Whenever we discuss corsets or stays (as they are called in the 18th c.), we're usually referring to the ones that adult women wore to give them fashionable shapes, and "improve" on Nature. But ladies weren't the only ones who began the day with a tight lacing. Most well-bred European children, girls and boys alike, also wore stays from the age of three months onward.
The goal was not narrowing the waist, but to encourage proper posture and make standing straight a lifetime habit. You know, being "upright" and "upstanding."
Costume collections have many of these tiny corsets, some measuring only sixteen inches around the chest. (The example, left, is a recreation by the Colonial Williamsburg mantua-makers; here's an antique example from the CW collection, and another from a private
collection.) They're substantial, no-nonsense garments, quilted layers of stiffened linen and buckram, reinforced with baleen boning. The two young children in the painting below are clearly wearing stays beneath their fashionable clothing.
By the time boys were ready for breeching at about age five, they put aside stays along with the rest of their uni-sex baby clothes,and began to dress like miniature men. Girls never gave them up; ladies wore stays their entire lives, even while pregnant. The girls of the later 18th c. did have the advantage of reaching womanhood in the brief era of the high-waisted Regency styles, and would have been spared whalebone for twenty years or so of their lives. But one wonders if the famously willowy figures of the time resulted from the stays worn as children.
To modern parents, the idea of toddlers in corsets seems horrifying. But every generation has its own ideas for raising healthy children. Those of us of a certain age (cough, cough) will recall the peculiar emphasis put on "correcting and supporting" children's feet in the 1950s and 60s. Kids were weighed down by clunky, reinforced oxford-style shoes with rigid arch inserts and tight lacing over the top of the foot. The more things change....