The Life Of A Victorian Child in America
by Victoriana Lady Lisa
The life of a Victorian child in America was either privileged, or extremely difficult, depending on what social class they were born into. Until age five, both boys and girls wore dresses. It was more practical to change the baby's diaper and toilet train this way. How can one tell the gender of the child in photos? It's easy, a baby boy had his hair parted on the side, while a baby girl had her hair parted in the middle.
|Victoriana Lady Lisa's great uncle Charles Weber wearing the traditional dress, circa 1890|
Since the majority of children were of the working class, we shall take a look at their lives first.The day began with chores bright and early in the morning. The ashes had to be emptied from the stove and wood had to be cut and stacked for cooking. The youngest child had the dreaded job of emptying the chamber pots each morning. If it was Monday, there was the tedious task of laundry.
Girls helped their mother prepare food, cook, clean, sew, and watch the younger siblings. Boys did the heavier work with father, often working in the fields, or cleaning stalls and feeding the animals. If the family was fortunate to own a cow there was milking to be done in order for the family to have fresh milk.
Victorian families of the working lower class worked from sun up until sun down, including the children. Before child labor laws were passed many children went to work outside of the home to help support their family’s meager wages.
A child who worked in a mill joining pieces of thread together was called a piecer. This was usually a job for young girls, often as young as six years old.
Boys as young as seven often worked as Breaker Boys in the coal mining industry, prevalent in PA. Their job was quite dangerous, they sat over the coal chutes as the coal came down fast and furious. The young boys had to pick out the slate mixed in with the coal, if they were not fast enough they could lose a finger or two.
In 1870 a new law was passed declaring that every village had to have a school. Very few children of the poor working class attended school since they too were working to help support the family income. Children of the middle class did attend school. Boys and girls went into the school through separate doors and sat in separate rows. They were taught reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic. Boys were taught extra lessons in math and science. Girls learned sewing and other household skills then stopped going to school in the eighth grade, while the boys went on to the twelfth grade. A wealthy young man went on to get a college education.
Young children from wealthy families ate, slept and played in the nursery, a large room often at the top story of the home with a nanny who looked after them. They enjoyed playing with fine toys such as wooden rocking horses, trains, dollhouses, china tea sets, kites, porcelain dolls, and puppets. Punch & Judy were favorites with the children who often had their own wooden puppet theater. Victorian children were not allowed to play with toys on Sunday unless they had a biblical theme, for example a wooden Noah’s Ark set. Older children from wealthy families had their own teacher, called a governess. She taught both the boys and girls until the boys were sent away to boarding school.
Many wonderful classic books came out of the Victorian era. Alice In Wonderland, Little Women, Ann of Green Gables, A Christmas Carol, The Jungle Book, Pollyanna, The Little Princess, The Secret Garden and Treasure Island, just to name a few. Rich children were fortunate to have staff and servants so they had very little chores and responsibilities, leaving more time to read and play.
Children from well to do families also enjoyed many wonderful treats. Some of the newly invented sweets included fairy floss, which we call cotton candy today. Taffy, fudge, rock candy, animal crackers and chocolate candy was also enjoyed. One of their favorite treats, and also a favorite with adults, was ice cream. Victorians could not get enough of the new sweet frozen treat! Lower class children were thankful to suck on ice chips received from the ice man on a hot day.
A candy pulling hook
Wealthy children dressed in a miniature version of styles very much like that of their parents. Boys were breeched and wore knickers at five years old and a shirt, jacket and cap. At age 10 they graduated to long trousers like father, signifying that the boy was now a young man.
Little girls wore fancy dresses with a hem length to their calves, often with a pinafore over the dress. Their hair was worn in pony tails, baloney curls, or braids.
At the age of 16 a young lady was no longer considered a child and had a grand coming out party to introduce her to society as being eligible for marriage. At this age she was fitted for a corset, her hem length now went down to the floor and her hair went up in an updo style, very proper for a lady in society.
Poor or wealthy, Victorian children had to learn manners and proper behavior at all times. Respect was expected, if a child disobeyed they would have their ears boxed.
It is an interesting comparison, the Victorian children were a product of the Industrial Revolution. Today’s children are living in the Technical Cyberspace Revolution. I dare say that if a child of today could go back in time to his or her ancestor’s childhood it would be an interesting scene at best! I don’t think they would last ten minutes without their cell phones and computers.