Wellspring Archives: What Did They Do with the Baby?

  • By Deborah Townsend
  • Posted 5/08/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10083
See Additional Media

This People's History is based on the early records of Wellspring Family Services, a private, non-profit organization helping families and children in Seattle and King County overcome life’s challenges. Founded in 1892 as the Bureau of Associated Charities, Wellspring Family Services has operated under a succession of names. At the time of the events described in this essay, it was called the Seattle Social Welfare League. This essay uses a 1919 community outreach brochure to examine the organization's policies and attitudes toward the services it provided at the time. The organization's services have changed over the years, but have always centered on a commitment to a stronger, healthier community. These archival records offer glimpses into aspects of Seattle history not well documented elsewhere, examining societal attitudes toward poverty, need, illness, and addiction -- all of which have altered considerably since Wellspring's early days. This is one of a series entitled "Out of the Archives," and appeared in June 2011 in Wellspring's monthly internal newsletter, The Fiddlehead. It was written by Wellspring Family Services executive assistant Deborah Townsend.

What Did They Do With The Baby?

This community outreach brochure does not include a date, but the list of Board officers indicates it was printed in 1919. For a reminder of the historical context, the armistice ended World War I in November 1918, the troops had recently come home, and the economy was starting a post-war tailspin; the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition had just been enacted; the working class shut Seattle down in the General Strike for several days in February; the influenza epidemic was still raging.

On March 13, 1919, our agency formally changed its name from Associated Charities of Seattle to the Seattle Social Welfare League. The Executive Committee’s minutes for that month mention a need for "considerable publicity work" before launching a fundraising campaign later in the year. This brochure might have been part of that effort. The brochure is a 9x16 inch piece, double-folded to 4x9 inches. The title panel reads: "What Did They Do With The Baby? A True Story of Wild Oats," and features a line drawing of a happy infant. The very back panel defines what social work is, and describes the services that the Social Welfare League provides.

It starts with a kind of "hey, look at us!" definition that might still apply pretty well today:

"Social work means the service of sympathetic, intelligent people equipped with knowledge of social conditions as well as endowed with that good quality 'horse sense'"

Words in all-capitals show what the agency was most proud of -- trained social workers! one of the first uses of that job title in our archival materials -- and answer the objections that critics might have:

"The poor of this city need the help and advice of TRAINED SOCIAL WORKERS as well as MATERIAL ASSISTANCE which is NEVER DELAYED UNTIL an INVESTIGATION is MADE. We don't investigate to see whether the families are "worthy" of emergency aid. We would rather waste a little money than run the risk of letting someone suffer."

We can infer that the agency has now consciously stopped labeling applicants "worthy" or "unworthy," as was common practice in its earlier years. We also can infer that many people still didn’t really get the difference between emergency relief and social service, and that the agency was still trying hard (maybe too hard, to our modern eyes) to get that message across. "Social Service Makes Better Citizens," this brochure declares, in boldface type; "Thoughtless Charity Makes Dependents." Social service is compared to a ladder up out of the abyss of poverty, as opposed to charity thrown down into it. We've seen this theme in earlier pieces and will see it again for another decade or more.

We also see that the agency is putting emphasis on families, especially children:

"...we can give the CHILDREN the RIGHT START in life so they will grow up self-reliant, good citizens -- an ASSET RATHER THAN a LIABILITY to the COMMUNITY."

 A list of services hints at the agency's organization: material relief, social service, visiting housekeeper service, medical service, legal service.

The main feature of this brochure, however, is the client story on the inside pages, presented in something like comic-book style, with dialogue as if it were an unfolding melodrama on stage. The curtain opens on a young (unmarried) couple arguing about a newborn baby.

Bob: "We gotta get rid of him."

Mamie: "Oh, you brute!"

Bob: "We gotta get rid of him."

Mamie: "Oh, you brute! My own darling baby!”

This is intended to give the reader a peak at the opening scene of a 1919 "case history," presented in comic-book style.

It’s clear that Bob and Mamie are unmarried new parents. The cast of characters lists Bob (20) as a "sower of wild oats," Mamie (18) as "assistant sower of wild oats," and the 2-week-old infant as "the oats."

(In 1919, respectable people didn’t talk about sex openly but there were many code phrases in use. A man “sowing wild oats” was indulging in promiscuity. Labeling the baby "the oats" here called attention to the results of the behavior in a humorous but still fairly pointed way.)

This young couple does intend to get married eventually, but Bob wants to give the baby up for adoption now. Mamie doesn't: she loves her newborn, and she's heard bad things about "that terrible woman at the maternity hospital."

In the second panel the scene shifts to the Social Welfare League office, where Bob has asked for help. He offers two reasons for giving the baby away: his sense of disgrace and the couple's dire financial situation. The social worker interviews him about family resources. Bob is estranged from his immediate family but remembers a favorite aunt, whom the social worker offers to contact.

Things move quickly in this melodrama! The fourth panel states "Next day the Social Worker arranges their marriage, having provided for immediate needs, baby clothes, and nourishing food for the still delicate little mother." The social worker attends the wedding -- apparently held in Bob or Mamie's home, since we see the baby asleep in an armchair.

The plot thickens: In the fifth panel, the social worker is back with Bob's Aunt Betsy who has come "to rescue her favorite nephew." We see Mamie weeping in the armchair because Bob has already given the baby away. "I had to do it," he explains, because on his wages they just can't afford a baby right now. As we learn in the seventh panel, he has given the baby to the matron of the "cheap little maternity hospital," who plans to give the baby to a wealthy couple for $100 and has no intention of losing that money. (The hospital matron is clearly the villain here, with her focus on profiting from this baby. The dialogue also gives her a working-class accent. We have to wonder how staff at Seattle’s hospitals and orphanages reacted to this Social Welfare League brochure!)

Aunt Betsy demands, "You hand over that baby!" as Bob looks on.

In the last panel we see that everything has worked out splendidly. Bob and Mamie have moved in with Bob's aunt and uncle temporarily. The uncle has given Bob a better-paying job, and Aunt Betsy is taking care of the baby. "Both uncle and aunt are going to help their boy go straight in the future."

At the bottom of this illustrated story we see the agency's perspective on the case, in boldface type: "CHARITY ALONE would have done HARM in this case, but SOCIAL SERVICE SAVED two wayward youngsters and their still younger youngster from trouble -- perhaps an endless chain of troubles."

The dialogue is stilted and corny; the story is melodramatic and there is an unrealistically swift and complete happy ending. Modern clinical therapists might have questions about the family dynamics going forward (will Mamie be able to trust Bob?). Still, this little illustrated story was making a strong point about looking for lasting solutions. The social worker arranges for food and baby supplies for this financially desperate young couple and helps them regularize their relationship (very important in 1919) and helps them identify other resources they can turn to, in order to keep their new family intact and stable.

This brochure doesn’t mention it, but Bob and Mamie could have gone back to the Social Welfare League for homemaking advice, legal and medical advice, and a range of other services to strengthen their family.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You