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Study Guide Children and Education

The Child's World and Image

chairDuring the eighteenth-century the perception of children changed dramatically, as did the way children were presented in both literature and portraits. Historian Karin Calvert has argued that over the course of the eighteenth-century, children went from being seen as inchoate adults (1600 to 1750) to more “natural” beings (1750 to 1830). The social world of child also changed: toys and entertainment became more fashionable. Before 1750 it was rare in New England to find objects expressly for the use of children:  the objects that did exist were utilitarian: cradles, swaddling clothes(1), leading strings, walking and standing stools.  Perhaps more crucially these objects were designed to restrain rather than entertain: they “forced the child to lie straight, stand straight, or walk erect” (Calvert 7).  As Calvert observes the Puritans themselves were obsessed with “uprightness” whether moral or physical: helping children stand straight and tall helped differentiate them from the “beasts” they were by nature (Calvert 7).   Thus, in portraits before 1750, the children do not hold toys or act playfully.   As in the portrait of the Mason children by the Freake-Gibbs Painter, the children may hold flowers, fruit, gloves, fans, or walking sticks, much as an adult would.  They stand or sit straight to emphasize their “uprightness” (Calvert 47-48). Indeed many scholars have noted that early images of children often resemble “miniature adults” more than children.  Not only are early American children often dressed in the same fashion as their adult counterparts, often early American painters gave them the same physical proportions as their parents.  These physical similarities have led some scholars(2) to argue that children were actually viewed as miniature grown-ups.2  As Hooker and others attest, however, seventeenth-century Puritans clearly understood the developmental differences between babies, children, and adults (Beales; Calvert 10-11).  Rather to present a child as ideal was to call attention to his “adult” attributes.  When children did possess ”toys” such as rattles, they were given them because they helped with toothaches, not because they were developmentally important or entertaining (Calvert 49).  The general Puritan distaste for sports, playfulness, and children’s “foolish” behavior is reflected both in seventeenth-century sermons and images such as the one of Sabbath breakers. Girls did own handmade dolls, but so did witches (Calvert 50-51):  play was the devil’s territory.

As this view of childhood and play was gradually eroded by the influence of the Enlightenment, children’s toys began to change in quantity, quality, and meaning. Portraits idealized the natural playfulness of the child. Hairstyles were distinct from adult ones, dress was increasingly relaxed, and playthings were included (Calvert 80).  As Karin Calvert remarks, “Childishness and playfulness were no longer shortcomings, but accepted characteristics of childhood” to be celebrated (Calvert 80). By the middle of the nineteenth century, children’s paraphernalia had also multiplied. Rather than restraining the “beast” within the child, children’s cribs, high chairs, and swings were intended to protect the sweet and innocent child from “physical injury, temptation, and worldly contamination” (Calvert 7-8). Children’s games were socially accepted and encouraged (Calvert 81).  The portrait of Isaac Winslow and His Family (1755) reflects some of these changes: the children are relaxed and fluid rather than upright and rigid. They smile and the baby playfully reaches for the fruit. Notably the family is also presented together:  no American portraits of nuclear families are known to have been created before 1730 (Calvert 88).  After 1770 painters became more interested in presenting the paternal role in portraits.  This later innovation might be contrasted with the great emphasis Mayhew places upon fathers who actively nurturing children, particularly in a spiritual sense.

Less is known about either toys or about representations of childhood in eighteenth-century Wampanoag society.  Wampanoags may have been more willing to allow children to be playful: unlike in Puritan society, gambling and other forms of entertainment, were a welcome part of Wampanoag life. Games were played both ritually and for pleasure and included the dice game hubhub; the counting game played with rushes called puim; and placing bets (Bragdon 1996: 222-23).  As in Puritan society, the change in status as one moved from childhood to adulthood was marked by dress as well as ritual:  both hairstyle and dress were used to distinguish children from adults (Bragdon 1996: 170-71).   Native American dolls from other parts of the Northeast indicate that Native Americans mirrored their own cultural transformations in the artifacts they made for their children: dolls themselves are one way to represent an ideal for children to aspire towards.  Sadly few early dolls remain as most were from perishable materials and were played with until they self-destructed.


(1) Swaddiing clothes were linen bandages that were used to wrap infants. Swaddled babies were wrapped so tightly that they were unable to move their arms, legs, fingers, or heads.  Physicians recommended that babies be changed every twelve to twenty-four hours, that it is quite likely that many went much longer (Calvert 21).  Innovations in swaddling included the use of splints (to keep the baby’s leg’s straight), corsets, and straight pins (Calvert 22).  It was believed that without the power of swaddling children would “crawl on all fours like animals for the rest of their lives” (Calvert quotes François Mauriceau 1675, 24).

(2) For example see Ariès Centuries of Childhood.