Monday, January 31, 2011

Welcome, Little Stranger: The Well-Dressed Baby, 1775

Monday, January 31, 2011
Susan reporting:

Throughout history, some things never change. No matter the time, place, or circumstance, most new babies are welcomed into the world with love and indulgence. While baby showers are a modern invention, women have always enjoyed preparing for their baby's arrival.

Mothers in the 18th c. were no different. Obviously babies were outfitted according to the family's means, with poorer mothers re-cutting and recycling worn garments for the newcomer. The basic baby wardrobe consisted of a clout or napkin (a diaper to us, and like all 18th c. clothing, these were kept in place with straight pins), a shirt, waistcoat, cap, and gown.

From there the industry and creativity of the mother, her friends, and sisters and the purse of the father were the only limits. Baby clothes could be exquisite examples of the most refined handwork, featuring fine linen, embroidery, and lace trimmings. For mothers whose tastes exceeded their needlework skills, milliners' shops supplied baby things as well.

Shown here is a selection of things for some special 18th c. baby, recreated by the mantua-makers from the Margaret Hunter Shop of Colonial Williamsburg. Above left is a small silk pillow, c. 1770, with the happy message spelled out in glass beads. This would have hung on the door as a birth announcement to the neighborhood.

The open-front christening gown, right, c. 1765, is made from heavy silk satin, lined with more silk. For everyday wear, gowns were more commonly made from linen or cotton. But for this indulged baby, a silk gown is only the beginning. The baby shoes are embroidered over a woven striped fabric (in the detail, left, the zigzag stitches can be seen between the stripes) with leather soles.

Below right is an elegant hooded baby cape, cut in a similar style to capes worn by ladies. The peach-colored outer fabric is silk, while the lining is a soft, warm, brushed wool flannel.

Finishing off the fashionable baby ensemble would be these tiny fingerless mitts, below left. Again mimicking adult dress, the mitts are made from linen with a lace edging. Given how often babies put their hands in their mouths, I'm guessing that these often had a short life - but how stylish the baby must have looked for that first ten minutes!

And while all this silk and lace may seem impractical and formal for babies, it was comfortable ease compared with what was to come. Advertisement of the time show a ready market for tiny stays, or corsets, for both boys and girls, to begin to train the proper genteel posture. The age when these stays were first worn? Three months.

As always, please click on the photos for a larger version.


Monica Burns said...

What a beautiful Christening gown! It's gorgeous.

Audra said...

Infant stays?! Horrifying.

The rest of this post is lovely -- thank you for the gorgeous pictures.

Emma J said...

Beautiful things for doting mamas! This all would have made for a perfectly lovely little baby - for about five minutes. Can you imagine trying to clean baby spit-up from that white satin? {{shudder}}

Carolyn said...

P. 123, Figure 65, Plain & Fancy American Women and Their Needlework, 1700-1850, Susan Burrows Swan: Handmade pins spell out a revealing eighteenth-century phrase that suggests the distance parents maintained from their newborn children: "Welcome Little Stranger." America; dated 1770.

Was this distance a safeguard against becoming too close to an infant that might die due to high infant mortality?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Carolyn, I have that book, too - it's a classic!

However, newer scholarship has discounted the '70s interpretation that 18th c. parents kept themselves "distanced" from infants and young children. There are, sadly, plenty of original sources from the 18th c. in the forms of letters and diaries that prove that parents then worried about their children and grieved deeply over their losses just as much as any modern parent would.

Current historians have decided the "little stranger" tag is more a general endearment rather than any effort at emotional distance - much like modern shower presents and cards that use the generic "For Baby", esp. when the gender of the child isn't yet known.

But then, historical interpretations are always evolving. What was new in the 1970s is old in 2011, but might well come back again in 2030. :)

Tonya said...

Very beautiful. I love the hooded baby cape. Back then they put a lot hard work into these gowns.

Jen said...

For those interested in more about 18c maternal feelings & 18c baby clothes, look at the exhibit at the Foundling Museum in London

nightsmusic said...

I know I'm late to this party and you're both taking a few days off, but I wanted to mention that my closest friend made a christening gown for my first daughter (son wouldn't have mattered though) complete with bonnet, shoes with suede soles and a three foot skirt from a very old pattern (which really wasn't much of a pattern!). It was pintucked, embroidered, had a hand quilted jacket...absolutely gorgeous! If I can find the picture, I'll scan it in for you. I have the dress lovingly packed away in the hope that one of my two who wore it will want to use it someday for their own.

Anonymous said...

Lovely article and photos, thank you. It's interesting to see how different eras have interpreted "do the right thing for the baby".

In the 18 c stays were, "of course" the right thing, as we read above.

In the 19c there were baby stays, but also strong purgatives. Babies should be clean on the outside and the inside!

Both the 18 an 19 c thought beating of young children to be both normal and necessay. "Of course" children should respect their parents, and the 18 / 19 interpretation of respect was "fear".

In the 1930 - 60 period the right thing was a well fed baby. This translated into overfed and overweight. At this time many UK holiday camps had "fat baby competitions".


Jeremy Tigar Hall said...

ooh, I'm going to have to send my wife over here, she'll love this. We actually play music together as Welcome Little Stranger:

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