In the spring of 1947, the Hogg Foundation launched the “Pierre the Pelican” initiative in Louisiana and Texas. A mental health mascot of sorts, Pierre the Pelican appeared in a series of educational pamphlets provided to hundreds of young couples who were expecting their first child. The campaign responded to the national demographic increase in marriage and childbirth – known more colloquially as the “baby boom” – which began just after World War II and continued into the early 1960s.
Across the nation, new parents eagerly read a plethora of childrearing advice literature, led by Benjamin Spock’s best-selling book, Baby and Child Care (1946). Pierre the Pelican went one step further, initiating contact with new parents through their physicians (mainly gynecologists) and assessing the effect of advice literature on parenting practices in infancy and early childhood.
Conceived by psychologist Loyd Rowland, director of the Louisiana Society for Mental Health, the Pierre the Pelican campaign echoed many of Dr. Spock’s popular prescriptions for successful childrearing. Each month for a calendar year, new parents received a pamphlet in the mail that addressed a host of parenting issues, ranging from amorphous things such as “showing kindness” to more pragmatic concerns such as eating, sleeping, and “toilet training.”
The literature championed parenting practices that have become more normative today. For instance, it called for fathers to play a more active role in childrearing, and discouraged corporal discipline in favor of verbal redirection of misbehavior. As one mailer put it, “babies must be protected from fear and made to feel secure.”
With a much larger generation of youths on the way, postwar mental health experts viewed the issue as critical. Rowland, the campaign’s architect, argued that traumatizing parental discipline during the early childhood years formed a major cause for mental illness. He described the Pierre the Pelican campaign as an early intervention to “combat mental illness” among young couples who were, according to his survey data, eager to shed the mores of their parents’ generation and open to expert advice.
For Rowland, young, first-time parents represented “a strategic group upon which educators in mental health may center their effort” in dispensing baby and child care advice. Rowland argued that these parents were deeply dissatisfied with their family traditions but could revert back to those same traditions in the absence of alternative methods. Struggling with feelings of “acute helplessness” and uncertainty, these first-time parents might “never again be as willing to learn about child development as during the infancy of their first child.”
However receptive new parents might be to expert advice, they also remained suspicious of intrusions into the most personal of affairs: the raising of a first-born child. The Pierre the Pelican literature struck a friendly, accessible tone, free of jargon or any overt references to doctors or mental health professionals. Rather than a sober-faced clinician, the advice in each printed pamphlet was delivered by a smiling cartoon character, Pierre the Pelican, an amalgamation of the Louisiana state bird and the local French Creole culture of southern Louisiana.
The campaign was one of the first Hogg Foundation public education efforts to be evaluated for its effectiveness. Rowland led a group of students from Tulane University in interviewing the first cohort of Pierre the Pelican parents, as well as some parents who had not received the literature. Among the households that received the pamphlets, three-quarters of the women and about half of the men read them. Families that read the pamphlets had begun practicing different childrearing strategies from those who had not read them. Many households described fathers who had become “more cooperative in the care of a baby,” and reported lower uses of corporal punishment. Parents who read the Pierre the Pelican pamphlets were more supportive of children’s independent exploration and overreacted less often to “problem” behaviors. Having adopted a “more permissive” approach, these parents expressed greater awareness of their children’s mental and emotional development.
Pierre the Pelican’s success attracted national attention. Other state health departments adopted the Pierre the Pelican materials (provided to them by the Hogg Foundation) for their own parent education campaigns in the late 1940s. Pierre the Pelican was endorsed by the American Medical Association, the National Institute for Mental Health, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, the Menninger Clinic, and the Topeka Foundation. In February 1948, the New York Times Magazine featured Pierre the Pelican in its popular weekly column on children’s and family issues, praising the literature’s “disarming way of taking parents into a partnership” and warning its national readers that “you have to think ahead in matters of mental health.”
The Pierre the Pelican campaign brought the message of children’s mental health to a generation of young parents, and in the process helped change childrearing practices in Texas and the nation.