Interpreting Historical Geographies of Childhood through the 1916 Polio Epidemic in the Northeast

GEOG/HST 170 Historical Geography: Mapping American Childhoods

University of Vermont — May, 2022

Dr. Meghan Cope (

Student Researchers: Carly Morris, Izzy Pitman, Jake Pehle, and Annabelle Lessard

In the early twentieth century, polio wreaked havoc on the lives of children. One of the most notable outbreaks occurred in New York from June 1916 to October 1916. In that year there were 27,000 reported cases of polio and 6,000 deaths nationwide (NMAH 2005). We focused on this outbreak and how it impacted the lives of children both socially and culturally across the country. By looking at the reactions of adults to the children’s polio epidemic we can identify the broader changes in the treatment of children in American society. Through efforts to contain polio including hospitalizations and quarantines, the nationwide push to find a vaccine, and abrupt changes to children’s lives like school closures we can see how adults began to care about what happened to children. According to Zelizer (1985) author of Pricing the Priceless Child, until the 18th century, “the death of a child was a minor event, met with a mixture of indifference and resignation”(p. 24). However, by the 19th century, there was a shift in the perception of a child’s death. There was a stark increase in the sensitivity towards the loss of a child and across the country adults began to treat children’s lives as precious (Zelizer 1985). By focusing on the New York polio epidemic as our case study, we demonstrate how the social, economic, and political actions of adults lead to a fundamental shift in American perceptions of childhood.