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Victorian Baby Carriage

Baby carriage used by the McFetridge family of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, c. 1871.
(Museum object #1963.135.225)

With one of her four young children confined safely in this exceptional baby carriage, Martha Aiken McFetridge could stroll in style through the parks and sidewalks of Beaver Dam in the early 1870s. The carriage, with its novelty and attention to detail, attested to Mrs. McFetridge's high status as the wife of a successful mill owner as well as her compliance with late Victorian-era social standards. At the height of fashion, this carriage is true to the 1860s and early 1870s taste for baby carriages modeled closely after adult horse-drawn carriages. Because of the intense amount of labor required for pre-mass production carriages, they were perceived as more than just practical, they were elegant status symbols as well.

The use of baby carriages grew through the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The first noted appearance of a pushable carriage (as opposed to a pulled cart) in the United States occurred on a spring day in 1848, when a new contraption caused quite a stir along the promenade at New York City's Battery Park. Unable to afford a nursemaid, Charles Burton designed and built a unique three-wheeled vehicle for his wife to use with their newborn son. Companies in the United States that already produced other children's accessories or furniture were quick to realize new business potential in the baby carriage market. Not limited to the East Coast for long, entrepreneurs like Adolph Meinecke of Milwaukee opened baby carriage shops in the Midwest shortly after the Civil War.

Before the baby carriage could become a mainstay in society, however, mothers and nannies needed a place to use one. With streets frequently pitted and rough, it would take paved walks and public parks to beckon strolls with a baby carriage. Starting largely with famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead's-designed Central Park, which opened in New York City in 1857, Americans were entranced with the idea of public parks and their romantic, perfect representations of nature within a city's borders. Small Wisconsin cities began to incorporate parks into their landscapes. Beaver Dam opened Vita Park (now known as Swan Park), designed by the same landscape architect as Lincoln Park in Chicago, which became a destination spot for tourists in Wisconsin in the late nineteenth century.

During this period, there were certain societal expectations for middle and upper class citizens like Mrs. McFetridge, including fulfilling an idealized role as a nuturing mother. Like the popular adage of the day asked, "What is home without a baby?" a woman could not proudly advertise her position as a mother without her little ones at her side. This type of baby carriage ensured her child was presented prominently facing passers-by rather than facing herself, demonstrating to all around her that she was a successful wife and mother.

Through its soothing capabilities as well as restraints, an ideal Victorian mother could also be assured that a carriage would help control her baby in public, an important expectation for Victorian-era children. While parents of the late nineteenth century were instructed to embrace their children's youthful and carefree behavior to an extent, they were likewise expected to instill structure and refinement in their children from a very early age.

At the same time Victorian society also celebrated the individual, and this type of carriage truly met the pinnacle of public individualism. Only able to hold one child, this type of carriage acted almost as a moveable throne for displaying an infant. While the reality was different for poorer families, an upper class family could use expensive and luxurious carriages like this one to display their achievements as ideal parents as well as their financial success.

[Sources: Beaver Dam History Book Committee. Sesquicentennial History, Beaver Dam Wisconsin, 1841-1991, 1991; Calvert, Karin. "Furniture for Containment and Display," from Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992); Scheffel, Richard, ed. Discovering America's Past (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1993).]

ALH


Posted on May 04, 2006

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