Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Box

In Lark Rise to Candleford Flora Thompson describes a common scene from the hamlet in England where she grew up

"A familiar sight at Lark Rise was that of a younger girl - any young girl between ten and thirteen- pushing one of the two perambulators in the hamlet round the Rise with a smallish-sized, oak clothes box with black handles lashed to the seat..... 

She had been to the Rectory for THE BOX , which appeared almost simultaneously with every new baby, and a grueling time she would have had pushing her load the mile and a half, keeping it from slipping from its narrow perch. But, very soon, such small drawbacks would be forgotten in the pleasure of seeing it unpacked. It contained half a dozen of everything- tiny shirts, swathes, long flannel barrows, nighties and napkins, made, kept in repair, and lent for every confinement by the clergymen's daughter. In addition to the loaned clothes, it would contain, as a gift, packets of tea and sugar and a tin of patent groats for making gruel. "

The ritual which Flora Thompson describes in the 1880's was an old one, going back at least as far as the beginning of the nineteenth century. We can find evidence of it in several sewing manuals from the period. These manuals, geared towards middle and upper class women, provided advice on charitable sewing for the deserving poor in their neighborhoods.

The Ladies Economical Assistant, published in England in 1808 said that "There is not, perhaps, any act of charity more truly beneficial to the poor than the custom of lending a box of linen to lying-in women, for the month of f their confinement."  In 1838, The Workwoman's Guide continued the same tradition, stating that "Linen is often lent by ladies to the poor, at their confinements, in bags, boxes, or baskets ...." which is followed by a precise inventory of recommended items to include.

The author of this work gives more detail on the box itself, saying that "....the most convenient kind of basket for containing these articles of clothing, is a light wicker-work one, about 20 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 20 inches should have two handles, sufficiently high to allow of the lid opening easily."

These boxes contained clothes for the new mothers as well. The suggested inventory from The Workwoman's Guide is specifically divided between items for mother and baby, even suggesting the addition of a few books for the mother to read during her confinement. It would be tempting to think that for these women, the period of confinement provided a rare opportunity for some rest; however Thompson remembers the mothers in her hamlet taking pride in returning to their household work as quickly as possible. In any case, the authors of these manuals attempted to think equally of the comfort and needs of these poor women and their infants.

'Poor Yet Rich' Theresa Schwartze

The loaning of 'The Box' was supposed to be an orderly, well regulated affair, at least according to the manuals. The Ladies Economical Assistant has a great deal of advice on the handling of this loan, insisting that the box must be returned at the end of a month.  "I would strongly recommend' writes the author 'that no part of the contents of the box should be parted with on any account; otherwise, before the things are replaced they are probably wanted, and thus great disappointment is occasioned to whose who look upon this help as so material a comfort."For those women who required further assistance, she provides the following advice to her readers "receiving the box, with the contents well washed, and agreeing with the inventory (which should always be sent with the things,) a present of a few articles of an infant's dress may be given to deserving families, if an extension of the charity be thought proper." 

Thompson tells us that these rules were understood in the Hamlet, at least in theory. "The boxes were supposed to be returned at the end of the month" says Thompson "with the clothes freshly laundered." But of course reality does not always correspond nicely with an advice manual, and extensions were regularly given when no one else in the hamlet had recently had a child. Thus 'THE BOX' might actually stay with a single family for six or seven weeks, allowing them to avoid ever having to lay out the time and money for clothes which their children would only wear at the very beginning of their lives. And the Rector's daughter did, in fact, also make several permanent presents of infants clothing upon the THE BOX's return.

Outline for a gown for poor infants from the Workwoman's Guide 

In the Lark Rise hamlet, this institution was so popular that the Rector's daughter actually had to maintain an auxiliary box for times when the first one was in use. She also maintained two christening gowns to be used when the time came.

The Rector's daughter, Miss Ellison, gives a picture of one of the women who was doing all this charitable sewing. Thompson says "Such a life as hers must have been is almost unimaginable now. Between playing the harmonium in church, teaching in Sunday school, ordering her father's meals and overseeing the maids, she must have spent hours doing needlework." And of course 'The Box' was not the only bit of charitable sewing she was doing 'Course, unattractive needlework, too, cross-over shawls and flannel petticoats for the old women, flannel shirts and long, thick knitted stockings for the old men, these, as well as the babies print frocks, were all made by her own hands."

"Young Woman Sewing, The Artist's Sister Anna Hammerchøi," by Vilhelm Hammerchøi,  1887

Sadly, for all of her trouble, Miss Ellison was not well loved or the recipient of much gratitude in the hamlet. "She got little credit for this." Says Thompson "The mothers, like the children, looked upon the small garments, both loaned and given, as a provision of nature. Indeed, they were rather inclined to criticize."

So far Lark Rise is the latest evidence I have seen of this tradition.  Thompson writes about her 1880's childhood as a time when a great deal of change was still coming to her hamlet, where she and her siblings were the last generation to experience many decades, or even centuries, old rhythms of life growing up. This was a tradition which made sense before inexpensive, ready-made clothing was widely available for infants. When the amount of time and effort it would take to make and maintain such clothing was much better done once by one wealthier person with leisure time, than repeated by a whole village of mothers who had little in the way of either time or money for materials.

However I would be very interested to see if and how long this tradition may have continued in other places. If you have seen any other examples of 'The Box' please let me know in the comments below! Many thanks to my friend Eleanor Rust for bringing Lark Rise to Candleford to my attention!


  1. Interesting read! Thanks for your research. It makes me wonder, though: The clothing was lent so that the mother would not have to create any ("...allowing them to avoid ever having to lay out the time and money for clothes which their children would only wear at the very beginning of their lives."). However, clothing was needed for each baby after that first month. One can assume that clothing was made by the mother for the first baby, then used by each baby after that. If this was the case, why wouldn't the mother make the first month's clothing for her newborn, which she could assume would be used by all of her other babies as well?

    BTW, Lark Rise to Candleford is a grrrreat series!

    1. That is a good point- maybe this way they just didn't ever have to make that size of clothing. For people on the margins, when every piece of clothing takes so much time and valuable resources, that could have made a difference.

  2. Many babies born to poor families would not survive the first month. Even now, in my province of Alberta, (last I heard) out-of-country health costs for a newborn are not covered, as life is so fragile at that point.
    I understand cardboard boxes have traditionally been given to mothers in Finland that can serve as a first crib, and they contain basic supplies for the early months.
    Other countries are taking this idea up, though not all boxes are free and some have designer clothing in them! In Canada, it started in Ontario a couple of years ago and the free baby box idea has now spread throughout the country. In order to get a free baby box, parents have to watch parenting videos. The company explains, "If you want a free baby box, you’ll first have to watch a handful of educational videos and complete a short quiz.
    “To be totally frank, baby boxes do not reduce infant mortality -- parenting education reduces infant mortality,”

    1. That's certainly a sobering insight. Explains why there was equal focus on the mothers as well- and of course their lives were in danger too.