Published: December 18, 2012
Through the centuries, the perspective on childhood has varied according to social, political and economic climate. Children were prized for a variety of reasons, ranging from heir to an extra pair of hands in the field or factory.
The new exhibition, “A Child’s World: Childhood in Nineteenth Century New England,” on view at Old Sturbridge Village through May 31, explores childhood of the period through their toys clothing and furniture.
Old Sturbridge Village historians have drawn from the museum’s collections 150 objects dating from the 1790s to the middle of the Nineteenth Century. The objects on view were, for the most part, used in rural settings.
While the exhibition is a survey of the material culture of early Nineteenth Century childhood, it is at the same time a larger consideration of family structures and the role of the child of the period.
Families were larger then †the average woman had seven or eight live births, often more, and usually every two years. Infant mortality rates were high, but it was not uncommon for families to have children ranging in age from infancy to young adulthood.
On the farm, everyone, even the youngest, was expected to put his or her hand to the wheel. Chores like helping in the kitchen and tending the garden, gathering eggs, berries and firewood, picking apples, hauling water and feeding the livestock were managed by children, depending on their age. Girls and boys alike learned to sew and knit. Boys as young as nine or ten were taught to drive a team of oxen to work the farm, and older children were often in charge of younger siblings. At around four, children went to school.
Toys were extraneous to family function, yet a simply carved figure, a cornhusk doll or a cloth doll brought joy to the spare hours. At the same time, store-bought toys were available, and even imported toys found their way to early New England. That any survive is remarkable; they were frequently passed down from child to child, sustaining much wear. Furniture and clothing also passed from child to child, also sustaining wear.
“A Child’s World” opens with a selection of portraits of New England families that provide interesting details about the sitters. A circa 1835 watercolor depicts Mary Angela Negus Spooner of Petersham, Mass., and her children, George H. Spooner, born in 1833, and the infant Caroline Negus Spooner, born in 1835. The artist is identified in a Twentieth Century sticker as “Aunt Caroline Negus Hildreth,” who was sister to the mother depicted. The mother wears a dainty brown dress with puffy sleeves and is seated in a rocking chair at a table with an open box and a vase of flowers. A colored carpet covers the floor. The son wears a blue-green dress and trousers beneath a white pinafore and holds a cap with a visor.
Joseph H. Davis’s watercolor “Portrait of Mr and Mrs Enoch Tuttle and Family” was painted in 1836. The artist inscribed the work with the names and ages of the parents and two children, the location “Bow Pond Strafford” (probably New Hampshire) and dated it “Sept. 6th 1836.” The family is seated around an elaborately carved table with two carved fancy chairs with the accoutrements of affluence. The parents and the children are all dressed according to the fashion of the day.
An oil on canvas portrait of the Deacon Wilson Brainerd family attributed to Erastus Salisbury Field is less joyous. It portrays a prosperous family in a formal setting with five sons, two of whom were dead at the time the portrait was made. Such portraits were not uncommon and they memorialized the deceased.
Many of the objects on view, however, attest to lives of loving use. They are grouped by function and the period in a child’s life when he or she would have used the object. An entire section is given over to the layette, much of which would have been sewn by the expectant mother. The mother herself was not neglected: a circa 1800 maternity gown on view belonged to Betsey Rogers Baker of Maine and a nursing gown, circa 1830, was used by a Massachusetts mother. The identity of the wearers of some of these objects is known.
A long-sleeved infant’s shirt, circa 1804, was worn by Truman Charles born in 1804 in Massachusetts. (An unfinished sampler thought to have been wrought by his future wife, Mary Carlisle Allen, who was born in Holland, Mass., also in 1804, is on view at Old Sturbridge Village.) Infants of both genders wore gowns †they allowed for easier diaper changes †often embellished with lace or embroidery. The garment could also be passed from child to child.
Several pair of infant’s footwear on view were preserved because they never saw use †children do not typically walk in infancy. A pair of quilted shoes dates from the late Eighteenth or early Nineteenth Century. Another pair is decorated with the image of the Marquis de Lafayette and was made in Boston around 1825. Children’s clothing that survived was usually kept for “best” and saw less usage than the everyday wear.
A baby would also be supplied with a cradle and blankets, a number of which are on view, along with a cradle quilt made around 1867 for Sewall Morse of Brattleboro, Vt.
Girls’ clothing evolved from the infant’s gown to a small version of an adult dress, usually with pantalettes. By the time she was 13 or so, a girl’s dress lengthened and she no longer wore pantalettes.
Boys were breeched when they were old enough to manage trouser buttons, sometime between age four and eight. Breeching was an event that in earlier times sometimes coincided with the beginning of a child’s work life. Child labor laws only began to be enacted in parts of New England in the 1840s; children younger than 14 could no longer work in the mills and factories.
The idea of childhood took on a greater sentimentalism than previously in the early part of the century once it was recognized that childhood is a time for the formation of character and the mastery of life skills.
A rattle of coral and silver was made around 1825 by Joseph Willmore of Birmingham, England. Rattles were the first toys a newborn might receive. The rattle was thought to stimulate an infant’s senses, particularly as the child learned to manipulate the piece. The Romans adopted red coral as a protection against all manner of travails, including sickness, lightning, whirlwind, shipwreck and fire, and many cultures since then have done the same.
A New England make-do walker or child tender on view is a circa 1820 slat back child’s chair upended to allow a child learning to walk to push it across the floor.
Early Nineteenth Century children’s toys ranged from the homemade to the fancy import. Many store-bought toys were treasured and kept from harm. Others, such as several child’s wagons on view, a sleigh, even a bag of marbles, were well used. Homemade toys ran to carved animals, rag dolls made from leftover fabric, dolls of wax or corn husk, board games drawn onto pieces of wood, tea sets made from pieces of broken china †the sky was the limit with respect to imagination. Play was often patterned on adult pursuits: dolls and tea parties or military and agricultural pursuits.
The industrialization and urbanization that swept the country in the early Nineteenth Century brought an increase in leisure time. Games publishers appeared and board games became popular and educational pursuits. A selection of board and other games by such Massachusetts makers as W. and S.B. Ives of Salem and Milton Bradley of Springfield is on view.
Another section of the exhibition is devoted to education. A school desk from Candia, N.H., and a pine “school library” dating from around 1845 is a cupboard used to hold books at the Plainville School in Hadley, Mass. Primers and lesson books, maps and alphabets, illuminate the curriculum of the mid-Nineteenth Century. A group of rewards of merit on view reveal the academic accomplishments of students from the Belknap and Allen families of Sturbridge.
Old Sturbridge Village is at 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road. For further information, www.osv.org or 800-SEE-1890.
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