'Practice Babies': An Outdated Practice, Rediscovered From 1919 to 1969, college home economics programs had "practice apartments" where young women learned the domestic arts, including how to mother by caring for infants lent by local orphanages to live at the school. Author Lisa Grunwald shares the history she discovered in researching her novel The Irresistible Henry House.
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'Practice Babies': An Outdated Practice, Rediscovered

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'Practice Babies': An Outdated Practice, Rediscovered

'Practice Babies': An Outdated Practice, Rediscovered

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As first lines go, the beginning of Lisa Grunwald's book "The Irresistible Henry House" is quite intriguing.

Ms. LISA GRUNWALD (Author, "The Irresistible Henry House"): (reading) By the time Henry House was 4 months old, a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son.

NORRIS: And thats Lisa Grunwald, reading from her book.

The book is a work of fiction, but the premise is based on fact. From around 1919 to 1969, college home economics programs around the country had so-called practice houses or practice apartments, where young women learned the domestic art: cooking, cleaning, running a household.

The college students learned about mothering skills by caring for practice babies - infants lent by local orphanages to live at the school.

We wanted to learn more about practice babies so we've asked the author, Lisa Grunwald, to join us to talk about this. Welcome to the program.

Ms. GRUNWALD: Thanks so much.

NORRIS: How did you discover this?

Ms. GRUNWALD: Well, I was working on a book of American women's letters, an anthology, and I found this snapshot on a website - of the most beguiling baby, with this roguish grin. And I wondered who he was, and I clicked on his picture and learned that he had been a practice baby at Cornell. And he had been cared for by about a dozen women, who took turns being his practice mother.

NORRIS: At Cornell University.

Ms. GRUNWALD: Mm-hmm, but it turns out that it was common throughout the country. By the 50s, there were 40 or 50 colleges and universities around the country who actually had this program in place, or something very similar.

NORRIS: You know, that child that you first saw, his name was also interesting. He obviously wasnt Henry House. But tell us about his name.

Ms. GRUNWALD: His name was Bobby Domecon, it was for domestic economics. And all of the babies at Cornell were named something Domecon. So there was Bobby Domecon and Mable Domecon, and even one baby whose name was Dickey Domecon. In Illinois State University, all of the babies were named something North or something South, depending on which building they were raised in.

NORRIS: How did this process of practice mothering work?

Ms. GRUNWALD: Well, a little bit differently in each place. But the gist of it seems to have been that the baby would come from the orphanage - an infant -and be cared for in rotation. So at some universities, it was sort of each mother a week at a time, or 10 days at a time. In others, it was one mother puts the baby down for his nap. And when he wakes up from his nap, another mother is standing there, waiting to pick him up. And it was more of a sort of daily rotation.

NORRIS: All on a very careful schedule, as I understand.

Ms. GRUNWALD: Very careful schedule. I mean, when I first read about this, I thought it was sort of weird and a little creepy. But in fact, at the times in which this took place, everything was considered a possible opportunity for scientific approach, and child care was no exception.

The practice houses really embraced the idea that you could learn mothering the same way you learned cooking or learned chemistry. Everything was learnable, and systems were really important.

NORRIS: There's some clear benefits for the children who went through this practice mothering. Many arrived suffering from malnutrition, and quickly plumped up with good health after their stint in those programs. But were there concerns about this at the time?

Ms. GRUNWALD: I wasnt able to find a whole lot of controversy about this, with the exception of a case that actually made it into "Time" magazine in 1954, that took place at Illinois State. And it involved a baby named David North, for the north house he was living in.

And apparently, the Illinois State Child Welfare Division got wind of the fact that the child was being raised on campus this way, and was extremely disturbed by it. The superintendent of the welfare division said there are just too many people involved in handling the child. And actually, the quote from the article is: Who knows what anxieties there are in a child who's given a bottle in 12 or more pairs of arms?

When I was trying to figure out what might happen to a baby who was raised this way, I talked to various experts, including a couple friends of mine who are psychiatrists. And they told me about attachment disorder and the fact that if a child doesn't form one really tight bond in the first year of life, its sometimes possible - and sometimes happens - that he or she develops attachment disorder.

NORRIS: Any evidence that the actual practice babies develop these problems?

Ms. GRUNWALD: Absolutely none because the practice babies weren't followed as practice babies, much to my dismay. It was really the reason I wanted to write it as fiction because the alternative didn't seem very viable. They were returned to their orphanages, and they were adopted in due course the way most children were adopted - which was, at the time, very anonymously.

And while there's some evidence that some parents really wanted a Domecon baby because he or she had been raised by all these scientific methods, there doesn't seem to have been any way of tracking them or following them.

NORRIS: Now, I understand that youve met some adults who were practice babies years ago, and even some of the mothers who cared for them in these home ec programs - after the publication of your book. How did that come to be, and what did you learn from them?

Ms. GRUNWALD: Well, Facebook is a wonderful thing when it comes to being sought out by people who would not otherwise, you know, find you. And a couple of the mothers got in touch with me, and told me about their experiences.

I haven't met a practice baby, although I was told about a reunion that took place in 1997 in Allentown, between a practice baby who was then 46 years old, and three of the mothers who had raised him in Allentown.

He had found them after much, much, much searching. You know, probably fair to say that he didn't have a lot of memories of his upbringing, but it was still very nice for him, apparently - as it can so often be for an adopted child - to learn a little something more about his first years.

NORRIS: We've been talking with Lisa Grunwald about a practice that's now gone by the wayside, women on college campuses learning how to care for children by watching over so-called practice babies. Lisa Grunwald, thank you very much.

Ms. GRUNWALD: You're so very welcome.

NORRIS: Lisa Grunwald is the author of "The Irresistible Henry House," and you can see photos of practice babies, including the picture that first captured Grunwald's curiosity. That's at npr.org.

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