Leading stings were commonly employed on children's dresses from the 16th to 18th Century. They were precisely what they sounded like. The strips of fabric matching or coordinated with the dress fabric that were sewn on to the dress at the shoulders. The other end fell freely down the back of the dress. Some dresses did not have leading strings sewn on directly, but they would be pinned on if the mother so desired. The "strings" were considered practical for assisting younger children and controlling rambunctious children for whom they were used rather as a lease. Practices and conventions varied for boys and girls. Eventually leading strings in popular parkance became to be used more and more as a restraining device rather than walking aids. The term "harness" gradually became more and more popular . From 1900 to 1950, parents
used the term "leather baby harness" for a 1 to 5 years old and "toddler harness for children from 2 to 5 years old.
Leading strings were strips of fabric matching or coordinated with the dress fabric that were sewn on to the dress at the shoulders. The other end fell freely down the back of the dress. Some dresses did not have leading strings sewn on directly, but they would be pinned on if the mother so desired. The length of the strings were commonly 4-5 feet. I had thought that leading strings were primarily sewn on shoulders. A HBC reader writes, "I am convinced that leading strings also include the arrangement shown in the Dandhauser painting ilustrating a young toddler beginning to walk. He is wearing a single rope around the waist with an extended rein at the rear." This rope would have been strong enough to guide the first steps of the child. When the child was able to walk freely, about 2 years old, the cord was pulled off.
Historical leading strings can be noted in literature and seen in paintings and drawing. Usually they are seen with very young children 1 or 2 yrears old. The children wear long dresses like those worn by adult women during the Middel Ages. For more than two centuries, from the 16th to the 17th, a small cord or a string was hanging on the back of the dress.
We have not yet noted leading strings being used in the 15th century. We do not have any exmples of 15th century paintings. We are not saying that they did not exist, but we do not yet have any evidence to substantiate ht they were used in the 15th century.
Leading strings first appeared on children's dresses during the 16th Century. On an italian painting from the 16th
century, a toddler wears something very similar to a Maya wrap.
We notice another Rubens portrail of Jan Bruegel the Elder's family (1614). Bruegel's daughter Elizabeth wears a dress with leading strings. Children's dresses in the 17th Century often had leading strings. Paintings by Rubens are an interesting testimony of the use of leading strings. We note his son Peter Paul wearing a dress with leading strings (1639). We see leading strings and ribbons in the prints of French engraver Abraham Bosse. Another artist who depicted leading strings was Danhooffer. Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch's paintings provide examples of ribbons or "lisières" (figure 1).
Leading strings were still commonly employed on many children's dresses during the early 18th Century. A painting completed about 1812 at of the reign of Louis XIV shows tghe the Sun King with his grandson, the future Louis XV. The boy is being held with leading strings. Around 1750, the practice was criticised by social reformers who were
promoting specialized childrens clothing allowing freedom of mocement. Rosseau in his cassic Emile (1762) strongly denounced leading strings. By the time his book was published, leading strings had become much less common than in beginning of the century. They still were worn by young babies beginning to walk. At the same time, around 1760, leading strings were worn among the wealthy classes by fashionable girls as decorative or symbolic accessories--nearly always only on formal clothing. Some women disliked the look. One woman wrote in 1759 that "...they only dirty and look trolloping." The practice, however, appears to have continued among working-class families. There are many literary references to leading strings by 18th Century authors. Jonathan Swift in his classic, Gulliver's Travels (1726) writes She often took me out of my Box at my own Desire, to give me Air, and shew me the Country; but always held me fast by Leading-strings. Contemporary accounts indicate that leading strings were used to restrain rambunctious children. One woman wrote in a 1715 letter about her 4 year old boy. "Pray desire Cousen Peg to buy me a pair of leading strings for Jak. There is stuf made on purpose that is very strong for he is so heavy. I dare not venture him for he is so heavy." As a matter of fact, many parents seeks for helping babies to walk. But the leading strings were submitted to hard critics. A respected authority of the day, Dr. Buchan advised, "When children begin to walk, the safest and best method
of leading them about is by the hands. The common way, of swinging them in leading-strings fixed to their backs, has
many bad consequences," among which he noted obstructing the breathing, flattening the breast, and compressing the
bowels, all caused when children inevitably strained against the restrictive stays. [Dr. Buchan, 1774.]
The practice of using leading strings declined during the late 18th century, but did not disappear. An image of the Emperor Napoleon I shows him with his son in the early 19th century and the boy is being held with leading strings. Under the influence of Rouseau and the English Romantic Movement, child rearing was perceived as having not to interfere with instincts . So at the beginning of the 19th century, a better contact between parents and children was advocated, often in reference to North American Indians customs. Giving hand and close bodily contacts were suggested as the best way for a child to develop optimally. As a result,leading strings became less common after the early 19th Century, even as
adornment. Some mothers did use them, but the practice was generally criticised. One doctor wrote in a book he published advising mothers, "Go-carts and leading strings not only retard the increase of a child's activity, and produces an awkwardness of gait very hard to be corrected afterwards, but often affect the chest, lungs, and bowels, in such a
manner as to pave the way for habitual indigestion ... or consumtive complaints. [Dr. Buchan] While leading strings were not common, the practice still continued in some quarters. One author suggests that the pratical attributes of leading string may have been most common amomg less affluent mothers without servants. [Harris, p. 14.] Commentators into the late 19th Century were still condeming leading strings, suggesting to stop their continued use. The American poet, Edgar
Allen Poe, for example, in 1839 writes, "Thenceforward my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions." [Poe] An 1870 etiquette book, for example, insisted that leading strings were "apt to cause the ugliest deformities, the sinking of the neck between the
shoulders." [The Bazaar-Book of the Household, 1870, p. 78.] Illustratiins from the late 19th century, however, show that they did continue to be used (figure 1).
Ome HBC reader maintains that dresses with leading strings were much more common among the privlidges classes than the working or peasant classes. He attributes this to the fact that the children of the privlidged classes were accorded a higher value and leading strings were in effect saftey devices. There indeed are many paintings such as the
Laguillère painting of Louis XV and a work depicting Napoleon's son showing these privildged boys wearing dresses with leading strings. HBC is unsure precisely how to interpret this. Of course there are more paintings of the privlidged class in general as they could affoird the commissions. Thus the smaller number of paintings showing workibng class children with leading strings may just be a reflection of the more limited number of paintings depicting them.
Leading strings were considered to be practical devices for assisting younger children, especially children who were just learning to walk. They were also practical for controlling rambunctious children for whom they were used rather as a lease.
Practices and conventions varied for boys and girls.
Boys: Boys were generally breeched at about 5 years of age, some times latter. Fewer older boys wore dresses and thus would not have leading strings. Even those boys who continued to wear dresses beyond the toddler stage, would not wear leading strings.
Girls: Girls' dresses, even, those of older girls and teenagers often had leading strings. Some authors speculate that these leading strings same to symbolize a girl's situation in life. Indeed while leading straps were used for both boys and girls when young, they might also be used on the dresses of older girls. The use was of course symbolic of a girl's need for parental guidance. There was no such equivalent on older boys' clothes. In the 19th century they became less common and the more prevalent term was "leading reins".
Leading strings were particularly useful in assisting children learning to walk. It allowed the parents or servants to guide and support the child. Some authors note that leading strings were also used to tether younger children to trees and fences outdoors or indoor fixtures to secure them while they were occupied with household chores.
Leading strings on dresses are related to children' harnesses. They may in fact be a residual of these harnesses or leashes. we note them being used in the 17th century, but are unsure as to when they first appeared. Eventually leading strings in popular parkance became to be used more and more as a restraining device rather than walking aids. The term "harness" gradually became more and more popular . From 1900 to 1950, parents used the term "leather baby harness" for a 1 to 5 years old and "toddler harness for children from 2 to 5 years old.
After having studied the kind and nature of ribbons, Philippe Ariès came to the conclusion that ribbons were not intended to be used as a restraining device . The only reason was a symbolic one: for the first time, the child is seen as a child and not as a little adult. Ribbons are a sign that the little child has the right to behave as a child. For two
centuries, from the 16th to the 18th , those ribbons were for boys something like short pants during the 20th century. Many modern researchers thought that those ribbons had the same functions as leadingstrings or ³lisières². Aries rejected this interpretation: in a drawing on which he makes his deduction, it is clear that on the child back, there are two ribbons hanging from each shoulders and a leadingstring between. The ribbons where not a kind of rein or leash for the simple reason that the kind of dress fabric was not enough strong to restraining or controlling rambunctious children. This does
not imply that children were never on leadingstring until the advent of the modern harness. A painting from 1780 shows clearly that leather harness and rein already existed at that time but those leadingstrings or "lisières" have nothing to do with the ribbons (figutre ?). It is like if leadingstring and ribbons went on two different directions.
The leadingstring was further developped along the same principles of the reins coupled to the horse harness. During all those centuries when horses played a significant role in transportation, children were fascinated and scaring at the same time by this so big animal. To reduce their own anxiety, they played horses with cloth or leather ropes. When on dangerous places, parents tyed a leading string to a waist rope to prevent any harm. In looking an old photography of two Norwegian children playing along a fjord around 1920 or 1930 (figure ?), we have a good example of leading strings applied to a boy around 10 or 12 years old with his sister of 5 years old. they are wearing a kind of
rope teether tyed to a tree or a rock; the harness is relatively simple : maybe the same rope rolled around the waist. Even today, climbing or boating needs such a security device. To conclude: a leadingstring was intended to help a baby when on his first steps. The leadingstring was first made as circular braid knitted with cotton, wool and silk to form a firm rope attached to a large cloth waist belt. Because it
was used at the same time that appeared ribbons, many observers tought that there was a relation between them. Aries explained in his book that ribbons were used as a symbolic function. Wearing ribbons is signifying: "I am still a child who can make mistakes " it was the first landmark indicating a child is in a different category than that of adult. Both boys and girls wore ribbons . But between 5 and 8 years old, boys began to wear breeches and girls stayed on dress. Leading strings became gradually associated to tethers, reins or leash . Ribbons kept their sign of age status until the end of the 18th century. Around 1920 and 1930, ribbons were used again and girls dress as shown in the picture (figure ?). Very long ribbons are hanging from the front or the rear to be used as a big bow at back. Even if it seems to be similar
to reins, their main function is to tighten the dress on breast, not to be used as a rein.
Writers like Rosseau in the 18th century began critcising any kind of restraints used on children, including swaddeling and leading strings. Dr Buchan wrote, "The common way, of swinging them in leading-strings fixed to their backs, has many bad consequences," among the ones he mentioned were obstructing the breathing, flattening the breast, and compressing the bowels, all caused when children inevitably strained against the restrictive stays. [Dr. Buchan, 1774.] Theseandother criticisms no doubt influenced the declining use of leading strings by the late 18th century.
Contemporary accounts indicate that leading strings were used to restrain rambunctious children. One woman wrote in a 1715 letter about her 4 year old boy. "Pray desire Cousen Peg to buy me a pair of leading strings for Jak. There is stuf made on purpose that is very strong for he is so heavy. I dare not venture him for he is so heavy."
We note some dresses done with decorative bows at the shoulders. This was done on dresses worn by both boys and girls, but was probably more common for girls. A good example is the dresses worn by two unidentified New York children, probably in the 1840s. We believe this was a decorative touch done, in part to symbolize the leading strings once worn on dresses.
The term "leading string" was used in the expression "in leading strings" meaning that the child was still under the mother's care. When used to describe a teenage girl it mean that she was not yet ready for marriage. Mother usage describes excessively restraining guidance. The term was widely used by 18th and 19th century writers.
John Cleland in Fanny Hill (1749) writes, Owing all her weakness to good-nature,and an indolent facility that kept her too much at the mercy of first impressions, she had just sense enough to know that she wanted leading-strings, and thought herself so much obliged to any who would take the pains to think for her, and guide her, that with a very little management, she was capable of being made a most agreeable, nay, a most virtuous wife: for vice, it is probable, had never been her choice, or her fate, if it had notbeen for occasion, or example, or had she not depended lessupon herself than upon her circumstances.
Susanna Haswell Rowson, for example in Charlotte Temple writes Lord bless you, my dear girl" cried the teacher smiling, have you a mind to be in leading strings all your life time. Prithee open the letter, read it, and judge for yourself; if youshow it your mother, the consequence will be,you will be taken from school, and a strict guard kept over you; so you will stand no chance of ever seeing the smart young officer again.
John Wesley writes in On Obedience to Parents (Swrmon 96), When I hadlived upwards of thirty years, I looked upon myself to stand just in the same relation to myfather as I did when I was ten years old. And when I was between forty and fifty, I judgedmyself full as much obliged to obey my mother in everything lawful, as I did when I was inmy leading-strings [or hanging-sleeve coat].
The term eventually aquired a larger meaning of restraints imposed by a superior on an inferior. Elizabeth Gaskell in her 1855 novel North and South, for example, writes And I say, that the masters would be trenching on the independence of their hands, in a way that I,for one, should not feel justified in doing, if we interfered too much with the life they lead out of the mills. Because they labour ten hours a day for us, I do not see that we have any right to impose leading-strings upon them for the rest of their time. The use of the term suggests that leading strings may still have been in use at the time.
Even in the 20th Century the term was used in a presidential inagural address. President Wilson in 1913 described, ... an industrial system which, take it on all its sides, financial as well as administrative, holds capital in leading strings, restricts the liberties and limits the opportunities of labor .... [Wilson]
Aries, Philip. L¹enfant et la vie familiale sous l¹Ancien Régime (Paris: Seuil, 1974).
Buchan, Dr. William. Advice to Mothers, 1807.
Harris, Kristina. The Child in Fashion, 1750-1920 (Schiffer: China, 1999).
Poe, Edgar Allen. William Wilson, 1839. published in The Gift (1840).
Wilson, Woodrow Wilson, first innagural address, March 4, 1913.
The Bazaar-Book of the Household, 1870,
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