Saturday, December 29, 2018

Cradles in America

One of my favorite details about the Christmas story is the fact that Baby Jesus was laid in a manger. The Son of God, placed in a dirty animal trough, had likely one of the crudest baby beds in history. And yet, the sight of the wooden “cradle” seen depicted in pieces of artwork around the world, is a touching tribute to the maternal instincts of Mary who wrapped the baby in simple swaddles and placed him in a box that was both warm and safe. 

Throughout history, cradles of one sort or another have been made to keep babies snug and away from harm. The earliest “cradle” of sorts mentioned in the Bible is actually described as an “Ark” in some translations. It was the woven basket in which Moses’ mother placed the infant who had a target on his life. 

If the Egyptian authorities knew where he was, they would toss the boy baby into the Nile River. Instead of keeping the growing baby—who likely was gurgling and cooing too much to keep hidden any longer—the Levite mother hid him in a water-proofed basket and entrusted the babe into God’s hands.

“And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s 
brink.” Exodus 2:3 KJV

Perhaps the custom in ancient times was to sleep with the infant in the mother’s bed. One only has to read this account in Exodus to cringe at that option:

“Now two prostitutes came to the king {Solomon} and stood before him. One of them said, “Pardon me, my lord. This woman and I live in the same house, and I had a baby while she was there with me. The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
“During the night, this woman’s son died because she lay on him. So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.” I Kings 3:16-21 (NIV)

Of course, the wisdom of Solomon prevailed and justice was carried out. But since I am a former mother-baby nurse in the hospital, I always cautioned new mothers to avoid sleeping with their newborn. It is too easy for exhausted moms to accidently smother a sleeping infant. Cradles next to the bed are a far safer choice.  

Pilgrim Cradle

This practice of using a baby cradle was begun with the mothers who traveled over on the Mayflower.

Many designs have been created through the years, either made from wood, iron, or woven materials.

The earliest American wooden cradles tended to be long and narrow. According to Gettysburg. Edu, parents did not want children curled up while sleeping. They believed children needed to learn to stretch out their legs to prepare for walking. They did not understand that children did not need this constriction in order to learn the basic skill of walking. 

Some cradles were hooded, which I assume was a practicality to keep light dimmer over an infant’s eyes and prevent them from diversions that would keep them from falling asleep. 

Some of the most beautiful antique cradles are made of cherry wood (my personal favorite) and are quite heavy. To find one with dove-tail joinery is a testament to the creative woodworker who built it.

Hanging cradles have been used in many diverse ways.

1930's Hanging cradle
Even in the 1970’s when macramé was the “thing,” patterns for swinging cradles were available for the more creative moms.

Simple or ornate, the cradles throughout history always touch my heart in a special way. When I was a young girl, I’ll never forget visiting the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne in Concord, Massachusetts. I saw the baby cradle by the bed in the upstairs bed chamber and something in my soul stirred.

Years later, when my husband and I had our second son, we laid him in his own cradle and named him Nathaniel, which means “Gift of the Lord.” Now that gift is a father of his own, with a most precious little girl who has outgrown her cradle already. 

The legacy of the cradles lives on. 

Elaine Marie Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany’s Calendar. Her 2016 release, Saratoga Letters, was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She penned the three-book Deer Run Saga and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. She freely admits to being a history geek. Look for her upcoming releases, War’s Respite and Love’s Kindling this January. This 4-book series, which is set in Revolutionary War Connecticut, is entitled Dawn of America. You can visit her site at 


  1. I love this! I agree that cradles are a beautiful piece of furniture. Thanks for the post, and Happy New Year.

    1. They truly are a piece of art, yet functional. So happy you liked the post and Happy New Year to you, as well!

  2. Thank you Elaine. I loved reading about these different cradles. Happy New Year and I pray that your husband's health will greatly improve!

    1. Thank you so much, Connie. It has truly been a season of both trial and yet, seeing small miracles in the midst. Thank you for your prayers!

  3. I had a cradle for my four boys. It could swing or remain stationary.

    1. Did you keep it? I wish I'd kept ours. They can be a family heirloom. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  4. Very interesting post. As to the hooded cradle, another good thing about that was that the baby would be shielded (at least its face) from mud and unsavory critters that might fall down from the ceiling in a sod house ;-).

    1. Imagine having to worry about those scenarios!! Wow. Thanks for the interesting comment, Stephanie! Have a blessed New Year.