Our great-great-grandmothers’ babies – infant care in the past

Nowadays, infant care devices that have become a separate industry make life easier (or sometimes more difficult) for parents. However, a few decades, centuries ago, only a fraction of these were available. In many cases, objects that were not comfortable or were dangerous for children were replaced by safe and convenient devices for the little ones. Moreover, today there are many unnecessary things. In our exhibition, we discuss the main equipment for the care of infants and toddlers - including the cradle, the bassinet, the playpen, the feeding bottle - in the Hungarian folk culture and history.


mezei_bolcso_711842.jpgWhen parents are preparing for the arrival of a child, perhaps the most important is the question of where the infant is lying or being carried; in the function of the cradle both were present at the same time. The cradle was a solution to place the child if the mother had to deal with the work around the house or in the field, when a field-cradle was used. The latter is a wooden scaffolding on which the bed made of wooden-framed or unframed canvas was suspended. This canvas is the “ponyus” or “tacska”, which also served as a carrier on the way to the lands.


festett_bolcso_58700.jpgInside the house, footed cradles or rolling cradles were used, which could be rocked due to their curved soles. It came to Hungary from Byzantium through Turkish mediation and was used even before the conquest. At first, they had a higher foot, a narrower sole, a vertical sidewall. Then, the infant in it required constant supervision because of the danger of tipping over. During the 13th -15th centuries, the legs of the cradle became shorter, eventually leaving them, and the structure became more and more stable due to its slightly outward-sloping sides.

The trough-cradle was a bed carved and hollowed out of one piece of wood, and was sometimes equipped with a sole, to the effect of the footed cradle. The mother could take her child on her head in a trough if she had to work in the fields. A miniature of a 14th-century Anjou Legendary depicts the baby St. Ambrose lying in a trough-cradle. St. Ambrose was, among other things, the patron saint of beekeepers; according to his legend, the infant Ambrose lying in a cradle survived the attack of a bee swarm unharmed. You can read more about the story in our beekeeping exhibition.

muveszeti_kepeslap_350650.jpgThe cradles were, of course, decorated, mainly with painted or carved geometric or floral motifs, but they could also have inscriptions, religious symbols and dating. The holes on the side of the rim were used to secure and tie down the tightly wrapped baby with a string, in order to protect it from falling out when the parents were doing things around the house and the infant did not get full attention.

Cradles and children’s furniture were temporary accessories for the household, usually given to a relative who needed it through their child. There are many beliefs associated with a cradle, and attempts were made to protect the child and mother from diseases and hexes with magic objects put in it. It is a symbol of the beginning of life in literature and in folk songs.

Other furniture for children

toloka_394969.jpg Children's furniture is often a miniature replica of traditional pieces of furniture. For example, the use of high chairs was already described in sources from the 14th – 15th centuries. In Hungary, children's chairs with raised legs appeared in the 18th century, with which toddlers could take part in table meals in the company of adults. The baby seat was also a multifunctional object, like a cradle. Its role was similar to that of today's bassinets, although the child could not lay down comfortably in it, as it was a hard, crate- or basket-like device with a backrest and a front strap. However, as long as the child who was already able to sit was in this device, the mother could do the housework.

anya_es_csecsemovedelem_411926.jpg Our ancestors used the infant walker and the standing support to help the development of toddlers’ movement, but it later became known that the use of these walkers was especially harmful to health because they put a strain on the spine and legs. The standing support was a small four-legged table with a round hole in the middle. The child was put into this hole. There was also a wicker version; this is usually a truncated cone-shaped basket standing support or walker basket. The walker is a square or circular walking frame with wheels, also known as a child carriage. Its first depiction in Hungary dates from the 17th century, by the famous pedagogue Comenius. In Hungary, the “pusher”, which was similar to a pushable three-wheeled cart, had a more widespread use than the walker had. It also helped in learning to walk, but it was also used as a toy among older children, as they also saw fantasy in a “vehicle” pushed with a sliding arm. The “swivel” was usually a rod with a strap or stirrup attached to the ceiling beam.

jaroka_451587.jpgIn 1928, the magazine Maternal and Infant Protection writes about walking assistants: “Forcing children to sit early has just as bad an effect as if they are forced to stand prematurely before doing so instinctively. So-called walker baskets, walker carts, are often used to force a child to stand or walk early. These procedures are just as harmful as they are pointless. Clothes with guide straps that are attached to the chest to make it easier for your baby to walk are also subject to the same consideration. Let us wait patiently until the child stands on its feet and walks, and do not force them to do so by any artificial tools prematurely. ”


csocsos_korso_280311.jpgBreast-milk was also considered the most important food for the baby. However, when there was not enough breast-milk, infants received sugary, watered animal milk, mainly cow's or goat's milk, for lack of baby-soup. From the age of a few months, the feeding started in the form of various cereal pulps, bread soaked in milk, and toddlers were fed with a flour-pulp that did not provide a great gastronomic experience. The predecessors of the baby bottle were the different bottles; in villages it was the “teated jar” and the solid food was chewed by the mother for the baby. Those who could afford hired a breastfeeding nurse, who was usually a fallen girl or a poor woman who needed to breastfeed and raise a baby from a wealthy family besides or instead of her own child.

The role of the pacifier used to soothe the child between two breastfeeding was replaced by the nipple: a sweet, sugary paste wrapped in a rag, or worse, a brandy-soaked bread that a baby could suck.

gyogytapszer_751138.jpgIn 1867, German chemist Justus von Liebig created the first infant-soup, which was then marketed. In the same year, Henri Nestlé also developed his milk powder-based formula. These products soon became popular all over the world; in 1871, there was already a baby-formula agent in Pest. All these were not safe at all, as sterilization of feeding utensils was not a common practice at that time. The chances of survival of breastfed infants were therefore higher than those of their peers getting formula.


babakocsi_tipusok_9298.jpgPrams have no tradition in Hungarian folk culture; when it came to transporting a child it was common to carry it in a scarf. The invention of the pram is often attributed to English architect William Kent. In 1733, to the commission of a noble family, he created a small baby carriage that is considered the first pram by posterity. Later, other aspects came to the fore, an animal-drawn child toy transformed into a pushable child carrier. By the end of the 19th century, they were very similar in function to today's specimens, although still quite robust in size. Then, over the decades, prams have been refined further in terms of safety, practicality, size and design.


Translated by Zita Aknai


Iván Balassa (főszerk.): Magyar néprajz IV. kötet. Budapest. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1997. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár

Gyula Ortutay (főszerk.): Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon. Budapest. Akadémiai Kiadó, 1977. Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár


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