At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms; Then the whining school-boy— As You Like It 2.7.143-45
Jacques’ contemplative monologue goes on to provide a poignant account of the lifecycle, ultimately ending with the famous line, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (2.7.166). Today’s blog focuses on an object used in the processes of learning and development that took place in the period between mewling infant and whining schoolboy. Though children were allowed a degree of independence when discovering the world around them, precautions were taken to minimize potential consequences that could arise from such exploration, and one object that helped facilitate this education was the baby-walker. A striking example of this kind of object appears in a charming portrait of a young boy with a rattle, an object that I will explore further in my next post.
When infants were finally released from the confines of their swaddling, they enjoyed newfound freedom with these framed structures. Also referred to as go-carts, going stools, baby trotters, baby cages, or standing stools, walkers were made from a variety of woods, and were often constructed with two rings. A lower ring was generally mounted on four or six easily maneuverable casters and connected to a smaller ring above by vertical wooden strips. The child was placed inside the smaller ring, which secured around the waist with an iron hook, while the circumference of the lower wider ring created a barrier restricting short curious arms from getting into trouble.
Among the many obstacles and potential hazards of the domestic interior in the Tudor period were open fires and hearths, muck and dirt on the floor, as well as the herbs and rushes sprinkled as covering. Thus, baby-walkers helped strengthen children’s legs, while ensuring their safe exploration of brave new worlds. More practically, however, they contained toddlers, allowing mothers to carry on with their household tasks! The Trust’s example is from the 18th century, and though later in date, is nevertheless illustrative of the kind that would be found, not only in Shakespeare’s England, but also in the medieval period. The design of baby-walkers has endured relatively unaltered throughout the centuries and they are, of course, still used by children today.