Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
This essay is excerpted from Megan Culhane Galbraith’s The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book, published by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of the Ohio State University Press.
Their names were Dicky, Dickey, Dickie, and Donny. There was Bobby, Bobby II, Bobbie III, Grace, Edna Mae, and Joan. They were also called “Apartment Babies,” or “Practice Babies,” and they shared a last name — Domecon; short for Domestic Economics.
Plucked from local orphanages, asylums, and almshouses, hundreds of these babies were chosen to help college coeds “apprentice for motherhood.”
In 1919, Cornell pioneered the first degree-granting program in the country for women called “Domestic Economics.” Its aim was to apply scientific principles to domestic tasks deemed “Mothercraft” — such as making meals, cleaning and ironing, household budgeting, and raising children. Female coeds — five or six at a time — lived together in on-campus “Homemaking Apartments” and collectively mothered the practice babies.
Ranging in age from three weeks to a few months old, babies were loaned to the college for a year. The contracts between the orphanages and Cornell stated the babies “could be returned at any time if there was dissatisfaction on the part of the college.”
Their birth names and identities were erased, and they were fatted and raised by a rotating lineup of up to six practice mothers at a time. The co-eds’ work was divided into six parts, including the job of mother and assistant mother.
Domecon babies were highly sought-after for adoption. Adoptive parents were convinced that because the babies were being raised in ideal conditions and by scientific methods it would ensure a smooth family transition. A 1923 newspaper article titled “Coeds at Cornell Mother Real, Live Practice Babies” referred to the babies as “super children.”
The program ran through 1954. In all, 119 children were raised in this manner and adopted, and Dickie Domecon was the first. Most grew up with no knowledge of having been abandoned or surrendered, or having been a Domecon baby.
All identifying records were destroyed.
Three stories underground in Cornell University’s Olin Library is the Carl A. Kroch Library, home to the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Built in 1992, the bright finishes — skylights, white paint, light oak, and a soaring atrium — are the opposite of dark or musty, as I’ve come to think of an archive. The surroundings seem counterintuitive to the trip back in time I am planning to take.
Gaining access to the Domecon records was easy and the process felt oddly sanitized. The librarian walked me through the computerized system and printed me a ticket; I handed it to the archivist and waited at one of 10 tables in the reading room. As I waited, I wondered how many others had inquired about the program in general and the babies, specifically. As an adoptee, I know the feeling of wanting someone to come looking for me. I also know that being found can feel like opening Pandora’s box.
I’d come to Ithaca on a month-long writing fellowship at the Saltonstall Foundation. It was the first time I’d had the luxury of time to spend with my art and away from the stresses of everyday life. It was a solitude I was unused to. I’d become frustrated with my work and myself. I complained to a mentor by email that the hard work of writing about traumatic subjects felt like I was “sitting in my own poopy diaper.” She’d replied, “That’s exactly how it’s supposed to feel.” An outing to the library seemed just the thing to get me out of my head. I figured I’d find some books to read, take a walk, and pull myself out of my funk. I don’t remember the string of words I plugged into the library search engine to arrive at the information about the Domecon babies, but down the rabbit hole I went.
Back at the reading room table, I watched as a staff person carried in a stack of four archival boxes. Inside were carefully labeled folders with photos, ephemera, and student papers printed on dot matrix printers, along with various pamphlets and civic duty bulletins.
I spent days hunched over the table pawing through the material. It seemed the focus was on programmatic aspects of the then cutting-edge degree and its pioneering feminist leaders — Martha Van Rensselaer and Flora Rose — rather than on the babies, who seemed to have been treated like interchangeable laboratory specimens and less like tiny humans. All that remained of the 119 Domecon practice babies were a few dozen photographs. The black and white photos showed college coeds vacuuming, preparing baby bottles, diapering babies, and generally practicing at motherhood. In the photographs taken of the babies themselves some were chubby and exuberant, others emaciated and sickly. All of them were posed, propped up, and no doubt encouraged to smile. It seemed to me to be the commodification and idealization of what a “real child” should be: plump and happy: a confident blank slate.
I took iPhone photos of as many photographs as I could and returned to my studio where I recreated the scenes in the ’60s-era dollhouse I’d brought with me. I’d found more of the fragile plastic baby dolls at a local junk shop that were similar to the two I’d brought with me and used them as stand-ins for the practice babies. A toy company called Renwal manufactured the dolls in the ’50s and ’60s. I could fit four of them in the palm of my hand.
I realized later that I was conducting my own experiment. I was playing with the concepts of home and family. My baby dolls were objects of play, but the Domecon babies were real experiments: human objects. Recreating their photographs in the dollhouse made the practice of practice babies seem dystopian.
By the time I was born in 1966 and adopted in 1967, Second Wave Feminism was in full-throated, radical, and revolutionary mode. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan and 28 women with the purpose to “take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in true equal partnership with men.”
But the difference between the political rhetoric and what was taking place on the ground for women was vast. Activists protested for equal rights, equal pay, and equality, yet here I was in utero with my birth mother who’d been sent away in secret to have me. Homes for unwed mothers, mostly white women, thrived through the mid 1970s. It was still considered a family burden and a shame to be unwed and pregnant. Abortion hadn’t yet been legalized in 1966. In Connecticut, where my birth mother lived, any form of contraception was illegal for unmarried women until 1972.
Conservative opponents to feminist principles, like Phyllis Schlafly, proclaimed, “What I am defending is the real rights of women. A woman should have the right to be in the home as a wife and mother.”
It all sounded very 1919.
After she’d given birth to me, Ursula told me she’d stayed in New York and worked in publishing as an assistant. She’d been fired from a job for wearing a pantsuit and had lived in what she called “the girl ghetto,” an apartment she shared with other young, single, working women, on the Lower East Side.
“Women have babies and men provide the support,” said Schlafly, “If you don’t like the way we’re made you can take it up with God.”
Because I’d spent my first five months in a foster home, in leg braces designed to heal hip dysplasia, I likely wasn’t picked up much, or comforted when I cried. I’ve spent years, and hours of therapy, trying to unravel the complex emotions that come from what my therapist deemed “mild attachment disorder,” which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5) describes as, among other things, “… a problematic pattern of developmentally inappropriate moods, social behaviors, and relationships due to a failure in forming normal healthy attachments with primary caregivers in early childhood.”
“I always wondered about that flat spot on the back of your head,” my adopted mother said to me once as she stood at the counter preparing dinner. “I don’t think you were picked up much as a baby.”
I imagined myself as an infant; chubby thighs pinned wide with a metal rod thanks to a hip abductor brace. Had they not healed correctly, I’d have limped or had my legs permanently braced, my caseworker said. I’d have been unadoptable and likely institutionalized. Back in those days, she said, “No one wanted to adopt a baby with a deformity.”
As a child (before I knew any of this information), I’d convinced myself that one leg was slightly shorter than the other. I’d worried I had a limp that no one was acknowledging for fear of making me feel different. I felt different deep in my bones. Sure, I looked like my parents — I was white with brown hair and they were as well — but I felt othered. That I couldn’t see myself in my parents’ faces created a void. As I dug into my research with the Domecon babies and the contracts that contained the clause about babies being returned, I realized my unconscious fear of being returned as a child to the foster home. I began to understand how being adopted fostered my deep insecurity, distrust, and fear of abandonment.
I had three mothers before I was six months old: my birth mother, my foster mother, and my adoptive mother.
The science of child rearing in the ’60s — in fact, throughout history — demonized mothers for everything from making their children homosexual to being the cause of their sons growing into serial killers.
Babies, on the other hand, were considered blank slates — tabula rasa — ready to be imprinted by whoever held them. Ursula was likely given this spiel in the unwed mothers home before she gave birth to me. Babies from unwed mothers “deserved a better home than their own mothers could provide” was the likely refrain of the nuns and caseworkers.
In the Domecon program it was documented that one practice mother put a baby down for a nap and another, different mother, was there when the baby awoke. Can you imagine the baby’s confusion? How could a baby attach to anyone with so many arms holding him or her? Ursula didn’t get the chance to even be a practice mother, though she told me she’d tried. She’d asked to hold me, she said, before I was whisked away to the nursery, and then forever gone. The nurses let her, but they also said, “Don’t get attached.”
I could call my playing with dolls an experiment but my years as a science writer taught me that experiments begin with a hypothesis — a question in search of an answer; a starting point for investigation. My play began innocently until I took a step back and began asking some hard questions of myself. Why this particular dollhouse? Why these dolls? Why did I love the babies so much? I’d collected six of them within the month.
I wasn’t thinking about “making art” with these dolls. I was procrastinating writing and trying to keep my hands busy. There were three visual artists in residence with me and I talked with them about their work and loved to watch them create. Together, we took trips to the local thrift stores and Goodwill because we shared a passion for using found objects in our art. I used what I had on hand: white copier paper, a black and white printer, my dolls and dollhouse, and a travel sewing kit a previous resident had left in the drawer of the bedside table. I set about using needle and thread to stitch together the paper on which I’d printed the images. I strung up what resembled a clothesline with cotton twine from the junk drawer in the kitchen. I hung the photos with a handful of doll-sized clothespins that had garnished the fancy cocktails we drank downtown.
Any time I was vexed in my writing, I sewed another set of photographs together and hung it in my studio. I stepped back one day and realized it had the effect of a doll-sized clothesline. Without realizing it, I had mimicked some of the domestic tasks — sewing and laundry — that had been taught to the young women in Cornell’s practice apartment.
When I mounted my show in an art gallery, visitors stood gaping at the photos. After reading my artist statement about the Domecon babies, I overheard them say, “That isn’t real, is it? That can’t be real.”