In July of 1908, a baby show was hosted at Roosevelt Hall by Mrs. Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt and her daughter, Mrs. Augusta Campbell. Babies received prizes for being the prettiest, fattest, best behaved, and merriest. The week before the baby show, “The Rambler” at the Skaneateles Press noted:
“The exhibit is to be commended and will indicate that ‘race suicide’ has not a foothold in Skaneateles, even if it is charged that this village has an unusual number of old maids and old bachelors.”
Not being alive in 1908, I missed the flap about race suicide. But it was mentioned repeatedly in the local papers in connection with the baby show. This was oddly appropriate because race suicide’s chief drum-beater was Theodore Roosevelt, a cousin of Roosevelt Hall’s owner. In a nutshell, our President felt that the world’s superior race was in grave danger of being overwhelmed by its inferiors if it failed to keep up the birth rate.
In a speech before the American Congress of Mothers in Washington, D.C., Roosevelt said:
“A race that practiced race suicide would thereby conclusively show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had better give place to people who had not forgotten the primary laws of their being.”
And speaking in Paris before the French Academy, Roosevelt added:
“The chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land. It was the crown of blessings in Biblical times, and it is the crown of blessings now. The greatest of all curses is sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility.”
“Willful sterility” was, of course, birth control, a crime “of ease and self indulgence” as Roosevelt put it, committed by women who wished to be spared the toils of motherhood at the expense of the end of civilization.
But nobody was holding back in Skaneateles. There were 56 babies entered in the Roosevelt Hall baby show, and afterward the Auburn Citizen proclaimed:
“Mrs. S. M. Roosevelt, a relative of the President, headed a vigorous campaign against race suicide in this village yesterday in carrying out one of the well known ‘Roosevelt policies’ by conducting a Baby show, and the affair proved to be a notable success.”
The Skaneateles Press echoed the sentiment:
“The entire affair was a pronounced success and the show indicates that race suicide does not prevail in Skaneateles.”
It was indeed a banner day for fruitful white people, as the Auburn Citizen noted:
“The sloping terrace that runs down to the picturesque lake was dotted with white-dressed tots who had been prinked to the ears by the fond mothers. There were babies of every hue and color. Fair-skinned babies of New York’s society vied with the berry brown children of Skaneateles residents. Everyone was smiling and kissing and hugging the bundle of sweetness which was of particular interest.”
The “every hue and color” exaggeration aside, the kissing and hugging part brings me to teddy bears, and a revelation that cast a sudden shadow over the Roosevelt legacy. Teddy bears, as you doubtless recall, were inspired by a 1902 Clifford Berryman cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt and a small bear. A woman in Brooklyn, Rose Michtom, made toy bears for her husband Morris’s store, and Morris wrote to the President and asked if they could call them “Teddy’s bears.” The President gave his permission, others began making toy bears, and by 1906, teddy bears were a national craze.
And then, in 1907, this story hit the news wires like a bolt of lightning:
“The Rev. Michael G. Esper of St. Joseph, Mich., declared in St. Joseph’s Catholic church on Sunday that Teddy bears in the hands of little girls were destroying all instincts of motherhood and would become one of the most powerful factors in the race suicide danger. He urged parents to replace them with dolls.”
Having raised the specter of race suicide, Teddy Roosevelt was now implicated as an accomplice. One wonders how he took the news.
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“On American Motherhood,” speech by President Roosevelt, March 13, 1905, before the National Congress of Mothers; “The Rev. Michael G. Esper,” Auburn Citizen, July 9, 1907; “The Rambler,” Skaneateles Press, June 20, 1908; Skaneateles Press, July 10, 1908; “Successful Baby Show,” Auburn Citizen, July 10, 1908; “Duties of the Citizen: Address Delivered Before the French Academy April 23” reprinted in The Independent, January – June 1910; Theodore Roosevelt Collection of the Harvard University Library