24 Puzzling Parenting Tips From the 1800s
A lot has changed between the 19th century and today, but one thing that hasn't is the plethora of available parenting advice—though the following tips would likely make today's parents scratch their chins. From giving a single slice of bread as a snack to lancing gums, here are a few puzzling parenting tips from the 1800s, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. Put babies in cages hanging outside of windows to get them fresh air.
In his 1894 book The Care and Feeding of Children, Dr. Luther Emmett Holt introduced the concept of “airing,” or exposing infants to cold temperatures in order to improve their immune systems and overall health. Though Holt didn’t necessarily tell people to attach cages to their windows, products like the Boggins’ Window Crib soon cropped up for city-dwellers who were short on yard space (although it should be noted that a 1916 ad for the Window-Crib appealed to city-folk and country-dwellers alike, even claiming that the grandchild of President Woodrow Wilson was a happy window baby). The cages were especially popular in smoggy London, and they didn’t fall out of fashion until well into the 20th century.
2. Instill obedience by never giving kids what they want.
Many parenting books from the 1800s held that obedience was the first and most important quality to instill in young children. People thought it was the best way to ensure that kids didn’t grow up to be greedy, capricious, or self-absorbed adults
To teach obedience, Cassell’s Household Guide from 1869 outright forbade parents from giving children—babies included—what they wanted. Ever. According to the guide, “It is commonly believed that no harm can come of letting a child have its own way, so long as it is a mere babe. But this is a serious delusion.”
What if your 2-year-old pleads for a few measly grapes between breakfast and lunch, you ask? According to Cassell and company, the answer is a resounding “Absolutely not!” Giving snacks to a hungry child still counts as giving in, and it encourages them to expect food at “unsuitable times.”
To the authors’ credit, they do say that “No harsh words, no impatient gestures, need be added to enforce the rule,” but it’s still probably a stricter snack time policy than most parents would enforce today.
3. Snacks between meals shouldn’t be more than a slice of bread.
Pye Henry Chavasse was a smidge less anti-snack than some of his contemporaries, but he’d definitely disapprove of today’s middle-schoolers making an afternoon feast of Totino’s pizza rolls: In his 1869 book Advice to a Mother on the Management of Her Children, he advised parents to let their kids have just “a piece of dry bread” between meals if necessary. Chavasse felt that a child who was never given cakes and “sweetmeats” would consider the dry bread a luxury and “eat it with the greatest relish.”
4. Feed kids a lot of potatoes.
When it came to food, Chavasse was a champion of basic carbs across the board. In addition to his “dry bread” mandate, he recommended that mashed potatoes should be a child’s “staple vegetable.”
Botanically speaking, he was right: potatoes are technically vegetables. But nutritionally speaking, they’re basically little balls of starch and water. That doesn’t mean they can’t be part of a healthy diet, but they’re probably not the best “staple vegetable” for growing boys and girls. England’s National Health Service, for example, doesn’t even count potatoes towards its recommended 5 daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
5. Use Stickney and Poor’s Pure Paregoric Syrup to calm fussy babies ...
As it turns out, an overabundance of carbs was far from the worst thing that parents in the 1800s fed their children to promote good health. Nineteenth century remedies for common afflictions ranged from pointless to poisonous.
For example: Parents who had a 5-day-old infant that wouldn’t stop fussing could administer five drops of Stickney and Poor's Pure Paregoric Syrup. For a 5-year-old with a cough, they could try 25 drops. The medicine was great at calming kids down, probably because it was made of almost 50 percent alcohol and contained more than a tenth of a gram of pure opium per ounce.
6. … Or use laudanum.
Stickney and Poor’s concoction was essentially a weaker version of laudanum, a category of highly addictive opium-and-alcohol mixtures that caught on during the 1800s as a miracle medicine for just about anything—colic, headaches, persistent cough, diarrhea, and plain old infant irritability.
Laudanum created an epidemic in England in the 1860s, and hundreds of babies died from ingesting opium-laced substances. Shockingly, public health officials didn’t ban the drugs. Instead, they changed how they reported the section on narcotics deaths in the Annual Report of the Registrar General, introducing “narcotic deaths by age.”
It took several more decades for opium-laced substances to stop being a childcare norm, especially for low-income families who couldn’t afford nannies to look after their kids. An 1849 issue of the British humor magazine Punch featured a bottle of “Opium” next to a baby in a cradle with the caption “the poor child’s nurse.”
7. Get rid of tapeworms with turpentine.
Unfortunately, opium was the very toxic tip of the iceberg of bizarre infant remedies. When ingested, turpentine could allegedly expel tapeworms and act as a diuretic.
8. Quell dysentery and more with mercury.
Mercury, meanwhile, was a go-to cure for dysentery or edema. When dealing with edema, the mercury was “guarded by opium,” which sounds extra-safe.
9. Use mercury for pretty much anything that ails.
Mercury was also, as William E. Horner explained in The Home Book of Health and Medicine in 1834, a cure worth trying for basically any type of undiagnosed illness, just as long as it was “cautiously given.”
10. Avoid giving green tea to adolescents.
According to common thought at the time, a little mercury was all well and good, but green tea was off-limits for adolescents. The Victorian era gave rise to fears about its potentially harmful effects, which ranged from crippling stomach aches to full-blown hysteria. In an 1839 edition of the British medical journal The Lancet, Dr. George Sigmond claimed that some green tea drinkers complained of “miserable sensations” like “a sinking at the stomach, a craving, an emptiness, and a fluttering in the chest.” Chavasse put it more simply, saying, “Green tea is apt to make people nervous, and boys and girls ought not even to know what it is to be nervous.”
11. In fact, avoid anything green.
Green clothing, green toys, and anything else dyed or painted green were also on the 19th-century hazmat list, though admittedly for good reason. At the time, green was the new black in fashion and interior decorating. The problem? Many items were manufactured with a type of green dye that contained arsenic.Factory workers who handled it were dying, ladies who wore it were dying, and advice-givers justifiably began cautioning parents to keep it away from their kids at all costs.
In 1831, for instance, Lydia Maria Child wrote in The Mother’s Book that parents should make sure not to give teething babies any green toys to gnaw on. Instead, she recommended “large wooden beads,” or buttons made from steel, wood, or ivory. Does anything scream “choking hazard” louder than a steel button?
12. Lance your child’s gums.
If you thought choking hazard chew toys and poisonous paint were bad, let’s talk about a 19th century dental procedure called gum lancing.
It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Instead of waiting for a baby’s teeth to break through the gums on their own time, dentists would slice the gums open as soon as they started to get red or inflamed. An 1856 edition of the British Journal of Dental Science explained that “a superficial incision will be of no avail; the gums must be cut down until the lancet impinges on the approaching tooth.”
The practice is thought to have originated during the 1500s. While doing an autopsy on a baby, French surgeon Ambroise Paré could find no other cause of death than the child’s extremely hard gums. Paré wrote, “When we cut his gums with a knife we found all his teeth appearing … If it had been done when he lived, doubtless he might have been preserved.”
The theory that teething could kill gained popularity over the next three centuries, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s that physicians considered the possibility that gum lancing was really just generating more infections. In 1903, Abraham Jacobi wrote that the procedure had “lost most of its charms.” Kind of an understatement.
13. Using corporal punishment? Choose your instrument carefully.
In terms of so-called “charms,” corporal punishment was right up there with gum lancing to the 19th-century parent. It was, after all, approved by the Bible. By the mid-1800s, people were at least coming around to the idea that they should stick to punishments that didn’t cause lasting damage. This meant avoiding delicate areas like the head, ears, and hands. It also meant choosing your instrument with care. In the 1884 book A Few Suggestions to Mothers on the Management of Their Children, the author recommended “a good flagellation with a thin, soft, old leather, or carpet slipper.”
Getting whacked with a leather anything sounds pretty painful no matter how thin, soft, or old the leather is—but that was the point. As Theodore Dwight stated in The Father’s Book in 1834, punishments “should produce short but real pain.”
14. Make ample use of time-outs (but with a twist).
For minor infractions, time-outs were always an option, although sometimes they came with a fun 19th-century twist: Lydia Child instructed parents to tie their naughty kid to an armchair for a while.
15. Don’t rock your kids to soothe them.
Speaking of chairs, a Mrs. Allen wrote in to The British Mothers’ Magazine in 1847 to warn mothers against what she called the “pernicious habit” of relying on rocking chairs to soothe their children. It was really more about the mother than the baby, though—essentially, Mrs. Allen thought it damaged women’s figures.
16. Novels for kids are a no-no.
Another so-called pernicious habit of the era was reading fiction. Novels were basically the Netflix of the 19th century—fine for kids to enjoy in moderation, but still considered a guilty pleasure. As Child put it, “They are a sort of literary confectionary; and though they may be very perfect and beautiful, if eaten too plentifully, they do tend to destroy our appetite for more solid and nourishing food.”
Others thought they were practically ruining society. In 1820, reverend and teacher William Jones wrote that novels could have “a fatal effect upon the morals” of young people because they disguise good and evil with “false colorings and unjust representations.”
17. and 18. Discourage imagination and creativity.
In general, having a vivid imagination in the 1800s was kind of a bad thing. At best, children whose imaginations were left unchecked would end up with a poor understanding of the world. At worst, according to guides of the time, they’d become pathological liars.
Cassel’s Household Guide warned that “Too vivid an imagination, if not judiciously checked, may tend to create an untruthful habit of speech in childhood which may continue to increase with years.” To prevent this from happening, parents were urged to be honest and open with their children. They were also encouraged to make sure kids weren’t being too creative.
Making paper figures, for example, was a suitable pastime for anyone who could handle scissors, but Child clarified that “any glaring disproportion in the figures should be explained to a child, and he should be encouraged to make his little imitations as much like nature as possible.”
19. Don’t allow precociousness.
The perceived dangers of being imaginative were nothing compared to those of being precocious. According to Samuel Goodrich, that could actually kill you.
In his 1838 book Fireside Education, Goodrich told the cautionary tale of a mother who committed the fatal mistake of supporting the intellectual development of her exceptionally bright son, writing, “While the boy’s head grew rapidly, and at last became enormous, his limbs became shrunken and almost useless. His mind [was] too advanced, and at the age of eight years he was indeed a prodigy. At ten, he died.”
Goodrich wholeheartedly blamed the mother for what he called her “selfishness to the demon of vanity,” and warned parents not to urge their kids to be remarkable at too young an age. “Premature fruit,” he said, “Never ripens well.”
20. Using terrifying morality tales to keep your kids in line.
German doctor Heinrich Hoffmann published a whole book of them in 1845 called Der Struwwelpeter, or “Shock-Headed Peter.” In the tale of Suck-a-Thumb, for example, Conrad’s mother orders him not to suck his thumb while she’s away, lest a tailor come and literally cut it off. One section goes:
“The great tall tailor always comes / To little boys that suck their thumbs,
And ere they dream what he's about. / He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off, and then, / You know, they never grow again."
Does Conrad heed his mother’s advice? No. He sucks his thumb, the tailor appears, and, with a “Snip, Snap, Snip!” both of Conrad’s thumbs get chopped right off. That’ll teach your kids how to break a bad habit! It might also instill a lifelong fear of tailors, thumbs, and/or rhyming couplets.
21. Avoid nearsightedness by getting the right desk and the proper positioning.
In his 1869 book The Physical Life of Woman, Dr. George H. Napheys confidently asserted that nearsightedness was “entirely preventable.” He believed it was caused during childhood by reading in dimly-lit rooms, reading books with tiny typeface, or even reading at desks that were either “too low or too far from the seats.”
In 1849, Elisabeth Robinson Scovil said children “should sit with the left side towards the light, and never … face a window,” while working in daylight, though she didn’t explain how exactly this would prevent nearsightedness.
While we still don’t know exactly what causes nearsightedness, or myopia, we do know that it’s not entirely preventable—some studies suggest that genetics play a role. The height of your desk, on the other hand, probably doesn’t.
22. Cure floppy ears with saltwater.
Scovil also had an innovative fix for young ears that lacked firmness and flopped over: Simply rub them with saltwater twice a day.
23. Ensure strong bones with the proper mattress.
For strong bones, Chavasse cautioned against feather beds and even feather pillows, which he believed were so stiflingly hot that they’d weaken kids who slept on them. He said they could even lead to rickets, a condition that can cause soft bones, delayed growth, and bowleggedness. Instead, Chavasse recommended horse-hair mattresses, which he believed would “greatly improve the figure and strengthen the frame.”
These days, we know that rickets actually results from a vitamin D deficiency, and horse hair can’t help with that. Horse-hair mattresses do have their advantages, though. Since horse hair wicks moisture, a mattress made from it naturally regulates your body temperature and keeps you much cooler than a feather bed. It’s considered one of the most luxurious kinds of mattresses on the market today—even Queen Elizabeth II is said to sleep on one.
24. Let kids sleep in.
Finally, here's what might be the nicest bit of parental advice to come out of the 19th century, courtesy of Thomas Hill’s 1888 Manual of Social and Business Forms: Never wake kids up in the morning. “The time will come soon enough when care and trouble will compel them to waken in the early morning,” Hill wrote. “Let them sleep while they can.” Hear, hear.