Leading Strings Chronology: 18th Century

Figure 1.--This drawing dating to about 1780 shows a French governess using leading strings to help her young charge learn to walk. Notice the cap which was called a bourrelet.

Leading strings were still commonly employed on many children's dresses during the early 18th Century. A painting completed about 1812 at of the reign of Louis XIV shows tghe the Sun King with his grandson, the future Louis XV. The boy is being held with leading strings. Around 1750, the practice was criticised by social reformers who were promoting specialized childrens clothing allowing freedom of mocement. Rosseau in his cassic Emile (1762) strongly denounced leading strings. By the time his book was published, leading strings had become much less common than in beginning of the century. They still were worn by young babies beginning to walk. At the same time, around 1760, leading strings were worn among the wealthy classes by fashionable girls as decorative or symbolic accessories--nearly always only on formal clothing. Some women disliked the look. One woman wrote in 1759 that "...they only dirty and look trolloping." The practice, however, appears to have continued among working-class families. There are many literary references to leading strings by 18th Century authors. Jonathan Swift in his classic, Gulliver's Travels (1726) writes She often took me out of my Box at my own Desire, to give me Air, and shew me the Country; but always held me fast by Leading-strings. Contemporary accounts indicate that leading strings were used to restrain rambunctious children. One woman wrote in a 1715 letter about her 4 year old boy. "Pray desire Cousen Peg to buy me a pair of leading strings for Jak. There is stuf made on purpose that is very strong for he is so heavy. I dare not venture him for he is so heavy." As a matter of fact, many parents seeks for helping babies to walk. But the leading strings were submitted to hard critics. A respected authority of the day, Dr. Buchan advised, "When children begin to walk, the safest and best method of leading them about is by the hands. The common way, of swinging them in leading-strings fixed to their backs, has many bad consequences," among which he noted obstructing the breathing, flattening the breast, and compressing the bowels, all caused when children inevitably strained against the restrictive stays. [Dr. Buchan, 1774.]


Buchan, Dr. William. Advice to Mothers, 1807.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels (1726)


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Created: March 3, 1999
Last updated: July 18, 2003