Dressing a Child, 1875 Style

Dressing a Child, 1875 Style


During the 19th century, people’s attitudes about children changed. In Colonial times, children were viewed as small adults. They were dressed as miniature adults and were expected to behave as adults. They were involved in the adult world, working beside their parents at a very young age. But, as the Victorian age dawned, people began to view children differently. Childhood was seen as a time of innocence, and children were often kept apart from the adult world. Many families created nurseries where the children would sleep, eat, play and learn their lessons separated from the adults much of the time. Wealthy families often employed a nanny or a governess to oversee their children’s daily lives.

Children were expected to be obedient to their parents, “to be seen and not heard”, and “not to speak unless the adult spoke to them first.” Although children of wealthy families were often pampered, they were being trained to become responsible adults. Their education and their play reflected these goals. Girls learned household skills in addition to their ABC’s. Boys were encouraged to develop their muscles by participating in athletic activities in addition to their schoolwork. Of course, children from poorer families did not necessarily enjoy this more ideal childhood and found themselves working in factories or engaged in some sort of service work at very young ages.

As adult attitudes changed about how children were viewed, clothing styles for children changed, too. By the 1870’s children’s clothing had been much looser and less restrictive than in the preceding century. Because children were seen as pure and innocent, there was not a need to emphasize gender differences in small children. Both boys and girls wore skirts as infants and toddlers. Young boys did not start wearing trousers until they were about five years old. Wealthy families usually preferred to dress their young children in white because these garments could be laundered with bleach to keep them looking clean and tidy. (In the photograph of the Flynn children taken in 1874, two of the youngest children are seen wearing white.)

Over the past year the Flynn ladies and volunteers have been creating clothing items for the Flynn children of 1875.

William was born in May, 1875. His clothes reflect the prevailing custom of the time. His wardrobe includes: cotton diapers, a flannel baby band (to secure his intestines and back), a flannel diaper cover, shirt, long cotton dress, and several bonnets. When he is about four months old, his dresses will be shortened to allow him more movement with his legs. He will also need a petticoat and booties to complete his outfit.

Frank would be about two years old in 1875. His dress is typical of the way a toddler boy would have been dressed. The frilly white dress is appropriate for either a boy or girl and is short enough to permit easy movement for him to play. This dress is made of batiste.

Mary Ellen would be four years old. Her white batiste dress is trimmed with lace and ribbons with a wide pink sash ribbon tied loosely at her waist. Her petticoat is white calico. This dress would be short enough to allow her easy movement.

Katherine would be turning eight in the summer of 1875. As she grows into a young lady, her skirts start to get longer. This dress is made of linen with braid trim and has the illusion of a bustle in the back. She is still much too young to wear a corset or a bustle.

John and Thomas are six and nine, respectively. John is now old enough to wear trousers like his older brother. Because they are clearly very active and play outside, their clothes reflect a relaxed style which permits easy movement.