This paper debates the process of child development through historical perspectives, drawing on two contrasting sources, the baby book collection at UCLA Biomedical Library, which includes parents’ accounts of children’s earliest years and activities (c1900–1950) and a Mass-Observation directive (2010) which invited written responses to questions about childhood experiences of illness in Britain. The sources therefore embody both voices of parents, and retrospective memories of childhood. The picture is complicated because many parents chose to write their baby books in a ‘pretend’ voice of their own children.
While baby books were designed to map child development from birth onwards, with pre-printed pages for specific events, their layout varied enormously, with some taking more of a diary format. The baby book collection maps parental concerns, even anguish, over childhood illness, and transactions between parents and the medical profession, mainly in the USA. An unexpected finding was the frequent reference to milestones of religious belonging, with a number noting baby’s first visit to a place of worship, or entry on a cradle roll.
The Mass-Observation directive was written by adults, retrospectively, but still frequently documents first visits to hospital, or to the dentist, when children moved beyond the familiar boundaries of home and school and neighbourhood. Yet what might seem to be individual accounts were also strongly influenced by political events: notably the founding of the National Health Service in Britain in 1948, and expressions of gratitude for its benefits. The paper therefore argues for the possibility of collective memory deriving from apparently individual experiences.