Baby cribs, being the child’s first bed, have a most interesting history! The word “bed” initially means the place where a person sleeps – originally no more than a hollow in the ground. The first types of baby cribs were a small swinging or rocking bed known as a cradle. It has a long history and was typically one of the first pieces of furniture to be added to a new household.
Before the colonies were settled by Europeans, Native Americans cradled their babies in a multitude of different styles, almost as diverse as our modern baby cribs. There were bark cradles, skin cradles, lattice cradles, board cradles, basket cradles and many more. The style changed with the geography of the tribe and was influenced by the materials available for construction. Swaddling (wrapping the baby tightly in cloth or skins) was a favorite of many tribes since this was seen as a safety standard. Many Navajos still use a traditional board cradle that swaddles the baby to keep it safe and protected.
The earliest and most common type of cradle is the rocker, derived undoubtedly from a hollowed out half log to provide a secure resting place for baby. It was a simple step to move from the hollowed out log to a box mounted on transverse curved sections and a particular baby crib favorite with the early Colonists was characterized by sloping sides and a hooded end made from simple nailed pine boards. Examples also exist of cribs that represent “great beds of state” for royal babies. These fancy cribs were richly carved and furnished with elaborate and costly hangings. Many cradles were designed so they could rock easily, with one mechanical invention claiming that the cradle would self rock for an hour and a half! Early cribs were made to be placed right next to the parent bed, since bedrooms are actually a later addition to architecture that came with the ability to heat the home more easily. It isn’t known if there were any safety standards under consideration in those early days.
Once the baby was too large for the cradle it graduated to a trundle bed. The name is derived from the utility of this bed which was made to fit easily under the parent’s bed and thus conserve space. Early homes were often one or two room cottages where space was a premium.
The baby crib came into existence as homes became larger, during the 1800’s, and could accommodate their size. They were usually home-made and passed on from child to child, since families were rather large in those years. Baby cribs were also passed on through generations since they were constructed of solid, durable wood found locally. If you run across such a crib today you will marvel at its sturdiness. A recent trip to an antique store while looking for a crib for my new grandson bore this out. The crib was made of hardwood that had been softened by many decades of hands-that-rocked-the-cradle and gave no indication of ever wearing out.
The basic shape and design of the crib has not changed much since the 19th century although we have an ongoing improvement in design as well as an ever increasing demand of higher safety standards . In light of these present safety standards it became obvious that the lovely antique crib I found would better display a doll or some beautiful stuffed animals, than to become my grandson’s first bed. There were safety issues that included slats too far apart and a design in the headboard which could prove dangerous. We urge parents to keep a close eye out for safety, both when purchasing a new crib and to maintain an existing crib. History is fun and interesting but our priority is to keep our babies safe.