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President Emerita of New England Historical Society Jane Nylander Lectures on Children’s Fashion from 1750-1850

Although little is known about the children’s fashion in early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, surviving pieces of clothing and artwork from that time period allow researchers to study certain aspects of and constantly learn more about the clothing. This past Tuesday, President Emerita of the New England Historical Society Jane Nylander presented her lecture “Little Stranger: Infants and Children’s Clothing in 1750-1850” in the Kemper Auditorium. Nylander’s presentation included a slideshow of many artworks depicting different pieces of children’s clothing. The presentation emphasized that sewing clothing for children was a major part of a woman’s work. It was also a work expressive of the mother’s maternal love for her child. Women learned to sew and embroider the clothes from their mothers, friends, and previous experiences with children. The task was difficult, as the work was done entirely by hand. Nylander explained that today those who study origins of clothing can view sewing manuals to learn about the minute details that comprise construction of a clothing. Sewing manuals give exact descriptions and details such as suitable materials to use and precise measurements. An example of a collection of sewing guides is Workwoman’s Guide, which contains several diagrams describing each piece of clothing belonging to children of different social classes. While working at the Sturbridge Village, Nylander became curious of the conventionality of children’s clothing from the period of 1750-1850 on a child of today. She and her fellow researchers used the sewing guides to make the exact replica of the clothes that would have been worn by an infant back then. At the Village, Nylander also became interested when she viewed paintings portraying little children from three centuries ago. Nylander then realized that she wanted to delve into the history of children’s clothing. She and her colleagues put the clothes on an infantile child to examine the precise fit and wear of the clothes. To their surprise, the arms of the child did not fit into the armholes of the undershirt, although the child was considered small according to the standards of the time between 1700 and 1850. Nylander explained that a transformation in human shoulders has occurred since the late nineteenth century. The reason for this transformation is due to the growing practice in physical exercise in everyday lifestyle, which created more pronounced shoulders. Teaching Fellow in History Frances Ritchie ’01 commented, “It’s so crazy that in 200 years we’ve grown body parts.” Nylander also remarked that female and male infants donned unisex clothing. Boys often wore skirted outfits until they were “britched” which often happened between the ages of 4 and 6. At this point boys would begin to wear skeleton suits, a one-piece suits with long leg trousers. The suit illustrated the perfect symmetry of a boy’s body. Diapers were an intricate part of the clothing of an infant as they were the base garments. Also known as a clout or napkin, baby diapers were a large piece of linen that was often pinned to the baby. Workwoman’s Guide suggests the use of two to three of the three-inch long pins. After the baby grew out of diaper age, the diapers were made of a shape that they could also be doubled as a towel. Discussing Abigail Adams’ written account on making clouts, Nylander said, “[Abigail Adams] showed that somebody cared about it.” The lecture also emphasized that children of the time period were dressed as miniature adults, and also expected to behave like adults. Although clothing was physically restrictive, children were still able to play and enjoy childhood. Swaddling clothes, corsets, and other restraints such as strait pins were necessities in a child’s wardrobe. “Parents found it necessary to restrain the animal nature of their children.” she explained. Nylander attended Brown University and Winter Tour, a program to study material culture. She has also worked as a professional textiles curator and is currently the president of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). She has published many books on material culture.