The Lightner Museum Shares Its Collection of Childhood Gems – A Curator’s Tour Re-cap
Curator Barry Myers leads behind-the-scenes tours of the museum’s collections every month.
Curator’s Tours give visitors the opportunity to see museum artifacts that aren’t usually exhibited to the public. In November, the Lightner Museum highlighted some of its finest examples of antiques related to nineteenth and early twentieth century childhood.
Through the eighteenth century, Western society viewed children as young adults who shared the work responsibilities of their parents. It was not until the nineteenth century that the concept of an idealized childhood emerged. Even in an idealized childhood, however, children were still expected to learn the rules of decorum from an early age. Play provided one way to do that.
Children’s toy and furniture designs frequently mimicked the styles found in their parents’ homes. Children’s furniture, for example, incorporated Renaissance Revival and Rococo Revival designs, which were popular at the time.
Mahogany cradle, late 18th century/early 19th century.
Cradles were one of the foundational pieces of furniture in any nursery. Function was put before fashion in most nurseries. The rocking motion of the cradle was thought to soothe upset babies and lull them to sleep.
Bentwood cradle by Thonet, Germany, circa 1840s.
This elegant cradle would have been found in the front parlor of a home. Parlor cradles were used to show off a family’s new baby to friends and families. Layers upon layers of pillows and blankets would have formed the support mattress for the infant. The gentle swinging motion of the cradle was not as harsh as rocking. When the baby became fussy, a nurse would take the infant back to its nursery where a simpler cradle was used. Surprisingly, cradles like this were stylish but relatively inexpensive.
Rococo and Renaissance Revival Rocking Chair, 1870s.
Rocking chairs were also common nursery furniture and were manufactured to fit children from 18 months to seven years of age. Children’s rocking chairs were made from oak, mahogany, cherry, walnut, and pine.
Rocking Horse, early 1900s.
Every child of a certain social status was expected to learn how to ride a horse. Posture and appearance in the saddle were important, as well, and rocking horses were used to practice. Rocking horses have been in use since the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century; they were made to look realistic and became standard nursery furniture in households that could afford it.
Pedal Horse, 1920s.
The design of this whimsical horse resembles some of the more modern pedal cars that children have today. In the Victorian era, however, horses—not cars—were the transportation of choice and were emulated in toys.
Garland Stove, Michigan Stove Company, 1893.
This piece is frequently mistaken as a salesman’s sample, but it was actually purposefully designed to be a child’s toy. Purchased at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, this toy stove was won as a door prize and is an exact model of a working range produced by the Michigan Stove Company. Every detail, down to the working warming elements, mimicked the full scale Garland stove. In 1864, the Garland line was founded in Detroit and became part of the Michigan Stove Company in 1873. The Garland Stove was unveiled for the first time at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Child’s Piggy Bank, late 19th century/early 20th century.
A penny saved is a penny earned, so goes the adage. This little piggy bank fits comfortably in the palms of a child. Children’s piggy banks were mass produced, but because they were so inexpensively made, few have survived.
Wicker Perambulator, 1880 – 1920.
Wicker perambulators, also known as prams, replaced simpler baby carriages modeled after adult carriages and buggies. The prams were designed to be pushed from behind so the baby could be seen by the public. In 1897, the Sears Catalogue carried 22 styles of baby carriages ranging in price from $2.45 to $33. Considering that the average household income was roughly $500/year, prams could be quite expensive and ornate. Between 1880 and 1900, the most popular prams were wicker bodied. Many also had silk parasols overhead and were lined with deeply colored upholstery to complement the child’s pale complexion.
Curator’s Tours are given on the first Wednesday of each month at 10 a.m. Tours are free with a general admission ticket.
Written by Megan Mosley.
Photographs by Jennifer Jordan.