When Premature Babies Were Sideshows


If you think sideshows never did anything positive for humanity, think again. While it's true that most of these attractions only served to further dehumanize those with disabilities, one Coney Island sideshow helped to save the lives of countless infants over the years.

That's because while Dr. Martin A. Couney knew that incubators could help babies born prematurely, there was little interest and money devoted to pushing forward the new technology. So he built a traveling exhibit showing premature babies being cared for in incubators. The first stop was Berlin, followed by a series of stops in the U.S. Eventually, the exhibit found a long-term home in Coney Island starting in 1903.

Visitors to these "child hatcheries" would pay a dime to look at the babies being cared for. Meanwhile, premature babies born all over the city would be immediately rushed out to the exhibit to get the care they needed at the expense of their infant dignity. Because the project pulled in so much money from visitors, the standard of care at the exhibit was exemplary and parents never had to pay a cent for the special treatment.

After almost forty years, the attraction eventually shut down after New York established its first premature baby hospital ward and public interest began to die down. All in all, Couney's project was a success, introducing the world to the power of the incubator and releasing hundreds of healthy babies back into their families without costing the parents a thing.