By the 1850s, Barnum was attempting to draw "respectable" middle-class audiences, (including women and children) to the American Museum. But his 1855 baby contests generated a wave of criticism from the very constituency he was seeking to attract, as middle-class commentators, male and female, denounced Barnum's shows as crass and degrading to women. This excerpt from Godey's Lady's Book, a magazine popular among middle-class women, demonstrates the gender-based arguments some critics made about the baby shows.
Now that this lately originated, but fashionable exhibition is repeated and duplicated throughout the States, we may crave attention for a few sensible remarks upon the "institution," quoted from the Manchester (Eng.) "Guardian," on the social tendency of such congregations.
We do not use fashionable in its limited sense. Stylish people are the last to countenance such proceedings in any way; and we give place to these comments because we sincerely believe with them that the rage for such things arises from ignorant thoughtlessness of their real tendency, as well as that the absolute money value of the prize had little or nothing to do in influencing them to display their children.
What we would reprobate in the strongest terms is the playing upon the natural and holy feeling of maternal pride simply and solely for mercenary views in the getter-up of the exhibitions. It is to us an inexplicable social enigma that so many mothers holding respectable positions, and some of them positions of influence, should be found ready, under any circumstances, to submit themselves to the degradation to which exhibitors and exhibited are exposed. The presence of "respectability" among the audience is less to be wondered at, although not less to be regretted:--
"Let those who have never attended one try to realize the scene; the mothers, the nurses holding labels stating the class and number, the infants feverish and excited in consequence of the foul and heated atmosphere they are compelled to breathe, and the treatment to which they are subjected. Some of them doze uneasily upon the knee of mother or nurse, seeking their natural nourishment before the gaze of the crowd; and there hundreds of indifferent or curious spectators move along, jostling, laughing, joking, commenting with unsparing freedom!"
What a picture for pure infancy, for solicitous maternity! What a betrayal of the Divine trust: "Take these little ones; bring them up for me," It seems impious to add: "Of such is the kingdom of Heaven."