• May 2012
  • Vol. 13 No. 4

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Centennial Series: The Children's Year, 1918-1919

The official poster for the Chidren's Year Campaign, ca. 1918
(Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-9867)
The official poster for the Chidren's Year Campaign, ca. 1918

This is the first article in our second Centennial Series, CB Decade-by-Decade. These articles will examine highlights from each decade of the Children's Bureau's first 100 years. The first Centennial Series addressed some of the social issues, practices, and policies that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Children's Bureau.

The Children's Year ran from April 6, 1918, to April 6, 1919. As part of the national campaign, the Children's Bureau persuaded the majority of State governments to form child welfare programs or agencies. A campaign slogan, "Save 100,000 Babies" referred to the focus on reducing the national infant mortality rate by one-third. Much of the campaign's organizational work was accomplished by 11 million women across the country who joined committees organized to reduce infant mortality, as well as carry out three ancillary campaign goals for The Children's Year:

  1. Weigh and measure infants and toddlers and record the information.
  2. Emphasize the importance of healthy recreation and play for children's development.
  3. Make sure that children stay in school.

Of course, there were corollary benefits to all of these measures. Infants who were weighed and measured often received their first physical exam at the same time. Parents received information on nutrition and development, and, in many cases, a child's disability or delay was recognized and parents were directed to seek medical advice or treatment. Because of this effort, many States set up child hygiene divisions and funded public health nurses and child health centers focused on providing both care and education to young children and their parents.

The Children's Year focus on play and recreation resulted in many new playgrounds and parks, as well as recognition of the importance of supervised recreation for children. A 1919 pamphlet on "Patriotic Play Week" also promoted the activities of the Scouts, Campfire Girls, Junior Red Cross, and similar organizations.

The Children's Year emphasis on keeping children in school was also meant to keep children out of the workforce. Child labor and its regulation continued to be an enormous concern for the Children's Bureau. After the armistice in 1918, the agency was able to tie this campaign to freeing up jobs for soldiers returning home, with the slogan, "Children Back in School Means Soldiers Back in Jobs." The Children's Year Stay-in-School campaign also aimed to reduce illiteracy, especially in rural areas.

The Children's Year concluded with some near-revolutionary policymaking by the Children's Bureau. At President Wilson's suggestion, the agency held a conference at which the participants established general minimum standards for child welfare in the United States, as well as minimum standards in three specific areas:

  1. Standards for Children Entering Employment outlined ages, hours, wages, types of work, schooling, safety, and more.
  2. Standards for Public Protection of the Health of Mothers and Children covered health care for mothers during pregnancy and their child's infancy, as well as health care for children at all ages.
  3. Minimum Standards Relating to Children in Need of Special Care described what the government should ensure for children in special circumstances, including maltreated children, those with physical or mental disabilities, and delinquents.

While the standards were unenforceable—and many remain unachievable even today—the remarkable vision of that early group and their commitment to bettering the lives of children and families resulted in real progress. The Children's Year campaign of 1918-1919 remains a legacy for the thousands of dedicated child welfare workers today.

(This article is based on historical material found mainly in the Seventh Annual Report of the Chief, Children's Bureau to the Secretary of Labor, 1919, available here: http://www.mchlibrary.info/history/chbu/21867-7th.PDF [2 MB])

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