Interpreting Images of 19th Century Children: Gender Indicators


Figure 1.--This looks like two boys to me, but there are not a lot to go on besides the short hair cut. Has the one child crossed his or her legs? That may be an indicator.

Sometimes information is available identifying the children depicted in drawings, paintings, and photographs. Such information is extremely helpful in establishing actual fashions and trends. More often, however, many available images lack accompanying information. This makes it very difficult for HBC to assess trends or even determine the gender of the children depicted in the images. Boys in the 19th Century, in some cases fairly old boys, wore dresses, skirts, and kilts. Thus it is often very difficult to determine the gender of children with any certainty. It hard to establish what younger boys wore simply because it is difficult to distinguish them from the girls. There are some guidelines that can be used to distinguish boys from girls with a fair degree of accuracy. There is, however, no foolproof key to interpreting these photographs. Styles and the fashionable tastes of mothers vary widely and there simply is no way of telling with absolute certainty. There were no definitive rules on how to dress older boys. Many mothers simply did as they wished and the boys did not question their parents as modern children do. Especially boys raised at home could be dressed in what ever outfits pleased his mother. HBC has compiled some indicators that I think will proved helpful in determining gender. This is, however, just some prelimimary thoughts on the matter. The topic is very complicated and HBC has not yet compiled sufficient information to adequately address it. I'd be very interested in your reaction to my thoughts and any additional thoughts that you can suggest.


Figure 2.--This image certainly looks like an older boy being kept in lacey dresses. In fact it is a young Texas belle--Margaret Wood. The photograph was taken about 1910. Note the absence of a distinct hair part.

Hair

Both hair styling and the use of hair bows provide valuable clues a to the identity of the childrn in old photographs. It is much more difficult, however, than in may seem at first. Not all children with short hair are boys and not all children with long hair are girls. And of course there are many styles in between. In addition, not all children with hair bows are girls. Hair styles should not be always seen as a stylistic-fashion matter. Some children had for example, bowl cuts, because mother could do it easily and cheaply at home. Personal hygene was not as important as today and, as a result, head lice could be a serious problem.

Hair Styles

Hair styles varied greatly during the 19th century. Generally the best cue to a difficult image of a child in dresses is their hair style. Short hair is a very good clue that the child is a boy. Short hair was very common for boys in the early and mid-19th Century. Even younger boys often had short hair in the early and mid-19th Century. While short hair is a good indicator, it is not clearly not absolute proof. Mothers even in the early 19th Century might choose long hair and curls for their sons, in some cases even on boys as old as 11 or 12 years. Likewise while long hair was prised on girls, some girls wore their hair short. Hair styles changed in the late 19th Century. Long hairs, even ringlet curls, for boys became highly fasionable. Boys up to 8 years might commonly wear long ringlet curls, an even older boys sometimes wore them. It is likely that a child with very short hair cut away from the ears is probably a boy. There is, however, no certainty here. Many girls also had short hair, especially in the late 19th Century. One important point. Boys sometimes had some quite severe short hair cut, but this would be very rare, but not unknown, on girls. Thus particularly short hair cuts are a strong indication the child is a boy. One useful indicator is the part. Boys wearing short hair in the 19th Century would be likely to have side parts. Center parts became popular for boys after the turn of the century, but the 19th Century style was a side part. Girls in the 19th Century, however, very commonly wore center parts--often with long hair.

Hair Bows

Generally American and British children wearing hair bows are girls. There are some, but very few exceptions to this. Children on the continent, especially late 19th century France, wearing dresses and hair bows could be boys. Even boys as old as 10 years in France might wear long hair tied back with a hair bow. Curls were less common for boys in France than in America. Children with really large hair bows are probably girls, but as always one has to consider other clues.


Figure 3.--This child is obviously a boy. Note that he wears a kilt skirt and blouse rather than an actual dress. Girls were unlikely to wear a large lace collar and bow or othr device not part of their dresses. Note the jacket and lace collar could just as easily be worn. Also the whip strongly suggests the child is a boy. The hair style is somewhat unusual and does appear a bit girlish.

Garments

The garments that the children are wearing in old phoographs and the styling of those garments also provide valuable clues as to their identity.

Christening costume

A HBC reader reports, "I work with family trees. We are spending a lot of time trying to ID photo. The way people dress some time is a big help. When you see a boys in a Christening dress and not pants pants, you know it three generation ago. I would like to know more about clothing history. It may help my place when photo were taken. I have picked up a photo and read,for example, on the back side Enoch's brothers boy Holy Ghost Lutheran church. The person in the photo has a white dress on. Soon I found more of the same. Girls had bonnets, and boys always had an uncovered head with long hair. Thank you for the helpful inormation on this subject compiled on HBC. -- Steven Smith of Smith Kinology.

Kilts suits

One popular style for boys in late 19th Century America was the kilt suit. These contrasted with dresses because they were two piece garments. Also the materials were often muted colors. Thus there is a strong possibility that a child in a dark klit is probably a boy. It is not impossible to find girls wearing kilts, but kilts are a strong signal that the child may be a boy. Many so called kilts were really skirted suits and not really kilts. These outfits were very popular for young boys in America beginning about the 1870s. The materials were often very muted plaids and quite different from the Scottish costumes. Kit suits were not commonly worn by girls who were more likely to wear actual dresses. HBC is less certain aout white kilts. Perhaps they would be more likely to be worn by girls than darker colored kiklts, but I am not sure about this.

Dress Styles

Dresses for little boys were often identical to those their sisters wore. As the boys got older, however, their dress styles were often plainer with fewer frills and lace--although this was not always the case. Some mothers liked the look of frilly dresses whether for their daughters or sons.

Detailing

The detailing on garments in old photographs can also povide clues as to the identity of the children.

Buttons

One frequent feature was front buttons. By the mid 19th Century the gender convention for wearing buttons was becoming well established. In the early part of the Century there were no specialized boy dresses. By the late 19th Century, however, specialized boy dresses appeard. Thus if the buttons are observable, they could provide information on a child's gender.


Figure 4.--This Degerotype shows two children in plaid dresses. The image quality is poor and we do not know who the children are. This is a very difficult image to assess. It looks like two girls, but the plaid materials signals the possibility that they are boys. The hairdo of the child on the left is girlish, but the posture is boyish. In addition the child seems to be wearing plaid pantalettes or a plaid underskirt. The child on the right offers fewer clues, but the face appears rather boyish.

Necklines

Low necklines would seem to indicate a child is a girl. It certainly has a girlish look to the modern person. One is tempted to think that a child in a dress with a low neckline is probably a girl. This would be a mistake. Actually I do not believe that necklines are good indicators as they usually reflect the fashion of the day rather than the gender of the child. Necklines were simply a function of the popular fashion of the day. If the fashion was low necklines than the dresses of both boys and girls had low necklines. The neckline is better indicator of the date than the gender. Low necklines were commonly worn in the early and mid 19th Century. Notably there were no specialized boy dresses during this period in which low necklines were popular for small children. Little boys wore the same styles their sisters wore. In the 1860s necklines began to raise--but for both boys and girls. Thus necklines are more helpful for dating dresses than determining gender. It was not until the 1870s that low neclkies for children disappeard.

Hemline

Another indicator is hem length. At mid-century, boys often wore shorter dresses than did girls.

Belts

Boys were often dressed in tunics. Tunics were similar to dresses, but were much simpler and almost always made from solid colored material. They always had belts of some kind. Younger boys might wear tunics with pantalettes, but older boys always wore knickers. This was a major difference as boys did not wear knickers (in the American sence) when wearing dresses. A boy wearing an sctual dress could often be identified if the dress had a tunic-style belt. By thr late 19th Century specifically styled dresses appeared. Many but not all of these dresses were plainer with less lace and ruffles than the dresses specifically for girls. One of the stylistic features of these boy dresses was a belt. So even if the child in an old photograph has long curls, and a nice frock, you can usually identify the child with a belt as a boy. This is not to say that children without belts are girls. Remember that the style of boys dresses did not appear until the late 19th Century. Also not all boys wore the specifically boy styled dresses. The choice of the dress was the perogative of the mother. She could choose whatever style she wanted and many preferred frilly dresses with lace and ruffles for both their daughters and sons. In addition, not all dresses were specifically made for boys or girls. Many were simplly children's dresses.

Patterns

Plaid is a particularly good indicator. Especially after Queen Vctoria popularized Scotland and the kilt, plaid became a popular material for children's clothes. It was particularly popular for boys. Because of the material was similar to some material used in Scottish kilts, many parents considered it appropriate for boys not yet old eough for a kilt. By the 1870s, plaid had become less popular for girls and children in plaid dresses were even more likely to be boys.

Buttons

Buttons were of course used for more than decorations on dresses. They had very practical purposes on blouses shirts and other garments. Two elements of buttons: front/back palcement and left/right buttoning arrangements can offer insights into the gender of the child. Of course the reader has to be sure that the photograph is prperly printed as if it is printed backwards, inaccurate conclusiond can be drawn. There are a variery of complications using buttons to help identify children in old photographs. HBC does not yet fully understand the historical development of buttons, but have begun to collect information.

Ribbons and sashes)

White dresses have always been popular dreesup atire for children. Sometimes the only destinguishing clie was a colored ribbon. We now think of blue as indicating boys. I'm not sure how this color conventiion came about. However it is not a perfect indicator. Some girls wore blue also. In additun there has not always been perfect agreement about what color repesenrd which gende. Differences exist over time and between countries. Another color factor was the hue. Girl's outfits tends (I stress tended) to be more coloful tham boys garments. Boys dresses were sometimes rather dark, muted fabrics.

Boys Clothes

The modern viewer is acustomed to seeing girls wearing boys clothes. Indeed modern boys and girls are often indistinguishble dressed in T shirts, swearshirts, jeans, and sneakers. Modern boys would of course not consider wearing anything perceived as girlish. This was not always the case. As we have seen, in the 19th and early 20th Century many boys were outfitted in dresses, but girls would never have thouht about wearing pants or knickers. Thus a child with long, girlish-looking ringlets if wearing knickers or kneepabnts is almost surely a boy.


Figure 6.--This is certainly a difficult image. The hairbow and hair look girlish. Yet the child is wearing knickers. At first I assumed it mean that the child was a boy. At the turn-of-the 20th century I think that would have been the case. The image is dated 1915, however, so a girl might have worn bloomers. But knickers would not have been likely.

Colors (in paintings)

Colors are helpful indicators and can be particularly useful with paintings which display colors. Black and white photography does show white outfits and some indication of color can be assessed based on the shades of grey showing in the photograph. I'm not sure just what white dresses suggest. Girls may have been most likely to wear white dresses, but these requires more reseach. The best clue on white dresses would be the color of the accesories such as waist sashes and decorative ribbons. Blue sashes would of course suggest a boy, although I am not sure when this convention first appeared. Blue has apparently become associated with boys because it was the cheapest dye available in the 17th Century. Colored dresses provide some clues. It seems likely that girls would wear brighter colors than boys who were more commonly dressed in muted colors.

Props and Toys

The props held by a child are often clues as to gender. Some are better clues than others. Some props wwre suitable for both boys and girls and thus offer littleuseful information. Other props, however, have clear gender conotations. Some may have been specifically stress the gender of a boy with curls that had not yet been breeched. HBC points out that there are no sure fire rules here. Props are good indicators, but are not surefire indicators. They are useful, but need to be viewed within ther context of all the infornmation avaialble or observeavle about any particular portrait. Some parents would bring items from home to the studio. Often children would want to be pictured with treasured items. Photographers would also have props at the studio that could be used in the photograph.


Figure 7.--This child wears a white kilt and jacket. The hair and frlly details suggest a girl. The kilt itself suggests it may be a boy. Note that this child does not wear a blouse with a lace collar, but rather an elaborate lace top is sewn on the jacket.

Facial Characteristics

Facial characteristics are another possible clue. We have used this indicator intuitively and are not really sure just hiw to describe the differences for children. Perhapsreadr can help here. We caution, however, like other indicators thuis is hardly an infalible indicator. There are numerous images archived on HNC that we would have identified the gender only to find that we were wrong when we found the child's name.

Body Characteristics (in drawings)

Some authors indicate that 19th Century fashion magazines ofte drew girls with small feet to give them a diminunative look.

Activity

Photographhy for most of the 19th Century was static, usually taken in a studio. Paintings and drawings, however, could depict action. Children running about, rough housing with each other or being restrained by adults are likely boys. Children sitting quietly chatting with each other are probably girls.

Inscriptions

Many old photographs have no inspriptions on he back, but some do. Unfortunately often there is no fool proof way to associate the names with the children in the photographs. HBC believes, however, that the common tendency is to wite he names in the same order as the children appear left to right in the photograph. (This may be different in countries where they read right to left.)

Law of Averages

Sometimes there are just no clues of sufficient strength to identify the children in a phtograph. One factor to consider in evaluating family groupings is the law of averages. Families in the 19th Century tended to be large. Some wifes had children as often as was possible. Thus the law of averages suggest that family photographs are likely to include boys and girls. If all the younger children wear dresses, it is likely that some are boys.

Posture

Most of the early images are static, but many images are less formal. The posture assumed by the children may provide some clues as to gender. Posture is an indicator that we have not gicen much attention to you. A reader has pointed out that this is a possibly useful indicator that HBC should address. There are several posture variables. The two basic posture alternnatives are standing and sitting with a few children laying down. Many images are just the children standing square shouldered before the camera. There are no gender indicators here. A few children are standing, but with one of the feet cocked up in a rather jaunty way. A good example is an unidentified French child. We are not sure yet, if there are any gender conniotations here or if so, what they were. The other basic posture here is sittibng down. Often the children simply have their legs hanging down. There is no gender connotation here. The children often cross their legs. In fact, I think that girls were often taught to cross their legs demurely at the ankles when sitting down. We believe that more agressive crossing of the legs, especially at the knee, suggests that the child may be a boy. A good example of this is an unidentified American child wearing a dress. We are still assessing this indicator and welcome reader comments. A reader tells us, "I think you are correct here. Boys were much more likely to cross their legs. Girls were taught from an early age not to cross their legs beyond what you mentiin as crossing the ankles. It was seen as unladylike!"

Dating Old Images

Determining the gender of old images is not the only problem HBC faces with unidentified images. It is also very difficult to be sure about the date of old images. The lack of a relaible date makes it hard to assess fashion trends.

Sources

The Children of William Matthew Prior (West Highland Publishing, 2003). This book includes an article about gender identification in early American folk portraits.

"Is SHE or Isn't HE?" (Heritage Plantation). This study of 1,400 early portraits sheds light on the issue of ide ntifying gender by details of the portrait (such as the parting of the hair, side or center, toys, clothing, pets, etc.).

"Is it a Girl or a Boy?," Frank Leslies April 1864.






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Created: November 5, 1998
Last updated: 6:05 PM 7/25/2011