United States Boys' Clothes: The 1840s -- Activities

Figure 1.--Here in a 1848 portrait by A. Wighe (an obvioys pseudoname) showing boys playing in a hay loft while a criminal trial is going on in the barn below. No one seems to mind much. These boys are kind of quitely loafing, but boys to the right are getting roudy. Click on the image to see noither barn scene, this one in 1897.

The 1840s is the first decade for which we have photogrphic images. Unfortunately they are almost all studio portraits. This is an important addition to our asessment of children's clothing. We get to see the children and their outfits, but unfortunately nothing more about them. The subjects are just standing or sitting their in front of the camera and dressed in their best cloithing. We can tell a liitle about them based on how they are dressed, but nothing more. There are no photographs providing us life style images that offer insights on activities children were involved with. We see a few school portraits, but again mostly children standing in front of their school. We still must rely on artists to see children involved in activities. Artistic genre paintings show children playing and working, providing views of contemporary life. Paintings also provide wonderful insights into everyday clothing and not the children's best clothing usually worn for the photographic portrait.


It is only through paintings that we get a good idea of children's play in the 1840s. Daguerreotypists did not even attempt to depict children playing. Artists on the other hand did. And by the 1840s the idea that there were positive aspects to children's play had begun to take hold. In the 18th century while ideas were changing as part of the Enlightenment, but it was still widely thought that that there was not only no value in play, but that it was a wicked waste of time. Among some families, very young children were expected to devote themselves to ehaustive study and were dressed in restictive adult clothing. As part of the Victorian era these and other ideas were changing. Note the clothing. We see fairly standard lng sleeve white shirts, vests, suspenders, and long pants. In urban areas we see more fashionable styles such as tunics, but this was not very common in rural areas and in the 1840s, the vast majority of Americans lived in rural areas. Sports were not yet an important feature of American boyhood. But we note children playing with balls, blocks, dolls, drums, hoops, puppets, and other toys. We see toy animals (some on wheels), vehicles (stage coaches, ships, and trains), and soldiers. Outdoor play including skating, sleading, swimming, and games like crack the whip. Notice that the boys in Homer's iconic 1870s 'Crack the whip' painting in the 1870s are not dressed much differently than the boys here in the 1840s (figure 1). There are notable differences in how urban boys were dressedd, but rural boys seem to have been a different matter.


We have been able to find few school portraits from the 1840s. Photographs were Dagurreotypes and these were mostly taken in studios. This meant that not many school portraits were made. There may be a few, but we suspect they were very rare. We would be very interested in any such images readers may know about. We note boys wearing jackets and long pants. Younger boys wore tunics. We see girls weating dresses with pinafores and pantalettes. This is an especially interesting period, because it is the decade in with Mark Twain's classic Tom Sawyer is set. Unfortunatelythere are not many photographic images.


Industrialization was just beginning in the 1840s, but the railways had begun to appear. Children did commonly work, but for the most part on the farm. America was building one of the most important public school systems in the world which reached out into rural areas. Compulsory attendnce laws were not yet common so many children wirked from an early age. In some cases this was due to family necesity. Other fmilkies did not think education important. Work was most common for boys, especually work away from home.


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Created: 8:10 PM 9/23/2018
Last updated: 8:11 PM 9/23/2018