Premature babies put on display promoted medical technology

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An overhead nighttime view of Wonderland Park in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis residents flocked to Wonderland Park to see displays of new technology.

Immense success of Coney Island establishments like Dreamland and Luna Park prompted cities across the country to open their own parks for amusement. Citizens flocked to these places to alleviate burdens created by industrialization. The industrial era in urban areas was a bleak and tiring existence. Freak shows, technological demonstrations and carnival rides served as temporary escape to a weary population.

Electricity during this period was uncommon and using it for lights was still a novelty for most Americans. Inventors took advantage by demonstrating inventions to promote their products and the acceptance of technology. Photography was also in its infancy and could not be considered a mass medium at this point.

Minneapolis’ Wonderland Park sat on the corner of East Lake Street and 31st Avenue, in the newly acquired neighborhood of Longfellow. Few people owned automobiles at the time and real estate speculators built street cars to developing parts of cities in the United States. Public transit is never profitable but the increased access made the scheme highly-profitable.

Incubator exhibit located at Coney Island. Public domain.

An electrified beacon was visible for the majority of ride down the rails on Lake Street. Anticipation reached its height when the street car stopped at the site of an impressive entrance electrified with lights.

Displays of technology quickly became the primary reason to visit amusement parks and the most popular attraction at Wonderland was the Infantorium. Although the trend was short-lived, these displays impacted the acceptance of modern medical technology.

Incubator babies on display attract large crowds

The Infantorium was converted into apartments and they remain the only physical evidence that Wonderland Park existed. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

Incubator babies on display in this hospital intrigued park attendees and they asked questions of lecturers like “How did they come to be in the incubators?” “Where do the doctors get them?” “Are they really alive, the same as other babies not reared in incubators?” These inquiries seem silly by today’s standards but they were legitimate for a public largely unexposed to technological advancements.

Technology behind the newly developed incubators was complicated and expensive, which made them difficult to sell to hospitals. American views of child-rearing also prevented their adoption because most children were still primarily born at home. Premature babies were considered weak and not strong enough to live. Consequently, cultural thinking led to their neglect. However, the survival rate of these children was still only half even in the best hospitals.

Infantorium’s impact on medical technology

The corner of Lake Street and 31st Avenue today is home to a mix of light commercial, apartments and single-family housing. Photo by Benjamin Pecka.

The hospital at the Infantorium boasted a staggering 88 percent survival rate. The attraction’s popularity meant that the ten cent price of admission covered the operating costs to run a sterile facility that employed a knowledgeable staff. Families were not charged for the quality medical care provided. The staff also did not discriminate against skin color or socioeconomic status, as long as there was a doctor’s referral.

Alexandre Lion and other inventors used fair expositions and facilities like the Infantorium to promote products during a time when people were mesmerized by seeing technology at work. The model proved wildly successful and ultimately changed society’s views on the treatment of premature infants.

Today, Americans fully accept new medical technologies aimed at saving every life. Nearly all children are born in hospitals equipped with newborn intensive care units (NICU) and survival rates depend on the prematurity of birth. If inventors had not taken advantage of parks, it is likely that the adoption of NICUs would have taken longer.

Wonderland Park razed to meet housing demand

Newspaper ad announcing the sale of 76 newly available lots that replaced Wonderland Park.
Ad in the Star Tribune announcing new plots of land for sale. Public domain.

Although financially successful during most of its brief run, Wonderland Park closed six years after opening. Two especially cool and rainy summers resulted in declined ticket sales and eventual financial trouble.

The land was rezoned and divided into lots as housing a year later. Today, the only remaining evidence that it existed is an apartment building that the Infantorium converted into during the redevelopment.

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