Eugenics in the Culture Wars of the 1920s: Some Approaches to Studying a Neglected Topic

At left is the infant selected as the "most perfect baby" in the Panama Canal Zone by the Eugenics Society of America. [Click on image for full picture.] "Beautiful Baby" and "Fitter Family" contests were very popular during the 1920s. At state fairs, for example, the Eugenics Society would set up exhibits at which visitors could answer questionnaires which would reveal their family's "fitness." Here, for example, is the winning "Average" family from the 1925 Big E (Eastern States) exposition in Massachusetts. And here is the form by which their superiority was established. It is interesting that their high educational achievements overrode their poor eyesight and "nervousness." In addition to getting their picture in the local newspaper, the winning family gained the assurance that they were among nature's elite. In fact, any family scoring highly enough received a medal proclaiming, "Yea, I have a goodly heritage."

Eugenics exhibits typically used "flashing lights" to make the movement's central points. "Some People Are Born To Be A Burden On The Rest" the exhibit proclaimed. Every fifteen seconds a light flashed to mark the $100 in tax money spent on the insane, the feeble-minded, criminals, and "other defectives" with "bad heredity." Another light flashed every sixteen seconds. That was how often a baby was born in the U.S. Few of these were perfect, however. Every forty-eight seconds a light flashed, the frequency of babies born who would grow up with the mental age of eight or lower. Every fifty seconds another light flashed. This was the frequency with which Americans went to jail. "Very few normal people ever go to jail" the society insisted. At the far right was a light that flashed every seven and one half minutes. This marked the birth of a "high grade person who will have the ability to do creative work and be fit for leadership." Only 4% of the American population, the Society calculated, fell into this category.

Crime, insanity, mental defects, alcoholism, indigence were all products of "bad heredity." Intelligence, industriousness, moral probity, on the other hand, were all products of a "goodly heritage." There was a crisis confronting America because too many of those with bad genes were having too many babies while those with good genes were having too few. Madison Grant, one of the most effective spokespeople for the movement, described this as The Passing of the Great Race (1916) [an excerpt giving Grant's overall sense of looming crisis is available from George Mason University]; Lothrop Stoddard, for whose best-seller Grant wrote an introduction, called it The Rising Tide of Color Against White Supremacy (1920). [It is interesting to note that both books are available online, courtesy of white supremacy organizations who still extoll Grant and Stoddard as intellectual pioneers.]

Eugenics activists, as both titles demonstrate, asserted a paradoxical message. Members of the "great race," i.e., people of northern and western European backgrounds (with the noteworthy exception of Irish Catholics), were threatened by the proliferation of those, in the words of University of Wisconsin sociologist E.A. Ross, "whom evolution has left behind." But, how could the less fit possibly endanger the more fit? Wasn't the story of evolution "the survival of the fittest"? No, according to eugenicists. They based that "no" on two sorts of arguments. One began with the interference of humans in the workings of natural selection. Advanced societies no longer allowed the less fit to die. Instead charitable organizations and the state intervened to protect those with various disabilities with the consequence that the less fit could successfully reproduce. But this did not explain why the members of the "great race" were themselves not reproducing. Once again, the answer had to do with human intervention in the natural process of selection. In comparatively primitive societies, up to and including the American colonies, children were economic assets. But, with the emergence of modern industrial societies, children became more and more clearly drains on family well-being. Members of these advanced societies had fewer children. Immigrants, coming from less advanced societies, continued to have large families. So did people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Hence the "rising tide."

Eugenicists did not condemn these human interferences, however much they decried the consequences. Instead they made "the human direction of evolution" the cornerstone of their movement. No longer should we allow nature to select human traits; having already intruded upon the process, we should continue to do so but in a scientific manner. Here is how the Eugenics Record Office at the Cold Springs Harbor Biological Laboratory phrased it in 1927:

[Click on quotation for full passage; the cover of this pamphlet is here.]

Who was "most richly endowed by nature"? The Records Office, supported by Carnegie and Harriman funding, sought to find out. Or, more precisely, it sought evidence for what its staff and their supporters already knew to be the truth. An obvious example lies in the winning family at the 1925 Eastern States Exposition "Fitter Family" contest. Poor eyesight "ran" in the family. So did nervousness. Neither prevented the family from being adjudged "fit." Why not? Those concerned with designing the questionnaires had already determined the meanings of "fitness" which mirrored almost perfectly middle-class respectability. The winning family, for example, was headed by a clergyman who also lectured on literary subjects. Several of the children had college educations; all had at least high school educations. All of the males held "good" jobs as did several of the females. The mother was a housewife, according to the form. The family's interests and hobbies ran to Math, literature, and music in addition to golf. None had ever committed a crime, become indigent, had a child out of wedlock (at least so far as revealed by their answers to the form).

Who were the "hereditary defectives and degenerates"? Again, the state fair exhibits make the answer perfectly clear. Criminals ("very few normal people ever go to jail"), the mentally ill, the developmentally disadvantaged, and the chronically indigent were all "born to be a burden." These "defectives" and "degenerates" appeared disproportionately frequently among certain racial and ethnic groups. Lita Hollingworth noted in her highly influential Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture:

One result recurs persistently wherever American children are tested by nationality of ancestors. American children of Italian parentage show a low average of intelligence. The selection of Italians received into this country has yielded very few gifted children.

World War I intelligence tests showed incontravertably, according to Harry Laughlin and other eugenicists, including Lewis Terman of Stanford who helped create the original I.Q. tests, that Italians and other immigrants possessed low intelligence on average. Indeed 70% of the foreign-born draft sample scored 90 or lower on these I.Q. tests, compared to 46% among the native-born white draft sample. African-American scores were even lower. 49% scored below 70.

Who were "those in control" who "must see to it that there shall be fit matings and many children among those most richly endowed by nature" and that "herediary defectives and degenerates" not be "permitted to reproduce at all"? Eugenicists contemplated -- and to large extent achieved -- a state far more powerful and intrusive than that created by the Founders. Consider just a brief list of the movement's successes in the 1920s:

  • State after state adopted variants of Virginia's Racial Purity law which outlawed interracial marriage and/or a model sterilization law drafted by Records Office assistant director Harry Laughlin which provided for the involuntary sterilization of criminals, "defectives," and "degenerates" [there are good brief essays on the sterilization and marriage laws by Paul Lombardo of the University of Virginia at the Eugenics Archive];
  • The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which established U.S. immigration quotas until 1965, closely followed the recommendations of Laughlin's testimony [again Paul Lombardo provides a good brief discussion];
  • Public school systems across the country began "tracking" students, based upon I.Q. tests developed in accord with eugenics principles [see the helpful, if somewhat overwrought, essay by Alan Stoskepf].

By the 1920s Eugenics was well established as a branch of biology. Most high school and college textbooks, for example, devoted a chapter to it -- including the one used by John T. Scopes to teach evolution in Tennessee. Its treatment began with the observation that experience had shown how plants and animals could be improved by proper breeding techniques. Surely it was reasonable to assume the same would hold for humans.

Despite its palpable importance, historians and other scholars have paid little attention to the eugenics movement. Textbooks barely mention it. Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, despite the subtitle which comes directly from eugenics, does not refer to it at all. In this she merely follows the well-trod trail blazed by Frederick J. Hoffman in his The 20's: American Writing in the Postwar Decade. Nancy MacLean does discuss eugenics in her Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan but only briefly and in a highly misleading way. She writes:

The Klan shared a commitment to pseudo-scientific breeding with large numbers of contemporaries across the political spectrum. Still, there was a difference. The order's virulent racialism led it to apply eugenics in an especially dehumanizing, ghoulish manner. One Klan leader and minister thus maintained that "the methods employed in stock-raising" should be applied to human reproduction. He envisioned "elimination of the unfit" people and races from sexual activity and "development of the fit to the highest degree through the process of scientific study."

In fact, the Klan's version of eugenics was altogether orthodox. The precise features MacLean cites as "especially dehumanizing" and "ghoulish" were ones all eugenicists embraced. There is no need to belabor the point. We need to take a fresh look at the eugenics movement. We need especially to appreciate its pervasive influence on popular culture from the 1910s through the onset of World War II.

This site seeks to begin this process. It looks at several avenues of influence beyond the state fair exhibits and contests. One is the appropriation of eugenics research by the Ku Klux Klan to stigmatize Catholics, Jews, African Americans and others. A second is the prevalence of eugenics ideas in movies and popular literature. A third is the use of eugenics themes and motifs in a long-term and highly successful advertising campaign created by the J. Walter Thompson agency for Lifebuoy® soap.