The Victorian antique baby carriage is favored today by wicker collectors, doll collectors and photographers. Wicker companies such as Heywood Brothers and the Wakefield Rattan Company, abounded in the 1880s making carriages to transport babies and toddlers.
Recently, my day dreams are enchanted visions of my friend proudly wheeling the latest, up-scale stroller, her precious granddaughter donned in ribbons and lace ready to be presented to the world. Being a lover of antiques, naturally my mood takes a sentimental step back in time as I assembled another picture and this alluring image was one from a century earlier. The beloved child in lavish comfort, gently being pushed in a handsome, ornate, Victorian antique baby carriage perched up high on spoke wheels. The prettiest parasol quietly floats overhead. It's a somewhere-in-time procession that conjures dreams of yesteryear. The dreams that tug at one's heart and stimulated the writing of this article.
Golden Age of Carriages 1880s - 1890s
The wicker antique baby carriage of the 1880s and 1890s had its birth during the Civil War years. The carriage trade was quiet at first to capture the Victorian heart. However, by the 1870s, the demand for carriages was climbing. Several manufacturers that were already producing a diverse line of children's hand-woven, wicker products bedsteads, cradles, chairs, bassinets and cribs added carriages, recognizing the carriage evolution. Heywood Brothers & Company were turning out quality, embellished carriages in large numbers to meet the ever-increasing demand.
Companies started printing separate trade catalogues for carriages because of that demand. The upper-class Victorian was smitten by the ornate scrollwork and the hand-crafted, individual workmanship. They appreciated the abundant choices in styles, woods and upholstering. Sears Roebuck and Marshall Field published several pages of their yearly catalog solely to stylish carriages. Sears Roebuck printed on their cover the words "Cheapest Supply House on Earth;" nearly everyone that desired it could now afford the coveted carriage.
The fascination of the Victorian woman of the late 1800s over the wicker carriage owes partial credit to the times and a mother's influence. With gentle, but unflinching control over the Victorian lifestyle, Mother Nature surrounded and invited contemplation in everyday life. Strolling in the fresh air was considered a joy and necessary for good health and motherhood. The Victorian woman was ardently concerned for proper ventilation and hygiene. Social books such as Rules of Conduct for Polite Society stressed that one should rejoice with nature. One's passion for nature was seen everywhere and eagerly brought indoors. Delicate flowers and leaves were collected to be pressed in books for keepsakes. In the parlor, collected shells were displayed and often crafted into mementos. This obsessive passion for nature and the outdoors visibly enhanced the quest for carriages.
Each year as spring rejoiced, the companies' arrival of carriage catalogs would sweetly seduce the Victorian mother with irresistible offers of the latest carriage styles. The Victorian woman was already familiar with the advantages American wicker offered. Wicker was both durable and lightweight. Its airy appearance increased a feeling of union with nature, and yet pleased her eye. Lightweight wicker could be transferred from the parlor to the veranda, porch or yard as warm days drew near. Easy to clean, cleanliness next to Godliness, this Victorian motto easily reinforced the affair with wicker. Wicker is the correct and prevailing term to describe all materials used in wicker furniture, rattan, cane, reed, fiber and other grasses. This handmade, natural product had been accepted by the 19th century public after London's Grand Exposition of 1851 exhibited a wicker chair by a New York designer.
The oldest piece of American wicker is a simple cradle used for one of the first European children born on native soil, Peregrine White. His arrival on December 7, 1620, was eight days after the Mayflower reached this New Land. The baby's cradle is now in the Plymouth Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. American Indian nations were expert basket makers but never made wicker furniture. It was immigrant settlers' memories of a simple, woven technique that established the art here. Many existing Wills listed one wicker chair 1639.
By the 1660s, rattan was becoming available with China opening trade with England. During the 1840s, long after China opened new ports of trade, clipper ships from the Far East utilized the durable, strong poles of rattan. A majestic climbing vine, rattan resembles palm of various species. They share a common link in that they are extremely long, durable, solid stocks, and when unclothed of leaves and cut, served as poles used to secure cargo from shifting at sea.
Upon reaching destination, the rattan having no further use customarily would be discarded. This unwanted, unusual product found dockside bewildered a young Boston grocer. It was 1844 when Cyrus Wakefield's curiosity stirred within. Homeward bound, he rescued some rattan cables with which to experiment. The flexibility impressed him as he wrapped a yielding piece around a chair frame. This amazing palm placed in the right hands was to become a Victorian treasure, excellent for furniture use - the awakening of Wakefield's future. When the stalks of rattan are split, the thin strips of the outer bark are called cane, ideal for seats and chair backs. The inner pith is reed.
Cyrus Wakefield became the foremost wicker supplier in America and opened, in 1855, Wakefield Rattan Company. The Massachusetts area, encompassing that company was named for Wakefield in 1868. Foreign countries played a significant role in the history of wicker, but wicker as an industry was born in America.
In 1876, wicker furniture was included in the arts and crafts category at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Awards were presented to the Wakefield Rattan Company for design and workmanship. Trial and error of the past decade led to the company producing a quality art form, their craftsman highly skilled. Duly noted also for proper ventilation, an awareness of nature, Wicker was satisfying the Victorian concerns!
Is it any wonder that carriages were in such lofty demand? They amplified the awareness of nature. This natural product used for domestic life was unequal to any other in popularity. Wicker companies abounded in the 1880s making carriages to transport babies and toddlers. With so many companies competing for the carriage trade, thousands were provided employment. To complete a carriage required three days of 12 to 14 hours. The hand process was slow and tedious, however, it enabled carriages from the golden era to survive today.
The competitiveness of the carriage business was a blessing for the customer, exhibiting a well- designed product with pricing properly modest. During the 1880s and 1890s, Heywood Brothers and Company devoted one factory to only carriage production. The choices, during this golden period of time, seemed endless.
Sleeper carts provided a device for lowering and adjusting the back into a comfortable reclining position, with the footrest raising automatically. Carriages were built on spring frames that provided a gentle ride and allowed the carriage to rock a fussy babe to sleep. Go carts were strong runabouts suitable for a baby eight months or older. Rolled arms and roomy interior with a push handle, these versatile carriages could be ordered with or without parasol. For the Sears Roebuck and Company, their jewel was the Go Cart Sleeper offered at $6.98 in late 1880.
The Heywood Brothers produced twin carriages in 1880 in limited quantities. Twins would sit, one at each end, facing each other riding in style with matching parasols overhead emitting an air of grandeur. For an extra $2, Heywood offered in their catalogs runners that would turn any of their carriages into baby sleighs.
To distinguish them from their competitors, many manufacturers proudly gave their carriages names, Victoria, Daisy and Baby Bunting for the girls, Sir Arthur for the boys. Arch rivals, Wakefield and Heywood would merge to become the largest, wicker carriage producer. Companies, to further entice customers, offered to pay freight to their closet railroad station for an order of $10 or more. Bountiful, fetching carriage styles, continued to enchant customers. Carriages could be ordered in stain or varnish of choice - cherry, oak, mahogany or clear. Gold leaf could be richly applied to the carriage body and gears for an additional fee.
While early carriages were made of willow, reed was preferred as it had the capability to take stain. Interior upholstery was made available in soft silk, tapestry, damask, velour or broadcloth in lush colors of sapphire, cardinal, golden brown, myrtle and more. Parasols that could be hooked on the back or side were offered in silk or satin; ruffles, lace edging, bows and ribbons completed the beautiful packaging.
Little girls were given toy wicker carriages coaxing them to mimic mother. Young girls into their teens played at housekeeping for marriage was the ultimate goal. Wicker manufacturers were ever willing to oblige, making toy carriages in every style and shape.
As the turn of the century drew near, the Golden Age of Carriage embellishment was tarnishing; sadly it was the end of the Victorian era. With the new century brought new ideas and styles. Carriage fanciers now considered them too garish and overdone. The modest, straight lines of the arts and crafts movement was in vogue. Carriages by the thousands were simply thrown away or burned, no reminder of such vulgar taste was considered proper.
Many companies closed, while the large ones adjusted to the new age and offered Mission style. The invention of the Lloyd loom to speed production of carriages had a hand in their demise. Poor quality of machine wicker hastened the fate of one-of-a-kind, hand craftsmanship. The golden age had ended.
Prized carriages are favored today by wicker collectors, doll collectors and photographers. These wicker carriages are eagerly purchased when offered for sale. Condition is the key to pricing, which varies throughout the country. Without a doubt, a rare twin carriage is a proud acquisition.