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Child-Bed Linen

by Phyllis Putman

In a July 9, 1772 advertisement in the Virginia Gazette Margaret Hunter, a Williamsburg, Virginia, milliner, listed among other items for sale, "Suits of Childbed Linen". The same phrase appears several times in other advertisements. Just what were child-bed linens? Who made them? How do we know about them? Obviously, the advertisement tells us that baby linens could be purchased. They were also made in the home. Planning for infant clothing both in a well-to-do household and a poor family was considered essential for a young woman preparing for marriage. For years sets of these linens were made, loaned out, or handed down from one generation to the next.

Primary sources such as instructional books, diaries, and letters are important for providing information about the type of items that a set of child-bed linens should include. One source suggested that no more than three pieces are necessary for a child's first habit: a shirt, a robe, and a cap. It advocated that the robe and cap should be quilted material of a proper thickness to be sufficiently warm. Also for the health and comfort of the infant, it recommended using flat buttons instead of tie strings and knots, and sleeves that were easy to put on.

A book with the overwhelming title, Instructions for cutting out apparel for the Poor; Principally Intended for the Assistance of the Patronesses of Sunday Schools, And Other Charitable Institutions, But Useful in all Families Containing Patterns, Directions, and Calculations, whereby the most Inexperienced may readily buy the Materials, cut out and value each Article of Clothing of every size, without the least Difficulty, and with the greatest Exactness: With a Preface, Containing a Plan for Assisting the Parents of Poor Children belonging to Sunday Schools, to Clothe them; and other useful observations, was published in London in 1789. It listed "necessities for the lying-in women" and suggested how arrangements could be made for a "set" of baby clothes to be loaned out for a month to a poor family. The last chapter of the book, Child-Bed Linen for the Use of the Poor, gives us an idea of what a customer might be purchasing at a millinery shop. It included the following items:

  • 2 Frocks
  • 24 Squares of Double Diaper
  • 1 Pair Sheets
  • 2 Bedgowns
  • 2 Robe Blankets
  • 2 Pillow Cases
  • 6 Shirts 1-1/3 yard of white Baize Flannel
  • 6 Caps 2 Shifts 2 Shirts 6 Under Caps
  • 2 Shifts
  • 2 Shirts
  • 6 Under Caps

Mary East Thresher suggested a list of child-bed linen items in her seventeenth-century almanac. Following is what she considered necessary in a well-to-do household in 1698:

My small child bed linning

  • 1 pr of pure fine holland little pillow (boor) ME
  • 6 fine shirts
  • 6 fine callico dimitty wascoats
  • 6 fine bellibands
  • 6 fine neck cloths lacet
  • 6 pure fine night caps lacet
  • 6 pure fine forehead cloth doublelacet
  • 6 pure fine bigons
  • 8 fine long stays
  • 4 pr of pure fine holland glove
  • 2 pr of pure holland gloves lace
  • 4 holland beds: M E in white
  • 6 head sutes of fine stript cambrick lacet
  • 6 double lacet forehead cloth to ye sutes
  • 2 sticht caps (quilted)
  • 2 pure fine holland bed, short, belliband, whole bigon and a long stay markt
  • 2 pure fine holland half shift lacet att neck and hands

In order to learn more about these objects for interpretive purposes, it was necessary to try to reproduce them. First the terms used in the instructions had to be researched and defined before any clothing was made. The process was frustrating. For example, only after working through the directions was it possible to discover that the two shifts and two skirts listed in the book are for the mother rather than the infant. As the shift was being constructed, it became obvious it was shorter than is usual for shifts. Now the instructions, "the bosom opens a quarter deep, and a hem to draw with a narrow tape before, as far as the turning on each side," began to make sense. We realized the garment was for the nursing mother.

The instructions surely would not seem as confusing to an eighteenth-century girl who had properly leaned her housewifery skills. She would be familiar with terms like bellibands, neckcloths, forehead cloths, bigons, and even what a fine holland little pillow might look like. For a twentieth-century seamstress, however, deciphering the patterns proved quite a challenge. When reading patterns, you need to decide which are the top, back, and front of the pattern piece. There are no markings on the plate and the design is not one that would be familiar to us today. A bigger problem with some instructions is deciding how to fold the fabric. Cutting and assembling instructions are combined as one operation. The book assumes the seamstress has prior knowledge of basic plain sewing and garment construction experience. But remember the title page states that . . .the most Inexperienced may readily buy the Materials, cut out and value each Article of Clothing every size, without the least Difficulty. . .!

After examining many sources, it appears children were not being swaddled. The practice of swaddling an infant has been a custom from biblical times to the present in various parts of the world. Swaddling an infant was done to protect fragile limbs. However, the rollers and wrappers that were recommended in many books were often so tight they almost acted as swaddling. Dr. William Buchan in his book, Domestic Medicine, stated that he was aware that although deformities might exist at birth, nine-tenths of them were the result of improper clothing.

Stays for infants were still used throughout much of the eighteenth century and were available in Williamsburg stores. However, not all people approved their use. Buchan suggests (as does the book of Instructions for cutting out apparel for the Poor. . .) that the only purpose of clothing an infant was to keep it warm, and that the clothing should be soft and loose. He believed that too many layers of clothing as well as tight clothing caused convulsions. He does not suggest specific items of clothing, but says, "That a child have no more clothes than are necessary to keep it warm, and that they be quite easy for its body. Stays are the very bane of infants. A volume would not suffice to point out all the bad effects of this ridiculous piece of dress."

In a letter written in 1668 by an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Hatton, infant clothing was mentioned. She wrote to her son Christopher concerning his wife: "If my guess be true tell her if she will make me a grandmother I have a little shirt and head cloths and biggin (cap) which I have kept by me that was the first that my mother wore and I wore, and I am very sure that you wore and have ever since laid it up carefully for your wife."

No matter what class a young woman belonged to, an important part of marriage preparation was the acquiring of child-bed linens, whether they were purchased at a millinery shop or made at home. The study of child-bed linen proved an interesting challenge for this twentieth-century interpreter. The reproduction of them, in the eighteenth-century manner, was the key to more fully understanding their importance to the colonial family.

Phyllis Putman is an interpreter and supervisor at the James Geddy House. She has done extensive research into the making of child-bed linens, and has created sets of these using eighteenth-century patterns.