Friday, January 4, 2013

Spokane's Fantastic Baby Cage

Spokane is proud of its inventors, such as Royal Riblet of the square-wheeled tractor fame and Mary Latham who invented a pessary (and did a lot of other stuff). And yet who among has heard of Emma Read?  I had not, until a great piece by Shawn Vestal in the Spokesman-Review introduced me to this Spokanite's earth-shaking invention. Behold, the baby cage--click for the video:

"How did this not catch on?" Vestal asks, "If you don’t read those words – Baby Cage – with a secret thrill, with an unspoken recognition that deep in the unexplored reaches of your mind, you always knew that cages were perfect for babies, then I suspect you’re not a parent."

What got me blogging about this topic was Vestal's frustration in trying to find out more about the inventor: "Read herself, as well as any level of detail about the creation of the cage, remains stubbornly elusive. There is no file on her in the newspaper’s archives. She is not mentioned in city histories that I could find. Google her, and you are reminded of two things: Google is not omniscient and about 80 percent of the online world is a vast cavern of echoes."

I took that as a challenge--afer all, digging up obscure Northwest History in the digital realm is the purpose of this blog. So what did I find? Not vey much, in truth, but I did come up with a few gems.

First, the newsreel report embedded above, from 1953. The views of a smoggy, gritty post-war London are as interesting as the cage itself. (Mother, that is not fresh air!) And then there is the original 1922 patent, to which Vestal alludes in his article. The patent is signed by Read, and also by a Watson E. Coleman, who turns out to have been a D.C. patent attorney who advertised his services in western periodicals of the time. From the patent we get the justification for the device:
Be it known that I, Emma Read, a citizen of the United States, residing at Spokane, in the county of Spokane and State of Washington, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Portable Baby Cages, of which the following is a specification, reference being had to the accompanying drawings:

When baby gets too big you can also raise urban chickens! Read further explains the utility of her invention:
It is well known that a great many dificulties rise in raising and properly housing babies and small children in crowded cities, that is to say from the health viewpoint. This is especially true with reference to babies and young children, who at present are being raised in large apartments... In crowded cities, where the houses are closely arranged, and in large apartments, there is no way for proper ventilation ... to permit the children and babies to receive proper fresh air from outside.
This emphasis on the importance of fresh air was a common argument made by progressives during this time period. I comes in part from the still-believed miasma theory, which held that many contagious diseases were caused by "bad air." Belief in miasma theory was a major impetus to the city parks movement of the late-19th century. But I am getting all professor on you.

There are also a lot of great images out there of baby cages--which never seem to have been widely used, but were always photogaphed on the few occasions they did appear!

You laugh, but this child grew up to be Superman!
What of Vestal's challenge to discover more about the Spokane connections of the fabulous baby cage? has an Emma K. Read of Spokane who might be our woman. If so, she at some point moved to Seattle where she died in 1956. And that--is about it. I can find no mention of Read in the digitized newspapers for early Spokane--though the common surname of Read, along with the fact that it is also a common verb ("to read a book"), makes for a messy search. There are a lot of men named Read in early Spokane, some of whom may have been relations. I don't find a birth or marriage certificate for Emma Reed at the Washington State Archives--and we would have them if they existed. She appears to have had no other patents. I could buy a subscription to and view census records and the like and come up with further information, but I am cheap.

The cold digital trail for Emma Read makes two points. One is how little historical record most people leave, even the inventor of the baby cage. The other is that you cannot do all of your reseach online. My wife was quick to point out that you could find a lot more about Read with a trip to the Northwest Room of the Spokane Public Library or the MAC. A search through old city directories will reveal when and where Read lived in Spokane, her marital status, her occupation, and who else lived in the building. (See this entry for Etta Read as an example.) Only a few years of the directories for Spokane are digitized. From there one could go to Sanborn Maps, which have richly detailed illustrations of each city block. Did Read live in a downtown apartment? And did she have a baby? And with names of relatives and dates and such, one could look for ancestors, who might have more information.

Some of my readers have proven much smarter than I am. Can anyone find more information about Emma Read?


Bill Youngs said...

This article jogged my memory, bringing back research I did on Eleanor Roosevelt about 30 years ago. At one time she was considering setting up a "baby cage" on a window in her New York City townhouse. She liked the idea but she was talked out of it. I wonder if the invention would have gone further with a more user- friendly appellation. My nomination: "Baby's Fresh Air Nest."

Larry Cebula said...

Great tip Bill. Where did she write about this?

Tavis Ryan King said...

I have a friend from Spokane! I asked her if she was kept in one. Loved this blog to bits and pieces. Made me miss the USA.

Anonymous said...

Here's some more info about Emma Reed (Spelled R-E-E-D)

Peggy said...

We have friends with Reed as last name. I'll have to ask them if they have heard of her.