The Time Traveller’s Guide for Parents #3: The 10 Items You Absolutely MUST Have for Your New Infant!

England, ca 1800 – 1900

This is such an exciting time to have a new baby! Advances in technology and manufacturing mean that many goods such as lace, textiles, and even embroidery that heretofore could only be produced by laborious handwork can now be made in impressive quantities and varieties by machines. What better way could there be to demonstrate your maternal devotion than in the sensitive presentation of your infant? We’ll tell you the 10 items you simply must have, but first some words of caution.

Before you make, purchase or borrow these items you must take note of:

The year: With new products available daily, fashions change quickly, and you don’t want to fall Edmsept1861behind! We’ll give you general direction below, but you should also keep abreast of the latest trends by reading some of the many magazines now available. We recommend The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, The Lady’s Economical Assistant, The Workwoman’s Guide and The Lady’s Newspaper.

Your social position: Nothing is more distressing than clothing your infant above or below your station in life. Reminders are given below and we urge you to heed them.

Where you live: If you live in a village, rather than a town, and are not gentry, then you’ll have access to the clothing box. This is often maintained by a daughter of your local clergyman and will include everything you need for your new baby. Clothing boxes are usually to be returned at the end of your baby’s first month (with all the contents freshly laundered, of course!) but if no one else needs them you can often keep them two or three weeks longer, until your baby is ready for the next stage of clothing.

Infant mortality rates: We hate to be the bearers of bad tidings, but it is best to be informed. Nationally, the infant mortality rate in this century is 1 in 3. If you are gentry or Sundaylive in a rural area, your baby has a better chance of surviving, with the mortality rate dropping as low as 1 in 6 in some regions. On the other hand, if you are labouring class and live in a city like Manchester, the chance that your baby will survive infancy is one in two.

But enough of worrisome thoughts, let us return to the joy of dressing your new baby! Here are the 10 items that you will need, in the order that you will be putting them on your infant.

1) napkins / diapers & pilch / drawers – You will, for quite obvious reasons, need to cover your baby’s bottom. The napkin is largely unchanged from the clout of our foremothers. It is still a square of linen folded in half to form a triangle. For those with financial means a soft diaper weave is preferred; for the poor, reusing old sheeting or table linen 1is a wise choice. Advances have been made in the system of fastening napkins from the straight pins of earlier centuries. One choice is to use a system of strings and loops (see Figure 1). From the late 1870s we have had access to the ingenious new “safety pin” which has a solid guard to cover the point.

The pilch (more lately called drawers) is made in a similar style to the napkin and is worn over it to protect the clothes from wetness. Generally the pilch is made from wool flannel. Waterproof pilches are a promising development from the 1860s, although we note that many ladies denounce the use of mackintosh for babies as unhealthy. Knitted drawers begin to appear from the 1880s.

2) shirts – Cotton is growing ever more popular for this front opening garment, although a fine linen is still an excellent choice. From 1820 the top front and back have cuts at the sides creating flaps which are folded over the top of the flannel (see Figure 2). Sleeves are set in; 2they are open at the bottom, and usually very short. Indeed, from mid-century the sleeve is reduced to little more than a gusset-like bottom with an edging of narrow lace to form the top.

3) blankets / flannels / barrows – These terms all refer to the shaped, back fastening, sleeveless garment that you will put on your baby next, day and night. At its simplest, the flannel is formed from a rectangle with tucks sewn from the top to the waist. Scoops are cut from the top for the arms, and the edge is bound with tape or ribbon, which is extended over the arms to 3form straps (see Figure 3). Pairs of tapes are attached to fasten the flannel. More elaborate flannels may be made with separately constructed, but sewn on, bodices which overlap in back and tie on the side. Just to add to the confusion of names, this last form may also be called a skirt.

Like the bed of our foremothers, the bottom of the flannel can be turned up over your infant’s feet to keep them warm. The length of the flannel should be about a yard or 92 cm, although the poor should confine themselves to no more than 76 cm or so.

4) rollers / binder – These strips of flannel, linen or cotton are wound two or three times around your baby’s body, usually over the barrow. Early in the century, while Enlightenment ideals of not making your baby overly warm, are strong, a single binder serves just to keep the barrow in place. With the return of the interest in warmth for babies as we get closer to 1900 an extra flannel binder may be added under your baby’s shirt, and the outer binder may be made of a stout twill. Rollers vary in size over the century, but a useful guide is 68-100 cm in length and 15-38 cm in width.

5) petticoats / coats – One or more petticoats (often just called coats) come next. For winter, a flannel coat may be appropriate. For day wear the upper petticoat should be of the same material as your baby’s frock. The length and fullness of the petticoats increases steadily throughout this century. Of course, those of you who are poor should always show more restraint; Victoria&Beatricethose who are wealthy should present your infant in accordance with your family’s importance. As a basic guideline, The Lady’s Economical Assistant recommends lengths of 91 cm (69 cm for the poor) in 1808, and 103 cm (91 cm for the poor) 30 years later, with similar increases in the following decades. Indeed, lengths may extend to 114 cm (a yard and a quarter) or more, giving plenty of opportunity for the display of lovely lace and embroidery. This exhibition is enhanced by stiffly starching the petticoats.

We know that some of our readers from mid-century on, are inclined toward the dress reform movement. For you we have consulted scientifically minded experts in the movement who advise lengths of only about 10-17 cm below your baby’s feet. If you choose to follow the reformer’s guidelines, you will not starch your infant’s clothing, but you will need to protect your little one’s feet with socks, preferably made of wool.

6) stays / bodices – Petticoats may be joined to bodices, often made of dimity. Like the coats, bodices can be stiffened, in which case they may be referred to as stays.

7) nightgowns / bedgowns – The nightgown is worn directly over the flannel and should be around a yard long. Use gores or wide fabric to achieve the desired fullness. The waist region my be narrowed with stitched down pleating (especially early in the century) or with gathers at the front under the waistband. Alternatively it may be left loose, and gently held in with a band InfantNightgown1882stitched to the centre waist in front and tied in back. Unlike the day gowns or frocks, your baby’s nightgown will always have long sleeves. Many ladies feel that it is most appropriate to have your baby wear the nightgown day and night for the first three to four weeks of life. In fact, these are called monthly gowns in the middle of the century. After the first month the sleeves may be shortened to produce a day robe. Early in the century cotton is the most popular choice for your baby’s nightgown; closer to the end of the century choose flannel.

8) frocks / robes – At the end of the last century the terms robe, frock and gown were used to distinguish front versus back fastening infant garments. Now all of these fasten in the back, although the finer garments may still be called robes. As noted above, we feel that it is most appropriate for all infants to wear nightgowns with long sleeves day and night for the first few weeks of life. For the poor, the simple nightgown style, without gathers, but tied in back with a simple band attached at centre front and with minimal decoration should be retained. These may be made in flannel, coloured print, or stiff calico. It is to be noted that only poor children are appropriately dressed in printed frocks from the earliest days of life.

For all other groups, white is the best choice for infant frocks from birth on. After the transition from nightgown to daywear, it is critical to keep abreast of the latest styles. We will just give general guidelines here. For the first twenty years or so of the century frocks should be of light muslin or linen, with a low neck and short sleeves. Bodice and skirt should be cut separately and seamed together at a high waistline. The fullness will be adjusted with fine gathers along a drawstring which ties at the back. Needlework should be quite fine, and frocks should be only lightly ornamented with fine tucking, light embroidery, delicate lace insertions and narrow frills made of muslin or lace.

frockThrough the 1830s there is a trend to greater decoration with more lace, embroidery and frilling. Sleeves are puffed and shaped, bodices are longer, and skirts are more full. From 1840 sleeves are no longer full, but narrow and very short. The trend to greater ornamentation continues, however, so that while the underlying style of the frock is rather simple, the needlework and lace displayed can be quite extravagant. The more devoted you are (and the more affluent and important your husband) the more decoration it is appropriate to put on your infant. Of course for everyday wear, from mid-century, most ladies will not dress their infants in lavishly trimmed garments, but for any occasion in which your baby is to be publicly displayed, and most especially for its christening, there are no limits on tasteful ostentation.

Between 1830 and 1870 Ayrshire work, with its delicate leaf and flower patterns rendered in fine, 4white embroidery is particularly popular. The best presentation is a panel on the bodice, and another panel, which widens from waist to hem, on the skirt. In the 1870s this gives way to the princess line in which a single panel of ornament begins at the neckline, tapers to the waist, but then continues with increasing width to the hem. (Figure 4) Ayrshire work is replaced by broderie anglaise, and then machine embroidery, and narrow bobbin lace is given up in favour of ever wider machine-made lace. The greatest display in dress robes is seen in the 1870s and 1880s with skirts reaching lengths of up to 114 cm. Such gowns are seen to best advantage when your baby is carried in your arms (or those of its nurse) with the skirts flowing down in a charming cascade. With the introduction of the larger, safer, more comfortable four wheeled baby carriage in the 1880s such opportunities for display sadly decline, and by the end of the century most elaborate infant gowns are reserved only for christenings and state occasions.

9) caps or socks – For the first half of the century caps are an essential part of your infant’s indoor clothing. If you are poor you will keep the cap plain in both design and decoration. The simplest cap, which is ‘much used by the poor’, may be made from a a single rectangle5 of fabric folded into a square and shaped with drawstrings over the crown, along the front and bottom edges, and around the edges which meet in the back. (see Figure 5A) A slightly more complicated design is the ‘foundling cap’, also made from a single rectangle of material. The front section is doubled, and a drawstring run along the edge of the doubling, passing over the infant’s head. A gusset is cut from the single layer of the back, and the top of this is brought down and gathered to the bottom to shape the back of the cap. (Figure 5B)

A more elaborate style, suitable for the higher classes, uses a single strip of fine material (muslin or worked cambric are lovely), seamed together at the back, and gathered onto a circular or horseshoe shaped crown. The crown may be made of delicate lace. A series of drawstrings or runners shapes this cap perfectly to your baby’s head. (Figure 5C) As with the frock, the cap should be white, and you will need to check your magazines for the latest decorations. Generally, the greatest proliferation of embroidery, frills and lace is seen from 1830 to 1850. In the middle of the century caps are less popular for indoor wear, although they remain in use for the daily airing. By the 1880s, if you want to be fashionable, you will forgo the cap, and have a headsquare of flannel to throw over your infant’s head when you go from room to room. Similarly, nightcaps are worn for the first four decades of the century. For the last four decades avoid the nightcap, but make sure that your baby has knitted socks or boots for day and night wear.

When taking your infant outdoors, you will still want to cover its head. Hoods are the perennial InfantCloak&Bonnetchoice, although they may be shaped a bit like a bonnet with a caul and curtain. These can be made in light wool, silk or cotton, depending on taste or season. Early in the century girls’ hoods will have rosettes of ribbon in the front, boys’ will have cockades on the left. Later, rosettes will be used for boys. As always, keep an eye on fun decorative trends such as ruching and feathers.

10) blanket / shawl / outerwear – You may have noticed that although there are many long layers of cloth covering the lower half of your infant, with the popularity of short sleeves and low necklines, there is very little covering its upper half. Because of this, especially for the first few months, you will want to wrap your baby in a square of flannel when you carry it about. As the century progresses it is more correct to refer to this as a shawl, rather than a blanket. For those of the better sort, it is a good idea to have a best shawl to carry your infant into sitting rooms. Best shawls may be made of merino, kerseymere (a fine twilled woolen cloth) or thick Saxony flannel and bound at the edges with silk. For something a bit more unusual, but still fashionable, choose a soft, knitted shawl such as the zephyr.

DetailPovertyShawlOf course you will also need extra wrappings for your infant out of doors. Again, what you choose will be governed to a large extent by whether you belong to the upper or lower orders. Poor mothers are wise to choose a sturdy blanket. In some parts of the country the adult sized ‘carrying’ or ‘nursing’ shawl is a popular, and in our opinion clever, choice. The baby is held on the left arm, and the shawl is wound round the infant, over the mother’s right shoulder, under her right arm, and then tucked back under the baby. The infant is secure and warm, and both of the mother’s hands are free.

Mother’s of all classes will sometimes use a flannel shawl, but cloaks and pelisses are certainly excellent options for the higher class infant. The pelisse is simply a cloak with an added, shorterInfantCloak cape. The most popular fabric choice for pelisses and cloaks is light wool, and we particularly like cashmere. Wadded satin and velvet enjoy periodic popularity, especially for formal occasions. For summer you may opt for muslin or dimity. You will definitely want white for summer. White and cream are also the most popular choices for the rest of the year, although grey, blue and red appear frequently in the middle of the century. Decorative elements vary over time, so, once again, keep an eye on the magazines. Trimming with silk fringe or swan’s-down is all the rage in the 1840s, followed by broad bands of quilted silk from the 1850s through 1870s, and borders of embroidery in the 1880s.

W_H_Gill_Devonport_005We hope this guide proves helpful to you. Enjoy your infant, and, as always, don’t be afraid to contact us with comments or queries.


Ashelford, Jane. 1996. The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society 1500 – 1914. The National Trust, London.

Buck, Anne. 1996. Clothes and the Child: A Handbook of Children’s Dress in England 1500 – 1900. Holmes & Meier, New York.

Colton History Society. (n.d.). Sickness and Health: Victorian Health. In Village History in Staffordshire, England. Retrieved August 3, 2014, from http://www.coltonhistorysociety.org.uk/sickness-Vict.php.

Gubar, M. (2005). Historical Essays: The Victorian child. In Representing Childhood. Retrieved August 3, 2014, from http://www.representingchildhood.pitt.edu/victorian.htm.

The National Archives. (n.d.). Edwin Chadwick. In Victorian Britain: Healthy Nation. Retrieved August 4, 2014, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/victorianbritain/healthy/fom1.htm.


Featured image: detail from The Shattuck Family, with Grandmother, Mother and Baby William, 1865 by Aaron Draper Shattuck. Original in the Brooklyn Museum. Image from: Wikimedia Commons.

Title Page of the September 1861 Issue of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine from Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from Christening Sunday (South Harting, Sussex) 1887, by James Charles.

Figures 1 – 5 by the author’s daughter.

Detail from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their nine children, 26 May 1857 showing Queen Victoria holding Beatrice.

Infant Nightgown from “Strawbridge & Clothier’s quarterly” (1882).

Frock with broderie anglaise, ca. 1855.

Infant cloak and bonnet from “Strawbridge & Clothier’s quarterly” (1882).

Detail from: The Pinch of Poverty, Thomas B Kennington, 1889.

Infant cloak from “Strawbridge & Clothier’s quarterly” (1882).

1860-1900 carte de visite photo of a seated woman and baby, by W H Gill of 88 James Street, Devonport, England.

Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys has gone through a genetics phase (undergrad years), a biological anthropology phase (grad school years) and a Pilates & yoga teaching phase (mum years). She lives with a scientist, a teenager and a rabbit. Her quasi-secret passion is historical costuming and she can’t look at people without imagining the era in which she would like to clothe them.

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