*** breeching boys: actual ages sources of information

Breeching Age: Actual Ages

The proper age for breeching a boy has sometimes been matter of heated debate, both inside and outside the family, throughout the late 18th and 19th century. There was no precisely established age for wearing dresses. It was basically at the discression of the mother and different mothers had widely varied ideas on the subject. As a result, there was a wide range of age for boys wearing dresses. This is not something that can easily be pin-pointed with old photographs, but the photographic record does provide a great deal of useful information. Here we want to link some of the images of boys still wearing skirted garments as indicators of the ages of boys wearing dresses and when breeching could have taken place. Building the links, however will take some time.

Photographic Problem

Here we often do not know know when many images were taken or the precise age of a boy in a photograph. Many of the images of boys wearing skirted garments are the only images we have. Thus we only know that the boys were breeched some time after the photograph was taken. In only a few instances are we able to determine precisely when the boy was breeched.

Age 1

For the most part, almost all boys wore dresses when they were 1-3 years old. This did not change until well into the 20th century. One year olds are just beginning to learn to walk, true toddlers. Thus there are often specialized cloting for this age group. I doubt if any significant number of 1 year olds were breeched in the 19th century.

breeching 2 year old
Figure 1.--This Baltimore boy wears a white dress, probably in the 1890s. We do not think that many boys were breeched at age 2 in the 19th century. We are, however, not real sure about working-class children. Availavle farm inages suggest that even working-class boys at age 2 generally wore dresses.

Age 2

Many images archived on HBC show boys being breeched a various ages, usually from about 2-6 years of age. This seems the earliest age at which boys were breeched in the 19th century, but it does not seem to have been very common. We notice some 2-year olds wearing trousers, but we see many more 2-year olds wearing dresses and other skirted garments. As far as we can tell most boys were not breeched at age 2 throughout the 19th century. We do not have much information on the erly 19th century. The photographic record beginning in the mid-19th century shows most boys wearung dresses. This does not seem to have changed materially until the late 19th century, especially the late 1890s. Until the 1870s when kilt suits became popular, boys mostly wore dresses. And even kilt suits were not often woren by 2 year olds. Boys wearing kilt suits were not breeched, although we are not sure what clothes boys wearing kilt suits wore when not having their portraits taken. We do note some very young boys wearing Fauntleroy suits. This may well have included some 2 year olds, but they were probably more likely to wear Fauntleroy dresses. We also note some 2 year olds wearing kilt suits, but again dresses were more common. Notably when tunic suits became popular at the turn of the 20th century, many were made in sizes beginning at about 2 1/2 years. Even in the early 20th century many 2 year olds were still wearing dresses because many tunic suits were not even made in size 2s. Even in the early 20th century when dresses for boys were going out of style, many 2-year olds were still not breeched.

breeching 3 year olds
Figure 2.--Age 3 was the age at which many boys began to be breeched, although many were not breeched. The boy here from Weymouth looks to be about 3 years old. He wears adress with a pleated skirt, we think in the 1870s.

Age 3

Age 3 is when we first begin large numbers of boys being breeched. We have little information on this for the early-19th century, but believe relatively few boys were breeched at age 3 years. One question we have is about the working class. We believe that children in working-class families tended to be breeched earlier than boys from more affluent damilies. We know much more about thev mid-19th century with the appeaance of photography. We note most 3-year olds still wearing dresses by the mid-19th century when large numbers of photographic images first become available. The situation becomes more diverse in the 1870s when we see quite a number of 3-year olds wearing kilt suits instead of dresses. The kilt suit was a kind of transitional garment, but boys wearing them would not have been considered breeched. We begin to see some 3-year olds wearing knee pants by the 1880s. These younger boys often wore fancy suits like Fauntleroy suits. We also notice 3 year olds wearing kilt suits. One thing we are not sure about is if boys wearing kilts also had dresses or just other kinds of outfit they wore. Here are images are commonly single portraits. Thus we are not sure about their full wardrobes. We notice 3-year olds commonly wearing tunic suits at the turn of the 20th century, but these were worn with bloomer knickers. So I think that would constitute breeching.

breeching 4 year old
Figure 3.--At age 4 we see many boys who had and had not yet been breeched. Throughout the 19th century we see large numbers of 4 year olds that have not yet been breeched. This boy from Weymouth looks about 4 years old.

Age 4

Age 4 was a variable age for dressing boys. We see many 4 year olds wearing boys' clothing like knee pants, but also quite a number had not yet been breeched. This varied somewhat during the 19th century. But other factors may have been even more important thn chroolgical fashion changes. We do not yet know much about the early 19th-century. We know much more about the mid- and late-19th century. The major factor here seems to have been the mother's predelections. Social class was another factor. In the early- and mid-19th century boys until breeching wore dresses. Many boys at age 4 wore the popular kilt suits beginning in the 1870s. This was a major style for boys. What we do not know at this time is what other kinds of outfits the 4-year olds wearing kilt suits had. At about 4 years of age you begin seeing boys wearing tunics, pants, kneepants, and knickers and the other more boyish outfits of the day. Until the late 18th century this meant scaled down versions of their fathers' clothes. We note a Taunton, Massachusetts family in the 1880s which seems to have breeched boys about age 4 years. This was a very common age for boys wearing tunic suits. The tunic became very popular at the turn of the 20th century. While a skirted garment, boys commonly wore them with bloomer knickers so this would have meant that they had been breeched. The photographic record suggests that boys wearing tunics also had knee pants.

breeching 5 year olds
Figure 4.--This American boy probably in the 1890s was from Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He is unidentified, but looks to be about 5 years old. This was an age at which most boys had akready been breeched are were breeched. Apparently mother was delaying this boy's breeching.

Age 5

Beginning in the late-18th Century and early-19th Century specialized clothing for children appeared. These garments were commonly made for size 5 years. This was because younger children commonly wore dresses. Age 5 was an age at which most boys had akready been breeched or were breeched. Most boys by the age of 5 or 6 years began wearing boys' clothes, in part because 6 year olds commonly entered school. We do not know a great deal abiyt the early-19h century. We know much more about 5 year old by the mid-19th century thanks to photography. Age 5 is the last age at which we see a substantial portion of boys not yet breeched. We believe that the Little Lord Fauntleroy craze of the 1880s encoiuraged quite a number of mothers to breech their sons earlier than they might have. One reason that quite a number of 5-year olds were not yet breeched was that school did not usually begin until the boys were about 6 years old. By the 1890s it was more common for boys to be breeched by age 5. After the turn of the 20th century it becomes much less common to see 5-year olds that were not yet breeched.

Age 6

Most boys seem to have been breeched by the time they began attending school at about age 6. The photographic record shows a lot fewer boys wearing dresses or other skirted garments than 5 year olds. This can be determined by looking at the HBC school section. Not all boys, however, attended school, especially in the 19th century. Children from wealthy families might be educated at home. The school photographs, thus do not assess clothing patterns with these families. We definitely notice boys of 6 and even older still wearing dresses. We also notice them wearing kilt suits. And the clothing catalogs of the day clearly indivate kilt suits being made in size 6s. We assume that the boys involved were boys from affluent families still being educated at home. The number of these boys were a small percentage, but the photographic record suggests that it certainly was not rare. Another question we have is if boys photographed in dresses or kilt suits had wardrobes consisting of other than skirted garments. While we notice 6 year olds wearing dresses and kilt suits through the 1880s, this seems to become much less common by the 1890s. We think a primary factor here was the growing importance of public education. Rarely do we see unbreeched boys at school.

Age 7

Some doting mothers, however, did not want to lose their little treasures at about school age. So boys were not infrequently kept in dresses for several more years. Such boys might wear dresses until 7 or 8 years old. Notice for example the Gulick brothers, still wearing dresses at age 7 years. I'm not sure what sizes boy dresses were made. We do see kilt suits and boy skirts being madein size 7s. A good example is a a pattern for a blouse and bodice skirt outfit from the 1890s.

Age 8

There was considerable discussion during the late 18th and 19th Centuries. Earlier such discussion were primarily held within the family. By the early 19th Century, however, an increasing number of magazines were being published offering advise to mothers on child raising. One of the issues addressed was breeching. It was not unusual for "experts" to claim that breeching shouldn't be done before the age of 8 years.

Age 10

We rrely see boys wearing dresses by age 10. Some family portaits show boys that my have been as aold as 9-10 years, but often we have nothing but the image to go on. A good example is a an unidentified American family we think in the 1870s.

Age 11

We notice some boys as old as 11 years are known to have been kept in dresses--although this was highly unusual even in the perods in which younger boys commonly wore dresses.

Non-age Approaches

Many experts commonly advised mothers that the age had little to do with breeching--much more important was the child's size. Though the precise age was mostly left to the mothers discression, the general consensus was that breeching should take place before it was too late. "Her disposition, with her natural feminine tastes and tenderness, is always inclining her to deck her child with the gewgaws of finery and coddle him with the delicate appliances of luxury," one 19th Century book advised mothers. The expert continued, "The timely check from the manly boy may therefore prevent her from persisting in an effeminating process which would be sure, if continued, to deprive him of his best characteristics." [Bazaar Book of the Household, p. 214]


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Created: 8:21 PM 8/6/2007
Last updated: 7:20 AM 2/4/2023