Valentine’s Day brings to mind visions of cupid, a baby dressed only in a nappy shooting arrows of love at unsuspecting couples. While this little cherub celebrates the holiday au natural, let’s take some time to talk about the fashion statements the babies in our family tree have made through the centuries. To help us visualize the togs those tots wore we could turn to our grandmother’s photo albums, but there we may find a surprise: lots of photos of female ancestors and surprisingly fewer of the males. Why is that? Read on as my colleague and guest genealogist Allison DePrey Singleton, Librarian at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center unravels the mystery and stitches together a delightful history of baby clothing.
The History of Baby Clothing
The history of baby clothes in America is fascinating. Many reasons exist as to why not much is written about baby clothes the further back in history you go. One reason is that baby clothes were just a natural part of life and not something that was documented thoroughly. Another is that baby clothes were not colorful or eye-catching. Traditionally, baby clothes were white so they could be easily bleached.
Swaddling in the 17th Century
In the 1600s, babies were “swaddled” and not in the current sense of the word. They were wrapped tightly in cloth so their legs and arms would stay straight. It was thought that if the baby’s limbs were bent, they could become physically deformed. The swaddling went from the head down their entire body to keep it still and straight. You can see a depiction of a swaddled baby in Jan Steen’s painting, Celebrating the Birth. The child is being held at an awkward angle, and since the child is swaddled so firmly, the head does not need to be physically supported. (Image below)
Stay with Me: More Baby Clothing History
Another fascinating seventeenth-century practice is the use of “stays” on babies. Once a baby left the swaddling period, he or she was put into a tiny corset, or stays, to keep straight and stiff. The era placed a great deal of emphasis on the positivity of an erect and straight posture. Parents dressed their children in long skirts, regardless of sex, to prevent crawling, which was considered barbaric and unnatural. The long skirts were significant indicators of age and not sex. A depiction of a child in stays and long skirts can be seen in the painting, Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary.
From Baby Clothing to Breeched
The 1700s brought new ideas about allowing physical freedom for babies. Firm swaddling went out of vogue and so did the infant stays. Parents still dressed their babies in little dresses, but they were now ankle length after about six months. As the centuries went by, baby clothes became more ornate and frilly. Social norms considered babies to be beautiful, no matter the sex, and no concerns existed about differentiating the gender at a glance. Boys and girls alike could have long ringlets and dresses. This makes identifying boys and girls in photographs more difficult. There were small nuances that separated the boys from the girls. Boys would have one style of dress while girls could possibly have a more ornate dress. Clothes were not distinct to gender until children reached a certain age. Boys would then be “breeched,” or allowed to wear breeches, sometime between four and seven years of age. As the decades passed, the age to be “breeched” became younger and younger. This painting of Two Boys in a Garden shows a boy who had been “breeched” and a younger boy who had not. You can learn more about this painting at the Connecticut Historical Society.
Baby Clothes in the Pink (and Blue!)
With the advent of washing machines in the mid-1800s and the expanded availability of store-bought fabrics, baby clothes began having a bit of hue to them. Initially, there were no colors assigned to either sex, but this changed in the mid-1800s. Originally, boys were assigned the color pink and girls the color blue. Check out this adorable pink and red shirt for a baby boy in The Autry’s Collections Online: http://bit.ly/2jydN1R. This vintage baby announcement is also a great example of the use of pink for boys: http://bit.ly/2jnpdlI
Various writings, books, and newspaper articles show this opposite color assignment for babies, including this article from 1897:
“On Friday, when she had read the papers and learned of the event at Princeton, Mrs. McKinley smiled, but her smile had a trace of discomfiture. The booties which she had sent to Mrs. Cleveland were blue, and as all the world which has had experience in such things well knows, blue booties are for girls and pink for boys.” – The Wilkes-Barre Telephone (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), Saturday, November 6, 1897.
The mixed beliefs about the correct color for each gender continued well into the 1900s. In 1925, the Betty Bob’s Family paper doll book came out with a Baby Bobby in it, featuring some feminine looking clothing: http://bit.ly/2jeCD8j. The Times Magazine featured a chart on which ten popular department stores labeled the gender of clothes for which sex. Six stores listed pink for boys and only five stores showed pink for girls (one store even had pink for both sexes). You can view this article through the same access link as for the other articles.
Not until after World War II did the custom of assigning pink for girls and blue for boys become set. One thing to note is that even in today’s society, baby girls can wear blue or pink, but baby boys generally are not dressed in pink. Since the color assignments became set, it has become an insult to many mothers to call a child by the wrong gender. You will see most babies with some kind of indicator on them, such as a bow headband or a little blue blanket or toy, even if their clothes are not a female shade or male shade of color.
Baby Clothing in Your Family Photo Albums
It is a relatively new phenomenon to have gender-assigned clothing instead of just age-assigned clothing. Take another look at your family photos and those vintage baby clothes. You might see something new from a different perspective.
Baumgarten, Linda. What clothes reveal: the language of clothing in colonial and federal America: the Colonial Williamsburg Collection. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg. Calvert, Karin Lee Fishbeck. Children in the house: the material culture of early childhood, 1600-1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992. F., José Blanco, Mary D. Doering, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, and Heather Vaughan Lee. Clothing and fashion: American fashion from head to toe. Vol. 1-3. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2016. Hiner, N. Ray., and Joseph M. Hawes. Growing up in America: children in historical perspective. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. Paoletti, Jo B. “Clothing and Gender in America: Children’s Fashions, 1890-1920.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13, no. 1 (1987): 136-43. doi:10.1086/494390. Paoletti, Jo Barraclough. Pink and blue: telling the boys from the girls in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012. “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?” Smithsonian.com. Accessed January 10, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/.
About the Author: Allison DePrey Singleton
Allisonis Genealogy Librarian at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center where her specialties include Indiana, France, and Germany as well as programming for all levels of genealogists and keeping family history alive via social media and new digital trends.
What was it like to live in the Tudor age or the 1940s? Would you rather “watch” the answer or “read” it? Well, you can do both with these popular BBC historical documentary series and their companion books.
Ruth Goodman is known to BBC watchers as the woman who brings history to life in several documentary series. They’re all re-creations of rural life in a certain time period: the Tudor era, Victorian era, Edwardian era (which many of us know better as the Downton Abbey era) and even World War II. All of the series have episodes you can watch on YouTube for free. A couple of them also have companion books that give you the nitty-gritty–sometimes literally–in print.
Time for a little binge-watching (or reading!)! Below, you will find a sample episode from each series, along with the companion book and a link to watch more episodes on YouTube.
Tudor Monastery Farm
Tudor Monastery Farm is the official companion volume to the series. You’ll follow Ruth and her co-stars “as they discover how to build a pigsty, brew their own ale, forge their own machinery, and keep a Tudor household. Scrupulously researched, totally authentic, and with its own contemporary narrative playing out within an accurate reconstruction of Tudor England, this is a fantastic glimpse into history, as it was lived.”
Ruth’s more scholarly How to Be a Tudor riveted me–and I didn’t expect it to. My historical imagination doesn’t generally extend that far back in time. Ruth captured the little things that are so big like what it’s like not to bathe, how the food tastes, and how itchy the clothes are. When she waxed rapturous about studying a suit of clothing that was several hundred years old and falling apart in an archive, I felt an almost primal connection. I get that way about old documents. I’m just saying.
How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life is another critically-acclaimed “manual for the insatiably curious” by the “historian who believes in getting her hands dirty.” This time she reveals Victorian life (the mid and late 1800s) from daybreak to bedtime. Again, the devil and the delightful are in the details: how they got dressed, how and when and what they ate, and what work they did. I’m guessing nobody skips the chapters on the trip to the privy or “behind the bedroom door.”
“If variety is the spice of life, then Edwardian rural life has proved to be one heck of a curry.” -Ruth Goodman
In this series and the Edwardian Farm book, Ruth and her intrepid co-time-travelers live in England’s West Country as if it’s the turn of the twentieth century. At the time this was “a commercially prosperous region—a stunning rural landscape encompassing rolling farmland, wild moorland, tidal river, coast, and forest, which supported a vibrant and diverse economy.” The hosts spend a year “restoring boats, buildings, and equipment; cultivating crops; fishing; rearing animals; and rediscovering the lost heritage of this fascinating era as well as facing the challenges of increasingly commercial farming practices, fishing, and community events.”
During World War II, Britain couldn’t import much produce or other foodstuff as they were accustomed, so residents had to grow it themselves or go without. The series and the book Wartime Farm reveal “how our predecessors lived and thrived in difficult conditions with extreme frugality and ingenuity. From growing your own vegetables and keeping chickens in the back yard, to having to ‘make do and mend’, many of the challenges faced by wartime Britons have resonance today.”
Victorian bicycles like the “Ordinary” high-wheel and the woman’s racing tricycle were anything but ordinary! Check out this video footage of our Genealogy Gems Book Club featured author Sarah Chrisman and her husband Gabriel on their high-wheels–and Gabriel’s demonstrations of how to ride a high-wheel Victorian bicycle.
Sarah and Gabriel Chrisman live like it’s Victorian times. Their dress, home life, household appliances, daily technology use (except for communicating with the rest of the world as needed) and even their daily transportation choices are all driven by what would have been done in the 1880s and 1890s.
Victorian Bicycles About Town
Check out this footage (below) of the couple “about town” on their Victorian bicycles. Gabriel launches himself onto a high-wheel “Ordinary” style bicycle. He rides a modern replica of an 1885 Victor with a 52″ wheel (the bicycle is sized to his leg length, like a man’s trousers) and an 1887 Singer Challenge. Sarah trails along on a modern re-creation inspired by a Coventry Rudge Rotary tricycle from the 1880s. They talk about what they do and why–and the message they hope others will take away from their unusual lifestyle.
Victorian Bicycles vs. Present Day Cycling
Gabriel has over 20-years’ experience working in a bike shop (a modern one), and enjoys comparing past and present cycling models. In an interview at Bicycling.com, he explains: “I’m a long-time cyclist with lower back issues—I can sit on this bike and be perfectly vertical and upright, which is wonderful for comfort, and you get a better view. One of the things I always used road riding for is meditation, and riding a high-wheel bike is an excellent bike for that—it’s just a magical experience gliding along and feeling the rhythm of everything.”
Below, Gabriel demonstrates how to mount his 1887 Singer Challenge high-wheel bicycle:
And here he shows off just a little, riding with one leg (we’re impressed):
Victorian Bicylces for the Ladies
Victorian Bicycles: A couple seated on an 1886 Coventry Rotary Quadracycle for two. Wikimedia Commons image in the public domain; click to view.
Sarah’s tricycle was originally made to accommodate ladies’ fashions of the day: long, full skirts that would have gotten caught in the spokes of an Ordinary and pantalet drawers with open crotches that would have revealed more than a lady would prefer if she were seated on a taller Ordinary. A “bicycle built for two” quadracycle version was also made, shown here.
“There were a number of different styles of tricycles in the nineteenth-century,” Sarah explains on the couple’s website. “On many models the rider sat between two large wheels and a third, smaller wheel was seen out front or behind the rider. However finely they were made though, all the metal and solid rubber on those large wheels adds up to a lot of weight, so an asymmetrical model was developed. The Rudge Rotary (which inspired mine) was known for its lightness and speed and gained a reputation as a racing trike. The right-hand grip turns the two smaller wheels in tandem with each other: They steer it. The big wheel drives the machine: It gets turned when the treadles go ’round.”
This Victorian Life at Genealogy Gems
Learn more about Sarah and Gabriel’s unusual lifestyle in Sarah’s memoir, This Victorian Life. She will discuss that book and Victorian life in general in an upcoming Genealogy Gems Book Club interview with host Lisa Louise Cooke. You can catch highlights from that conversation in our free December epiosde of The Genealogy Gems Podcast, and the exclusive full length interview on the Genealogy Gems Premium podcast (episode 142). Not a Premium member yet? Click here to learn more about Premium membership benefits–not least of which is access to unique conversations such as this one!
Bonus Genealogy Gems Book Club recommendations: Sarah has also written other books about Victorian life, including a “Cycling Club Romance” series inspired by their own experience with the Victorian-era cycling craze. Click on the book covers below to learn more about them. (And if you choose to purchase, thanks for doing so using these links, which support more free content like this.)
Of course, Annie read from the opening of her book, which made me put it at the top of my reading list. Then she talked about how history can be so different, depending on who is telling the story and from what perspective. I loved her take on small-town history and family history: how it’s remembered so deeply and passionately by its own, and often so mis-remembered or mis-represented by outsiders.
Here’s the book summary from Amazon:
“In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom. But once she secures a room in the home of the unconventional Romeyn family, she is drawn into their complex world and soon discovers that the truth of the town is entangled in the thorny past of the Romeyn dynasty.
At the Romeyn house, twelve-year-old Willa is desperate to learn everything in her quest to acquire her favorite virtues of ferocity and devotion—a search that leads her into a thicket of mysteries, including the questionable business that occupies her charismatic father and the reason her adored aunt Jottie remains unmarried. Layla’s arrival strikes a match to the family veneer, bringing to light buried secrets that will tell a new tale about the Romeyns. As Willa peels back the layers of her family’s past, and Layla delves deeper into town legend, everyone involved is transformed—and their personal histories completely rewritten.”
Annie did talk about the Guernsey book, too. I hadn’t realized her aunt wrote the original manuscript, then became too ill to do the rewrites her publisher wanted. So Annie took on the task. As the author of the acclaimed Ivy and Bean children’s series, clearly she was up to the task. But she didn’t dream it would become an international best-seller!
You’re probably aware that the David Rumsey map collection website is a terrific source for old maps. But you may be surprised by the variety of maps, some which you likely don’t come across every day. Here’s a fun little tactic I took today to see what it may hold in store beyond typical maps. A search of the word neighborhood reveals that their holdings go well beyond traditional maps. Here’s an example from San Francisco showing a neighborhood in its infancy:
And the image below depicts the Country Club district of Kansas City in the 1930s. If your family lived there at that time, this is a real gem.
If you think Google Books is just books, think again. Historic maps, often unique and very specific, can often be found within those digitized pages. Try running a Google search such as: neighborhood map baltimore.
Click the MORE menu and select BOOKS. Then click the SEARCH TOOLS button at the top of the results list, and from the drop down menu select ANY BOOKS and then click FREE GOOGLE BOOKS:
Select a book that looks promising. Then rather than reading through the pages or scanning the index, save loads of time by clicking the thumbnail view button at the top of the book. This way you can do a quick visual scan for pages featuring maps!
When you find a page featuring a map, click it display it on a single page. You can now use the clipper tool built right in to Google Books to clip an image of the map. Other options include using Evernote (free) or Snagit ($).
Like Google Books, the digitized pages housed at the Chronicling America website contain much more than just text. Old newspapers printed maps to help readers understand current events like the progress of war or the effect of a natural disaster. This map from The Tacoma Times in 1914 shows a map of Europe and several quick facts about the “Great War,” World War I:
The Tacoma Times, August 22, 1914. Image from Chronicling America. Click on image to visit webpage.
Here’s one more example below. A search for “San Francisco earthquake” at Chronicling America brought up this bird’s eye view of San Francisco at the time of the major 1906 earthquake. Articles below the map explain what you’re seeing:
The Minneapolis Journal, April 19, 1906. Image at Chronicling America; click on image to see it there.