Choosing a stroller can be an overwhelming experience. First of all, there's the decision as to the desired type of stroller. Then, whether it should be a travel system or a jogging stroller? Should it be full-sized or a lightweight model?
Then you have to look at how you are going to use it. Will you be carrying the stroller up flights of stairs? Does it fold up small enough to fit in your vehicle? Do you need to have an engineering degree to work out how to fold and unfold it?
As if those problems weren’t enough then you have to choose a color or pattern, and oh, there is the little matter of price as well. Have you seen how much they charge for some of those things?
These problems of choice are in stark contrast to what parents of the children of yesteryear had to think about because before the 18th century there was no such thing as a stroller. Way back when, you would use a sling or backpack of some kind to carry your baby in with designs varying around the world from plain cheap cloth tying the baby to mom to elaborate, beautifully decorated backpacks that were handed down through the generations.
How did we get from slings to strollers? Read on and discover a brief history of baby strollers, with some entertaining diversions along the way.
15 A Carriage For Baby
The very first stroller was invented by an English architect named William Kent. Kent was asked by the Duke of Devonshire to create something to amuse his children which probably translates roughly as “could you make something to keep the annoying little beggars amused so they stay out of my hair and I don’t have to interact with them?”
Kent built what he called his “baby carriage” in 1733. The carriage was a large, dark, shell-shaped basket with padding inside and this shell structure sat upon a basic chassis with two axles and four large wheels.
The rear wheels were slightly larger than the front, but not by a significant margin and the carriage’s final feature was a harness. The harness was not to keep the child in the stroller safe though; it was so that a pony or goat could be attached to the front of the contraption and pull the carriage around the Devonshire's estate.
As you can see from the photograph above, this first stroller is more like a tiny Disney horse-drawn coach, possibility for a baby Ariel, that the items we use today but while this was primarily a plaything for the rich it did serve to spark the imagination of others and was the first step on the evolutionary journey of the stroller.
14 The Beginning Of Perambulators
For the next one hundred years or so, baby carriages remained playthings for the rich and were indeed not something the average person would want, need, or be able to afford. This began to change a little when an American, Charles Barton, took the basic idea and turned it on its head. Or to be more accurate turned it around.
Burton took the basic carriage design and put a handle on the back so that parents could push their baby in a carriage instead of having animals pull them. This coincided with the emergence of a new “middle class” that had some disposable income and more importantly disposable time. Strolling had become a pastime in itself and parents were interested in this new contraption that would allow them to take long walks while pushing their child along in front of them in its very own carriage. This might not seem much today, but at the time it was revolutionary.
Burton began to sell his push baby carriages, but although they were initially greeted with interest, they did not become popular. Parents found it difficult to steer his baby carriage, and there are numerous reports of new moms getting into trouble by “running down respectable businessman in the street.”
As you might imagine, once the innovation of a handle to push was introduced, there were plenty of other “innovators” ready to jump on the bandwagon, or maybe that should be, jump on the baby carriage?
Multiple designs were created from a wide variety of materials.
You could find baby carriages made of ornately carved wood more like an expensive piece of furniture on wheels than something in which you would want to push your baby around.
Others were made of wicker which, as you might imagine, weren’t particularly warm or waterproof but were a popular choice in the southern states during the hot humid summers.
It was not only the materials of the carriage body that were changed up. Carriage builders experiment with different sizes of wheel to see if the size made any difference to maneuverability and variations on the number of spokes, the materials for wheel making and even the number of wheels could be seen in this period.
The baby carriage had started out with three wheels, two at the back and one at the front, but at this stage, some were produced that had two wheels and two legs, much like a wheelbarrow in which to cart your child around.
12 A Royal Endorsement
Burton had become somewhat discouraged with the lack of success of his forward facing baby carriages. There was nothing wrong with the design it was the users who were the problem. Fortunately for us, Burton did not give up, and in 1852 he filed a patent for his “perambulator.” This design was befitting of the time. Imagine a large piece of heavy Victorian furniture, maybe a big wooden and velvet chair, with three big spoked wheels. Unsurprisingly his customers still had problems, giving feedback like “it’s unwieldy” and “I can’t control it.”
Never one to let some negative comments deter him, Burton up sticks and sailed across the ocean to England where he hoped his design might fare a little better. Which it did not. Then one sale turned everything around for him.
You might believe that celebrity endorsements are a modern thing, but back in the 1800’s a few words from a member of the royal family could make or break a person or a company. In this case, Burton sold three of his baby perambulators to the royal family who was frequently seen using them in public. This set off a mini-frenzy, and suddenly everyone wanted one of these suddenly fabulous new devices for their child.
11 More Changes
As with most things, once the perambulator, or pram as it is still called in the UK, became popular, other people set about finding ways to improve it. Making it more functional and, most important from a business point of view, more appealing and affordable to the masses was the next step in the evolution.
It was in 1889 that William H. Richardson filed his patent for what he considered to be an improved design for the baby carriage. This was the very first reversible carriage which would allow parents to adjust the stroller to have the baby facing them or facing away from them.
This was a massive step as up until this time you would not be able to see what was going on with your baby unless you stopped and walked around the front of your stroller.
Now new moms, with enough disposable income, could take a stroll with their child and be able to keep an eye on them the entire time.
This was not the only improvement. Richardson also made changes to the chassis. Previously the wheels were on axles but he made adjustments which allowed the wheels to move separately, making the stroller much more maneuverable for the new parent.
10 Society And Style
By the turn of the twentieth-century strollers had become an essential baby item for specific segments of society. The massive influx of immigrants to the United States hoping to help build a new country while they made a new life, along with the move of existing Americans from the rural areas to the cities led to a much more complicated social structure than previously experienced. While many more impoverished Americans and new immigrants had either never known anyone who used a stroller or could not afford one, there were plenty of emerging middle class and nouveau riche who were clamoring to buy the latest in stroller design to demonstrate just how upscale and wealthy they were.
This led to evermore ornate baby carriage designs with the sole intention of strolling the sidewalks of your new city, pushing your child in an item that reflected your wealth and social standing.
If you were exceptionally well off you would send your nanny out with the stroller. As they walked the pathways of the newly emerging parks, they would congregate and gossip with other nannies who would then go back to their own houses and report the grandeur, or otherwise, of the carriages of neighboring families.
9 A New Nod To Safety
Up until this point in time, once the practicalities had been ironed out, thought was given to how a baby carriage looked but not much thought was given to how it functioned. Many wagons were shallow, allowing a relatively young baby to topple from the body of the pram an even those with a deeper compartment did not have any kind of harnessing system to keep your little one safely in place.
Most designs in the 1910’s and 1920’s were quite top heavy and difficult to maneuver up and down a few steps or over a street curb. This led to some designs being given legs to prevent the pram from tipping up and throwing the baby onto the sidewalk.
Tired of unqualified pram users spilling babies left right, and center designers and manufacturers began to create baby carriages that sat much lower to the ground. Also, the bodies of the prams became a more uniform depth meaning that it was more difficult for a child to fall out and if they did, the daredevil kid would not be taking a dive from on high.
Prams were also given such wild and wonderful upgrades as brakes and handles that were comfortable to hold.
8 Natural No More
Baby carriages stayed much the same, regarding innovation until the 1930’s. The world was still recovering from the double blows of World War One and then the depression. Money had become tight again, and many of those who would have previously purchased a pram found themselves struggling to survive, let alone afford to have children or buy them expensive equipment. With this sudden shrink in customer, base innovation was not a priority. Where was the business value in developing new products when there was nobody to buy them?
By the 1930’s people were beginning to recover socially and financially and this coincided with revolutions in manufacturing. Rubber and plastic were becoming common in the design, and use of everyday objects and prams were no exception. Rubber wheels and handgrips began to crop up, and wicker and wooden strollers were kicked to the sidelines in favor of the fabulous new metal models.
At the same time the world discovered bling, or to be more exact chrome, and as this inexpensive innovation replaced the expensive brass parts so the costs of prams came down and their popularity went back up again. With their mass production becoming viable, baby carriages were now thought of as a necessity instead of a luxury.
7 A Fashion Statement
Hand in hand with these innovations in building baby carriages came to the new wave of social and cultural confidence that was the hallmark of the 1930’s. The Great War had caused permanent shifts in the status of women, and they became confident in expressing their personalities through the purchases they made in a way that had never happened before.
Likewise, the time when people were accepting of being born into a particular role in society and dedicating themselves to the service of a wealthy family had ended, and the possibilities of working for a company or starting your own business had led to families becoming independent of their employers.
These new social structures resulted in families looking a lot more like they do today. People discovered that fashionable items were within their reach and consumerism began to take shape.
All of these fledgling consumers were looking for items to buy that fitted their new lifestyles but also reflected the trends of the time. Art Deco was a popular visual arts style of the time that was frequently reflected in the goods available in the stores, including baby carriages. Elements of other popular artistic movements were seen in the design of strollers.
6 Wartime Safety
Unfortunately this new found confidence was cut short in many areas by the outbreak of World War II. Resources were once again in short supply, and there was little appetite for beautiful design at home while families were split by war.
Baby carriages that might have been relegated to the scrap heap were repaired and repaired again, being passed around families and friends to get every last piece of use from them because money and goods were in short supply.
In some countries, baby carriages were explicitly made to keep babies safe in the event of a gas attack. All civilians in these countries were issued with gas masks, and drills were regularly held to ensure they were able to access and put on their masks quickly and easily. There were gas masks made specifically for babies, but they were large, cumbersome items that were like bulky baby sized canvas sleeping bags with a plastic window and gas filtering apparatus.
In these circumstances, it would not be impossible, but it would be incredibly awkward to take your baby for a walk in a stroller along with the baby gas mask, and in the event of a gas attack you would have to get on your own mask and quickly get your baby into a pouch. To solve this issue, a pram was designed that was essentially a gas-proof box that could be open for strolling and quickly closed should an attack take place.
5 Spitfire Strollers
In the 1950’s baby carriages grew larger again and designs on both sides of the Atlantic reflected fashions in vehicle design. Then the new found passion for science in general and space exploration in particular during the sixties was seen in pram designs, but there were no truly new innovations in the basic idea around baby carriages until 1965.
The daughter of London Aeronautical Engineer Owen Maclaren complained to her father about how difficult it was to travel with her child and a pram. Maclaren was famous for his work on the undercarriage landing gear of the Spitfire aircraft, and he adapted his aeronautical invention of folding landing gear to create the world’s first folding stroller.
The Baby Buggy stroller design allowed the pram to be folded in on itself instead of having to take the body of the pram off of the chassis and fold the chassis flat separately.
The small wheels and easy one-handed folding mechanism allowed parents to collapse their buggy while still holding their baby.
The Mclaren website says that it was “A design so revolutionary and timeless it has been recognized as a design icon and is treasured in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and the Design Museum in London, as well as in book references in Phaidon Design Classics, Dyson Icons of Design, and Century Makers as “one of the hundred most clever inventions that have changed our lives over the past century”
4 Keep Up Kiddo
Innovations are often born out of regular people tweaking items they already own, to make that item work better for their own life. This was true of Maclaren and the umbrella folding baby buggy, and it was also true of the jogging stroller.
Phil Beachler was a news editor of the Yakima Herald-Republic, the newspaper for the area in which he lived when he and his wife had their first child, Travis.Beachler wanted to spend more time with his baby son, but he was also an avid runner, racing competitively, and did not want to reduce the time she spent training.
The solution was obvious to Beachler, he would take his son with him in his stroller, but he also knew that the trails he would be running were rough, irregular, and rocky which would be too much for a regular baby carriage to cope.
Beachler took a regular stroller and replaced the back wheels with bicycle wheels and instead of two wheels at the front he had one. In some ways, the stroller had come full-circle, back to a three-wheeled front facing design. After using his homemade stroller in a local race, Beachler was approached by other runners interested in his stroller. So began a business that then grew into an international phenomenon.
3 Don’t Forget The Multiples
All of this history and all of these photographs and not one mention of strollers for multiples? We’ll have to remedy that then won’t we?
Nobody is entirely sure when the first double stroller was made nor where it appeared,
but one of the first mentions of one can be found in an 1881 novel called What the Angels Saw on Christmas Eve, in which one character finds the entrance to his home "blocked by a double baby carriage” that had helped to convey a detachment of young visitors.
Most of the earliest models were just regular baby carriages that had been built a little bit extra wide or extra long to accommodate two babies at once. They usually consisted of two small benches within the body of the stroller, one for each child.
One designer, Joseph B. Schaefer, specified in his patent for a twin stroller in 1917 stated: “The primary object of the invention is the provision of a carriage body of this character wherein either twins, or two babies of different ages can be easily placed and conveniently held therein without discomfort to either one or both and the operator of the carriage.”
2 Collectible Carriages
Strollers, baby carriages, and prams do not strike most of us as a typical collectible but the way in which they reflect the trends in society at the time in which they were built appeals to a surprisingly wide range of people. As with other items, some collectors have a wide-ranging interest. Some are fascinated by all things stroller and collect anything related to the very first baby carriages right up until the modern day models. Others focus on a particular period or are ardent fans of a single manufacturer.
It does not take much work to find plenty of these stroller fans on the internet. For example, the online pram museum talks about: “Heinrich Nowak, a German collector who has amassed an amazing collection of European prams, strollers, and carriages. He has named his collection "Bewegte Kindheit" meaning "Moving Childhood." In German, the word "bewegte" means moving in two senses -- referring to motion, but also to an emotional feeling.
"Bewegte Kindheit," then, evokes the sense of prams beautifully as the vehicles of childhood, and also the emotions felt by those of us who love them. Herr Nowak is currently planning a museum in Germany where his collection will be displayed.”
1 Pram Museums
There are a surprising number of pram museums dotted around the world. Buildings packed full of prams and accessories can be found in the United States, Japan, and across Europe.
Anette Fogelstrom, of Sweden, first fell in love with Silver Cross prams when she was given dolls one as a child. She was not able to have one for her own child because it would not fit in her car, but in later years she began to collect both vintage and modern models. Fogelstrom ended up with so many strollers she opened a museum expanding her range from Silver Cross to multiple manufacturers.
Janet Pallo and Judy Kaminski are twins from Jefferson, Ohio who also turned their passion for strollers into their business. Their website says they are:
“The only Victorian Perambulator museum of its kind in the world offering more than 250 antique baby carriages (perambulators).
The world’s largest known collection of early wicker baby and doll carriages. Handmade from natural fibers and fashioned into intricate, ornate designs and distinctive shapes, each carriage is a work of art. Unique displays of pre-1900 children’s sleds, dolls, velocipedes, farm wagons, toys, books, games and many other items are also on exhibit.”
References: thebirdfeednyc.com, maclaren.us, wretchedshekels.wordpress.com, prammuseum.com, retrotogo.com, gotlandsbarnvagnsmuseum.se, perambulatormuseum.com, articles.latimes.com