Victorian nursery furniture

antique nursery furniture crib rocker

Elegant furniture for a baby's nursery of the 1870s. A swinging cradle (wicker or cane?) on a lacquered iron frame, with support for drapes, plus a chair for mother or nurse to rock baby when not in the cot.

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.

Baby crib 19th century

A superior crib with perforated zinc sides, according to an 1870s catalogue

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.

baby furniture 19th century catalogue package

Recommended baby furniture for English "day and night" nursery in an 1875 furniture catalogue

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:

1800s crib or cot with trim

"Strong iron crib, ornamented" for a Victorian baby

  • Best flock [fabric and fibre scraps]
  • Coloured wool
  • Superior coloured wool
  • White wool
  • Horsehair
  • 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.

Child's washstand, basin

Washstand low enough for child, with shallow bowl, soap holder etc. Victorian England, 1870s

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


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Wendy Simms February 15, 2013 at 10:25 pm

Hi i am looking for some information about a swinging cradle the frame is metal which is laquered the hanging peiceof the cradle is weaved and knotted rope and has a flat bottom. The matress is cotton with quite a solid filling. The frame has a stem for a drape that is at 90 degrees from the cot and very plain. I would like to know a little bit about it and whether it is worth taking to an antique dealer for a valuation.

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Denise February 20, 2016 at 7:01 am

Hi, I have a baby crib that has been in my family for many years and wonder if someone could date it for me.

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