It's a practice that's unethical by today's standards, but in the first half of the 20th century, premature babies were placed on display in incubator exhibits at boardwalks and fairs around the country.
One such sideshow was on New York's Coney Island, where guests paid 25 cents to see preemies dressed in oversized outfits cinched at the waist with a ribbon to emphasize their smallness. A sign above the exhibit's entrance announced, "All the World Loves a Baby."
A staff of doctors, nurses and wet nurses cared for the infants around the clock, adhering to strict hygiene rules as they did so: doctors wore white physician's coats over their suits, and nurses dressed in starched white uniforms. A cook was employed specifically for making healthy meals for the wet nurses, who would be fired on the spot if caught eating hot dogs, drinking alcohol or smoking.
Early incubators, constructed of glass and steel, towered at more than 5 feet tall and featured tubing that piped in fresh air that filtered through a piece of wool doused in antiseptic, according to magazine. The artificial wombs were kept warm by hot water circulating via pipe under the baby's bed, the temperature regulated by a thermostat. These were the latest incubator models from France, the country on the forefront of premature infant healthcare and decades ahead of the U.S. It was 1903 and the first east-coast hospital with facilities for premature babies wouldn't open in New York until 1939.
The cost to maintain this "mini hospital" on the boardwalk was roughly $15 a day (or more than $400 in today's money) but the babies' parents paid not a cent, and it was all thanks to a young, German-Jewish immigrant named Dr. Martin Couney, who had been rejected by the mainstream medical establishment.
Dr. Couney first displayed the power of incubators to thousands at the Berlin Exposition in 1896 and the Victorian Era Exhibition in London's Earls Court in 1897. It was such a success that he took the "show" across the big pond the next year, to the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. With fair and expo culture burgeoning in America, Couney saw opportunity. He immigrated and made Coney Island his home base, where his Infant Incubator was one of the amusement park's most popular attractions from 1903 to 1943.
Couney and his wife welcomed a premature baby of their own in 1907: a daughter, Hildegarde, born six weeks premature, who would grow up to follow her mother's footsteps, becoming a nurse in her father's facility.
At the time, the main consensus among American doctors was that preemies were "genetically inferior" and "destined to die," according to BBC.
One of those babies, Lucille Horn of New York, who was born in 1920, spoke to the conversations in 2015 about her experience as an incubator infant on display. "My father said I was so tiny, he could hold me in his hand," Lucille told her own daughter, Barbara. Weighing only a couple of pounds, she was too weak to survive. Hospital staff told her parents they didn't have a place for her and that "there wasn't a chance in hell" she would live.
"They didn't have any help for me at all," Lucille said. "It was just: You die because you didn't belong in the world." So her father did the only thing he could think of: He hopped in a cab and took her to Dr. Couney's infant exhibit. She spent six months there before she was strong enough to go home.
Lucille Horn did survive and thrive, of course — she was 95 at the time she gave the StoryCorps interview — and along with roughly 6,500 people who were once "incubator babies," she has Dr. Couney to thank.
When asked how she felt knowing people paid to see her, Lucille said, "It's strange, but as long as they saw me and I was alive, it was all right."