Children's Walking Harnesses / Reins

Figure 1.--This image which I think comes from Germany about 2000 shows the use of a modern child saftey harness.

HBC has very limited information on children's harnesses and reins before the 20th centuries. There is some information that they were not uncommon for extremely young children from the 17th until the 19th centuries, but went out of favor in the 20th century. There may be some realtionship here to leading string oin dresses. Although not yet a major development, we seem to notice an increasing number of toddler children in the United States that are being taken to stores and trips on teathers. The children seem to be wearing a kind of nylon shoulder harness. Gender does not appear to have been significant as they were used for both boys and girls. The modern harnesses of the late 20th century were new nylon wenning models.


A topic of intterest is the the origins of the actual harness sold in stores. One may think that the harness is relatively new article for young children. As a matter of fact, parents from the 17th Netherlands created a device called "leading strings" intended to help the young child to walk . Because paintings of that time showed children with some rope hanging from shoulders, many people assumed that those "ribbons" worn by every child during their infancy could have been the origin -of modern harness. This point of view has been held by the famous psychoanalyst, Françoise Dolto in her book intitled La cause des enfants in which she maintains that harnesses and reins are related to these ribbons. She does not, however, provide the basis for this assumption. For other reserachers like Philippe Aries, leading strings are the only origin of harness. Leadinf strings were made in solid material able to resist to the assaults of the most rambuctous child. Abraham Bosse in the 17th century and Danshauffer in the 19th century show clearly that leading strings were made with a kind of rope around the waist with something like a holder for the beginning walker. Then it is possible that leading strings were used progressively as the modern harness for restraining rumbuctous children. But we have no proof about this. If we agree with Ariès, we do not accept any relationship between ribbons and the modern child saftey harness. Even if the child had ribbons, they were not used as a restraining device for a simple reason. To restrain a child, you need to hold the reins from a belt tied just under the arms, not from shoulders where you would not have any control. In addition, ribbons sewn on to dresses would not be sufficrently strong to act as restraining devices.

At this time we do not fully understand the relationship between harnesses and leading strings and ribbons. It is a fact that ribbons look like reins attached to a modern harness but the similarity ends there. There is no proof that the ribbons depicted in 17th century paintings were used as a restraining device. At first, it may seem logical to join together reins and ribbons. But, if reins are the same as leading strings, it is because there exists a waist belt to hold them. Nothing similar with ribbons. And maybe Ariès is right in saying that ribbons are symbolic device, something proclaiming "I am really a child even if my clothes are the same as the adults". The leading strings are not a symbol of anything. It is a device for helping a child to learn to walk. But when the child knows how to walk, the same device may have been intended to restrain the active child like is is in the painting of Napoleon II on a kind of leash. The Imperial prince child seems to walk easily and the reins are without doubt attahed to a waist belt. To achieve a more definitive understanding on the origins of the harness, HBC is persuing additional historical cources. For now, we have to admit that the question is not yet fully


HBC has very limited information on children's tethers. It is definitely not a new fad. Some painters like Rubens or Pieter de Hooch have shown children on leashes and or ribbons. There is some information that they were not uncommon for extremely young children in the 17th-19th centuries. We do note images of aristocratic children wearing harnesses from the 17th and 18th centuries. The best example is the painting of Larguillière picturing Louis 14 with his grandson, the future Louis XV on reins. We do not have comparable images of peasant children. This may be that only children of the upperclass, who were considered more important to protect, were put in tethers. It could be that the poorer children were no treated similarly and there are just no paintings recording it. There are many depictions of leading strings in the 19th century, although children's walking harnesses are not common. The first clearly recognizable harness we have noted was the son of Napoleon I in the early 19th century. We note one depiction in a Sears catalog about 1900, although it may be more of a toy than an actual walking harness. Here we are just not sure. We found some harnesses from Britain in advertizing for French stores like La Samaritaine. If Leading strings appear to have went out of favor after the early 19th century, they were used again with a new designat at the turn of the 20th century. They were rarely see after World War II as populations moved to the safer suburbs. There has been a renwed interest in child walking harnesses since the 1990s as mothers have become increasingly concerned with child saftey.


Many parents, especially modern parents, object to the use of harnesses or resrtrining devices for children. The terms involved indeed convet ways of controlling or using animals, furtner disturbing some parenys. The word "tether" is a word that has been used for centuries. It is generally a rope, chain or lead associated with lmiting the movement of animals. The phrase "at the end of one's tether", meaning at the limit of one's strength or patience, was being used in Middle English in the 14th century. The derivation may be from Old Norwegian, but there are similar words in Dutch and German. Harness is a related term, but it is a devise made up of straps and bands, normally of leather, designed attach draft animals to plows, waggons, and other devices. The word is derived from Old French. An archaic meeting is to put on one's armor. The primary meaning is the working gear of draft animals. Other reklated English words are leading strings, tether, leash, and lead. All those terms are from a same origin: horses and other animals exceot for leading strings which is more psychological, suggesting pull the strings of a pupet ( tirer les ficelles in French ). Despite the fact that it is rather an inappropriate use of the word, the modern restraining devices for young children are commnly referred to as harnesses in America . I am not sure what term was used before the 20th century. We note a small difference between America and England. The conecting strap is called reins in Britain and a leash in America. We are not sure of the foreign language words.


Turn of the 20th century

The practice of harnessing children increased significantly in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The main reason for this was the urban expansion at this time, especially in London where the traffic was really dangerous. There was less danger in the more traquil countryside. With all the horse carriages interwoven with those new engines called automobiles, London, Paris, New York, and other large cities became a dangerous place for small children. For children having to go to park, school or stores, the harness appeared as a useful device for nurses having to lead sometimes more than one child at the same time. Because cities were not the best places for raising kids, parents mainly from wealthy families, harnessed their kids not only for helping them to walk but as a security device for older ones. So the age for using them extended to five or six years old and sometimes older if the child was too boisterous or was having problems like sensory deprivation or autism. The practice of harnessing children is strongly related to cars and crowds.

Mid century and the suburbs

After World War II (1939-45), suburbs began to grow around large cities. It was at this time about the 1950s that the practice of harnassing mostly disappeared because of emerging suburbs which were safter for child care thaan large cities.

Modern Life

There are many dangers for children in our modern life. Traffic is one of the graetest concerns of parents with small children. There were still some dangerous activities in sports like climbing, boating, trampolines. all children especially boys like to climb trees. Laws were enacted for security in cars. Parents have to wear seatbelts and small children have to be harnessed in protective carseats. Even whileliving in the suburns, young parents wished to go back to cities with their kids to look at parades, shows, adventure parks like Disneylands, Seaworld, Six Flags and so on. Supermarkets are also a possible danger. In crowds caring mothers began to be afraid of losing their children or even worse. The James Bulger case in United Kingdom was a significant incident leading parents to bring back the old leather harnesses for youing children. Holding hands in large crowds became obsolete. A HBC contributor who sunmitted the page here wrires, "When I wrote HBC about walking harnesses, I cited the james Bulger case. I explained then that the ressurgency of harnesses for children was related to this kidnapping in Britain. On the occassion of the 15th anniversary in 2008 of James' muder, Elizabeth Day wrote a moving piece in The Observer." [Day]

Figure 2.--This is an example of modern light-weight walking harness with metal clips

Modern Walking Harnesses

Mant many parents asked for a security device which could get them "peace of mind". Since the 1990s, many manufacturers worked on a more human harness for kids. Such manufacturers as Mothercare or Boots in United kingdom, Safety First or DANDee in the United States and many others produced many models varying in texture (leather, polypropylene webbing with metal or plastic clips), colors (for boys and girls) , style (leather breast plates like for ledenhosen or a V shoulder straps, one buckle at rear or two buckles on each side which can slide from front to rear, a plastic or velcro lock at rear which are unescapable) and width which varies from 15cm to a maximum of 60cm to 80cm. (figures 2 and 3). More and more, harnesses appear to be light weight and extremely resistant at the same time. They are made mainly in England and can be found on some specialized internet stores. They can often be bought at the entrance of some amusement parks. Because many parents are reluctant to leash their children, a new device is coming to be on sale more and more. Fisher-Price has designed an electronic device which could be popular in the coming years. it is like a walky-talky which can locate where is the missing toddler.

The child's walking harness is now a utilitarian garment for both boys and girls. They are can be interchanagbly used for both genders. They are like a small suspender similar to those on German lederhosen (figure ?). For parents who prefer to disguiess the harness for avoiding disapproving looks from other people, it is possible to do that by using overalls where the harness can be worn under the upper part and letting outside only metal or plastic buckles. But the reason why a parent will use a harness is for helping the child to walk or for restraining the moves of the child. By way of consequence, a harness needs to be linked to a solid rope which will be clipped to the harness buckles. The terms used to name this rope are varied and different from a place to another. We can classify them in two broad categories. (1) A rope for helping babies of a year to make their first steps. The appropriate term is leading Strings. (2) A rope for restraining movements of a child or used as a security device when in crowd, on chair or in a pram, or stroller. The words reins, leash, tethers or lead are the appropriated terms here.

Figure 3.--This child harness in nylon webbing is a popular model sold by Boots, a large cahin store retailer in Britain.

Country Trends

A HBC reader suggest that this practice began in the Netherlands during the the 17th century. He reports that family life with children brought up as children began in those so beautiful little houses. We can not yet conform or dispute this. The harness for childdren reappeared at the turn of the century, especially in London and Paris. Modern children's harnesses seem to be much more common in Britain than America. They are available from both Boots and MotherCare. They appear to be less commonly available in America. We are not sure how common they are in Continental Europe. There are many books published in France about that practice of leashing. The most famous is Philippe Aries on children during the Ancien Régime". I am less sure about modern France. The modern children's walking harness appear to be less commonly available in America than in some Ruropean countries, especially Britain. We have no information on the 19th century. What we thought was a child's saftey harness in 1900 Sears catalog turns out to be more likely a play for children's games of horsey. We do not recall seening many parents using saftey harnesses during the post-World War II era. A HBC reader who wore one has a todler, however, tells us that they did exist. The move to the suburbs after World War II may have reduced the need for saftey harnesses as it was a relatively secure environment. We have noted increasing numbers of saftey harneses in the 1990s and 2000s perhaps reflecting an increasing parental concern with saftey and security. We note increasing numbers of English children being put into leather harnesses in the late 19th century. Modern children's harnesses seem to be much more common in Britain than America. They are available from both Boots and MotherCare. We note an Estonian company currently offering children's play harnesses. The practice of harnessing children seems common in France as least as early as the 17th century, especially among the privliged classes. We note both Louis XV as a child with leading strings. We also note the son of Emperor Napoleon I, but he seems to be pictured more with a harness than leading strings. There are many books published in France about that practice of leashing. The most famous is Philippe Aries on children during the Ancien Régime". The practice of harnassing children apperaed in Paris at the turn of the 20th century at about the same time as in London for the same reasons. We have liitle information at this time about the use of child walking harnesses in Germany. We note that the Some traditional leather child harnesses look quite similar to the leather halters worn with Bavarian lederhosen. A HBC reader suggest that this practice began in the Netherlands during the the 17th century. He reports that family life with children brought up as children began in those so beautiful little houses. We can not yet conform or dispute this. Reports from Norway in the early 20th century indicate thatv simple rope tethers attavched with waist bands were in use. These were chuld minding devices to keep children close at hime. We do not know how common this was. Reports from Norway in the eraly 20th century indicate thatv simple rope tethers attavched with waist bands were in use. We do not know how popular child harnesses are in Norway today. A reader tell us, "I saw your page about harnesses and read about your missing information on the child play with the harness. Such harness could still be bought in toy store for kindergardens or therapies supplies here. I grown up in Switzerland and I can remember my kindergarten time, where we had such harnesses too (about 1978). They were of some belt material, like canvas.

Leading Strings

There may be some realtionship here to leading strings on dresses. Although not yet a major development, we seem to notice an increasing number of toddler children in the United States that are being taken to stores and trips on teathers. The purpose of lreading strings in children's dresses, however seems different than tethers. The leading strings seem more to help the child walk and maintain his ballance than control where a child goes. They were worn by children just beginning to walk.

Child's Play

A related item is that children in the 19th and early 20th centuries used to play horsey with reigns and harness or simulated items they or their parents made. Sears even picyred such items, although I am noy sure thaey actulally sold them. Until the turn of the 20th century, horses were important in the lives of children and adults. Just as modern boys dream of driving cars, boys used to dream of driving and riding horses. It is natural that this desire was reflected in their play. Thus we note numerous images of children playing with what look like minature horse and reigns. We do not know what the game was called. They show surprising similarity to leading strings or child saftey harnesses. The context of these images with children involved on both ends, suggest that they are toys. We do not yet have, however, any actual contemporary written sources describing this type of play.


We believe that many mothers simply fashioned a tether or harness for their children. Som may have ordered them from shops, perhaps harness shops which were quite common through the 19th cetury before automobiles replaced horses. Presumably these would have been hand crafted on the basis of individual orders. We are not sure when the first such tether or harness were first manufactured for children. HBC has not noted manufactured tethers for children before the 1960s. They my well, however, been manufactured earlier.


There are a number of variants of the moddern child walking harness in which the child is secured around the waist and shoulders. The most common is a wris link in which the child is secured around the wrist Parents can hold the other end in their hand or indeed around the wrist also. This appaer to be a relatively recent innovation and primarily used for security in crowds. We have also seen these available in nylon webbing. Meanwhile, there are some dangers in using it with very young toddlers. If the child falls down, he will be unable to put both hands before his face as a reflex to protect him. That is why a wrist leash is better with older. But it needs a nice relationship with parents because it is easy to bw weaned off a wrist link.

Figure 5.--This is an example of a traditional leather child's walking harness.


Historically, harnesses or tethers appeared to have been most commonly made from leather (figure ?). Today, reins, leashes and leads used with animals are less and less eather made and more and more in nylon webbing (polypropylene).


The child harness is a fine adaptations to the specific human child ergonomics. Anchor straps which are shorter reins can be attached to suitable rings or anchor points fitted to the prams, pushchairs, trolleys or high chairs (figure ?). The walking reins (also called leading reins) are the main function of the harness. It can be removed with a set of plastic buckles. To release the walking reins or the anchor strap from the harness, it suffice to press the ribbed button in and outwards with the thumb and forefinger. To reconnect, one has to push both halves together until they lock with an audible click (figure ?). There exist also reins with metal clips which were widely used when leather harness was the only model. The lenght of the reins is from two feet to four. If only one buckle is used, the reins will be double length.


There is no kind of report indicating if a gender is more harnessed than the other. [?To be harnessed implies from the child a kind of willingness without which there is no collaboration.] A clever parent will use the harness as a kind of play with the child, not as a punitive device. Because stronger, boys will more often fight for releasing from harness. As a consequence, the parent may [?let him be harnessed in his pram or stroller].


HBC is not sure why these tethers or harnesses are becoming more common. We can not yet quantify or demonstrate that they are becoming more common. We suspect that a factor here might be a grater emphasis on security in the aftermath of the 9-11 bombings. A French Canadian reader writes, "I have come to the conclusion that there is a raising movement for parents to gain greater control of their children. In any culture, you will find large families where parents have control over their children. Traditionally the older children took care of the youngest children. This was especially common in large families. In America and to a lesser degree in Europe, there is a real questioning about security and freedom. You remember the boy named named Bulger who was killed by two young teenagers in UK? Since then, it seems to me that some parents are beginning to leash their children, including children up to 5 years old and sometimes older. Many well-minded persons think, as I did myself for a long time, that this practice is barbaric in considering a child as a dog. But what is the real significance of a harnesss for children? In the today vacuum of real parenting, this device tells to the kid that his space is limited as it was when boys wore dresses or long stockings. Today, boys and girls are dressed like adults but they are still immature people. Every parents know this when they put their kids on a pram or when they leash their children for not having to run after them. The lesson I learnt from your site and from parenting discussion groups is this: everybody is for the virtue and nobody is against freedom. But when you have a child, you need to be in control. To be a pampered child-king is not the best way for a child to mature. The child has to gain more and more freedom in working step by step to get it, not in being given without any struggle. With the advent of synthetic webbing, a kid is unable to escape from his or her harness. The only way to free himself is for the child to learn self control. Then arents "have peace of mind" as they write in a lot of sites promoting this restraining device. Lazy parents? Not so quite sure."

Reader Comments

An English Canadian reader writes, "I remember my mother had me in one of these brown leather harnesses when I was very small during the 1980s. I know it wasn't more than 2 or 3 feet in length and the strips of leather were not very wide, like only 1/2" or 3/4" in width and less than 1/8" thick. I can't recall much more than that, other than I hated the darn thing!"


Aries, Philip. L¹enfant et la vie familiale sous l¹Ancien Régime (Paris: Seuil, 1974).

(Dr.) Buchan, "The reins as a restraining device. Advice to Mothers", 1807.

Day, Elizabeth. "'James would be 18 now - the pain of losing him will never go away," The Observer (March 2, 2008). This is about the 1993 murder of toddler James Bulger. He was kileed by two 10-year old boys. The killing horrified Britain and the horror only deepened when it was found tht the killers were young boys. Day relates that "James's mother Denise Fergus tells Elizabeth Day that the passing years have not diminished the pain over the loss of her son and her anger towards his killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables." It is one of the most chilling pieces of journalism I have ever read.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Cloth and textiles] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Topics]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Created: July 6, 2003
Last updated: 5:27 AM 1/17/2011