*** boys clothes: 1850s

Boys Clothes: 1850s

Figure 1.--These two brothers show what younger and older boys were wearing in the 1850s. The younger boy wears a short-sleaved dress. The older boy wears a suit jacket with prominent buttons. Notice how small the collar is. Also notice that both boys have short hair.

Isaac Merritt Singer produced a revolutionary sewing machine in 1850, replacing the hand crank with a foot treadle, freeing both hands for sewing. Then, with the development of the sewing pattern, fashion turned into a movement and would be an industry by the turn of the century. Soon every ladies and fashion magazine had some sort of fashion department that promoted patterns. Many of the magazines showcased high fashion, but most also pictured sensible clothes and children's clothes and made stylish fashion affordable for anyone with a sewing machine. Still only limited numbers of women had sewing machines in the 1850s and graded patterns did not exist. It was not until the 1860s that new and improved sewing machines sold in larger numbers began to impact the world of fashion.

Historical Background

Prince Albert organizes the Great Exhibition in London. European countries concerned with Russian expansion fight the Crimean War. The section divide in America with slavery at its base lead to increasingly acrimonious political debate. John Brown attempts to launch a slave rebellion in Virginia. The Supreme Court rules in the Dread Scott case that slaves are not citizens. A Railway building boom takes place in Europe and America.

Changing Boys' Styles

There were monentous changes in boys' clothing dress during the 1850s. Clothing styles for boys, at least in England, were to adopt the patterns Victoria chose for the young princes. The boys after emerging from dresses wore Russian blouses and kilts in the 1840s. By the 1850s they had begun to wear sailor suits. These distinctive styles were quite inovative, but they were eagerly copied by English mothers who closely followed the young queen and her growing family. Tunics continued to be popular and might be worn with either pantellets by younger boys are with keepants are knickers by older boys. Tunics were popular with mothers who wanted to continue dressing their sons in juvenile styles even after they were breeched. Sailor suits were popular with boys parents and children. Interestingly the early sailor suits were worn with long bell-bottom trousers just like the ones worn by British sailors. These styles, however, were not immediately popular in America.

boy dresses
Figure 2.--This tinted Daguerreotype shows that small boys continued to wear dresses in the 1850s. The side hair part and blue colored dress suggest strongly that the child is a boy. Note how plain the dress is.


The cost of Daguerreotype dropped substantially during the 1850s and the quality improved providing substantial numbers of excellent quality images. Thus for the first time paintings and drawing are supplemented by a substantial number of high-quality photographic images. Photograpy was developed in the 1830s and by the 1840s we begin to have actual photograpic images of individuals. Most of these early images were Daguerotypes, but they were still quite expensive and only a limited number of good images now exist--very few are children. By the 1850s the technology had improved and prices had declined. As a result, the 1850s is the first decade for whch we have substantial numbers of childhood images. One of the best sources of these images is Lewis Carol whose is better known for writing Alice in Wonderland. His photographs of the children of friends(such as the Browings and Tennysons) provide fascinating images of boyhood dress of the 1850s and 1860s. These images taken over several years provide the best known series of photographs over how the dress of individual children varied as they go older during the 1850s and 1860s. The Daguerreotypes shown on this page are believed to be from the 1850s, but this is just a HBC estimate and the images are not dated. Daguerre continued Ni�pce's experiment. He accidentally discovered that exposed photographic plates were developed by Mercury vapors. This greatly reduced the exposure time from 8 hours down to 1/2 an hour. Daguerre a instant popular success. The announcement that the Daguerreotype "requires no knowledge of drawing...." and that "anyone may succeed.... and perform as well as the author of the invention" was greeted with enormous interest, and "Daguerreomania" became a craze overnight. The process could produce strikingly beautiful images. They provide us the first true photogaphs of the 19th century.The Daguerreotype process, though good, was expensive. In addition, it produced a positive image which could not be duplicated.

Clothing Manufacture

Clothing until the 1850s was virtually entirely stitched by hand. The process was a little more advanced in England where partly made clothes were produced in quantity in London and then sold dressmakers and drapers throughout the country. There individual seamestresses worked with customers to ensure a fashionable style and goof fit. It was the invention of the sewing machine, however that began to revolutioinize the production of clothing in the 1850s.

Sewing Machines

Some inventions have proven so important that we can scaresly imagine what life was like before its appearance. The sewing machine is one of the key inventions that have helped to shape our modern world. Not many inventions have proved as important as the sewing machine. It appears on virtually every list of great inventions and helped freed the homemaker from drudgery faced by 19th century mother. "Next to the plough" wrote Louis Antoine Godey in 1856, "this sewing machine is perhaps humanity's most blessed instrument." The sewing machine not only revolutionized the clothing industry, but with the apparance of Butterick patterns in the 1860s, it also revolutionized home sewing as well.

Clothing Fit

The increasing use of photography give us a substantial number of realistic glimpses of boys clothing for the first time in the 1850s. A few images of children exist from the 1840s, but photography was still so expensive that it was mostly adults that were photographed. One of the most notable observations is how poorly boys clothing, especially pants fit. Comparing clothes at mid-century to that by the 1870s show great differences in the clothing fit. This difference is not nearlybas discernable in paintings, probably because wealthy peoole who could afford painted portraits could afford expensive tailor made clothes. Most boys, however, wore homemade clothes. Mothers had far different abilities in making clothes, especially in the days before the sewing machine. By the later 19th century, inexpensive ready made clothes could be purchased, but home made clothes were still common in the 1850s. The appearance of the Singer sewing machine in 1851, however, was revolutionize the manufacture of clothing.

Figure 3.--This brother and sister were photograped in the 1850s. The boy who has short hair appears to be about 7 years old and wears a smock-like checkered shirt and long trousers. Knee pants and long hair were not as common for little boys as they became after the 1860s.


There were crys at mid-century for simplicity and comfort at mid-century for foreign clothes. These fashion arbriteurs, however, were out of touch with popular thought. The economic expansion of te Victorian era was creating wealth. Many individuals from modest beginnings were becoming siccessful. They had money and wanted to spend itm especially in such a way as to advertise their success. One way was to outdit their children in sumoptous clothing. Comfort and simplicity were not the major concerns. This trend is only beginning in the 1850s, but will come to fruition in the excesses of the 1880s and 90s. Middle class mothers found themselves at home with money and the children were under their supervision. Thus properly outfitting the children became a major outlet for their energies.


Children's dresses like their mothers grew increasingly elaborate by the v 1850s. Women's and children's clothing saw a tremendous surge towards excess by the 1850s. Women's fashions, skirts widened so that wire frames had to be used for support. Massive skirts sported flounces, laces, ribbons, or any variety of other often gaudy trimmings. The dressing of children was fully in a mother's, thus this taste for high ornamentation couldn't help but spill over into children's clothing.


Tunics were commonly wrn in the 1850s. A good example is an unidentified America boy.


Military styled peaked caps were a popular style for boys.


More modern looking suits began to appear in the mid-19th century. We note jackets for younger boys appeared which were made to be worn open and only buttoned at the collar. This was the style used for classic Little Lord Faintleroy suits and persisted into the 1890s. Suits for younger boys were often heavily detailed, often with embroidery, much more so than adult suits. Younger boys commonly wore kneepants or bloomer knickers as well as kilt suits. Until the 1870s long pants were still common, especially for school age boys. We notice that boys in the 1850s commonly wore jackets with contrasting colored vests (waistcoats) and pants. A good example is an English boy in 1851. We also note an American boy in 1856. This became much less common in the 1860s as suits with matching jacket and pants predominated. One interesting features on jacket suit coats is the variable use of buttons. There were not yet any well estanlished conventions. Many suits wereworn with waistcoats, often brightly colored.


Boys mostly wore long trousers in the 1850s, but we begin to see boys from affluent families wearing variously styled suits with bloomer knickers. These bloomer knickers, called knickers, were a practical alternative to long trousers for active boys. The bloomer knickers were loose pants gathered at or below the knee. They were often worn at calf length with long stockings in America, but sometimes socks in France. Styles varied from country to country. This style became much more common in the 1860s.

boys 1850s military styles
Figure 5.--This Massahusetts boy, William Jeckens, wears a rather adult-looking jacket with the military-style buttons. Notice the collar bow which is somewhat larger than the bowtie type neckwear worn by men and boys.

After Breeching

Boys fashions were in a state of flux in the 1850s. The skeleton suit of the early 19th century had disappeared. Many boys, even young ones wore long pants. Knee pants or bloomer-syle knickers were worn by some younger boys, but there was no widely accepted norm for boys trousers and suits. In fact, the photographic record suggests that knee pants and knickers were relatively rare. Most boys, even quite young boys generally wore long pants like their fathers after breeching.

Individual Boys

We have found a number of photographs which we believe date to the 1850s. Unfortunately many are not dated. We can only estimate the dates. These images are mostly Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes. These images unlike later CDVs and cabinent cards had no place where notations as to names and dates could be easily written. Thus in most instances we can only guess as to the dates. We invite HBC readers to comment if they have comments. We note button-on clothes and small collars in the 1850s, both plain white and ruffle collars. We also note stocks and bows, but many boys did not have neckwear. Buttons were commonly used for decorative purpose. We note that tunics were popular. Many were styled similarly to shirts. Plaid was a popular fabric. Photography was still fairly expensive in the 1850s so the number of images is more limited than the 1860s when negative proceesses were perfected. We had intended this page to be a list of 1850s individuals from all countries. We have, however, with very few exceptions only found American examples. Now we are an American site and from the beginning have been more successful in finding American examples. But the prevaklence of American examples for early photographic types like Dags and Ambros is so extreme, we gave reached the conclusion that there were just a lot more photographs being taken in America than any other country. A factor here seems to have been that Europeans were unable to enforce their copyright claims in America.

National Styles

While many styles were pan-European, there were somerconsiderable differences among European countries and America. we are just beginning to develop information on specific countries. Two countries, England and France, seemed particularly important in influencing American fashions. HBC is less sure of the relationship among European countries. In this regard, royal dynastic ties may have been important factors affecting fashion trends among the affluent classes. One of the most notable developments in many countries during the 1850s was the increasing popularity of shortenened pants--bloomer knickers which younger boys began to wear.

Family Life

family life was changing dramtically by the 1850s. Much of this was being caused by the Industrial Revolutuion began in Britain ) late-18th century). By the 1850s industrailization of beginning to affect countries on the Continent and North America. This is often vuiewed as a orimarily economic phenomena, but in fact thaere were many sociological implimations. These flowed from both the creation of wealth and the concominant urbanization. Most Europeans until the 1850s lived in poverty and earned little money. Americamns were somewhat better of, although money earnings were often limited. The vast wealth created by urbanization changed this. There was a huge expansion of the middle class and workets were able to increase their incomes. For the first time in history, large nim,bers of people were able to live in relative comfort. Rebecca Solonon created a wonderful image of an idealized Victorian family (early-1850s), Affluence meant greater personal security and freedom. And it also maeant many people moving from the country to city. And young people in the growing cities developed different outlooks than those in rural areas. People tended to marry young. American girls still tended to marry younger than is the case today, about 16-18 years of age. Boys married a little older by which time they were able to obtain steady jobs or employment and weere finally stable. While this is the average. Young women might marry older, etablished men. There was less flirtatious behavior and socializing. A courtship might last 8-12 months, but was only possibkle if there was a basic intent to marry. After a successful marriage, children followed. Life styles varied from country to country. Most people still lioved in rural areas. This meant that life was simple. People grew your own food and spun their own fabric. Few people further that 10 miles or so from home. Europeans lived in villages. Americans lived on family farms, often some distance from town. They might go into town perhaps once a month. There were shifts in moral attitudes. Many brides decided to marry after they became preganant. People generally thought this as acceptable as long as the couple married. Little shame was attached to premarital pregnancies. This began to change in the early-19th centuet with the growth of the middle class. With increasing prosperity, families could support unm,arried daughters longer. And with the rise of sentimental Victorian domestic ideal, holding womanhood as an example of purity, more strict moral and sexual codes becme accepted. In the past courtship in Europe and America began in church or at family celebrations of sme kind. Parents often chose the spouses. Often the idea of increasing the family�s wealth or landholdings. This begam chanding in the 19th century. By mid-century many young people began to think that they should marry for persomnal reasons. The romantic idea of love was reflected in increasingly sentimental poetry and novels as well as short stories in popular magazines. Permission from the parents was, however, still very important. We are building country pages for 1850s families. Right now the largest page is United States. We also are working on England, France and Germany.

Major Historical Developments

Historical treaties often give less attention to the mid 19th century than the more dramatic events at the beginninf and end of the decade. In many ways, however, it was in the 1850s that the foundation or our modern age took place. The Industrial Revolution had placed enormous power in the hands of Britain and other European powers. But in many ways the lives of people in the major non-Western centers (China, India, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire) had not yet significantly impacted by the rise of the West. It was in the 1850s that a series of major events dramatically changed this. The fact that so many comparable events took place within a single decade is not a fubction of historical change. It reflects both the rising power of the West and the reaction of traditional societies impacted by Western expansion. In China, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) threatened, but did not end the Imperial system. It did have deep seated cultural impacts that mortally wounded the Imperial system which had dominated China for milenia.. In India, the Seapoy Mutiny (1857-58) resulted in the end of already weakened the Mogul Empire and the beginning of the British Raj. In Japan, Admiral Perry forced Japan to open its ports (1854). The result within a decade was the fall of the Tokogaa Shoganate which had dominated Japan for two centuries. To save the Ottoman Empire, European Allies fought the Crimean War (1853-56). The impact of these major 1850s events are pervasive, affecting virtually every aspect of life around the world. This can be visually observed in clothing. Children in non-Western socities during the 1850s with few exceptions wore traditional clothing. After the 1850s we begin to see children wearing Western dress. At first this was relatively rare, often the children of the elite most in contact with Westerners, but gradually we see more and more children wearing Western clothes.

Individual Accounts

Here we are collecting accounts of 1850s boyhoods. We are also including particularly good images from the decade, although we have little or no information on the individuals involved.

America--The 1850s: E.V. Grisen

America--The 1850s: American brothers and sisters

England--the 1850s: The Brownings

England--the 1850s: The Tennysons

America--1854: The Cassatt family

England--1857: Unidentified brother and sister


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Creaed: February 24, 1999
Last updated: 6:58 AM 6/27/2015