Affixed to the metal frame is the manufacturer’s label: “Manufactured by H.N. Thayer Co., Erie, PA”. According to the turn-of-century magazine, Furniture World, H. N. Thayer Co., was known as a company that made high-grade baby carriages and strollers.
The buggy has a hand-woven wicker basket body with a metal frame. Underneath the basket base, the metal frame with decorative swirls is actually a spring suspension system to give a gentle, comfortable ride. The carriage stands 43 inches long, 18 ½ inches wide, and 35 ½ inches tall.
The wooden handle on the carriage has a high sheen showing evidence of countless hands grasping the handle, pushing the carriage on countless walks out in the fresh air. The carriage also has modern features such as a hand brake to lock the wheels for the safety of the baby. It also has an adjustable back, allowing the baby to recline or be in an upright position. The wicker has ornate patterns woven on the front and sides.
Many might presume that baby buggies are a modern invention, but they have been around since the 18th century. William Kent, an English landscape architect designed the first baby carriage. He designed the carriage for the third Duke of Devonshire in 1733. The purpose was so the Duke’s children could be taken out to enjoy the garden. The Duke of Devonshire’s carriage was designed to be pulled by a goat.
At that time, the baby carriage was considered a novelty, just an indulgent toy. Other carriage designs followed that could be pulled by dogs or ponies, as well as goats. Most of the early designs were made to look like miniature adult horse-drawn carriages.
The usefulness of the baby carriages quickly became apparent, and gradually carriages became more popular which lead to modifications in their design. The most striking modification was adding handles so humans could push the carriage instead of an animal pulling it.
It was not until the 1840s that baby buggies became hugely popular. It was in that era when Queen Victoria bought three baby carriages to use with her children. Queen Victoria was the trendsettering celebrity of her time. Many members of royalty and high Victorian society followed the Queen’s lead purchasing countless baby carriages.
Perceived as more than just practical, baby carriages were status symbols. Victorians were fond of displaying their wealth with ornate homes and lavish furniture. Going to the public park and pushing your child in an elaborate wicker carriage was another way to show your status.
Taking a baby for a stroll in the fresh air at the park was also new trends during the Victorian era. Using public parks to improve one’s health and hygiene was a cutting-edge concept and the practice become the height of fashion.
In 1889, in Baltimore, Maryland, William H. Richardson made some groundbreaking modifications to baby carriage design. He developed the reversible carriage where the baby could face away or towards the person pushing the carriage. He made improvements to the axles, so the carriage could more easily turn corners. Some of Richardson’s modifications are still in use today in carriage design.
The oldest piece of American wicker is a cradle used by Peregrine White, the first Pilgrim baby born in America. He was born December 7, 1620, eight days after the Mayflower reached land. The cradle is on display at the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Wicker was a natural material for products used by children. It was durable, lightweight, easy to clean and when woven, it allowed for ventilation. The general term “wicker” refers to any plant material used to weave furniture, baskets or other items– usually it is made from cane, rattan, willow, reeds or bamboo.
Manufacturers of baby products made all sorts of items out of wicker: cradles, chairs, cribs, and bassinets. When carriages became the fashion, wicker companies began producing wicker baby carriages in a variety of elaborate styles.
In the United States, wicker companies making baby buggies flourished during the 1880s and 1890s. A competitive market kept prices down. To complete a hand-woven carriage took about three days.
The hand process was slow, but this individual craftsmanship is why so many carriages survive to the present day. Nineteenth century wicker baby buggies are considered collectibles and are highly sought after by collectors.
The large wicker carriage on display at the museum might seem unwieldy to modern parents accustomed to small, umbrella style strollers, but this carriage is evidence that Victorian parents, like modern parents, wanted to get their children out in the fresh air and show them off. This carriage gives the museum visitor a glimpse into the Victorian family of the McDonough County area.
Essay by Heather Munro