A Child's World: New Exhibit at Old Sturbridge Village Opens October 13

Friday, September 21, 2012

Opening day highlight: OSV Collectors' Forum for scholars and collectors

(Sturbridge, Mass.) Sept. 21, 2012: Old Sturbridge Village historians will explore the changing world of children in the early 1800s with a new exhibit, A Child's World: Childhood in 19th-Century New England, on display October 13 through Memorial Day, May 27, 2013. For the first time, nearly 150 rare children's toys, games, puzzles, portraits, clothing, and furniture from the museum's collection will be exhibited together.

The Village will highlight the new exhibit with a day-long Collectors' Forum on Saturday, Oct. 13 from 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., featuring noted scholars, connoisseurs, collectors and enthusiasts.  Forum attendees receive museum admission and may also tour the new exhibit.  The Old Sturbridge Village Forum is open to the public; cost is $80 per person; $65 for OSV members. For details and to register: www.osv.org/antiques, 800-SEE-1830. 

OSV Collectors' Forum speakers will include Colleen Callahan, Independent Historian: Put the Manly Breeches On: Boys' Clothing as Symbols of Manhood in the 19th Century; Laura E. Johnson, PhD., Associate Curator at Historic New England:  From Stays to Skeleton Suits: Dressing Children in Early America; Chris Bates, Old Sturbridge Village Costume Coordinator: Making A Portrait Come Alive: Creating Reproduction Clothing at Old Sturbridge Village, presented with Rebecca Beall, Old Sturbridge Village Collections Manager, and Jean Contino, Old Sturbridge Village Coordinator of Households and Women's Crafts.

A Child's World: Childhood in 19th-Century New England

In an age before super-sized toy stores, pampered children, and helicopter parents, a new concept of a child's formative years began to emerge in 19th-century New England. There was an increasing awareness that "childhood" was an important time, separate from infancy, yet distinctly different from young adulthood and maturity.

"We have spent a full year selecting the very best child-related artifacts from our collection of more than 60,000 items to portray the life of a child in the early 19th-century," notes Rebecca Beall, collections manager at Old Sturbridge Village. "Many of these antiques have not been on public display for more than 20 years."

Highlights of the "Child's World" exhibit include antique dolls, dollhouse, cradles, toy soldiers, children's wagons, wheelbarrows, sleds, miniature chests, chairs, rocking horses, building blocks, and board games. A wide selection of children's clothing fashions are also part of the exhibit, including dainty dresses and a rare boy's 1820 "Skeleton Suit" – a close-fitting, high-waisted outfit often seen in paintings of the era.

According to Old Sturbridge Village historians, most rural New England children had far fewer toys than a modern child.  Most, if not all, of these toys would have been homemade – carved animals, board games scratched into a scrap of wood, roughly carved toy houses, and "rag baby" dolls made from bits of left over fabric. 

"Today, children are bombarded with bright plastic toys with bells, whistles, sirens and flashing lights.  Children of the 19th century had much simpler toys," Beall says. "A store-bought toy would have been a treasured plaything for most rural New England children."

Families were larger in early New England – with five to six children the average and families of nine or ten children not unusual.  New England couples typically married in their early to mid-20s, and might expect to have a pregnancy approximately every two years over a long span of time.  Children in 19th-century families often ranged in age from infants to young adults.

With no ultrasounds and no prenatal or postnatal care, infant mortality in the 1800s was high and mothers also faced serious complications during pregnancy, childbirth and recovery that could prove fatal. As a consequence, the months before a child's birth were a time of excitement and anticipation as well as uncertainty and anxiety.    

Then, as now, special equipment was needed to care for babies and keep them safe in the home. Nineteenth-century highchairs, “potty chairs,” chamber pots, and child tenders (a precursor to the playpen) demonstrate that there were some specialized “gear” designed then for babies and toddlers, but it was nothing like the variety of sophisticated equipment available to families today. 

Running a rural 19th-century household was a lot of work, and children were expected to do their share.  Young girls and boys were expected to help around the house – cleaning, doing kitchen chores, and tending the household garden. Tasks typically handled by children in early New England included gathering eggs and firewood, hauling water, weeding the garden, gathering berries, picking apples, mucking out stalls, and emptying chamber pots.

Girls and boys were taught to sew and knit, which was a good way for children to develop their fine motor skills. In the kitchen, children would help out by churning butter, pounding sugar, sifting flour, and stoning raisins (removing the seeds). Boys as young as 9 or 10 were taught to "drive" a team of oxen, directing them to pull, haul, and plow on the farm by using a series of hand signals and voice commands. Children would also pluck chickens, and feed the pigs and other farm animals.

One of the most important chores for children in the larger families of the 19th century was watching their younger siblings. Since many mothers had their children over a 20-year span, there was often an infant at home when the family's oldest child was entering adulthood.

Old Sturbridge Village, one of the country's oldest and largest living history museums, celebrates New England life in the 1830s and is open from 9:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. seven days a week. Admission: adults $24; seniors $22; children 3-17, $8; children 2 and under, free. All programs are subject to change. Each admission includes free parking and a free second-day visit within 10 days. Woo Card subscribers get $5 off adult daytime admission; college Woo cardholders receive $12 off adult daytime admission. For times and details of all OSV activities visit: www.osv.org or call 1-800-SEE-1830.

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Ann Lindblad
VP Communications
Old Sturbridge Village


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