Sunday, October 6, 2019

Motherhood in Colonial Times


Today we continue our series on motherhood throughout the ages (last month we read about medieval motherhood), focusing this month on being a mother in the 18th century, particularly Colonial America. I hope you enjoy learning about mothering in this period as much as I did; as always, I am moved to see yet again that however much times have changed, the heart of being a mother and raising children really does remain the same across the years.
Mother and child, American 18th Century. File donated to Wikimedia Commons
 by the National Gallery of Art. See Gallery's Open Access Policy.,

A Full-Time Job

Even today, mothering can easily be a full-time job—or more!—but in colonial America, motherhood typically was truly a woman’s life-work. With families of ten or more children not only common but the norm (though several children often would not survive till adulthood), a woman likely would spend most of her life between the ages of twenty and forty-five either pregnant or nursing. Thanks to breastfeeding’s natural contraceptive quality, children were usually spaced a couple of years apart, but large families were both expected and desired. After all, many hands were needed for building the new immigrant society.

Then as now, it was easy for new mothers to feel overwhelmed by the intense and sometimes all-consuming needs of their little ones. As a new mommy myself, I sympathized with the words of Esther Edwards Burr, mother of Aaron Burr, who wrote after the birth of her second child in 1756:

“When I had but one Child my hands were tied, but now I am tied hand and foot. (How I shall get along when I have got ½ dzn. or 10 children I cant devise.)”

Bless her heart.

By Thomas Quine - 18th century gown, CC BY 2.0
Wikimedia Commons. 18th century styles
were easily adaptable for motherhood.
Motherhood Fashions

Since motherhood was such an integral part of most women’s lives, clothing fashions of the 18th century were actually fairly adaptable to pregnant and nursing mothers. While the stays that squeezed women into fashionable narrow waists might seem—and were—quite unhealthy in pregnancy, they were in fact designed with lacings to be let out at the sides as an expectant mother’s waistline grew. Other women ditched the stays entirely in late pregnancy, like the Duchess of Marlborough, who wrote in 1735 that during the last three months of her pregnancy, she merely “wore a warm waistcoat wrapped about me like a man’s and tied my petticoats on top of it.” Women’s dresses also were made to be easily let out or adapted with different inserts or aprons to transform them into maternity wear.

For breastfeeding mothers, the era’s low necklines, often filled in with a light scarf or fichu, were already quite practical. At least one set of stays from this period also survives with special flaps inserted, doubtless to make nursing even easier.

Coral Teethers and Pudding Caps
Silver and Coral teether made by Paul Revere, late 18th century.
By Daderot - Own work, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Many ups and downs of the baby and toddler years haven’t changed much over the centuries, from teething to toddler tumbles. For teething babies, colonial mothers who could afford them might offer an elaborate teether made of silver, complete with bells to jingle when the baby shook the toy, a rattle, and a piece of polished coral for little gums to gnaw on. Coral was actually thought to be protective for teething children at the time, as 18th century parents actually considered teething quite dangerous! Once babies learned to walk, mothers often tried to protect their heads from tumbles with a padded cap, called a “pudding cap.” If you’ve ever heard someone affectionately refer to a little person as a “puddin’ head,” the term comes from those caps!
"Pudding Cap" child's head protector, Swiss, 18th century.
This file donated to Wikimedia Commons by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
See Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0,

Boys and girls were dressed much alike for their early years, in cloth diapers or “clouts” and layers of petticoats and gowns—and even miniature stays/corsets—as infants, then graduating to dresses for both sexes as they grew older. Boys were “breeched,” or transitioned from gowns to breeches, somewhere between the ages of four and seven.

Though times of boys in dresses, pregnant mothers in stays, and infants teething on coral may seem far from us, mothers’ love and concern and care for their children has not. What stands out most to you about these mothers of colonial times? What surprises you, or seems familiar? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won the 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her husband, Anthony, their two kitties, and their new baby boy.



  1. The cap designed to protect baby's head was most interesting to me! Thanks for this post. I've enjoyed it!

    1. It is, isn't it? And not a bad idea. :) Thanks so much for reading and sharing, Connie--blessings!

  2. Very interesting post, Kiersti. That pudding cap is adorable. I'll have to tell my sister she wasn't far wrong when she called her daughter a dough-head as a jest one day. :D

    1. Isn't it cute? And how funny. :) Thanks for sharing, Anita!