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“Stalking the Stork”: An Expose of Espionage in the Baby Clothes Industry

In addition to providing the public with an abundance of affordable consumer goods during the 20th century, the service sector of corporate America also began to invade and interfere with the private lives of many of its customers. Not content to advertise in print, radio, and television outlets, corporations and their investigative subsidiaries collected information in order to more efficiently target their products to interested buyers. (With the advent of the Internet, corporate consumer information gathering has grown even more sophisticated.) Just how much of an annoyance this could be to the average consumer was documented in the following article about maternity and baby products in the 1950s, the peak years of the “baby boom.” During this period, the nation’s birthrate rose substantially as economic security became more widespread and Americans on average got married earlier and had healthier children than before. The report described how friends, neighbors, delivery personnel, and laboratory technicians were all suspected of selling the names, addresses, and other vital statistics of prospective parents of “boomers” to marketers. By including men as advertising targets along with women, the author acknowledged a changing role for fathers in the “modern” family.

Stalking the Stork

A young woman expecting her first baby recently bought some maternity clothes in a Chicago shop. A few weeks later, she stormed back into the store and demanded to know if the management made it a practice to go around telling perfect strangers in Texas and New York that she was going to have a baby.

“Somebody in Texas wants to sell me diapers,” she said, “and somebody else in New York is trying to interest me in baby furniture. I keep getting letters from them.”

The manager assured her that the shop hadn’t shared her secret with anyone, and tactfully indicated that her mail from strangers, near and far, would undoubtedly get a lot heavier. Then the woman asked a question millions of American parents-to-be, perhaps including you, have asked in recent years in pique, puzzlement, or plain fascination, “How do they know we’re going to have a baby?”

By they the frequently nettled parents-to-be mean an army of total strangers, often in distant cities, who obviously do know they’re going to have a baby—and when, as well. They show this awareness by bombarding prospective mamas and papas with letters, circulars, telephone calls, salesmen’s visits and free samples, starting almost as soon as it has been established that a baby is on the way.

When the infant becomes a gurgling reality, the happy parents, eyes already weary from reading tons of mail and ears ringing from prenatal sales talks, are sitting ducks for still another urgent barrage of commercials.

Naturally, all these cheery, well-wishing stalkers of the stork—whether they first approach the prospective parents in the early months or fly down the chimney in a dead heat with the big bird—have something to sell. Their wares and services add up to staggering figures, and it’s not hard to see why. Last year, according to unofficial estimates, 4,100,000 babies—an all-time high—were born in the United States.

The maternity-clothes industry, biggest single prenatal operation, does an annual business estimated at up to $200,000,000. Layettes, cribs, baby carriages, baths, feeding accessories and toiletries, purchases of which are arranged before the baby is born, gross half a billion dollars a year. Diaper services, possibly the most vigorous competitors in the prenatal field, do an annual coast-to-coast business of $30,000,000.

And now back to the customer in the Chicago maternity shop who asked, “How do they know we’re going to have a baby?”

The shop manager gentled her down and asked her to try to recall if anyone beside her husband, relatives and physician knew she was expecting before she bought her maternity clothes.

“Yes,” she said. “I took a ‘rabbit test ’some time ago through a drugstore.”

“That may have been it,” the maternity-shop man suggested. “Either the drugstore clerk or a clerk at the laboratory—unbeknown to the management—put your name on a list of expectant mothers. These lists are sold all over the country, not just in your home town. We buy lists ourselves.”

These lists are the life line of the whole multimillion-dollar market in maternity clothes and baby merchandise and services during the prenatal period. And the compilation, sale and frequent resale of the names on them make up an often wacky and always feverish chapter in the American baby story. It’s possible for people in the business to buy and sell names with such abandon that they wind up buying some of those they sold in the first place.

But despite the mad buying and selling, a great deal of study, survey and shrewd application of practical psychology goes into the making up of prenatal lists. “A name without a date doesn’t mean a thing,” Robert Mandel, president of the Diaper Service Institute of America, declared recently, thereby laying down a basic law in smart acquisition of the names of expectant mothers. There is a sound practical reason for this.

For example, research experts of the Lane Bryant shop chain, which pioneered the maternity gown 50 years ago last year, divide the prenatal period into three parts.

The first three months are “fun” for the mother-to-be; she’s thrilled at the prospect of having a baby, and there is no interference with her normal routine. During the next three months, she is absorbed mainly in her appearance and may even resent temporarily the fact that she’s having a baby. It is during this period that she buys her maternity clothes. During the last three months of pregnancy, her thoughts turn to what her baby will need in the way of clothes, accessories, and so on.

While the maternity-clothes shops—an estimated 2,000 through the country—try to interest mothers-to-be at the start of stage two, or even a little earlier, the hucksters of items and services for baby prefer to stay out of the prenatal selling operation until the seventh month, when the expectants begin concentrating on their babies.

To show just how the various dealers in baby goods and services operate, let’s take a young couple we’ll call Regina and Richard Roe and see what happened to them as the “secret” of their coming blessed event spread across the country.

When Regina thought she was pregnant, she went to her doctor, who verified that she was. His nurse knew about the pregnancy, too, and—as previously suggested—so did the drug clerk who arranged for her “rabbit test,” the technician who made it and a clerk in the laboratory. . . .

Routemen of all kinds are a good source of names. In fact, they’re rated tops in the snoop-and-sell department. Milkmen, bakery drivers, laundrymen and, of course, diaper-service drivers are always on the lookout for mothers-to-be. They are in close and usually daily contact with married women.

“These are the more obvious gatherers of ‘interesting information,’” one baby-carriage dealer (who also buys names) told me not long ago. “More subtle are neighborhood gossips, usually elderly women who have little else to do but keep tabs on the neighbors. They sit around on park benches and get young women talking. A lot of ‘live ’names come from them, for a modest fee.”

Paying Off in Baby Pants and Nylons

Then there are the friends of expectant mothers who use a diaper service themselves and either recommend the service to mothers-to-be (“and don’t forget to tell them I sent you”), or actually sell their names, for a credit slip or a bonus. One Chicago diaper service has a set pay-off scale, or at least it had until recently. It offered “baby pants for two names.” Hospital office employees are a good source, too. Sometimes they get nylons. . . .

The flow of maternity-clothes mail and other mild pitches to Regina continued up to the start of the seventh month. Then began the really big pitches. Nor was Richard Roe forgotten at this stage, which explains why so many of the in-person and telephone sales talks were timed to include him, too. (The modern trend is toward considering papa a vital part of the baby-makes-three routine instead of a nuisance. It gives him a feeling of importance and “belonging,” as the phrase goes. He’s also a softer touch than mama-to-be.) . . .

By now, Richard Roe, expectant papa, was staggering in every morning from the mailbox with a mountain of bids for old, new and weird devices to ease the life of the baby when he or she arrived. Richard and Regina were getting just a little weary of the gaily-colored ads for infant frills and furbelows, many of which they never knew existed.

“We call them ‘pink- and blue-ribbon stuff,’” says Horace H. Hughes, of the Maternity Center Association, an organization devoted to the education of prospective mothers and fathers. "We tell the expectant couples who come to our classes together that a baby with nothing but a dry diaper and a shirt considers himself perfectly well dressed."

Source: Murray Robinson, “Stalking the Stork, ” Collier’s, 4 March 1955, 21–23.