods designed to yield purebred progeny and fear-mongered about “defectives” polluting the white race. The nationalistic and colonial boosterism motivating the formation and continuation of state fairs made event planners logical allies for eugenicists embedded at universities, hospitals, asylums, and city capitals.
Gail Dubrow (she/her) is Professor of Architecture and History at University of Minnesota, where she teaches in Heritage Studies and Public History. She is the author of two award-winning books: Sento at Sixth and Main, with Donna Graves; and Restoring Women’s History Through Historic Preservation.
Laura Leppink (she/her) received her MA in Heritage Studies and Public History with an emphasis in Historic Preservation at the University of Minnesota. Her current work as a research assistant for Dr. Gail Dubrow on disability justice, public history, and placemaking combines her passion for activism through history work, with her continued advocacy for recognizing the power of place and preservation.
Sara Pawlicki (she/they) is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Minnesota, with subfields in Native American and Indigenous Studies and Heritage Studies and Public History.
“Title in Process”
Master’s Student in Human Ecology and Library and Information Studies, University of of Wisconsin–Madison
“Is There a Place for Art?: Aesthetic Meaning, Training and Expression in the Home Economics Field”
Professor Emerita, Design Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison
One of the least studied areas of Home Economics is the field of “related art.”While “related” was not clearly defined, the relationship always pointed back to the domestic context. When introduced into the Home Economics curriculum in the early 20th century, concepts of aesthetics and design always held a secondary role—almost like an afterthought–and were never central to the enterprise. In the recent and widely cited book, The Secret History of Home Economics, the topic of related art is completely absent.One of the interesting aspects of this related art approach and education is that it was always materially based. Students were taught design through the study of objects and their relationships, and for example studied textiles through hands-on learning with actual fabrics and garments. Harriet and Vetta Goldstein’s Art in Every Day Life, first published in 1925 and continuing in multiple editions until 1960, was completely focused on real-life aesthetic situations; formal design analysis was applied to everyday, home-based problems. The Goldsteins, who taught at the University of Minnesota, used objects from their personal collection in their classroom teaching. This was true of many other related art educators as well; collecting, teaching, and analysis were inextricably connected.
This study will look at the field of related art, tracing its development from its roots in the aesthetic advice givers who wrote for publications like Ladies’ Home Journal through its incorporation into home economics departments in North America and beyond. It will examine the shifts of emphasis over time, its incorporation of textile and clothing design, and the expansion by the 1950s and 60s to creative “craft” exploration. It will explore ways that materiality was focused upon, either as the object of study or in the actual production of material objects. The study will emphasize the contradictions and limitations of the related art approach, which was often highly proscriptive (e.g., identifying “good and bad” design) and limiting, and yet often encouraged students to approach life with love, appreciation and joy. The study will demonstrate how the field evolved with changing cultural mores over time, and how and why it was always the less valued “kid sister” of the home economics field.
The study will by necessity become more focused as the research is completed, but preliminary research strategy ideas include examining early Home Economics journals to see if, when and how related art was addressed; whether there was any role for related art in the Lake Placid conferences; how individual related art instructors’ personal collections were used; and what the actual legacy of the field has been.
Beverly Gordon is Professor Emeritus in the Design Studies Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was also a Faculty Associate in the Folklore and Women’s Studies programs at U.W., and was one of the initiators of the interdisciplinary Material Culture certificate program. For close to thirty years, she taught classes on textile, fashion and cross-cultural design history and appreciation, and material culture analysis.Gordon’s involvement in the textile field is long-standing. She served on the Board of the Textile Society of America for ten years, and was President of the organization from 1998-2000. Her numerous publications have been highly influential. One of her early books, Shaker Textile Arts (1980), is still in print after 40 years! Textiles: The Whole Story—Uses, Meanings, Significance (2011) is a comprehensive overview, otherwise called The Fiber of Our Lives: Why Textiles Matter. Other titles include The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Women’s Lives, 1890-1940 and Feltmaking: Uses, Meanings and Contemporary Explorations. Her articles include “The Hand of the Maker: The Importance of Understanding TextilesFrom the Inside Out,” and “”Woman’s Domestic Body: The Conceptual Conflation of Women and Interiors in the Industrial Age.“ She remains a sought-after reviewer for professional journals such as Design and Culture, Dress (Costume Society of America), and Textiles and Clothing Research Journal. Beverly Gordon is also a practicing artist. She has worked with many fiber techniques: weaving, feltmaking, embroidery, hooking, etc. In the last two decades she developed a unique body of work consisting primarily of collage and assemblage sculpture that incorporates textiles and natural detritus such as bones, pods, and shells. Some of this work was featured in Reconfigured, a solo exhibit at the Design Gallery, in 2013.
Maeve M. Hogan
“The Role of Arts and Crafts Ideology in the Interior Design Prescriptions of Home Economics”
Maeve M. Hogan
Ph.D. Student in Design Studies, School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison
“Light for the Home: Material Culture of Kerosene and Home Economics during the Progressive Era”
PhD Student in History, SUNY-Albany
“We must do this ourselves’: American Indians and the American Dream in the Twin Cities”
Assistant Professor, Civil Society & Community Studies/American Indian Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Elise C. Kerns
“(Fallen) Women’s Work: Prostitution, Domestic Labor, and Progressive Economics at the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia (1878-1908)”
Elise C. Kerns
Ph.D. Student in Literary Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Founded in 1800, The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia opened with the aim of isolating and redeeming the “fallen” American woman — a woman who had had a child out of wedlock, and abortion, or was considered a prostitute. The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia sought to reform wayward women by educating them in domestic skills, combining penitent prayer with the act of laundering to simultaneously scrub away and atone for their moral transgressions. However, at the turn of the twentieth century (~1878-1908), The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia made massive shifts in their operation which reflected broader trends in Progressive-era reforms and economic policies as well as an increasing investment in the emergent field of Home Economics. These shifts, which included a decrease in the average age of admittance and an increased focus on reintegrating their inmates back into the workforce and the marriage market, represent an important evolution away from focusing primarily on the moral consequences of the fallen woman’s improper sexuality and towards the financial consequences of stable domesticity and the labor enacted in the home. In placing the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia in conversation with Home Economics and Progressive-era policies, this paper seeks to recenter a definition of “home” onto a case study example of a site which was both a temporary residence and a place of education in domestic labor. As an institution which taught women the formalized skills of housekeeping and stewardship, The Magdalen Society of Philadelphia was simultaneously positioned as a space of instruction in social care and an alternative “home” itself. This paper therefore focuses on three aspects of the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia in relation to the field of Home Economics: the architecture and organization of these spaces insofar as they attempted to simulate the operations of a middle-class American home; the vestiges of material history involved in the Magdalen Society of Philadelphia’s education in home-making, specifically in relation to sanitation and laundry; and, critically, the ideological underpinnings of these institutions which engendered a relationship between social reform, economic policy, and the appropriate domain of “women’s work.”
Elise C. Kerns
Elise C. Kerns is a PhD Student in the Literary Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include modernism, modernity, and the avant-gardes; fashion design and material culture; the history of medicine, science, and technology; and film and media studies.
“Better Breadless than thoughtless (Bättre brödlös än rådlös): Class, Ethnicity, Education, and Feeling in Swedish-American Cookbooks 1880-1920”
Ph.D. Student in Scandinavian Folklore, University of Wisconsin–Madison
“The Influence of Home Economics Within The Natural Foods Movement: A Photo Essay”
Anchored in Suzanne Wechsler’s archive and personal papers between 1976-1986, the essay highlights key moments from photographs and press clippings, resumes, brochures, pamphlets and promotional material for events and nutritional programming and cooking classes she was teaching both at home and in community, food demos with natural foods, gardening, growing sprouts, and documentation of her home kitchen space. After graduating high school in 1967 in Southern California Wechsler completed two years of junior college at Fullerton College. It was here she received a scholarship from the Home Economics department to pursue a career in early childhood education and received her degree in 1973. The impact of the kitchenette stations in the Home-Ec department created a foundation for Wechsler to learn how to feel comfortable in the kitchen and all the language she developed around food, thinking about sourcing, preserving, and preparing, started in that program. After moving to Minneapolis MN, in 1976 she became heavily involved within the counterculture coop community, further pursuing her interests that revolved around teaching, cooking, nutrition, vegetarian diet, food preservation, organic gardening, and natural childbirth. A trailblazer in the natural foods movement, Wechsler was thinking unconventionally about food and nutrition long before organic was a household word.
Faythe Levine has been in service to the arts for over twenty years advocating for creativity to be used as a vehicle for community building, personal independence and empowerment. Motivated by reimagining archives and collections through a queer feminist lens, her creative labor intersects with consulting, education, curatorial projects, consulting, writing, documentary film, and happenings. Levine’s core belief is that visual culture is a conduit for radical change and generative dialog. Through her work she strives to perpetuate momentum towards a future that holds space for collaboration, transparency, accountability and complexity. Levine works as a curator, consultant and educator in both traditional and DIY spaces and her most widely known projects, Sign Painters (2013) and Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY Art, Craft and Design (2009), both feature length documentaries with accompanying books published by Princeton Architectural Press have toured extensively.
Nora Renick Rinehart
“The Role of Textiles in Home Economics Education”
Nora Renick Rinehart
MFA Student, Design Studies, School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Laura Isabel Serna
“The Model Box Car House: A Pedagogical Space for Americanization in an L.A. Railroad Camp”
Laura Isabel Serna
Associate Professor of History and Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California
“Environmental Histories of Home Economics: Why Are they Worth Telling?”
Associate Professor of History, SUNY, Albany
The fields of home economics and environmental history both probe the interface between individuals’ lives and the broader economic and ecological world that they inhabit. The word home in home economics refers to a physical structure, a set of family relations, and an economic unit that organizes work and imparts specific values. But the word economics points to the relationship between that physical structure and its surroundings, and as a unit of broader political and economic life. Like home economics, the field of environmental history bridges two conceptual realms—that of people and of the natural world. Its scholars explain people’s ideas and activities that link them to the natural world, and how natural processes shape human life. Might pairing these approaches offer new insights in understanding the relationship between households and the broader systems that sustain them?
Home economics thinkers have more often focused on activities within the walls of the home than outside of them. Environmental historians, by contrast, have more often traced changes in forests, fields, and fisheries than the working environments of the home. The technologies households used to carry out this work drew upon natural resources and transformed environments beyond its walls. Sanitary disposal, energy systems, and ventilation, for instance, carried material across the indoor-outdoor threshold. This essay invites readers to examine the boundary between home and the environment from inside-out and outside-in. It highlights ways that three different conceptual models–energy systems, time-use surveys, and consumer politics—might provide new insights into the work of the home and the environments such work transformed.
Kendra Smith-Howard, associate professor of history at University at Albany (SUNY), writes histories of the environment and public health in the twentieth-century United States. She learns from students’ questions and endeavors to stoke their curiosity about the past. Her book Pure and Modern Milk examines how changing attitudes towards human health and nature shaped the history of milk and the farms from which it came in the twentieth century. She is currently writing an environmental history of cleaning technologies, tentatively entitled, The Dirty History of Cleaning Up.
“From Chickees to a “Modern ‘white man’s’ house”: The Dynamics of Settler Home Economics Programs and the Florida Seminole,1950s-1960s”
Ph.D Candidate in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, Bard Graduate Center
In the 1950s and 1960s, settler women in Southern Florida organized what they conceived to be benevolent campaigns for the improvement of the Seminole people native to the region. Among their efforts, they moved settler-style, single-family homes onto reservations and provided loans to male heads of families to build settler-style homes. They then organized a home economic education program for Seminole women to learn how to care for their new homes. This program culminated in a competition to name the best Seminole housewife, judged by the settler housewives who ran the program.
These enclosed single-family houses differed dramatically from traditional Seminole homes. Historically, Florida Native Seminole families lived in camps made up of multiple palm-thatched, open-sided structures called chickees which were well adapted to the hot, watery environment. Extended matrilineal families camped together sharing centralized facilities and community responsibilities such as childcare and growing and hunting food. The clan matriarch held authority over the camp.
In this paper, I argue that, although well-intentioned, these programs sought to disrupt Seminole matrilineal authority and cultural, kin, and clan connections. By securing “Modern ‘white man’s’” housing for Seminoles, these programs replaced historical Seminole roles and interrelations with heteropatriarchal family structures and gender roles. Additionally, they created an artificial hierarchy of home economics in which the Seminole women were deficient. The effect of these programs weakened Seminole sovereignty and fortified the apparent supremacy of settler culture, a necessary fantasy of settler colonialism.
As sources, I utilize scrapbooks created by the women who organized these programs and the archives of U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs employees who collaborated with them. I draw on Seminole Oral Histories, other first-person sources, and material culture to access the experiences and agency of the participants of these programs. My framing is influenced by Native and feminist thinkers who argue the complicity of white women and ideas of domesticity in American expansionism and settler colonialism.
Amanda Thompson is a PhD candidate at the Bard Graduate Center who works at the intersections of Native American art and critical craft studies, concentrating her research in issues of gender and settler colonialism. Amanda has over fifteen years’ experience managing exhibitions and collections for museums including the New-York Historical Society and the Museum for African Art. In recognition that she grew up and resides on Narragansett homelands, Amanda serves on the Board of Rhode Island’s Tomaquag Museum, an Indigenous-run institution committed to expanding knowledge of and creating opportunities for the Native peoples of Southern New England.
 Hogan, Frank. “Indian Wives Adopt White Women’s Ways,” undated. Found in scrapbook of Mrs. Frances Sheldon, Broward County Library, 1976.14.1.
“The Fennells Build Their Dream House: Furnishing Family in 1930s America”
Independant Scholda/Hancock Shaker Village
“Design as Care: A Feminist History of Human-Centered Design”
Associate Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago
“Clothing Problems and Limitations: Accessible Design in Home Economics Departments”
Ph.D. Student in Design Studies, School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison
Elisabeth M. Yang
“’Kingdoms of Babes’: Home Nurseries as Medico-Moral Domains of Infants in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century America”
Elisabeth M. Yang
PhD Independent Scholar at Library Company of Philadelphia
Directions for constructing and setting up home nurseries were a common feature of child-rearing and domestic medicine manuals, during the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries. Physicians and other child-rearing authorities offered detailed directions on location, design, decoration, materials, and management of nurseries. The notion that the house had both a physiological and psychological impact on the child urged mothers to design the nursery in appropriate ways under the aegis of medical experts. For the medical community and middle-class mothers and mothers-to-be in Victorian and early Progressive America, domestic architecture had a prescriptive power; the configurations of the home nursery would lead to the configurations of the infant, and in turn, the “civilized” race, and nation.
This chapter addresses how the home nursery itself was medicalized and transformed into a sanctified space of science, technology, religion, and politics, as physicians and child-rearing authorities proscribed objects as implements of “moralizing” and “normalizing” the infant. I explore what the material world of babies—the nursery and its objects—reveals to us about their moral nature and agency, suggesting an intimate link between the physical topology of babyhood and the moral ontology of babies. Drawing from archival research and the material culture of babies, I consider that the ways in which infants’ engagement with the material world—the nursery, its furniture, and other objects or things of infancy—presumably, awakened or actualized their innate moral and spiritual capacities. I discuss how medical advice on home nurseries and infants’ objects connected the material with the immaterial, the clean with godliness, the beautiful with beauty, the simple with simplicity, and the dark with vice—signifiers of one’s race and class. The exigency to train the infant to be “moral” under the auspices of the superintending physician and scientific experts stemmed from this endemic fear of the regress and dissolution of the “superior” white race and in turn, “civilization.” Demonstrating how child health and medicine treaded beyond its ambit to the realm of metaphysics and theology, I point to the theoretical entanglements between the material and moral in the making of the idealized American healthy and happy infant in the home nursery which emerged as an ideological concourse of various infancies—mechanistic, plant-like, savage, tyrannical, impressionable, innocent, individualistic, and patriotic.
Elisabeth M. Yang
Dr. Yang holds a Ph.D. in Childhood Studies, an MA in the History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, an MA in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, and a BA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. As an interdisciplinary scholar, she draws from the history and philosophy of science and medicine, sociology, theology, childhood studies, and material culture. She is currently working on a collaborative NEH-funded digital humanities project on the American Revolution as well as her first book, Constructing Moral Babies, concerning the historical and philosophical constructions of moral babies in American medical and pedagogical discourses during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.