Sarah Albee: How They Rolled

From: Sarah Albee

De Wikkelkinderen (The Swaddled Twins), Artist unknown, 1617

I went to a baby shower a couple of weeks ago, and was amazed at all the adorable and functional baby clothing they make these days. Babies today are pretty lucky, considering what they used to be forced to wear.

In seventeenth century Europe and America, babies started out life swaddled (tightly wrapped).  The seventeenth-century infant would be dressed in a shirt and “tailclout” (an early word for a diaper, cloth of course), and then bandages would be wound in a spiraling fashion the entire length of the baby’s body. On his or her head was a biggin (a cloth cap). The poor, immobilized child might be unwound a couple of times a day to allow it to move its limbs and to be cleaned, but otherwise that’s the way the baby spent the first four to six weeks of its life. People believed swaddling would give the child a straighter back and limbs.

When at last the swaddling came off, the child was “short-coated,” meaning it was dressed in a long, loose gown that reached to the feet. If you’ve ever watched a baby learning to walk, imagine adding a floor-length dress to his challenge. Toddlers could be kept out of trouble and away from blazing hearths by sewing “leading strings” to their clothing. The mother would hold onto one end, in order to yank a child away from dangerous things like the blazing hearth, while she went about her dozens of tasks. On its head the child wore a “pudding cap,” which was an early incarnation of a crash helmet, with a rolled piece of fabric acting as padding if the kid fell down. Since safety pins hadn’t yet been invented, baby diapers, made of linen or rags, were secured with straight pins.

You can see a pretty good example of a pudding cap and leading string in the portrait, above, by Peter Paul Rubens. It’s the artist, his wife, and one of their five children.

Oh and by the way. The kid in the picture? It’s a boy. And it looks as though he’s wearing a corset. We’ll talk about that on Friday.


Posted on June 6, 2012, in Sarah Albee and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Sarah Albee: How They Rolled.

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