Neonatology on the Web

Jamestown Exposition of 1907

Jamestown Exposition of 1907

The Jamestown Exposition of 1907 commemorated the 300th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in the Virginia Colony, the first permanent English settlement in the present United States. It was held from April 26 to December 1, 1907 at Sewell’s Point on Hampton Roads, in Norfolk, VIrginia. President Theodore Roosevelt opened the exhibition and presided over the naval review. Tickets for 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. Over the course of the Exposition there were many spectacular attractions, including an international fleet of 51 ships, a huge relief model of the Panama Canal, a wild animal show, a Wild West show, a recreation of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and a recreation of the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Rather remarkably, the Jamestown Exposition included an incubator baby exhibit that was not organized by Martin Couney, Alexandre Lion, M. Ehrlich, or any of the “usual suspects.” It was in fact organized and managed by nurses, and is described on the Hampton Roads Naval Museum web site:

Located on the “Warpath” section of the Exposition, the building invited visitors to the exhibit with the words “BABY INCUBATORS WITH LIVING INFANTS.” While the exhibitors were conducting serious work on the very serious problem of premature babies, the fact that the building was located in the part of the Exposition with carnival-like rides, wild animal shows, flumes, and train rides tended to make one think that P.T. Barnum himself set up the exhibit.

P.T. Barnum did at least inspire the exhibit. Mary Daney Smith, R.N., a senior nurse for the
Society for the Lying-In Hospital in New York, stated that Barnum and his new partner James Bailey produced an incubator display during for their 1898 show in London. The two showmen even charged people to see it and made a handsome profit.

Horrified at the fact that these most vulnerable members of society were being exploited for profit, Smith and her fellow maternity nurses organized the exhibit as a way of securing long-term public funding for premature babies. Incubators designed for human use were new technology, making them very expensive. Smith (who did charge Exposition patrons to see the exhibit) estimated that it cost $15 a day to take care of one baby. She also used the exhibit to demonstrate proper care of premature babies of which mothers everywhere should be aware. The official history of the Exposition recorded that Exposition patrons frequently made multiple visits to this exhibit to check on the progress of the babies.

Nurse Smith was particularly proud of her staff’s care of a child simply known as Baby Margaret. She “was born in Norfolk, Va., at the end of 24 weeks of gestation. She weighed at birth 1 lb. 1 oz., she was taken to the Baby Incubator Institution, where she was kept in the incubator at a temperature beginning at 90° Fahr., and gradually coming down to 78° Fahr. for a period of five months, after which time she stayed in the nursery for six weeks and was sent home when she was 7 months old, weighing 2 pounds and as normal as any baby could be. For the first three months in her life she was fed with a medicine dropper, after that a tiny nipple was made for her by puncturing the rubber bulb of a medicine dropper. She is now over three years old, can walk and talk as any baby her age, and is in every way a prize incubator baby.” — Hampton Roads Naval Musem

Unfortunately, the Exposition had many problems – Many of the planned buildings, as well as the amusement area, were not ready on opening day, hotels were expensive, and the Exposition was a considerable distance from nearby towns. Attendance dropped sharply after opening day. In the end, the total attendance was about 3,000,000, far less than had been anticipated, and the Exposition lost several million dollars. Most of the Exposition site and some of the surviving buildings eventually became the location of the Hampton Roads Naval Base in Norfolk.

A map of the Exposition can be found below. Unfortunately, buildings in the “Warpath” area (amusement park) are not documented here, so we can’t pinpoint the location of the incubator exhibit at this time.

Last Updated on 01/14/23