Breeching Boys: Age Trends


Figure 1.--Here we see the Gulick Brothers from Lincoln, Nebraska. They are 7 years old and have noy yet been breeched. The portrait is undated, but we would gess that it was taken in the 1880s. Click on the image for more information about the boys. Image courtesy of the RG collecation.

The proper age for breeching a boy was a matter of heated debate throughout the late 18th and 19th century. There was no set age for wearing dresses. It was basically at the digression of the mother. As a result, there was a wide range of age for boys wearing dresses. For the most part, almost all boys wore dresses when they were 1-3 years old. At about 4 years of age you begin seeing boys wearing tunics, pants, kneepants, and knickers and the other more boyish outfits of the day. Until the late 18th century this mean scaled down versions of their fathers' clothes. Beginning in the late-18th Century and early-19th Century specialized clothing for children appeared. Most boys by the age of 5 or 6 years began wearing boys' clothes. Some doting mothers, however, did not want to lose their little treasures so early. So boys were not infrequently kept in dresses for several more years. Such boys might wear dresses until 7 or 8 years old. We notice the Gulick brothers, for example still wearing dresses at age 7 years. Some boys as old as 11 years are known to have been kept in dresses--although this was relatively unusual. There was considerable discussion during the late 18th and 19th Centuries. Earlier such discussion were primarily held within the family. By the early 19th Century, however, an increasing number of magazines were being published offering advise to mothers on child raising. One of the issues addressed was breeching. It was not unusual for "experts" to claim that breeching shouldn't be done before the age of 8 years. Most commonly the experts advised that the age had little to do with breeching--much more important was the child's size. Though the precise age was mostly left to the mothers digression, the general consensus was that breeching should take place before it was too late. "Her disposition, with her natural feminine tastes and tenderness, is always inclining her to deck her child with the gewgaws of finery and coddle him with the delicate appliances of luxury," one 19th Century book advised mothers. The expert continued, "The timely check from the manly boy may therefore prevent her from persisting in an effeminating process which would be sure, if continued, to deprive him of his best characteristics." [Bazaar Book of the Household, p. 214]

Chronological Trends

The age at which a boy was breeched is not well studied. Certainly it varied somewhat over time. Even within any given historical period, there were wide differences from family to family. Social class was a factof, but the individual attitudes of mothers seem to have been a major factor over time. As fashions becme more standardized and as public school attendance became nore common, however, the mothers attitudes become somewhat less important. We do not, however, have details on the time-line details. I believe that the age of breeching began to decline in the mid-19th century as public education became increasingly common. Boys being boys, a boy sent to school in dresses would be teased by his already breeched schoolmates. Thus the age of breeching would be set at about the time a boy began school. In the early 20th century the age of breeching boys declined even further as it became increasingly uncommon to dress little boys in dresses.

Actual Ages

The proper age for breeching a boy has sometimes been matter of heated debate, both inside and outside the family, throughout the late 18th and 19th century. There was no precisely established age for wearing dresses. It was basically at the digression of the mother and different mothers had widely varied ideas on the subject. As a result, there was a wide range of age for boys wearing dresses. For the most part, almost all boys wore dresses when they were 1-3 years old. At about 4 years of age you begin seeing boys wearing tunics, pants, kneepants, and knickers and the other more boyish outfits of the day. Until the late 18th century this mean scaled down versions of their fathers' clothes. Beginning in the late-18th Century and early-19th Century specialized clothing for children appeared. Most boys by the age of 5 or 6 years began wearing boys' clothes. Some doting mothers, however, did not want to lose their little treasures so early. So boys were not infrequently kept in dresses for several more years. Such boys might wear dresses until 7 or 8 years old. Notice for example the Gulick brothers, still wearing dt=resses at age 7 years. We notice some boys as old as 11 years are known to have been kept in dresses--although this was relatively unusual. There was considerable discussion during the late 18th and 19th Centuries. Earlier such discussion were primarily held within the family. By the early 19th Century, however, an increasing number of magazines were being published offering advise to mothers on child raising. One of the issues addressed was breeching. It was not unusual for "experts" to claim that breeching shouldn't be done before the age of 8 years. Most commonly the experts advised that the age had little to do with breeching--much more important was the child's size. Though the precise age was mostly left to the mothers digression, the general consensus was that breeching should take place before it was too late. "Her disposition, with her natural feminine tastes and tenderness, is always inclining her to deck her child with the gewgaws of finery and coddle him with the delicate appliances of luxury," one 19th Century book advised mothers. The expert continued, "The timely check from the manly boy may therefore prevent her from persisting in an effeminating process which would be sure, if continued, to deprive him of his best characteristics." [Bazaar Book of the Household, p. 214] Many images archived on HBC show boys being breeched a various ages, usually from about 2-6 years of age, but there are images and information about older boys still wearing dresses. Here we often do not know know when many images were taken or the precise age of a boy in a photograph. Many of the images of boys wearing skorted garments are the only images we have. Thus we only know that the boys were breeched some time after the photograph was taken. In only a few instances are we able to determine precisely when the boy was breeched. Here we want to link some of the images of boys still wearing skirted garments as indicators of the ages of boys wearing dresses and when breeching could have taken place. Building the links, however will take some time.

Social Class Differences

There is also a social class dimension to breeching. Generally speaking, boys from more affluent families were likely to be breeched later than boys from working-class families, but this does not mean that this was always the case.
Poorer families: Poorer boys were most likely to be breeched earlier than boys from more affluent families. I have no information on the 18th century, but poorer boys would be more likely to enter the work force early thus seemingly necessitating breeching. It seems unlikely that boys still wearing dresses would work or be apprentices. By the mid-19th century when public (state) schools opened education to poor children. As mentioned above, boys sent to these schools would first be breeched.
Affluent families: Boys from affluent families would be educated at home, thus doting mothers could delay breeching until the child was sent to private schools. Wealthy children might be educated entirely at home as the private schools of the day, especially the boarding schools, were very rough--in many cases dangerous--places.

Information Sources

We have not had a great success in finding written sources concerning the age for breeching. Conventions varied a great deal from family to family. There were no clearly accepted ages. We have not found written informtion in fashion magazines. We think that some information may exist in family correspondence, but such letters are very difficult to access. One of the most useful souces of informastion we have found is the photographic record. This is somewhat to use becase the children are often not identified and the age if the children is often not indicated. And additionally many portraits are not dated. Even so, the photographic record is a very useful tool in assessing age conventions over time.








HBC






Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web chronological pages:
[The 16th-17th centuries] [The 18th century] [The 1800s] [The 1840s]
[The 1870s] [The 1880s] [The 1890s] [The 1900s]
[The 1910s] [The 1920s]



Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web Breeching pages:
[Return to the Main breeching page]
[Breeching and curls]
[Dresses] [Kilts] [Pinafore] [Smocks]



Navigate the Historic Boys' Clothing Web dress pages:
[Ringlet curls] [Bodice kilts] [Fauntleroy dresses] [Sailor dresses] [Fancy dresses]
[Dresses: 16th-18th centuries] [Dresses: Early-Mid-19th century]
[Dresses: Late-19th century] [Dresses: Early 20th century]
[Difficult images] [Movie dresses]



Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Topics]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]




Created: 10:16 PM 1/21/2005
Last updated: 3:47 PM 8/6/2007