Not Your Uncle’s Sort of Cross-Dressing

This portrait of a young boy may give the 21st Century viewer cause for pause. At first we may incorrectly assume it’s a young girl. In that case the next question will be “but what’s with the rifle?”

As many who are accustomed to looking at early 19th Century portraits know, it’s actually a young boy. Certainly the way children dress has changed over the years! Here’s an excerpt from an excellent book, The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840 (Everyday Life in America),  by Jack Larkin.

Up to the middle of the eighteenth century, young children of both sexes had worn women’s gowns and petticoats, until boys put on adult male clothing around the age of seven.

Around the time of the American Revolution, children’s clothing began to suggest more complicated distinctions of age and sex. Parents now put all children between infancy and three or four years old into loose-fitting muslin frocks that were clearly unlike the clothes of adult women. Between four and ten or eleven, girls stayed in frocks while boys donned “skeleton suits,” tight-fitting pantaloons and jackets that were distinctively masculine but very different from the clothes of their fathers and older brothers. Older boys and girls continued to wear slightly simplified and less formal versions of adult attire, But in the 1830s, American families again blurred the distinction between the sexes up to age ten; they abandoned skeleton suits to dress boys in trousers and “surtouts” or long coats, while also giving girls trousers to wear under their frocks, perhaps to retain children longer in sexless innocence.

Many families of more modest means undoubtedly emulated the way affluent Americans dressed their children, but the majority of families surely could not afford to adopt these distinctions in full. All American children wore dress-like garments in their earliest years and put on approximations of adult clothing when they began to do serious work. In many ordinary households, young children wore only long shirts of towcloth or cotton most of the time, heavier and coarser versions of the garments which more prosperous children wore beneath their outer clothes.

On the Maryland plantation where Frederick Douglass grew up, slave children received only two shirts each year. If children damaged their garments or wore them out, they usually went without replacements.

In poor white families as well as slave households, children might well have to wait for dresses or jacket and pantaloons until they became old enough to work in the fields.

This is lot 818 in today’s sale at Skinner. I’ll post the results later.

Item description: Portrait of a Boy in a Landscape Holding a Rifle, 19th century, Signed and dated “Almeida Thos pintore 1847 l.r. Oil on canvas, c. 1835, 35 x 25 1/2 in., in a later burl veneer and molded giltwood frame, (minor spots of retouch to background).

Estimated between $4,000 and $6,000, this lot only brought $2,100…


About Eric Miller

Eric Miller is co-founder and contributor to Urban Art & Antiques. His website is ericmiller.me

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