Birthday Parties

Figure 1.--This detail from a 1887 Sargent study (Birthday Party/Fete familiale) show's a French boy's birthday party. The birthday cake and candle is there, but no friends of his age. ), from 1887. Click on the image and go to the Sargent page to see the entir painting. Notice how the mother dominates the party for the young boy and the father figure, dark and aloof in the background.

The development of the child's birthday party is a relection of the changing culture of childhood in American and other countries. The celebration of children's birthdays is part of the increasingly precise age grading shaping children's lives in concert with the popularization of Child Study and other developmental approaches in the mid to late 19th century. This development is also related to changes in consumption practices and the groth of the middle class. We have noted scathing accounts of over-elaborate children's parties written as early as the 1870s.


We have been unable to find much of anything on the history of birthday parties, how and when they started as an aspect of American life, as well as how this practice has evolved into a regular ritual for children. One of the few sources I have encountered so far is a quote from Carl Degler's At Odds on page 71 which mentions briefly that birthday parties for children started in the 19th century. Someone gave a paper on this topic at the Newberry Library Social History Seminar sometime within the past 2wo years. Unfortunately, I can't recall the person or the date; but the Newberry's School Center for Family and Community History keeps back copies of the paper. If you contact Jim Grossman at the Newberry, he should be able to direct you to the person who now handles the seminar. >Regine Sirota, at the Institute National de Recherche Pedagogique (Paris, France), has studied children's birthdays as a modern childhood ritual. She presented her very interetsing study (in English), at the ISA-World Congress of Sociology, in Montreal (Canada) last year, in one of the Sociology of Childhood sessions.

Liteary Descriptions

I remember a description of Nellie Olsen's birthday party in Laura Ingalls Wilder's ON THE BANKS OF PLUM CREEK.

Advise Books


I happen to have a copy of The Complete Hostess on my desk. It was edited by Clara E. Laughlin, copyrighted in 1906 and reprinted in 1912 and published in the United States. It has a chapter on children's parties. I'll set the tone by quoting from the Introduction, p. v:

"The purpose of this little book has not been to furnish an encyclopedia of etiquette and entertainment, but to gather together a reasonable number and variety of well-tried social formulae so that a woman who wants to give a birthday party for her five-year-old son, or a lawn tea for her visiting sister-in-law, or who must think up some idea for the church bazaar or Fete of All Nations, shall be able to find in these pages suggestions which her own clever wit will amplify and adapt and make personal and charming."

Chapter IV, Children's Parties:

"It is an easy thing, because of their responsiveness, to afford a happy time for children. A few merry games, a light supper, a trifling souvenir, and off they go, truthfully assuring their hostess of having had 'a splendid time.'

"For very little tots, from two to five-thirty in the afternoon, or three to six, is the best time for a party. For children from five to twelve, four to eight o'clock. For the latter, supper should be served shortly after their arrival. The tiny tots' invitations are, of course, written by mamma, but children of a larger growth appreciated an invitation much more when written in the large, round, painstaking hand of the boy or girl giving the party, supervised by an elder, yet retaining the turn of expression natural to a child.

"At these parties the hostess stands in the background, cordially seconding the welcome first extended to the guests by her little son or daughter. Half an hour is allowed for assembling,--music or a 'round' game filling up the interim before supper is announced. After supper come the games: Blind Man's Buff [sic], Puss in the Corner, and the like; then a dance, the Swedish 'Sir Roger de Coverly' being most appropriate. In this dance half the children kneel and clap their hands; the rest run throught their ranks to the top.

"Among the games or plays for children which follow, a number of old favorites have been included, others are old with new features, and many are new. As simplicity is the cry of the hour, suggestions for costly gifts and elaborate decorations or suppers do not occur. A hostess of unlimited means can control those features at will." pp. 70-71.

The rest of the chapter describes individual games. (Another chapter covers entertainments for children 12 to 17.) Now, having offered this information, I can't help but think about how often the domestic scenes represented in magazines today match real life. I wonder what Clara Laughlin would think of the "light supper and trifling souveniors" offered at the McDonald's birthday parties here in the States.

Personal Experiences

Quite a few boys through the 1960s remember dressinbg up for birthday parties. Even in the 60s, however, they were becoming casual affairs.

I remember 1965 or 1966 I was invited to my best friend's birthday party. It was October or November, and it was my first chance to wear my new fall suit. I was dressed in this suit, (I also had a sports jacket with leather patches on the elbows) suit, long pants, tie and dress shoes. I was very proud at the clothes, though I cannot remember exactly what I wore except that the suit had long pants. I grew up on Long Island, New York and I must have worn short pants suits prior to that event. Well, I was the only person in tie, much less a suit. The birthday boy wore jeans. His mother suggested that I should wear a bib to protect my clothes. I, of course, was mortified. My mother could not believe birthday parties could exist with boys in jeans!

Age Trends

The most common type of party for younger children is the birtday party. The birthday party is today the most important day of the year for mmany children in the Western world.


We are not sure when birthday parties first became major events for children. We suspect that it is one of the institutions that became established during the Victorian age as the modern concept of childhood began to form. I'm not sure about the precise chronology of birthday paries. I know they were a well established convention by the time I started having mine in the 1940s.


The centerpiece in an American birthday part one was a bithday cake and blowing out the candles. This is not today as important as it once was. Children used to dress up for their birthday parties, although this varied from country to country. Modern boys might have extravaganzas for their birthdays. Sometimes entertainment is prvide, a clown or machician. Sometimes they are catered at fast dood restaurants like McDonalds. Group visits to hair salon is popular with American girls.


Depending on the age and the child, they may be single gender affairs.

Figure 2.--This 1908 photograph from rural America shows a birtday party. The family is clearly not wealthy, but notice the oneboy wearing ringlet curls.


Birthday celebrations are an almost universal phenomenon around the world. Convenions for birthday celebrations, however, vary significantly from country to country. And of course trends in each country and from country to country have varied over time. We know most about American birthdays and birthdays in Europe. Birthday parties used to be rather small backyard affairs in America. They have since become major events. At this trend seems to be spreading to many other countries as well. The one constant is how common it is around the world to celebrate birthdays. We have very little information on such parties in different countries, especially historical trends. We hope to gradually acquire information on these celebrations around the world. We are not sure about other countries. It certainly is for American children, equalled only by Christmas. The same is true for children throughout Europe. We assume that birthdays parties are also held in many other countries around the world, but have few details.


We also note the American birthday part seen here in the 1950s (figure 1). Modern birthday parties are decidely casual events. Birtday parties are not the only type of parties for younger children, but they are the most important. American birthday parties primarily involve inviting childhood friends. In other countries it is more of a family affair. Dress a birthday parties has become decidely casual.


We are collecing information on individuals and heir birthday parties. We note Frank Bigelow, an American boy who had his 7th birthday in 1882.

Modern birthday parties are decidely casual events. We have begun to collect birthday accounts, but have not had much success. We note an American birthday party in 1917.


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

Created: October 22, 1999
Last updated: 11:27 PM 10/24/2009