On Saturday, another human being joined the centuries-long line of succession to the British royal family. This new Windsor was of course greeted with a commotion in the American media—but there’s nothing new about that.
For starters, much to my surprise, the term “royal baby” is apparently not a recent coinage by US Weekly. It sounds like something invented by a modern tabloid, but it’s much older. Trawling through various newspaper archives, I found more than a hundred years’ worth of results for the term. The earliest example that turned up in an American newspaper comes from the Weekly Standard of Raleigh, North, Carolina, 1841, and—so help me—it is about a vaccination:
Fast forward to 1870 and in the Charleston Daily News out of Charleston, South Carolina, you’ll find a think piece on the entire phenomenon of the royal baby. A sampling:
From the moment when the pealing bells throughout the kingdom give joyful tidings of the happy nuptials of Kingly Darby and Queenly Joan, the thoughts of every loyal subject fondly turn to the expected Royal Baby. The weal or woe of the superb parents is a matter of small consequence. The object of that glittering pageant is a Royal Baby.
Truly though, nothing tops this hottest of takes, from the Intelligencer of Anderson, South Carolina in 1905, which mused that “the American boy has the best of the bargain, for he does not have to be a ruler unless he deliberately seeks the Presidency; he can, if he is wholesome, active and brainy, take just the position in life he wishes and keep it. The royal baby cannot.”
There’s the specific coverage, too; People didn’t invent breathless nursery reportage. Here’s the July 15, 1894 New York Times on Great Britain’s Prince Albert Victor, who’d die before taking the throne:
The piece was accompanied by an illustration of his crib, which “swings from a graceful frame of rich old mahogany inlaid with gold.”
But back in the day, the coverage was a hell of a lot broader than the Windsors. The baby born to the King and Queen of Spain in 1907 got plenty of fawning coverage, though the caption on a picture of the happy mother from the Belvidere Daily Republican strikes a somber note: “She Has Given Birth to a Son Who, If He Lives, Will Some Day Inherit the Throne.” Please enjoy this pre-Photoshop composite image from New York’s Evening World, which would do In Touch proud:
Of course, the events of World War I would sweep away much of the sense of consequence in these earlier royal baby reports. But they couldn’t kill royal baby reporting itself.
For whatever reason, not much about the birth of the girl who’d grow up to be Queen Elizabeth turned up in my searches. But rest assured that by the time her younger sister Margaret arrived, there were plenty of outlets on the case. Welcome to the age of royal baby as political football. From the Reading Eagle:
Of course, the birth of Prince Charles in 1948 inspired quite a flurry of coverage. He was the Prince George of his day, after all, and the American press went positively bonkers over him.
“Royal Baby to Receive Royal Care,” reported the UP in precisely the sort of no-duh story on which royal baby reporting thrives. “Ready at hand will be analgesic gas, oxygen and every known scientific aid for use if necessary.” Shortly after Charles’ birth, they followed up with a report that the Buckingham Palace staff had already seen the as-yet unnamed kiddo. “Almost all palace officials and the servants have now seen the prince, much to the envy of the public, which has not see a photograph of the baby.” The AP got a description from a visitor in this fawning report and slapped on the headline “Royal Baby Is Adjudged Beauty.”
Princess Elizabeth’s baby was described tonight as “golden-haired, with a most beautiful complexion.”
Countess Granville, sister of Queen Elizabeth, giving the first public description of the four-week-old prince, said he “couldn’t be more angelic looking. She added that the infant whomay some day rule England has “amazingly delicate features for so young a baby.”
To Margaret’s credit, Prince Charles was a pretty cute kid, judging from this April 1952 McCalls’ feature:
The story focuses on how Elizabeth and Phillip are trying to raise “the charming boy who was born to be king” as a normal kid—relatively speaking, of course:
Charles’s mother, Queen Elizabeth, is determined her son will be a boy and brother first and a prince last. Her ideal for him is a combination of the old-fashioned, firmly disciplined but kind education she had in her own childhood and theories she likes best in modern child-raising. A good example of how this works is the way Charles was prepared for his baby sister....
The surprise of his first sight of Anne was soon lost in the pleasure of being able to see so much of his mother. Until then Elizabeth had usually been so busy with public duties that Charles saw her for only an hour a day. Now she was in bed and always accessible. His father was around too, back from his naval station in the Middle East and was always good for a game or a chat about engines and boats.
Speaking of Anne, her treatment in this profile does not bode well for the new Windsor: “Unlike her brother, Anne is a placid child, without much curiosity either in her own development or in the marvels around her. She is considerable slower than Charles in all stages of progress so far.”
Jesus, McCalls. The feature goes on to speculate that “this may be due to the different circumstances in which they were born. When Charles arrived, Elizabeth was still the glamorous young royal bride of a year before, a girl who made the world feel old because it seemed such a little time since she was a child herself. By the time Anne came, Elizabeth was a more settled and efficient young matron, at at times when the cameras proved unkind she looked like one.”
Given the very public way their weird family dynamics would play out decades later, there’s something very poignant about this photo of Elizabeth playing with the two:
For some reason, there’s another burst of frenzied coverage upon the birth of her third child, Prince Andrew, in 1960. One story specified that the Windsors would not be purchasing new nursery equipment but rather reusing what they already had; another reassured the American public that Prince Phillip would be “free to pace.” The announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy in August of ‘59 was judged only slightly less important than an American rocket launch. From the Oswego Palladium-Times:
But of course it was the tail-end of the 1950s, and I guess America loved praising women for having babies even more than usual. My very favorite coverage comes from a wire service’s man in London, who wrote a piece syndicated in a Texas newspaper with the headline: “New Heir Means New Respect for Queen Elizabeth.” Gag me with a spoon.
Nothing compares, ultimately, to the modern frenzy over Prince William’s birth, when the full tabloid frenzy had descended upon the Windsors. “Church bells pealed, cannon roared and Union Jacks fluttered everywhere as Britain rejoiced today over the birth of a baby destined to be king,” the AP reported. “Brits bonkers over royal baby,” reported the Cox News Service. A few days later, when the family left the hospital, the AP informed its readers, “Royal baby: Sleeps through public appearance.”
Oh, and a word of caution to anybody considering putting money on any particular name: The bookies blew it in 1982.
By the time Harry had rolled around, the fervor had died down a bit and people were rolling their eyes at how nuts America had gone the last time around. For instance, columnist Erma Bombeck:
Sorry, kiddo. It’s rough out here for a spare.
Photos via AP Images.