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Molding an Adult - Early Days in the Old Colony:

For Plymouth Colony’s settlers in the 1600s (and for their contemporaries in Britain and Europe), the adult human being was made—not born. The faster parents could transform their vulnerable, prostrate infant into a tiny upright little man or woman, the better. Having survived birth, standing upright was the main goal of a child’s first year in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Nature alone could not be trusted to shape the soft skull bones to cover the whole head, and midwives instructed mothers to mold the baby’s head daily until the soft spots closed. For the first few months of life, the "unformed" newborn required yards of narrow bands of linen swaddling to wrap and straighten the limbs and torso. After those first months, crawling (viewed as animalistic) was discouraged by long gowns and walking or "standing" stools which held the babe upright until s/he was able to stand alone.

The intense concern for standing upright bridged the physical and moral worlds of the 17th and early 18th centuries, and separated the human from the animal world. Because of the Separatist’s belief that infants were born in sin, parents bore the responsibility of training the minds and bodies of their children in the ways of goodness leading to the salvation of their souls. Accordingly, parents would be judged by the kind of offspring they produced. It was commonly believed that the proper growth and development of their children clearly mirrored the level of uprightness achieved by parents in their own lives. Separatist religious leader, John Robinson (about 1576–1625), warned parents they would be judged by the quality of their children when he preached that the "tree [will] be known by its fruit."

For John Robinson's essay "Of children & their education," click here.

Before 1750, few objects were made solely for the use of babies and young children. Those that were made, such as swaddling bands, leading strings, cradles, and standing stools, were aides in the creation of straight limbs and upright posture. Whether swaddled and prone in a cradle, suspended under the arms in a standing stool, or held upright by sturdy leading strings (attached to the shoulders or threaded under the arms of a toddling child’s clothing), the goal was a straight, upright body.

Cradle, possibly Netherlands, 1610-1620, willow, oak and maple, (h. 27 ¾ in., w. 29 ½ in., d. 20 ½ in.),
Gift of Catherine Elliott Sever and Charles William Sever, 1877 (PHM 945).

Board or wicker cradles set on wooden rockers and especially made for infants were still a luxury item in the 1600s. The cradles were fitted with mattresses filled with feathers or chopped wool, and rugs or blankets. According to White family tradition, Peregrine White (1620-1704) was rocked in this cradle after his birth on the Mayflower while it rested at anchor in Provincetown Harbor.

Young children of both sexes wore skirts like their mothers and other adult women. Both boys and girls, especially of the upper classes, wore bone stays and corsets to create the straight, upright posture desired in a fine adult figure. Sometime between the ages of four and eight boys were "breeched," symbolically entering the dominant world of men. In comparison, girls’ clothing changed little throughout their lives.

Child’s stomacher, possibly Plymouth Colony, linen, (h. 8 in., w. 6 in.),
about 1625-50. Museum purchase, 1917 (PHM 111a).

Stomachers were decorative panels positioned at the front of gowns from the breasts to below the waist to emphasize the elongated cone shape of the bodice. Family history asserts that this elaborate lace stomacher was made by Barbara Standish, second wife of Myles Standish (about 1584-1656), (married 1623/24) for their daughter, Loara

In the early days of the Old Colony, children needed to learn quickly how to fit into the adult world. They were to listen and learn, and above all, they were to be obedient, bending to the will of their elders in every way. Being able to read the Bible for oneself was central in the Separatist’s belief system. Since schools had not yet been established, children were taught to read at home. As they went about their own assigned chores, youngsters spent their days with older children and adults. In this manner they began to acquire the many skills necessary to run a household in the new world.

Though play was discouraged on religious grounds by the Separatists, among more tolerant people in 17th century Europe and America, children and adults played the same games and laughed at the same jokes. There was no distinct category of objects made for children. "Toys" referred to objects made to amuse people of all ages. Though today we may label an infant’s coral and bells as a toy, it had a serious purpose in its time. Coral was believed to protect children from disease, ease teething, and ward off evil (among other virtues). The shiny silver setting and tinkling bells served to attract the child’s attention and encourage interaction with the object and its protective coral.

Though the Separatist religious beliefs did not value frivolous play for children, parents often expressed high hopes and regard for their children’s abilities to become honorable adults in other ways. The gift of a new calf or a small garden plot of their own offered a child an initial experience of being in charge. They alone were responsible for the well being of their livestock or herbs and vegetables, just as adults were.

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Pilgrim Hall Museum
75 Court St, Plymouth, MA 02360 | Phone (508) 746-1620