Euthenics: The Environmental Reformation of American Children, 1880-1920

Meghan Crnic, University of Pennsylvania

Nature prescription programs are proliferating in the United States today, especially for pediatric patients. Although these programs seem novel, they are rooted in historical ideas about children’s health, bodies, and their environments. At the turn of the 20th century governments, philanthropists, and public health officials constructed landscapes and spaces meant for only for children. Urban centers saw the construction of pediatric hospitals in the late 19th century, and parks, playgrounds, gardens, and rooftop schools in the opening decades of the 20th. Beyond city limits, camps, preventoriums, country weeks, open-air schools, parks, and hospitals proliferated at the same time. But why? These spaces, I argue, reflected more than a general concern about infant mortality and children’s health. By analyzing environmental programs and spaces, this paper reveals a pervasive belief that environmental changes could physically reform children’s bodies and health, resulting in stronger future citizen-workers. I argue that the construction of these spaces was tied to “euthenics,” a program promoted by Ellen Swallow Richards as a sister science to eugenics. Unlike eugenicists’ concern with future generations and germ-lines, euthenists advocated for improving the current generation through environmental modifications. Children, and their environments, were the logical node of intervention. Placing euthenics at the center of this history exposes how ideas of race betterment shaped the landscapes in which children lived, played, and went to school. It casts light onto ideas about the plasticity of children’s bodies, and ideological beliefs about children’s need for, and connection to “natural” environments. In doing so, this paper enables us to understand how ideas about children’s health and bodies has shaped American environments both historically and today.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 227. Childhood and the "Healthful" Environment: Disease, Morality, and Reformation