Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Boys' dresses and "Breeching"

On October 5, 1799, Rebecca Gratz's sister Richea Hays wrote that her son Isaac "has got his jacket and trousers made and will next week, please God, strut like a man." She was anticipating an important moment in her son's life: his passage from babyhood to boyhood.

Babies and toddlers of both sexes wore dresses until their parents were certain that their toilet-training was successful, at which time boys received their first identifiably male garb. Isaac would be three years and three months old at the time of his "breeching," as this rite of passage was called.

Although breeching was universal in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, we have little data about the age at which it occurred for the earlier part of the period. (In the latter part of the nineteenth-century, many families commemorated their sons' first trousers with a photograph, making it possible to estimate the age of boys at their breeching.) We don't know if Isaac is early, average or late in getting his new clothes or if the time of his breeching was influenced by prevailing American customs, ethnic tradition or, since Richea was criticized by her older sister Fanny for her indulgence of her children, was simply a mother's decision.

One thing we can say about Richea: she is very proud of Isaac. Some mothers were not so happy at the end of their boys' babyhood and kept their sons in dresses long after it was necessary to do so. Cecilia Beaux's painting (above), Les Derniers Jours d'Infance (The Last Days of Infancy), painted in 1883-85, gives us an image of the closeness between mother and child which many women were reluctant to give up. Once her baby was a boy in trousers his father and brothers would take a larger role in his upbringing.

(Richea's letter to Rebecca is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society.)


  1. Love this entry and your blog in general, Susan. With your tangential interest in Irving, you may like this story in the current issue of VOICES:


    John Thorn

  2. I was delighted by your "Saint Rip," and although I knew something about Rip Van Winkle's source in German folklore from my research on Irving, I had no idea that Herman Melville had a soft spot for the old boy.

    Thank you for your kind words about this post; it is, to my amazement, one of the most popular ones on my blog. I had no idea when I wrote it that the topic of breeching had worldwide interest.

  3. Gee. Can't the larger picture be perceived? That skirts and trousers are not and cannot ever be sex differences? They'd have to be a difference of anatomical interface for that! Rome exiled men in pants in 393AD. "Chicago Urged to Permit Slacks," New York Times, January 21, 1943, page 24, reported the amending of a 19th century ordinance allowing women to wear pants! Meantime the Greek army still wears skirts. Reckoning these things sex differences shows the problem---"associative reasoning," which NEVER gets to the root of understanding much of anything!


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