The Little Mothers’ League: 1912

poor children 1921

When “the little white hearse goes glimmering by,” as James Whitcomb Riley saw it, for a New York baby’s funeral, there is a sorrowful chance that the death may have been due to some little girl of ten or twelve years old, forced at that early age to take upon her, without knowledge, the care of the family baby.

Some time back medical experts were declaring that the chief reason for New York’s high baby death-rate was “the little mother.” Not that she does anything worse than kill by kindness. She believes that odds and ends of pickles and cucumbers are good for babies. She generously bestows on her youngest charge a large share of the ice-cream in which she herself passionately delights. She meets the ever recurring emergencies of infant life with all the courage of ignorance, and weeps most bitterly when a small sufferer departs to a better world.

And at last New York woke up to the danger of her, and by a stroke of genius she has been converted from a menace into an ally, by the organisation of “Little Mothers’ Leagues.” As girls grow in practical wisdom through their training as “Peace Scouts,” so now in East Side tenements life-saving has become the aim of 20,000 girls enrolled as “Little Mothers.”

To begin with, the management of babies is taught in schoolrooms, at classes held during the ordinary vacations. Tenement children do not go out of town for the holidays, and the girls soon found the study of hygiene, with practical demonstrations of proper rules for bathing, dressing, and feeding the baby, quite an interesting event in their school-less hours. When a child had proved herself competent, she was admitted as a “Little Mother,” and was then bound not only to practice right ways upon her small sisters and brothers, but to pass on her knowledge as much as possible.

Each child carries with her a cherished notebook, entitled ‘What I have done for the Little Mothers’ League,’ and in it she records her triumphs in the neighborhood. One girl finds a man giving his baby coffee in a dirty bottle, and warns him against such crimes. “‘He said, ‘Mind your own business:’ I said, ‘I belong to the Little Mothers’ League! and know how to take care of babies.’ When, shortly after this, the infant was as ill as might be expected, the man was persuaded by his still determined adviser to take it to the doctor, who strongly supported her denunciation of coffee and lollipops as diet for the young. “I think the father will never give the baby these things,” she remarks, happily, in her note for the day. Careless grown-ups are often stopped on the streets and reproved, if a ‘”Little Mother” observes them feeding babies with water-melon, or otherwise offending against child hygiene.

In the Italian quarter the ice-cream sandwich man bitterly complains that his business is ruined. And the lessening death-rate already shows how much an organisation of small girls can do to help the tenement infant through “this dangerous business of being a baby.”

Hawera & Normanby [NZ] Star, 30 November 1912: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: High infant and child mortality was a dire fact of the 19th and early 20th century. Summers were an especially dangerous time for purgative diseases such as cholera, believed to be carried in water-melon. Food spoilt more easily in heat and the young were more likely to succumb to food-poisoning. Mothers often were forced by poverty to go out to work, leaving their eldest in charge. One must applaud this ingenious solution. The tenacity of the 8-year-old girl is legendary. White was, of course, the colour of childhood death: white crape instead of black was hung on doors where a child had been lost. Coffins and hearses were white for the young and their play-fellows were often enlisted as pall-bearers.

The poem referenced in the first part of the article is this:


As the little white hearse went glimmering by—

The man on the coal-cart jerked his lines, And smutted the lid of either eye, And turned and stared at the business signs; And the street-car driver stopped and beat His hands on his shoulders, and gazed up street Till his eye on the long track reached the sky— As the little white hearse went glimmering by.

As the little white hearse went glimmering by—

A stranger petted a ragged child In the crowded walks, and she knew not why, But he gave her a coin for the way she smiled; And a bootblack thrilled with a pleasure strange, As a customer put back his change With a kindly hand and a grateful sigh, As the little white hearse went glimmering by.

As the little white hearse went glimmering by—

A man looked out of a window dim, And his cheeks were wet and his heart was dry, For a dead child even were dear to him! And he thought of his empty life, and said :—”Loveless alive, and loveless dead—Nor wife nor child in earth or sky!”

As the little white hearse went glimmering by.

Old-fashioned Roses, James Whitcomb Riley, 1893



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