Monday, 9 September 2013

Yesterday's Child - Nursery Viyella and Motherhood in the 1940s

I am currently expecting my first grandchild, and luckily for me my daughter loves vintage baby wear too, so I am madly knitting and her grandmother is madly smocking.

Amongst my extensive vintage knitting book collection (now expanded to fill two x four drawer filing cabinets), I have three pattern books from the 1940s by Nursery Viyella. Two of them are very sweet little books of baby knitting patterns.

The third is more than this - a knitting book, a sewing book, and an advice to new mothers book.

"From The Day They Are Born" discourses on the "Principles of Clothing", by "Our Doctor Advisor",  who "is herself the mother of three boys."

I was relieved to read that the parenting ideals espoused were relatively enlightened and "modern". In the section on The Purpose of Childhood I was interested to read "The baby whose wants are regularly satisfied, whose discomforts are always speedily relieved, gains a feeling of confidence, which becomes an attitude towards life. It is only one step at this stage from momentary fear to the development of a fear attitude towards life in general - an attitude which may persist from infancy into adult life." (p.2)
I wish my mother-in-law had read this. She had four children in the 1950s and didn't feed one of them through the night, remarking to me "Well, you need your sleep." According to her, they only cried for a few nights before they gave up. This kind of thing may have allowed her to sleep, but it keeps me awake at night worrying!

Here is the prescribed list of clothing required for the new baby. It allows for "One on, one dirty, one drying and one clean."
Here are the rules for baby's garments:
"Nothing can be worn which interferes with the free, vigorous movement s of the little body and limbs; nothing should be worn that can chafe, irritate, or interfere with the free circulation of air over the skin. So the essentials are - garments so cut that they can neither restrict nor constrict, made of a material which is warm, light, non-irritant and porous and will remain so no matter how often it is washed. Any material that shrinks and becomes "felted" immediately becomes non-porous and is uncomfortable, because perspiration instead of evaporation remains on the skin. The shrunken garment too, is invariably constrictive somewhere - tight in the yoke maybe or tight round the wrists or neck; and this of itself is enough to drive most infants into moods of fretfulness and fear." (p.2)
Before I owned these books I did not know that Viyella made knitting yarn, although I had heard of the famously light and warm woven  fabric. I doubt whether there is anything similar on the market these days.

I have baby knitting books published in the 1930s which have patterns for the accursed "constrictive" garments such as this
illustration from "What to Make For Baby", by Ella Allan, a 1931 reprint of a text published from 1917 and through the 20s. Note No.43, the binder. I guess this would be worn around the infant's arms to reduce movement. Also of note is No.47, Baby's First Stays. Although these are clearly and mercifully nothing like a woman's stays, I still find the idea alarming.

And we will still wrap a small infant in a "bunny rug" for "security", but not tightly.

This lovely book also has many sewing instructions for garments for babies, in Viyella, of course. Here is a lovely ad for Semco patterns.

And how lovely is the little boys suit for a birthday party? Let's hope we can believe the caption, which reads: "Here is Peter again, all dressed up for a birthday party. His suit is made in Viyella; no no-one minds how dirty he makes it."

Here are my other favourite illustrations:

Imagine all the hand washing of little woolly undies for tots (and big people!) I know that ladies did not change their woolly undies daily, I've read the care instructions in magazines, but I imagine that toddlers' undies were the frequent victims of accidents. The following helpful advice is provided: "For urine and cod liver stains, soak at once in water with 1 teaspoonful of ammonia to 1 pint of water, for 5 to 10 minutes, then wash in the ordinary way."
And here is Lyn, ready for bed:
At three, we would think Lyn would well and truly be out of a cot, but maybe not. The one-to-threes, we are told, are prone to "the pugnacity tendency", which only requires the mother to "increase our efforts and so overcome difficulties." But all this, along with natural curiosity and self-assertion, are necessary for a child's development. However, "Unfortunately, very often normal outlet is denied the small child. He is kept for hours in a pram with little outlet in action for his clamouring energies." This is what causes bad temper and difficult behaviour in a toddler.
And the toddler is also very often a victim of the "Clothes Repression" if he is chastised for dirtying or tearing his clothes, once again causing emotional and/or physical damage.
Dr Spock's ground breaking text "Baby and Child Care", was published in 1946. The ideas expressed in the Viyella book would seem to be influenced by his more enlightened approach to parenting, so I would hazard a guess and date this book as late 40s.
I will be keeping an eye out for more delightful Nursery Viyella books.
From the Day They Are Born - Nursery Viyella - late 1940s
From Birth to 8 Years - Nursery Viyella Knitting Book for Children's Garments - 1940s
Nursery Viyella Knitting Book: Over 40 Designs From Birth to Five Years - 1940s
Spock, Benjamin; Baby and Child Care; 1946
Ella Allan; What to Make For Baby, Part 1; 1931


  1. The binder was worn around the stomach!!! They seem to have been popular items for knitting for injured soldiers too, I've seen them in knitted "comforts" books. The cover of this Stitchcraft booklet shows one in action on a baby: I have very little idea what purpose they performed.

    My grandmother apparently thought that the baby grow was the best invention ever, having had to wash all those little woolly items in the copper for both her children.

  2. Hi,
    Yes, I had a look at the photo:
    You were good to spot the binder, I would have assumed it was a short vest. I also have patterns for a body belt, which is just a baby wide tube. I assumed these items were used for swaddling.
    Yes, all the woollies would have been washed by hand. These days, nobody can be bothered, it seems.