The Forgotten Story of the Mother of American Child Care Advice
This isn't the kind of thing I normally write. I stumbled upon Mrs. Max West while researching something completely different, but as I learned more and more about this remarkable and largely forgotten woman, I wanted to take Women’s History Month as an opportunity to share her story.
In 1914 a pamphlet was published by the newly formed US Children’s Bureau that would change American Child Care. By 1942, it would be distributed 52 million times. Countless women would use its advice to raise their children, writing over 400,000 letters a year to the Bureau asking for more. Ultimately it would be instrumental in reducing morbidity to mother and child. In one 1928 report, the Children’s Bureau related that infant mortality due to preventable diarrheal diseases had decreased by 47%. Fascinatingly, the advice was all collected, organized, and often created by a single woman. In later editions of the pamphlet, she would not be listed or even included in revisions, but early editions name her simply as Mrs. Max West.
Commissioning Mrs. Max West was one of the first official acts of Children’s Burau Cheif Julia Lathrop. She was chosen only because she was a college-educated writer, a widow, and the mother of five children. And that is all most histories relate. Not her education, her other writing, or even her name.
It wasn’t until I found her husband’s obituary that Mrs. Max West, or Mrs. Mary Mills West, began to come into focus. Here is some of her story.
The Story of Mary Mills
Mary Mills was born in 1867 in Faribault, Minnesota. Her Parents, Edward Payson Mills and Stata Mehitabel Mills (nee Sandborn) had been born in America, as had the preceding 5–6 generations. Mary’s ancestors had originally emigrated from England in the 1600s.
Mary’s parents were 36 and 37 when she was born, the third of 4 children. Her older brothers (John Sanborn Mills and Harry Dean Mills) would each go on to have 7 children. Her younger brother (Frederick Mills) would have 6.
Mary attended the University of Minnesota, graduating at 23 with the class of 1890. There she met Dr. Max Ira West, possibly as they both served as officers of their class, Mary was elected class “prophet” and Max served as class “statistician.”
Four years later, on October 6th, they were married in Elk River Minnesota. Mary had her first child, Dorothy, when she was 29 years old. She and Max would go on to have 3 more children, Edward, Marjorie, and Philip in Minessota. The family would then move to Washington DC for Max’s work as an Economic Consultant for the US Departments of Labor and Commerce. There, at 41, Mary gave birth to their final child, Frances.
One year later on January 7th, 1909, Max died after a short illness, a slight cold that developed into pneumonia.
Alone, halfway across the country from her family, with 5 children, “friends in Washington” raised funds to cover the costs of Max’s sickness and death, and helped her secure a temporary government position. She worked briefly in the U.S. Immigration Commission and the Tariff Board. By 1912 she had been commissioned to work on the first of her two pamphlets, Pre-Natal Care. By 1914 she had written Infant Care, which was purchased 1,446,000 times in its first year alone.
The 1914 pamphlet would be compared to later texts influenced by behaviorism in this way:
Although their child care techniques differ, Spock and Watson share a central belief — the life of the child can be harmed by improper mother love. In Watson, the mother is a top sergeant who precisely times her interventions in the child’s day in order to build good habits. In Spock, the mother is a prime observer who must monitor both the baby and its environment for cues on when to act. In Infant Care the life of the child could literally be jeopardized if attentive care were not given to proper feeding and nursing of infant ills. But once accomplished, the mother might rest easy, for worry over her child’s emotional state was not yet in her lexicon of concerns.
Though, Mary describes her writing method as an “exhaustive study of the standard literature on the hygiene of infancy, as well as consultations with physicians, nurses and other specialists in this field” it seems possible to me that her life as a widow and working mother of 5 couldn’t help but shape her research and writing.
“Habits are the result of repeated actions. A properly trained baby is not allowed to learn bad habits which must be unlearned later at great cost of time and patience to both mother and babe. The wise mother strives to start the baby right.”
“When a baby cries simply because he has learned from experience that this brings him what he wants, it is one of the worst habits he can learn… [this is] sufficient to make a spoiled, fussy baby and a household tyrant whose continual demands make a slave of the mother.”
“Pacifiers or comforts… The extremely bad habit of sucking on a rubber teat, or a sugar ball, or a bread ball… the baby does not teach himself this disgusting habit, and he should not have to suffer for it.”
By 1919, Julia Lathrop had assembled a committee of medical professionals to review subsequent pamphlets. The committee objected to Mary Mills West appearing as the sole author, as she was not a physician. Mary continued to write updated editions of the booklets until 1921, although her name wasn’t included. After 1921, the booklet was written by medical professionals alone, gradually becoming more and more influenced by Behaviorism.
Mary would go on to move to California in 1930, where she continued to write, contributing stories to the Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s Bazar, St. Nicholas, and Philadelphia Press. She would also work with the University of California Extention Division as a writing instructor. She died at 88, on August 3rd, 1955. She was survived by three of her five children and three grandchildren.