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The Coney Island Sideshow That Saved Babies

In the early 20th century, you could see exhibits at Coney Island featuring people with physical anomalies, cultural exhibits that were ”human zoos,” and premature babies in incubators. That may seem weird now, but people flocked to see the babies, because they were miracles. Prematurity often meant a short life back then, and hospitals rarely had the time or facilities to save them. Martin Couney's Infant Incubator exhibit went the extra mile to save their lives. If a parent had nowhere else to turn, it made sense to commit their struggling baby to a sideshow.  

Each incubator was more than 5ft (1.5m) tall, made of steel and glass, and stood on legs. A water boiler on the outside supplied hot water to a pipe running underneath a bed of fine mesh on which the baby slept, while a thermostat regulated the temperature. Another pipe carried fresh air from outside the building into the incubator, first passing through absorbent wool suspended in antiseptic or medicated water, then through dry wool, to filter out impurities. On top, a chimney-like device with a revolving fan blew the exhausted air upwards and out of the incubators.

Caring for premature babies was expensive. In 1903, it cost about $15 a day ($405 or £277 today) to care for each baby in Couney's facility.

But Couney did not charge the parents a penny for their medical care - the public paid. They came in such numbers that Couney easily covered his operating costs, paid his staff a good wage and had enough left over to begin planning more exhibits. In time, these made Couney a wealthy man.

Martin Couney had more than just the incubators going for him. He believed in the power of breast milk and cuddling when medical experts did not, although he was also a showman, and dressed the babies in oversize clothing to make them look even smaller. Read about Couney and his sideshow nursery at BBC Magazine.  -via Metafilter

(Image credit: New York Public Library)


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