NEW YORK – Those who recall the first half of the 20th century as the golden era of parenting seem to have a selective memory. They remember well-scrubbed children in cardigans and Keds, kids who’d come home from school to find Mom waiting in the kitchen with fresh-baked cookies. That would tide them over until their well-balanced family dinner, after which Dad would help them with their science project.
But no one ever seems to bring up the bassinet that attached to a window frame like an air conditioner if parents were short on space, or the Betty Crocker recipe for meat mixed with Wheaties, intended to extend meat for a few extra meals.
No one until James Lileks, a columnist for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, put parenting in his sights.
The father of a 5-year-old girl, he has a penchant for making fun of yesteryear’s pop culture. His other books tackled bad food and bad home design.
“I wanted to do something on parenthood, but the world doesn’t need another goopy tale about a father who is all thumbs with a Diaper Genie. … This was the next step,” says 47-year-old Lileks.
He did his research for “Mommy Knows Worst! Highlights From The Golden Age of Bad Parenting Advice” (Three Rivers Press) by combing through antique and thrift shops for old books and newspapers, and having tech-savvy friends search for similar material on eBay.
Some of the gems he turned up:
•Advice from the Chicago Board of Health in the 1920s to give children sunbaths – and then cod oil baths.
•Thum, a product that mixes capsicum, acetone nail polish and isopropyl to discourage thumb sucking. “Use like nail polish.”
•Car-baby Convertible by Bunny Bear, a crib-turned-car seat that can be attached to the back of the front seat or simply plopped down next to the driver, who, of course, isn’t wearing a seat belt.
•A primer for fathers-to-be that encourages them to take up home-based hobbies since they won’t be able to go out every night. But, it adds, when they do hit the town, there’s no reason for men to forego their usual fun just because their wives need to do things in moderation.
One of Lileks’ personal favorites is the canned pig brains with gravy, pitched as a lunch treat in a series of advertisements for Kingan’s Reliable. Other products included liver spread, ox tongue, lunch tongue and wieners packed in brine. The label for the can of wieners featured a Heidi-like girl with braids and a candy-stripe top opening her mouth so wide, it looks like she was going to pop the whole hot dog in at once.
“I can hardly imagine that kids came bounding in the front door for lunch and saying, ‘Gosh, I hope it’s pig brain today!’ ” Lileks says with a laugh during a recent telephone interview. “I think mom kept that can around as a threat in case they didn’t eat their grilled cheese.”
He adds: “No mother today would even let her kid see pig brains let alone eat it.”
Among Lileks’ other major observations is Americans’ obsession with children’s constipation, especially during the ‘40s.
“All of the scientific and medical community focused on this problem for half a decade.” There are several ads for enemas, Zymenol Laxative (it’s sugar-free!) and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia included in the book to emphasize the point.
Then there’s the advice not to pick up crying babies. The thought behind that one was that the children would become used to it, which would surely make them greedy and demanding.
“It’s the complete opposite now. We have moms and dads micromanaging kids’ emotional lives from the first ultrasound,” Lileks says.
But Lileks, who describes himself as one of the modern-day touchy-feely types, says he’s not criticizing previous generations or being mean-spirited. In fact, seeing these nostalgic ads and parenting pamphlets leads him to his own happy memories of growing up under “extreme Norman Rockwell circumstances” complete with a Radio Flyer wagon from which he sold apples to his neighbors and a Schwinn bicycle with ribbons dangling from the handlebars.
He’s merely pointing out the evolution of parenting, he explains.
“People were more sentimental about the concept of childhood, but not about the details. It’s not that parents didn’t love their kids – and they got most things right – they just got some things wrong, too.”
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