Out of the mouths of babes

2011 March 13

Found in my research, this correspondence to the federal government from a young constituent:

Marseilles, Ill.
May 26, 1914.

Dear Uncle Sam,

I would like you to send me a baby brother whenever you have any in. Please send it to Mama. My name is Kathryn Laws. I love baby's. when ever you send it. Please send it. My address.

Miss Kathryn Laws1

[This is a typescript copy of the original. Note by typist:]
The envelope was addressed: Uncle Sam, Washington, D.C., and postmarked: Marseilles, May 27, 7 p.m., Ill

The reply from Washington:

June 2, 1914.

My dear Kathryn:

Julia Lathrop, c. 1909-1919Your letter to Uncle Sam was delivered to the Children's Bureau. I wish we had a baby brother to send to such a good home as I am sure we would find in your parent's house, but Uncle Sam does not trust us with real babies but only tells us to try to learn all the ways to keep babies and their older brothers and sisters well and good and happy. This is hard, slow work; and sometimes I feel a little discouraged because it is so slow.

Your letter cheers me up and I am glad you wrote although I am obliged to send this disappointing answer.

I am,
Very sincerely,
(Signed) Julia C. Lathrop.2

Lathrop’s biographical entry on Wikipedia is woefully incomplete and doesn’t do justice to the range of her achievements.

I’ve just marked some of the places in the entry that need cleaning up, so at least people who read it will know. If you want to work on it, WikiProject Women’s History can help you get started, or you can leave a note on my Wikipedia talk page with any questions.

The related entry on maternalist reform, a topic near and dear to many American women’s historians, needs some work too. Read how you can help.

Julia Lathrop was the director of the United States Children’s Bureau, the first federal agency which specifically focused on the health and well-being of children. (I study the Children’s Bureau because of its role in promoting compulsory birth registration laws and the use of birth certificates as identity documents.)

For more on the Children’s Bureau and its work, the standard histories include Kriste Lindenmeyer, A Right to Childhood: The U.S. Children’s Bureau and Child Welfare, 1912-46 (University of Illinois Press, 1997) and Molly Ladd-Taylor, Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994). For correspondence from American mothers to the Children’s Bureau about their daily experiences and challenges, see Molly Ladd-Taylor, ed. Raising a Baby the Government Way: Mothers’ Letters to the Children’s Bureau, 1915-1932 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986).

  1. In the 1910 manuscript census, Katherine Laws was listed as 4 years old, so she would have been about 8 when she wrote this, with one sister 10 years older (18). On the 1920 manuscript census, she was 13. It seems that she never did get her wish for a baby brother.
  2. Both of these letters can be found in Folder 1-4-2-1 (Absurd inquiries and requests), Box 2, Central File 1914-1920, RG 102 (Records of the United States Children’s Bureau), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland.

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