The Daily Life of a Child


Portrait of Two Children, Joseph Badger. (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum).


"A Colonial Cradle," Colonial Children. 1902

Cradles in Colonial America were long and narrow, they purpose being that a child would not be able to curl up, but would have to stretch out its legs. This was thought to help a child get ready to walk. The belief then was that a baby would not learn how to walk on its own, and so it had to be taught. Swaddling also straightened out a baby's limbs.

Mrs. Freake and Baby Mary. 1674. (Worchester Art Museum).

Once a baby reached about six to nine months, babies were dressed in stays and petticoats, the skirts coming about a foot longer than the end of their legs. This discouraged crawling, which was considered too animalistic. The baby in the picture above is wearing these long skirts and stays that make her body stiff.


One Year to Two Years Old

Child's Pudding Cap. (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation).

Learning to walk was very important, and to protect a child from hurting his head when he fell, special headgear called a pudding cap was worn. The common belief was that too many falls would harm the brain by turning it into pudding.

"Leading Strings," The World Turned Upside Down. Woodcut.

Another contraption to help children walk was leading strings, cords attached to a toddler's clothes that an adult held to guide the child and prevent him from sitting. Walking stools were also common tools to help a child learn to walk. A baby was placed in it, sometimes for such long stretches of time that he fainted from exhaustion of holding himself up.

Mortality rates were much higher in colonial times than now, due to lack of sanitation, malnutrition, diseases, and accidents. In relatively healthy towns it was not unusual for one in ten children to die before the age of five. Cotton Mather and his wife saw eight of their fifteen children die before the age of two.


Three to Six Years Old

Portrait of Henry Gibbs. 1670. (Avampato Discovery Museum).

Both girls and boys wore long gowns that did not distinguish their sex. These gowns often fastened down the back. Both sexes wore a linen shift, along with several petticoats, and unless they still wore a clout, they did not wear anything in the way of underwear. This made it easy for the child to go to the bathroom. A cap was worn over the hair. The only way to tell for sure that a small child was a boy, was if they wore a falling band, which was a square shaped collar, like the one in the picture on the left. This child is a boy, despite his long skirts.

"Child's Shoes," "Boy's Frock or Gown," and "Child's Stays," (Colonial Willliamsburg Foundation

These shoes are made out of leather. The gown is a boy's frock, modeled after a man's coat. Towards the end of the colonial era, boys' clothes began to look more like their fathers' than earlier children's clothes. Children wore stays from as soon as they began to walk, made of cloth and cording, wood, or whale baleen. This helped their posture as they grew.

During meal time, the saying "Children are to be seen, not heard" was true. They were to eat as fast as possible, silently, and leave the table as soon as they were done. In some cases, children didn't even sit at the table, they stood behind the adults and food was handed back to them.

Young children had household chores such as shelling corn, carding cotton and wool, cutting sugar, gathering scouring rushes, and picking feathers off of the geese 3 or 4 times a year.


Seven Years Old

David, Joanna, and Abigail Mason. 1670. (M. H. de Young Memorial Museum of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco).

Seven was a crucial age for children in Colonial America. At this age, a boy was given breeches to wear, instead of stays and petticoats. He wore a frock coat, waistcoat and a hat instead of a cap. The threat of being put back into childish clothing encouraged boys to behave themselves. Girls kept their childish clothing until about the age of twelve, and even after that their clothing did not much differ. A younger girl sometimes continued to wear leading strings, as a symbol that she still was not independent. The boy in this picture is about eight.


Eight to Twelve Years Old

Boys went to grammar school for their education in writing and arithmetic. For girls, education came second to her training in household duties. They also might work in the family business or as apprentices.



"Governor William Bradford," The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims. 1911.

"Necessity was a taskmaster over them and so the Puritans were forced to be taskmasters, not only to their servants, but in a way to their dearest children…although their minds were willing, yet their bodies bowed under the weight. And so they became like old, weak people even in their early youth." - Governor William Bradford, 1622


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