Contrary to the popular nursery rhyme, a tree top isn’t the best place to put a child to sleep, especially as we head into Autumn with the wind increasing in speed and decreasing in temperature. Cot, crib, or cradle, there are much warmer (and safer) places to send bubs into dreamland. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds several examples of infant beds in the collection, some dating back to the mid-1840s, and although the overall structure of baby beds haven’t changed much over time the stories are in the finer details.
Bassinets and cradles have been in use for almost as long as we have been having babies. The small beds were initially designed to give baby a safe sleeping space, either in a larger bed or located next to the parents’ bed for ease of access during the night. These were usually small with fairly high sides to give the baby a comforting feeling of being in a cocoon, and often had a frame below to allow for gentle rocking to help settle the child.
The Museum holds a beautiful cradle in the collection made by Mr Kennington, a bridge builder in Whanganui in the late 19th century, who wasn’t happy with a simple rocking cradle for his children and instead made one in the shape of a boat—complete with a rope and pulley system which allowed the boat to swing freely.
Cradles were used from child to child, and one cradle in the collection is engraved with the names and birth-dates of each child who used it: “”Marjorie born October 1st, 1892. Dorothy born January 12th, 1894. Rowena born November 25th, 1897””. These inscriptions are just part of the detail of this richly engraved cot, which features fine geometric patterns and scenes form from nursery rhymes.
But not all bassinets are this detailed; one commonly used by hospitals consists of a simple wire mesh basket placed on tall legs which allowed the new mother to view her new baby easily from her own hospital bed.
One child’s bed in the collection arrived about 1840 with a family emigrating from England. This is a great example of a ‘cot’ which is commonplace now but only became commonly used in the 19th century. Prior to this, children would often go straight from a bassinet or cradle to a low-lying trundle or toddler bed. The intermediary cot became popular as a way to ensure the safety of toddlers who were capable of standing on their own, as the high sides prevented them from falling out of bed or from getting out when they should be sleeping. The iron frame was important as it was reputed to deter bed bugs, lice, and moths, but little thought was given to the lead paint that was often applied. The height of the cot shows an interesting insight into popular thought of the time, as it was intended to keep the toddler in the safe pocket of air away from both the toxic fumes believed to settle at floor level and the explosive vapours believed to hover near the ceiling. Although science has dispelled this fear, parents still find the height of cots easier on the back.
Sandi Black is the Archivist at the Whanganui Regional Museum.