January 4, 2013 in City

How did Portable Baby Cage not catch on?

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

Here in Spokane, we’re proud of our contributions to the wider world. Father’s Day. Expo ’74. Craig T. Nelson.

Somehow, though, one revolutionary contribution to the world’s parents has escaped widespread notice: the Portable Baby Cage.

If you don’t read those words – Baby Cage – with a secret thrill, with an unspoken recognition that deep in the unexplored reaches of your mind, you always knew that cages were perfect for babies, then I suspect you’re not a parent.

Somehow, though, the Portable Baby Cage never caught on.

Which is not to say it hasn’t gotten some attention. In the past couple of years, the Portable Baby Cage – designed by Emma Read of Spokane and patented in 1923 – has had moments of fleeting, bloggy fame. Most of that arises from the fact that some astonishing photographs of the cage in use during the 1930s in London popped up and bounced around online.

But Read herself, as well as any level of detail about the creation of the cage, remains stubbornly elusive. There is no file on her in the newspaper’s archives. She is not mentioned in city histories that I could find. Google her, and you are reminded of two things: Google is not omniscient and about 80 percent of the online world is a vast cavern of echoes.

In fact, about all I could discover about Read – beyond several hints and possible connections I couldn’t confirm – was contained in the Patent Application No. 576,138, which she signed:

“It is well known that a great many difficulties rise in raising and properly housing babies and small children in crowded cities, that is to say from the health viewpoint,” the application states, proceeding to note that babies living in big apartment buildings didn’t get enough fresh air.

“With these facts in view it is the purpose of the present invention to provide an article of manufacture for babies and young children, to be suspended upon the exterior of a building adjacent to an open window, wherein the baby or young child may be placed.”

Inside the cage would be room for “proper toys” and “suitable bed clothing … so that when it is time for the baby to take a nap, the bed clothing may be made up in one corner wherein the baby may sleep.”

The application includes instructions for building a cage, complete with measurements and materials for putting together a sheet-metal box with cage or mesh walls, a braced support and a slanted roof, upon which a nice corrugated metal cover is shown, to keep rain and snow off the baby.

How did this not take off?

The only evidence of the Baby Cage in use comes from London in the 1930s, where a seemingly short-lived experiment with the devices was conducted in some boroughs with lots of crowded apartments.

According to the Daily Guardian, a London newspaper: “Built in 1937 and distributed in London to members of the Chelsea Baby Club, the baby cage was meant for women with children but without a backyard, garden or terrace for them to play in or on.”

The article, published in July 2012, goes on to note drolly: “She doesn’t spell it out, but Emma Read was a forward-thinking woman: If the patent had taken off and baby cages been installed all over big cities, the roof would have also served to protect the baby from anything that fell from the wire floor of the cage above.”

The Baby Cage seems to have faded from view for decades. But the flame of its minor fame flickers every now and then. In 2010, Time magazine – calling it a “creepy wire contraption” – named it one of the 50 Worst Inventions of All Time.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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