Friday, August 7, 2009

Boy or Girl? A Public Service Announcement

Until the middle of the 20th century, young children in Europe and the United States regularly wore dresses, regardless of sex. Many modern Americans are aware of this tidbit of sartorial history, but find it amusing or baffling. When I was looking for a digital image of this Winterhalter portrait of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their five oldest children, many of my Google hits contained comments along the lines of "Two of the kids are boys!?!?"

Yes, two of the children are boys. From left to right, this portrait shows Alfred (b. 1844), Edward (b. 1841), Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Alice (b. 1843), Helena (b. 1846), and Victoria (b. 1840). Before WWII, most European and Euro-American boys wore skirts until they were "breeched" around age 5-6 (sometimes as late as 7-8).

If you looked at Alfred and thought he was a girl, don't worry — lots of people have trouble telling. Luckily, my early years as a Civil War reenactor and historical costume enthusiast have armed me with some tips for deciphering mid-19th-century images and I am happy to pass them along to you.

The most reliable way of identifying the sex of a child in a mid-19th-c image (1840ish-1870ish) is the hairstyle. As a general rule, boys' hair is parted on the side or swept up in a topknot, while girls' hair is nearly always parted dead-center. Take another look at the portrait — the little princes have side parts, the princesses have center parts, and the baby doesn't have enough hair to tell.

Here are some examples from Harvard's Houghton Library:


Boy, Boy, Girl, Boy:

(Adorable) Boy, (Adorable) Girl:

Now that we've established a pattern, we can look at some ambiguous images:

Boy or Girl?
side part = boy

Boy or Girl?
center part = girl
Boy or Girl?
top knot = boy

Boy or Girl?
boy on left, girl on right

If you still can't tell the difference, don't feel bad — whoever catalogued these pictures for Houghton can't tell either. Nearly all of the boys under the age of five are misidentified as girls on Harvard's VIA site:

Yet, when we look at pictures with identified subjects, the pattern holds firm:

Ellen Tucker Emerson:

Alice Howe Gibbens James and Mary Sherwin Gibbens:

Tad Lincoln:

It's not a perfect method — for example, the Davis boys have wonky center parts — but it's a good starting point.

Other tips:
  • Props: Is the child holding a doll, needlework, or a flower? It's probably a girl. Is it holding a ball, whip, dog, or military accoutrement (drum, toy cannon, kepi)? It's probably a boy. A book? Could be either.
  • Accessories: Some types of jewelry can offer hints — earrings and brooches worn at the throat generally signify "female," but necklaces are tricky. Children of both sexes have worn coral necklaces as charms for centuries.
  • Color: Before the 1930s, Americans generally considered red/pink to be a masculine color (think Mars) and blue to be a feminine color (think Virgin Mary). That said, there was not hard and fast rule on the color issue and it won't help you much unless you're looking at a painting or an actual garment. The Valentine Museum in Richmond had a fabulous exhibit on this subject a few years ago.
  • Pattern: It would be a mistake to assume that only girls wore floral patterns in the 19th century. Still, if something is all-out floral and other signs point to girl, girl is a safe bet. On the flip side, little boys often wore tartans that evoked a martial style.
  • Tunics: Sometimes, young boys went through an intermediate stage of dress — neither dresses nor full-on pants. See Prince Edward in the first painting (red belted tunic). Tunics often had a military flair win the form of buttons, belts, and trim. Other types of jackets worn by boys also have military overtones, such as the zouave jackets that became popular during the Civil War.
boy in tartan tunic, side-parted hair
I'm sure that people who are familiar with images from other eras could offer similar tips. I imagine the general principles are the same — look at hair, props, cut, etc. — but the specifics are slightly different.
The Gore Children (1755)
John Singleton Copley
Sarah and Frances hold flowers and have loose, flowing hair. John wears child-sized clothes in the style worn by adult men. Samuel's hair is confined and styled differently from his sisters' hair. He is also wearing red/pink and has a dog to mark his masculinity.

My grandfather, Benjamin Manfredo DeAngelis, 1921

1 comment:

Jim Blachowicz said...

Hi Caitlin,

I enjoyed your instructive discussion on boy/girl identification & "breeching" (not having known that term before).

Here's a related phenomenon that I've noticed on gravestones, but haven't ever tracked down in any literature: Boys (and girls?) under a certain age (10 or less?) will have their mothers' maiden names as middle names, but boys who've come of age will not. My impression is that children of young age are still "of the mother," and not of the father. Later the middle name will generate a middle initial; but obviously, middle initials evolve historically into parts of adult male names as well.
Maybe this is related to "breeching"? Even Freud had the age 5-7 as the period where children will identify primarily with a mother or a father. So do we have "mommies' boys" in dresses and their mothers' names as middle names prior to this period, and "daddies' boys" thereafter?

And then there's the use of "Junior" applied to girls... another phenomenon I don't know much about.

Love your blog,

Jim Blachowicz