Banana Boxes, Chest of Drawers, Eggs Boxes, and Gooseberry Sieves

banana box

It has been quite some time since I have written a blog post, as writing ‘the book’ is taking priority at the moment. However, a BBC article today on the popularity of baby boxes has given me a perfect excuse to share an aspect of my book that I am currently working on: babies’ beds in the homes of the Victorian working class.

As with today, Victorian ‘baby boxes’ were inextricably linked to concerns over infant suffocation. Exploring accidental infant death for my PhD thesis on Victorian Domestic Dangers in the English county of Suffolk, I uncovered late nineteenth-century inquests held into supposed infant suffocation. In almost every case urban coroners drew attention to the dangers of infants sharing the parental bed. The following remarks are typical of coroners and medical men at the time.

In 1897, an Ipswich inquest was held upon a male infant named Nunn, believed to have suffocated in the bedclothes while sleeping in his parent’s bed. Opening the inquest the coroner remarked:

on the folly of parents taking their children of a tender age to bed with them, and said the number of deaths from suffocation from that cause was something fabulous’.[1]

Mr Eades, an Ipswich surgeon, at the same 1897 inquest, lamented:

it was a dangerous practice for a child to sleep with its parents, a cot by the side of the bed was advisable, but that course was not often adopted by the poorer classes’.

Eades then claimed:

it was quite a fallacy that a child could only be kept warm by being taken to bed with the parents’.

He argued,

‘If a wicker basket were lined with a blanket and a shawl the child would be found quite warm’.[2]

Likewise, at another inquest reported in the Ipswich Journal in 1900 involving a suffocated infant, the coroner:

admitted that the poorer classes could not provide bassinettes, but it was certainly within their power to make some sort of provision, such as the fitting out of a box, or even a drawer’.[3]

So did the working class heed this middle-class advice?

Well, the first thing I need to explore here is whether working-class infants did indeed routinely share the parental bed. Infants may have been dying in the parental bed, but a close reading of these inquest reports reveals a more complex and varied situation when it came to sleeping infants. Certainly, there are numerous inquests which do explicitly state that the infant routinely shared the parental bed at night. However, there are also other inquests that state the infant was only a transient visitor to this bed, aptly demonstrated in the following mother’s testimony at an inquest held in Ipswich in 1897:

When asked by the coroner: ‘Is it your habit to take a child so young into bed with you?

The mother replied: ‘I have a bassinette, but the child cried so I took it into bed’.[4]

In my research of East Anglia coroners’ inquests I have come across numerous references to working-class infants (up and down the social scale within this widely socio-economic class) sleeping in cots, bassinettes, and cribs, suggesting that such sleeping arrangements were far more prevalent that the Victorian middle-class coroners and medical men claimed.

Coroners’ inquests too reveal the makeshift baby beds found in poorer homes, even predating the outcry in regards to overlaid infants in the 1890s. In 1869, James Greenwood remarked in his Seven Curses of London that, ‘the strangest receptacles do duty as baby cradles at times’. These, he states, included gooseberry sieves, raisin boxes, and, as revealed in one London inquest, an egg box – ‘a short one […] sixteen inches wide […] with some straw in it’.[5]

I have also come across references to infants sleeping in makeshift beds in a range of other sources. Charitable organisations ‘developed a thriving business in selling cradles made out of banana boxes’ in response to the apparent increase in deaths from overlaying.[6] Oral histories tell us that an open chest of drawers could be used to cradle a sleeping infant, while Maud Pember Reeves reported a closed one could be used to house its dead body.[7]

Whether the presence of these makeshift infants beds was out of a working-class concern over infant suffocation is something I have yet to determine, but it is evident that the baby box was not a twentieth century invention and probably predates the nineteenth century as well.


On another note entirely, in recent discussions on whether blogging counts as academic work (yes, it does), does my blog writing also count towards today’s book writing word count target?

[1] Ipswich Journal, 22 May 1897. There are many issues surrounding the verdict of accidental suffocation and overlaying which brings the number of deaths into question, for more information see my blog post on Victorian Domestic Dangers ‘Bedclothes, Mothers and Infant Suffocation’.

[2] Ipswich Journal, 22 May 1897.

[3] Ipswich Journal, 23 June 1900.

[4] Ipswich Journal, 10 December 1897.

[5] Greenwood, Seven Curses of London.

[6] Carol Dyhouse, ‘Working-Class Mothers and Infant Mortality in England, 1895-1914’, Journal of Social History, 12 (1978), pp. 248-267, p. 250.

[7] National Trust Birmingham Backs to Backs/Pember Reeve, Round About a Pound, p. 5.

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