Innocence and Ignorance: The Victorian Childhood

Innocence and Ignorance: The Victorian Childhood

A child in the Victorian era was born in the midst of several significant changes happening in an increasingly modernized world.  Industry was booming, new scientific ways of the world replaced old theories, and several political and social shifts were taking place, which ultimately affected the family dynamic.  This more organized structure of the world which crept into the workings of a Victorian home.  Order, rules, specific guidelines on how to manage this growing globalization also found its place in the households of the time.  Having a strict and orderly operation of house and family meant success from an economic, social, and even a physiological standpoint.  The moral compass dominated the workings of a successful family unit.  Where children were concerned, there was a combination of both a complete control of a child's physical and psychological development as well as a desire to keep them in a category completely separate from their parents and other adults.  This was evident in how children were taken care of, viewed, fed, and socially conditioned.

The notion of creating a nursery for children first came about in the mid-19th century.  It was recommended that a specialized, separate room for children be created as a way to promote 'domestic convenience', as architect Robert Kerr emphasized.

Depending on a family's socioeconomic class, this room would be ideally placed in the uppermost levels of a large house for the upper classes, but the reality was that most houses did not have this amount of spare space.  At best, many middle-class houses had anywhere between two and five bedrooms for all family members.  The ideal nursery plan had two separate rooms as a means of providing 'fresh air' as the child moved from one space to another.  It was believed that the constitution of a child's lungs was much weaker than that of an older man living under the same roof.  The nursery itself was plentiful in what many experts of the time deemed to be safety precautions at every turn:  bars on the windows, white-washed walls that were routinely repainted;  high protective barriers on fire grates, and few furniture pieces.  Particular lighting was considered to be a potential threat, as the brightness from the blaze of a gaslight or lamp could be damaging to young, delicate eyes.

The gap that existed between parent and child was a social norm.  The wider this gap, the more prominent and prosperous the family.  It was therefore no surprise to overhear conversations among upper-class women proudly declaring their ignorance on how to take care of their children, even to go as far as calling them 'the small stranger within our gates', as the wife of painter Edward Burne-Jones Georgianna referred to her own child.  For fathers especially, the more distant the child, the better for the success of the head of the household, as the children fearfully got out of the way.  This was based also on the platform of moral and religious righteousness that was growing during this period of time.

A child with his family, looking at a boat known as ‘Edward Campbell’ in Whitby, Yorkshire, England sometime in the 1880s. Photograph taken by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and was turned into color by  ColourbyRJM

A child with his family, looking at a boat known as ‘Edward Campbell’ in Whitby, Yorkshire, England sometime in the 1880s. Photograph taken by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and was turned into color by ColourbyRJM

From infancy, the care and well-being of a child was a consistent, full-time responsibility, as it is now and always has been.  During the Victorian period, however, certain tasks were viewed to be top priority over others.  Contrary to the adult hygienic practices of the time, bathing a child on a daily basis was imperative.  Daily diaper changes, wiping, and applying a barrier cream (usually made from lard) was a normal part of a nurse's routine.  Diapers (or nappies) were extremely large and folded in several ways depending on the baby's age and gender.  Safety pins were not invented until around 1850, and until then they were strategically tacked in place with straight pins as far away from baby as possible. 

The dressing of a child until the age of about nine months old was largely unisex in nature.  All babies were swaddled with what was known as a swather, or binder, around their abdomen.  Usually made of woolen flannel (but many were cotton and linen as well), the purpose of this binder was to support the structural integrity of the child's growing body and provide some warmth.  The clothing covered a significant part of their lower body yet not much consideration was given for the upper arms.  All babies wore with this binder a cotton undershirt, a flannel material called a barracoat, and over these a petticoat and a frock, topped off with a cap on the head.  Most of these garments were white as a means of maintaining the cleanliness of the clothing; where dirt can easily be detected, it can easily be scrubbed out. 

As the child grew older, the length of the petticoat and frock would shorten in accordance to their developmental motor skills.  As they began to walk, the skirts for little boys and girls would get shorter.  It is important to note that it was not recommended for mothers to shorten these outfits themselves, as these younger clothes would need to be used again in the near future with more births inevitably on the way. With the shortening of the skirts came the introduction of the pantalettes, a trouser placed under the skirts of the growing child to accommodate its new-found increasingly active life.

The well-being of a Victorian child meant that there was a constant vigilance over health.  Although mortality rates were steadily dropping over the century, they were still high, with an average of around 18-20 deaths per thousand per year over the last half of the century.  Aside from the fact that there were dangers around them in every day life, such as burns, falls, and accidental poisonings, there were the medical remedies that took centre stage in the causes of an early death. 

A section from the painting ‘The Doctor’ by Luke Fildes which depicts a critically ill child being observed by a Victorian doctor. Painting from 1891.

A section from the painting ‘The Doctor’ by Luke Fildes which depicts a critically ill child being observed by a Victorian doctor. Painting from 1891.

An infant that was about to start teething would stop being fed milk and would then be introduced to age-inappropriate food in its place.  In turn, this would cause indigestion in the child which would then warrant the use of an opiate-based syrup to help reduce the unpleasant symptoms. What would then follow would be violent convulsions from the drugs that were being given, but in the end the untimely death would be blamed on the teething.  Many other ailments followed similar patterns, as purgatives, laxatives, and enemas were also utilized to help 'detoxify' the body as much as possible.  Mrs. Beeton, the author of Book of Household Management, also encouraged these practices and endorsed many of these infamous remedies. 

The title page of Isabella Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’ that was released in 1861.

The title page of Isabella Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’ that was released in 1861.

A photograph of Isabella Beeton, the author or the ‘Book of Household Management’. Photograph taken in c. 1854.

A photograph of Isabella Beeton, the author or the ‘Book of Household Management’. Photograph taken in c. 1854.

While these were intended to assure the health of the child, many parents resorted to calmatives to keep a child sleeping while they went off to work.  In a financially challenging time, families could not afford to miss a day of work.  It therefore became a delicate balance of preventing severe hunger of the growing children and taking the horrible risk in the sacrifice of the newest arrival of the family. 

With malnourishment at the forefront of the majority of the parents' consciousness, the best way to prevent any illness was through food.  Life for the child began with breastfeeding, albeit who provided the milk was of little importance.  Lower class women were in the workforce to contribute to the family welfare and were therefore limited to how much time they spent feeding their own children; upper class women were eager to return to their hostess and household duties soon after her baby was born.  The lowest rank of women in motherhood were also at a disadvantage, as poor nutrition gave way to less milk production, hence a quicker transition to solid foods for the infant. 

A photograph of a Victorian family in c. 1900.

A photograph of a Victorian family in c. 1900.

Baby food mostly consisted of bread and water, sometimes milk from a cow or sheep.  This could also be mixed further with water and a little sugar.  A concoction like this was usually introduced to the baby after only a mere few weeks old.  Many industries took notice of these foods and began to create their own, sometimes mixing them with either sago root or arrowroot powders.  In the end, the typical solid food diet for a child in the Victorian era consisted mostly of carbohydrates and sugars. As a result, many children suffered from diseases such as rickets due to the lack of essential vitamins and minerals that were grossly lacking in their everyday diet.

Milk consumption was dangerous in two ways.  The milk was watered down to stretch its use and, as a result, became a less appetizing color.  This problem was solved by adding dangerous elements to it in order to enhance its color.  Chalk was sometimes added, but even worse was the addition of alum, which became yet another cause of death in young children.  If the child managed to survive drinking the milk, the other issue that arose came from the actual milk bottle.  Trying to get milk into a newborn baby, whose first instinct is to suck in order to receive nourishment, was a tiring and long process, most of the times inefficient.  Using a spoon was messy and most of the milk was wasted.  The introduction of a nipple fitted onto a glass bottle was the solution, where the tip of the bottle was usually made of calf's udder or a cone-shaped piece of cloth.  The bottles, according to Mrs. Beeton, need only be washed but every couple of weeks.  This of course would invite and harbor dangerous bacteria in the bottle and would give the child diarrhea, which, in turn, meant administering some kind of medicinal opiate.  The downward spiral of drug-related deaths would then follow, if the bacteria itself did not take them first.

Photograph of a Victorian milkman standing in a horse-drawn cart sometime in the 1800s.

Photograph of a Victorian milkman standing in a horse-drawn cart sometime in the 1800s.

Education was mostly carried out from the home, by either the governess or mother.  It was encouraged to not start too early, as this would cause undue stress on a child's young brain.  At the same time, once education began for the child, the expectations of what was to be learned at a certain age were unrealistic.  Many children from as young as three years were introduced to reading, and parents became concerned at their inconsistency in retaining these newly acquired skills that we now see as developmentally too rigorous.  For the most part, the subjects that were taught were somewhat sporadic and did not have much relevance to how it can be used in the future.  Geography, for example, usually meant looking at an atlas and naming the major oceans; history would address dates of important inventions; science questions would ask about the parts of a plant.  All were facts that were learned by rote, seldom having any connection with one another or building on previous skills. 

While boys went off to school at an earlier age, girls were more likely to stay close to home.  Any further education was meant to condition them to be of benefit to them when they married.  A girl was to know enough about a subject to be able to engage in conversation, as a way to make the exchange livelier to her male counterparts.  But, any opinions or too much proficiency in a subject was highly discouraged; she should know just enough about a subject to appear more sympathetic to her husband.  In a nutshell, women knew a little of each of the respected disciplines:  language, music, and just enough about everything else to present herself as an attentive audience to the opposite sex. 

When it came to leisurely activities, there was a definite rift in how boys and girls played.  For the boys, playtime in a school yard was, for the most part, unsupervised.  Many of the rules of various games were created on the spot, and this was also viewed as a way to train boys to grow into assertive, powerful contributors to society as adults.  Girls, on the other hand, could participate in these games as well, but at a minimum.  The overall idea of creating teams in sports was encouraged in order to learn about the notion of teamwork, overcoming challenges, and facing competition.  The most popular sports for boys were swimming and fighting and viewed as standard forms of exercise.  Fighting taught boys to stand up for themselves, again setting a stage for challenges in their adult life; swimming was an outdoor activity that was accessible in many areas, from ponds and streams to the canals of the cities.  Girls' sports consisted mostly of tennis and archery, both forms of exercise that were seen as being not to strenuous.  Croquet also became a popular pastime by the 1870s. 

Victorian women partaking in croquet and archery in the Enmore House grounds, Newtown, Australia in c. 1868.

Victorian women partaking in croquet and archery in the Enmore House grounds, Newtown, Australia in c. 1868.

Toys for younger children were primarily made to encourage movement.  Hoops, jump rope, tag, and spinning tops kept the child engaged and also helped with brain activity.  Hopscotch was extremely popular, as was rolling up rags to create a ball in which to kick around.  They also liked to balance objects on fences and throw stones at them to see who can knock off the most. Most of the toys were created by the children themselves, out of sticks, rags, or clothes pegs.  More prosperous families were fortunate enough to have toys created from tin, which lasted longer and looked much more appealing.  Changes in science and technology also brought on changes to how goods were made, and this included the creation of rubber balls to bounce and elastic bands to send wooden cars and boats launching. Playtime was a short-lived in the children's lives, as most of the day was filled with school work or actual labor in many cases.  Children house-bound with studies found lulls of boredom in their day, while many children in the workforce found that their environment provided much more social stimulation and experiences with the outside world.

The overall family hierarchy meant that the father was at the most important position, followed by the mother, then the son, and finally, the daughter. The boys of the home had more amenities to enjoy as well as more space.  The girls were often used in the nursery as well, as they were seen as an indispensable resource to help with the younger children.  It was acceptable that a daughter should take on a more care-giving role in the family, which would also include taking care of her brother, regardless if he was younger or older.  This was also a way to prepare young girls for marriage, as they would ultimately become the caretakers of their own household, where the next generation would be brought up to follow the same codes for their own children and their health and well-being.

About the author: Demetra Cornwell

Demetra Cornwell is a longtime educator and art history enthusiast who enjoys studying the Victorian, Edwardian, and Baroque/Renaissance periods.  Her interest in history lies primarily in the everyday lives of the past that most history classes leave out.  She would one day love to write a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and a screenplay based on the great Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  

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