Rocking cradles – wood or wicker

Wooden cradle 1600s
Oak hooded cradle, English, 1683, carved initials, alongside 16th and 17th century oak furniture. Photo by HomeThingsPast

Cradle designs have changed, but are parents’ concerns any different? 200 years ago people were writing about the well-known dilemma: how much can I let my baby sleep in the day without stopping it from sleeping well at night?

It only remains…to say something of the cradle…I believe there is no doubt but the custom of laying children down awake, and rocking them in a cradle in the day time, or…in the evening when they are to go into their night’s sleep, as it is called, may [make] them sometimes more wakeful in the night… From: A Treatise on the … Management of Infants, 1784*

wicker rocking cradle with hood
Wicker cradle on oak rockers used by first baby born to settlers in America, probably. Dutch origins, c1620?*. Photo by Sarah Houghton

Two of the cradles pictured on this page are 300-400 years old, but they look much the same as cradles from only 100 years ago. For centuries, babies in Western Europe and North America were put into small baskets or boxes raised slightly off the floor, on rockers, with or without a hood. Rocking cradles like these have gone out of fashion, and we have different customs now.

Rockers, hoods, drapes, handles, straps

Babies could be strapped in, either with strips of cloth tied right round the whole thing, threaded through holes, or attached to wooden knobs or basketry handles. The child was protected from draughts and damp floors, especially in a hooded cradle. Wicker cradles often had fabric drapes over the hood for extra warmth and daytime darkness.

Child rocking baby in wicker cradle
Hand- rocking in: A Little Girl Rocking a Cradle, c1655, Nicholas Maes (detail)

A small cradle can be rocked by an older sibling or a busy adult with a foot to spare for rocking while her hands are busy with other tasks. It can be lifted to another place using handles or convenient bits of wood-carving. Overall, the baby was fairly safe but questions remain. Was it left alone? What about mice in a world without chemical pest control? Would a busy carer tie the baby in and neglect it?

I had made it an invariable rule always to dress and undress my infant, never suffered it to be placed in a cradle, nor to be fed out of my presence. A basket of an oblong shape with four handles (with a pillow and a small bolster) was her bed by day: at night she slept with me. I had too often heard of the neglect which servants show to young children, and I resolved never to expose an infant of mine either to their ignorance or inattention.  From: Mrs. Robinson’s Memoirs, looking back at the 1770s*

Wooden rocking cradle
Simple wooden cradle from the Scottish Western Isles. Holes for cord ties. Photo by HomeThingsPast

Materials and styles varied regionally, though the basics stayed the same. Planks of wood from big trees were available inmuch of Britain and Scandinavia. Numerous paintings of Dutch domestic life confirm that wicker cradles were common  in the Netherlands. Cradles were ornamented with colourful folk art in areas with strong traditions of painting on wooden furniture.

Natural rocking

The last word goes to the 18th century “expert”  quoted earlier:

Painted cradle
Cradle from Swedish farmhouse. Painted and carved traditional folk art decoration. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber

I cannot help thinking, there is something so truly natural, as well as pleasant, in the wavy motion of a cradle, and so like what children have been used to before they are born, ….that, always wishing to follow nature as I do, I cannot, on the whole, but give an opinion rather in favour of the cradle. From: …Management of Infants, 1784*


* Michael Underwood,   A treatise on the diseases of children, with directions for the management of infants from the birth; especially such as are brought up by hand, London 1784
* Memoirs of the late Mrs. Robinson, written by herself. With some posthumous pieces. Edited by her daughter, M. E. Robinson, London 1801
* More about the American wicker cradle picture here.


Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here:
Dutch-American wicker cradle, Swedish cradle.
More picture info here

Basket making: ancient skills, traditional materials

Basket makers Tennessee USA
Baskets in the Tennessee mountains in 1931. Photo - Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Do you have any hand-made basketry in your home? From wicker chairs to straw hats, basket-making is an ancient craft that shows no signs of dying out, even though there may be fewer skilled makers than there used to be.

Basket-making stretches back for millennia:  a 7000-year-old basket is recorded here (pdf). There’s even evidence for basketry skills 25000 years ago (pdf). How many other crafts are equally ancient, and still hand-made today?

There can’t be many cultures (are there any?) where people haven’t woven grasses, reeds, leaves, canes, or twigs together to make useful and beautiful things. Until recently, turning vegetable material into containers or mats was a skill known and practised almost everywhere. And yet designs were very varied. An intimate understanding of local plants along with traditions built up over centuries meant every region had its own characteristic styles of – well, a lot of things – from bags, hats, fly-swats, and cradles to complete villages built on islands of woven reed in southern Iraq.

Beginnings of a bamboo basket in Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo by SriHarsha PVSS

Think of this stretching back for thousands of years. Even in very recent times, there were people in the western world continuing ancient basketry traditions. Now those of us who don’t have locally-produced basketry have a choice of imports from less industrialised countries . At the same time the developed world has basket-makers who are rediscovering the craft and re-awakening regional styles.  We don’t have to rely on baskets when industry offers us cheap, durable alternatives, but many of us like the look of “organic” woven containers  more than we like a plastic storage box.

Basketry, rope, brooms etc.

Basket making is closely related to rope and broom making, and may use the same plants and the same set of skills. Plaited rushes or grasses or “string” can create a flat braid suitable for making mats, or three-dimensional containers. This photo shows a Portuguese woman braiding a long flexible strip of this kind.

In this video a woman in the hills of central Italy shows us how it is/was done in her part of the world. If you like to live life at speed, be warned that the film evokes the slow, steady pace of this kind of work – no quick results here. (Click here if your browser doesn’t show the video on this page.)

weaving willow basketry
Willow weaving in progress at UK crafts fair. Photo by HomeThingsPast.

There’s a sense of connecting with prehistory watching this elderly lady demonstrating a process that begins with her cutting grasses. After twisting them into rope, people from her area would then plait and weave those cords into baskets: for example, donkey panniers for transport in a mountainous region.

She’s continuing a tradition handed down the generations, but there are many contemporary basket-makers who didn’t learn from their parents.  Practising it as an art which is also a journey into regional history is not uncommon: see, for example, this piece about baskets made of heather (erica) from the website where I first discovered the Italian film.

If you’re interested in making traditional things out of unprocessed plant materials, you may also like this page about broom-making.

Photos and video

Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here:
An Ethnography of Basketry in Central Western Italy from Archaeological Traces on Vimeo.
Tennessee baskets, Indian bamboo basketry, or see more picture info here