The Victorian and Edwardian Nursery



Figure 1.--This is the nursery for Queen Victoria's children at Osborne House on the Isle of Wright where the Royal Couple brought the children on frequent holidays. The nursery with several cots and beds made few concessions to the natural livliness of children. There is a doll house by the window, but notice the amazingly small number of toys on the table.

Victorian and Edwardian parents had a very different attitude toward child rearing than modern parents. The relationship was much more formal. Affluent parents would basically have hired staff raise the children. Small children would spend much of their early life in the nursery where they would be raised by a nannie. Many of the grown children had much founder memories of their nannies than their mothers. Some parents, such as Queen Victoria, would go for extended periods without visiting their children. Other parents would regularly visit the nursery or have the children brought to visit them. In many cases these could be rather formal visits. This formality, however, was not always the case.

Royal Nurseries

Some information on nurseries is available on the British Royal family which has been widely written about. (For details on the individual Royals be sure to see the European royalty pages.) Informaton on Royal nurseries includes:
Queen Victoria: The nursuries at Buckingham Palace were so far from the living rooms that Prince Albert used to drag the children through the long passages in baskets.

Figure 2.--This is the Day Nursery at 145 Piccadilly before Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne moved with their parents to Buckingham Pallace. There was a glass fronted cabinent in which the Princesses could display their treasures. It was a grander nursery then most, but not untypical of the nursery style of the time.
Edward VII: Alexandra and Edward raised their children while Victoria still reigned. Princess Alexandra had a hole cut in the floor of the children's nursery so that a sleeping child could be lowered and kissed goodnight without being woken. This sounds very different than the nursery of their son's children, George V.
George V: George V and Queen Mary before becoming King kept David and Albert (the future Edward VIII and George VI securely cloistered in their nursery at Sandringham. They complained of having more difficulty keeping their younger chilren confined to their nursery.
George VI: Queen Elizabeth and Princess Matgaret's nursery of the entire top floor of 145 Piccadilly, where they lived until their father became King in 1936 and they moved to Buckingham Palace.
Queen Elizabeth: The Queen had Prince Charles and Princess Anne's nursery carefully recreated when they moved from Clarence House to Buckingham Pallace in 1953. There were boxes of toy soldiers, the cuckoo clock, and a 10 foot high Tudor doll house.

Types of Nurseries

The nurseries of course depended on the parents circumstances. Wealthy parents could afford to hire the staff to raise their children. Less affluent parents had to bemore involved. Wealthy parents often had two nurseries for their children, a day nursery for the day and a night nursery for the beds. Comfortable, but less affluent parents, would have one nursery with the beds and furniture for daily activities in a single room. Often foreign nannies were in demand in certain countries. In part this was due to the foreign lanuage training offered. In other cases it was the reputation, English nannies and governesses appeared to be have been particularly prised--even in far flung countries. We are all familiar with The King and I where even the King of Siam of all persons seeks

Figure 3.--The Grand Duchess Marie and the Grand Duke Dmitis having tea in the garden with their English nannies. The children are probably dresseds smartly for the photograph, but their dress probably is one of their nursery outfits.
an English governess--a story based on an event. Some times international politics dictated the chioces. Thus Russian royal family with families ties to Queen Victoria often chose English nannies. One would have thought that French nannies might be chosen given the importance of French culture and use of the French language in artistocratic Russian circles. But perhaps the memories of the Napoleonic Wars or the preceived permissivness of French nannies argued against them.

Children's Ages

I am not sure about the ages of release from the nursury. In Britain boys appear to have left the nursery when they were sent off to their boarding school. At the beginning of the 19th century this event varied from about 8-12 as schools had not yet developed uniform entry ages. By the end of the 19th century preparatory schools taking boys at about 8 years of age had become well established. And as a result this age appears to have been a common age for leaving the nursery. It was less common to sent girls to school so the ages spent in the nursery were more varied. I assume American parents more or less followed the British, but I'm less sure about the French and other European parents.

Figure 4.--This little boy, probably in the 1890s, wears what probably was his nursery attire. I'm not sure if it is a white dress or smock. He seems to be showing off his Christmas presents. Besides the short hair we know he is a boy because his doll is a boy doll, albeit in a Fantleroy suit, and he has a toy fire waggon. One wonders what he thought about wearing dresses and smocks when his doll had pants.

Nursery Dress

I have little information on how the children were dressed in the nursery. I have received a variety of submissions describing nursery attire. The varying estimates as to when boys stopped wearing dresses and begun wearing knee pants probably reflects just how fluid the age could be. One contributor suggests that infants were dressed basically alike in long dress. Young boys wore dresses of various styles and were put in knee pants at about age 4. After that boys and girls were dressed like adults--including corsets for the girls. I believe that smocks and pinafores were standard wear in many nurseries. This is obviously true for girls, but younger boys might also wear pinafores and smocks--especially in France. Smocks were more common for boys than pinafores. I do not know how common they were in Britain and America, but the available photographic record suggests boys as old as 7 or 8 years might commonly wear them. Based on available evidence, younger boys wore dresses. Even after they began wearing knee pants, smocks were probably quite common. Less formal sailor suits were certainly worn. After the turn of the century, romper suits or in America Buster Brown outfits were probably common. The girls commonly wore pinafores, but tnis was less common for the boys, especially after the turn of the century. Some mothers and nannies continued to find smocks a very useful garmet for nursery wear.

Figure 5.--French nursery wear for little boys at the turn of the century included pinafores, although smocks were more common. This 1906 French painting shows Jean Dauberville as he might have been dressed in the nursery with a long-sleaved colored dress and a white pinafore with elaborate ruffles.

Dressing in the Nursery

Dressing properley was very important for te Victorians and Edwardians. Parents felt it jy\ust as important to dress the children well as how they were outfitted was a reflection on the ebntire family. This generally meant that the children were dressed in very complicated, often restrictive clothes-- quite a departure from the comfortable unrestrictive clothes popular at the beginning of the 19th Century. Dressing in the nursery could be a very complicated process. This varied somewhat, depending on just how the child was being dressed. Clothes in both the Victorian and Edwardian era were more compicated than today and a child would have required more assistance dressing himself.
Informal clothes: Some of the informal outfits like smocks were simplier than others outfits. But even with smocks a child would have needed help as 19th and early 20th Century smocks were back buttoning. Even informal styles were not as simple as the "T" shirt and jeans worn by the modern child. All the bows and buttons caused all kinds of problems. Also the child would have to be helped with his pantalettes or stocking suportes and stickings as well as whatever he wore under his smock which I am not sure of at this time. Pinafores were also worn, but usually to protect a formal dress or suit underneath. Like smocks, pinafores were back buttoning ad usually had strings to tie in a bow at the back.
Formal clothes: As complicated as informal clothes were, formal clothese were, of course, much more compicated. Formal clothes like Little Lord Fauntleroy suits could be quite complicated and a child might have required quit a bit of assistance. The bows in particular were very difficult to tie. The collar bow was so important in the boy's final look, that even for older boys it was tied by his nanny

Figure 6.--Getting dressed in a formal party suit could be a major operation in the Victorian and Edwardian nursery. They could be quite complicated to put on.
or maid. The sash bow would have been especially difficult for a bow to tie. An older boy would have had trouble with the sash bow, it would have been impossible for a younger boy. There were many other complications like getting the stockings on and the stocking supporter attached. Gering the lace or ruffled collar to fall just right was important, as swell as countless other details.

Toys and Hobby Horses

One interesting aspect of the available images of nurseries is that the children loved to be photographed with their toys and prised possessions. One common prop were elaborate hobby horses, a favorite with the boys. Interestingly, the children are rarely photographed with pets in the nurseries. Apparently the Victorians and Edwardians did not think it desirable to keep pets in the nursery. The children often had quite a personal relationship with therir hobby horse, giving them names and talking to them.

Nannies and Governesses

Children in the nursery were cared for by nannies. Rich families might have a head nannie who would have a staff to assist her, especially if there was more than one child. Less affluent families might have only one nannie. Often very close bonds developed between the children and theur nannies. This was especially true when the parents took little interes in their children.

As the children got older they might have a governess employed for their education, but this was often after they left the nursery. Governesses were more common for girls as it was more common to spend the boys off to boarding school, at least in England. By the late Victoirian period this was commonly done at about 8 years of age.

Nursery Guidelines

Authorities of the day provided advise and in some cases detailed instructions for nursery organisation. One interesting source, The Housewife's Reason Why (London, 1857), provided all kinds of instructions, in many cases of dubevious value. In many instances the child's health would seem to have taken precedence over aesthetic considerations.
Q: Why are lights from wax or spermaceti (sperm whale oil) most desirable for a nursery?
A: Because animal oils and tallow throw out, in their burning, poisonous vapours that vitiate the air, and render it peculiarly hurtful for children to breathe.

Figure 6.--This drawing shows how a boy may have played in his nursery. Judging from the boy's tunic and long pants, the artist tried to depict an early 19th Century scene--perhaps the 1820s or 30s what a child playing may have looked like. One never knows about the accuracy of drawings, especially those not made by contemorary artists. I don't think, for example, a sofa would have been likely located in a boy's nursery.
Q: Why should nurseries have a south-eastern aspect?
A: Because it has the advantage of receiving the morning rays of the sun, without the drawback of the sultriness of an afternoon thus materially conducive to the health and cheerfulness of children.
Q: Why should nurseries not be situated at the top of the house?
A: Because children are liable to accidents from falling over the bannisters, or down the stairs; and also because in cases of fire in the night, the remote distance in which they are placed beyond the reach of assistance, renders it difficult to save them.
Q: Why should the foot of a child's bed or cot be turned towards the window?
A: Because a child naturally turns its eyes to the light, and if that be on either side, it may induce a habit of squinting. The same rule also applies to the position of an infant in the lap.
Q: Why should a nursery have an extensive prospect from its windows?
A: Because the eyes of the children will become habituated to looking at objects from a long distance, for want of which children frequently become short sighted.
The Author adds that nurseries should be carpeted to protect children from 'the force of the blow upon their heads and limbs' should they fall.

National Differences

There appear to have been substantial differences in nursury life and dress in different countries. I don't know a lot written on nursery wear, but the photographic ans artistic record offers some glimpses. A note should be made that for the most part only the wealthy had thier children's picture painted or photograph taken, and that the children usually were dressed up in their best clothes for the picture. Everyday

Figure 7.--This drawing from a 1835 issue of "The Gentleman's Magazi ne" shows how a small boy was dressed in the nursery. The child at right is prob ably a boy, suggested by the blue sash and ball.
wear may have been quite different:
England: The nursery was the center of a child's life in upper class English families. Parental rlations as described above could be quite formal. Nursery dress appears to have followed standard dress conventions of the day. Some parents and nannies appeared to hav e used smocks as convenient nursey wear. Pinafores were used for the girls, but less comminly for the boys.
France: I have so far been able to survey few French photographs and paintings, but smocks and pinafores appear more common than in Britain and the United States (figure 3). French family life appears to have been more fluid than in Britain with the children less likely to have been isolated in the nursery.
United States: Available nursery photographs show girls of all ages wearing full decorative dresses or smocks, but decorative apron or pinafores are rare. The dresses are not very fitted and often blousy t o the waist with a full round skirt attached. Decorations vary from elaborate to the very plain. The boys seem to be wearing simple gowns, skirt suits, or long or short pants suits. Many of the dresses for both boys and girls are off the shoulder, especially in the 1840's-60's. A bolero style jacket and shirt was also common. Many of the photographs have pantaloons or pantalettes and stockings showing below the skirts. It is sometimes

Figure 8.--This photogrph is probably a good example of American children's clothes in an American nursery during the 1910s. The boy appears to be wearing a type of knicker sailor suit, but without the traditional middy blouse. The oher child is still in curls and looks to be wearing a smock. I'm not sure if the child is a boy or girl.
hard to tell if the child is a boy or a girl. One picture (1860's) shows four boys ranges in age from about about 3-8 years. Knee pants in the the 1860s were not as widespread as in the later 19th century. The oldest boy wears a long pant 3 piece suit. The next youngest in in a short pant 3 piece suit, the next in a long pants and matching shirt with braided trim. The youngest wears a skirt with loose shirt and jacket, and pantaloons. In the 1880s Little Lord Fauntleroy suits became popular for party clothes, with lots of lace and ruffles, but they probably were not worn for everyday in the nursery. The books I have are of American styles, however, they were not so nursury minded as the English. I recommend Pricilla Haris Darymple's American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs.

Nursery Experiences

Some fascinating descriptions of nursery life are available. What I would especially like here is a description of the clothes the children wore in the nursery. General descriptions of nursery life are also of some interest. Some of the most detailed accounts are from royal nurseries are those of other wealthy, important families of the day. But some information is also available on other, less famous families.

Floor Plan

Here are some views of Victorian homes and floorplans. Often the parlor looked out on the front of the home. The bedrooms and nyrsery was commonly on an upsatirs floor. There were, however,







Christopher Wagner





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Created: January 7, 1999
Last updated: June 11, 2000