Parents planning for a new baby in the 19th century felt some of the same pressures as parents today. From one direction came the voices of “experts” offering advice on safety, health, and hygiene. At the same time magazine writers and furniture salesmen talked up the fun of choosing pretty, fashionable furnishings for a baby’s bedroom, or nursery.
For a young baby’s bed nothing is prettier than the wicker bassinet, trimmed with muslin and lace and with a canopy to match. However, the muslin adornments soon lose their crispness and it is better to purchase a rattan or iron crib…with a frame or rod from which to suspend curtains of China silk or some pretty washing material, held in place with bows of ribbon…Iron cribs painted in white and gold with brass knobs and finishing are very effective.
The Ladies’ Home Journal, Philadelphia, 1893
British magazines as well as American ones described pretty ways of decorating a baby’s room, for families who could give their children a nice space of their own. (The nearest some poorer households got to special sleeping arrangements for children was a trundle bed.)
A furniture store in Bristol, England suggested a “complete furnishing estimate” for a room, or two rooms, where a small child and its nursemaid would sleep and spend much of the day. The total cost was nearly as much as a labourer’s annual wage, but affordable for many successful professional or business families.
The horsehair mattress would have been approved by the American doctor quoted lower down the page. He was one of many 19th century writers criticising featherbeds (feather mattresses) as too warm, too soft, or too unhygienic. This was one topic where health and sales advice generally agreed. The mattresses in that same catalogue for cribs, children’s bedsteads, swing cots, or rocking cradles were offered with these fillings, from cheapest to most expensive:
- Best flock [fabric and fibre scraps]
- Coloured wool
- Superior coloured wool
- White wool
- Best white wool, or French
- Superior horsehair
This selection was typical of England. In the USA cotton was a common mattress stuffing. While feather and down were disapproved of for children’s mattresses, down pillows were used for small babies. Doesn’t this seem dangerous and unsuitable by today’s standards?
A fender guard and fire irons were more or less essential. In many houses an open fire would be be the only way of keeping a child’s room warm, but of course this gave rise to lots of warnings and advice on how to manage the fireplace as safely as possible.
The washstands recommended remind us how much nuisance there would be carrying hot water jugs and basins around. Even with indoor plumbing in wealthy homes, a washstand was standard in middle- and upper-class bedrooms.
The furniture of a nursery should be as little in quantity as convenience will permit…It should therefore consist of the beds for the children and nurse, or I would rather say mattresses, as I am of the opinion feather beds are improper, for the following reasons:—firstly, they are too warm for the purposes of health, …thus giving rise to unnecessary, nay, injurious perspiration; secondly, the effluvium from feathers is extremely oppressive, particularly in warm weather…thirdly, they discharge a prodigious quantity of dust, …occasioning cough and other inconveniences.
Dr Dewees of Philadelphia writing in the Monthly Gazette of Health or Medical, Dietetic, Antiempirical and General Philosophical Journal, 1829