An advertisement for incubated babies found in a 1920s amusement guide from the Heston Collection at the Atlantic City Public Library. To view the library's webpage about incubator babies, click the image.

What were incubated babies doing on the Boardwalk?


In the 19th century, the term premature did not have the same meaning as today. Instead, it was used liberally; any baby thought to be unusually tiny could be labeled “premature.” Babies who seemed lethargic as well as those actually dying were described in this way. In 1880 a doctor named Stephane Tarnier, drawing inspiration from chicken incubators, invented the first baby incubator. His initial incubation device held several babies who were warmed from a hot water reservoir located underneath them.

In the 1890s, a man named Alexandre Lion would become responsible for turning incubator babies into a spectacle. Lion expanded upon Tarnier’s idea, creating a more elaborate incubator with temperature controls and a ventilation system. His incubator was also more expensive, and not wanting to limit his invention to only those institutions which could afford it, he decided to charge guests admission for a glance at his incubator “storefronts”. For the Berlin Exposition of 1896, Tarnier opened a “child hatchery” that experienced great success.


Dr. Lion’s exhibit in Buffalo, NY. Image from the University of Buffalo Library. To learn more about incubators at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, click here.

At this time, incubator shows had never graced American soil. The man responsible for introducing incubator babies to Americans was Lion’s associate, Martin Couney. One of Couney’s first American exhibits was in Buffalo, NY. (According to an article from the Buffalo Express, one of the babies featured in the exhibit was actually born plastic-baby-favours-38056a_835_generalto one of the Native Americans in the fair’s, “Indian Village.” Supposedly, as the baby was christened, Native Americans danced around the incubator chanting the name of the incubator’s manufacturer, QBATA.) So, that is how the incubator babies exhibit, a weird amalgamation of showmanship and medical advancement came to America and ultimately Atlantic City until 1943 (!!).

Baker, J. (2000). The Incubator and the Medical Discovery of the Premature Infant. Journal Of Perinatology, 20(5), 321.