The Coins and Medals of Laura Gardin Fraser
1913 Medal/MAco 1913-005

Obverse:

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Reverse:

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Coin Details

Item Description: 50mm 1913-DATED BRONZE BETTER BABIES MEDAL CROWELL PUB. CO.
Full Grade: NGC MS 66
Owner: gherrmann44

Set Details

Custom Sets: The Coins and Medals of Laura Gardin Fraser
Competitive Sets: This coin is not competing in any sets.
Research: NGC Coin Explorer

Owner Comments:

As America entered the 20th Century, our nation began to turn its attention towards addressing a number of social issues. Among the issues we addressed as a nation was our high infant mortality rate. As a means to educate and encourage parents concerning the proper care and hygiene of their babies, contests were held at popular public venues. These contests then graded the contestants based on certain scientific standards of childhood development. The prizes for the babies with the highest composite scores included cash, medals, loving cups, and certificates. To promote and conduct the contests the “Better Babies Bureau” and the popular Woman’s magazine, “Woman’s Home Companion” sponsored “Better Babies” contests in a number of county and state fairs across the country.

The following is an excerpt from the September 1913 issue of “Woman’s Home Companion” concerning the bronze “Better Babies” award medal designed by then sculptor Laura Gardin. (This medal was issued shortly before Laura Gardin’s marriage to James Earle Fraser.)

And all this time another branch of the Better Babies Bureau had been working out plans for prizes, medals, and certificates of award which will be used this year at all state fairs holding Better Babies contests.

“ A Better Babies Medal, to be cast in gold, silver and Bronze!”

A very pleasing Idea, and one which ought, by good rights, to be entrusted to a woman. So one of the Companion’s art editors went hunting for just the right sculptress to design it. He found her in that quaint section of old New York known as Greenwich Village, perched under a skylight, far above the roar of the elevated railway traffic.

Her name is Laura Gardin, and she ranks among the most successful of America’s young sculptors. Her mother was a water-color artist of considerable note and her grandfather was Theodore Tilton, artist, poet, and journalist, equally well known in America and in France, where he spent his declining years.

Miss Gardin began to study sculpture at the Art League when at seventeen years of age. There she captured the St. Gaudens prizes for composition and for figure from life, with the corresponding scholarships. After three years’ work at the League she studied with J. E. Fraser, who, by the way, designed the new nickel for the United States Government.

She has exhibited regularly at the spring and fall exhibitions of the Art League. Some of her best known works are: a heroic figure of Booth as “Hamlet”; “Timidity,” a charmingly graceful female figure; “The Wrestlers,” shown at the recent Gorham exhibit of bronzes, and the official medal of Cardinal Farley, done in 1912 to celebrate his elevation to the cardinalate. It was this medal which won for Miss Gardin the very desirable distinction of membership in the National Sculpture Society.

When she undertook the commission of designing the Better Babies medal, Miss Gardin decided to employ no one model but to study babies collectively—babies of the rich and babies of the poor, babies on parade and babies rolling on the sand and in gutters, and particularly babies splashing in their bath. The result is the wonderfully human pair of babies which make the Better Babies medal greatly admired by artists. They are real flesh and blood babies, not idealized cherubs.

Miss Gardin watched jealously every step in the casting of the medals.

“No harsh lines,” she warned the workers, “Better Babies have soft, vague lines. Their dimples come and go. Their curves are changeable, elusive and, whether they be blond or brunette, they have what I call a blond softness which is expressed in the single word innocence.” [1]

Concerning the artistic appeal of the Better Babies medal, Elaine J. Leotti in The American Woman Medalist, A Critical Survey comments, “Fraser’s Better Babies medal done in 1913 for the Woman’s Home Companion is her only piece which can truly be called feminine. It is a well-balanced medal, nicely executed if a bit on the sentimental side. The babies’ bare flesh is soft, almost palpable; their curls and dimpled elbows invite touch, thus appealing exactly to the audience the medal was meant to impress.” [2]

Another thing that I find interesting is that Laura Gardin didn’t individually model the two babies appearing on this medal. Instead, she studied the characteristics of all babies resulting in the lifelike babies embodied on the face of this medal. Consequently, I wonder if she learned this technique from James Earle Fraser who employed it in the design of the Buffalo Nickel. Instead of modeling a single Native American for the obverse of his nickel, James Earle Fraser created a composite bust of three Native Americans from separate tribes. [3]

Unfortunately, the “Better Babies” contests of the 1900’s and 10’s later evolved into the popular “Fitter Families” eugenics contests of the 1920’s and 30’s when the primary purpose of the contest shifted from health and hygiene towards human breeding. Consequently, county and state fairs served as a popular platform in which to legitimize eugenics in America. Today the subtly charming Better Babies medal serves as a historic numismatic reminder to the evils of eugenicist thinking. [4]

1 “Woman’s Home Companion” Vol 40, September 1913 pg. 22
2 “The American Woman Medalist, A Critical Survey” by Elaine J. Leotti pg. 212
3 “The Numismatist” November 1999; “James Earle Fraser: Legacy of the West” by William E. Pike
4 Transforming Better Babies into Fitter Families: Archival Resources and the History of the American Eugenics Movement, 1908–1930 by Steven Selden, University of Maryland

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