Babywearing in Hogarth’s London

In honor of William Hogarth’s birthday, November 10th, I would like to share the babywearing featured in his March of the Guards to Finchley, painted in 1750. During the summer of 2017, I was fortunate to visit the Foundling Museum in London and see it in person.

March of the Guards to Finchley, Hogarth, 1750

It is important to note that babywearing is a very recent term associated with concepts, like attachment parenting, that were unheard of in the 18th century. I use the term here as a verb to describe “use of an infant carrier”.

Hogarth is one of my favourite artists: the level of detail, characterization, and subject matter of his paintings and etchings keep me coming back again and again to find something new. Hogarth revolutionized the public’s consumption of art with mass-produced etchings of his paintings sold on subscription. He is well known for his moralistic series of The Rake’s Progress and The Harlot’s Progress (the latter of which was made into a miniseries starring Toby Jones as William Hogarth). His style combines realism and the satirical, the serious with the bawdy.

The frame on the original painting at the Foundling Museum.

In this piece, The March of the Guards to Finchley, Hogarth’s satirical sense of humour is in full force. It depicts a fictional troop of buffoonish British troops in Tottenham Court Road, in London, on their way to fight the Jacobean forces in the uprising of 1745. When Hogarth had the painting presented to King George III, it was rejected for insulting the military.

Hogarth’s assistant, Luke Sullivan, created the engraving of the painting for subscribers. An option to be entered into a lottery for the original painting, once completed, was added to the subscription for an additional fee. However, as time drew closer for the lottery there were still many unsold entries. When Hogarth reminded the Foundling Hospital of it, they purchased the remaining entries and won the lottery. Today, of course, the Foundling Museum still owns the painting.

Throughout Hogarth’s work, you can find depictions of infants and children. Other artists often failed to notice or failed to paint infants at all in larger cityscapes, whereas they are all over in Hogarth’s. He and his wife Jane were unable to have their own children and so turned their hearts towards fostering foundlings and supporting the Foundling Hospital, of which William was a founding governor. He set up an art gallery at the hospital which made the Foundling Hospital one of the most popular charities of the time.


In the lower right corner of the painting, we see a woman serving a(nother) drink to (an already fall-down drunk) a soldier. She has a bundle tucked into her folded apron and another apron with two laden pockets hanging open. She wears an oversized redingote with another set of large pockets at her sides. But the focus is the baby, reaching out over her shoulder at the shiny cup.

It is not clear how the baby is attached to her back, but clearly, the infant is being supported in a high-back carry. It is possible that the woman is using a piece of fabric tied in a ruck that blends with the shoulders of her redingote, or that the artist forgot to paint the fabric of a carrier on. Perhaps Hogarth was so used to seeing infants on the backs of serving women that he painted the baby and forgot the carrier (though I highly doubt that is the case with Hogarth’s attention to detail). Alternatively, the woman, who seems to be quite clever in her choice of clothing (no carry-on baggage charges for her!) may have a pocket or hood in her redingote that the baby is set into, like an amauti, a traditional babywearing coat of the Inuit.

The mystery is solved by an early sketch of the painting. Notice that the woman has a strap across her chest, likely attached to the carrier the baby was set into, possibly a basket with a leather strap (seen in medieval art). So my idea that babies on the backs of serving folks were so ubiquitous as to make the carrier used an afterthought.

Towards the centre of the painting, we get a full view of an infant carrier made from a lighter (undyed, natural) colour cloth tied in a simple rucksack: over the shoulders and then wrapped around the back, crossed under the ruck and probably tied or pinned in the front. The woman wearing the infant has secured her black (mourning?) hat with a black ribbon, a hint of her white coif or cap poking out, denoting her age or marital status.

The baby is entirely supported in the fabric, up to its neck, but it is not held snug against the wearer’s back. There is some drape, created by the top rail (the hem nearest the baby’s neck) being snugger than the body of the carrier fabric. The infant would have been able to move their arms and legs within the carrier but not to swing their body side to side.

The tension of the fabric appears to show that the fabric was folded length-wise, sandwiching the infant between the two layers. The baby’s legs are likely folded up inside, allowing the baby to potentially “stand” in the carrier. Though in this particular carry, the tightness of the top rail would prevent the infant from standing very high, as the rail would catch the baby’s shoulders.

Another possibility is that the fabric is a large fichu, a triangle-shaped shawl or a kerchief, which is square but folded into a triangle. In this case, the point of the triangle would be either folded up under the infant (as in a Peruvian manta carry) or secured with the passes of the fabric below the infant.

Both infants have intense stares, the first infant wants the cup, or possibly what is going into it. Infants were given alcohol like wine and even gin to make them sleep, especially if they were crying from hunger or cold; and infants routinely went from breastmilk to beer (small beer 1-2% alcohol by volume) at weaning to avoid water-borne diseases.

Detail from Gin Lane, Hogarth, 1751

There is a woman feeding a baby gin in Hogarth’s Gin Lane engraving. While the motivation of the woman is unclear, Hogarth’s was: gin was corrupting society (but beer ushered in utopian paradise). Another infant in the etching is falling into the canal but the mother doesn’t notice or care because she’s drunk on gin, in the distance, a woman is being put into a coffin while an infant cries on the ground, uncared for, and a drunken chimney sweep has skewered an infant without noticing.

But back to The March of the Guards to Finchley: the second infant stares at a soldier, who is caught between two women. The infant seems as though it is in a quiet alert state, a state in which an infant is most receptive to learning. Does the bright red of the uniform attract the infant’s attention? Or is it something about the man himself? (Daddy?) Whatever it is, it is more interesting than the drummer just behind the baby. The woman on the arm of the soldier is a heavily pregnant ballad singer (her basket is full of printed ballads to sell). She touches her belly and looks pleadingly at the soldier. (The formal analysis of this man is that he represents England in the political conflict, the ballad singer the Protestants and the other woman (that hussy) the Jacobites.) 


What is clear, in both cases, is that these infants are experiencing a lot of stimulus in this ruckus, ostensibly safe on the backs of their caregivers. The infants get an adult’s eye view of the events that are happening around them, something they would not experience in a cradle or in a carriage. The pram (stroller) had yet to be invented, not that one would be able to get it around in a crowd like this.

Infant carriers such as these were ubiquitous throughout Europe as the practice of full-body swaddling slowly went out of fashion, beginning in the 16th century– not that poorer people, the likes of which had to carry infants with them in crowded streets, would have been able to afford full swaddling. The carrier we can see, the simple rucksack, is seen in the works of Stefano Della Bella’s A Woman Carrying Her Baby in Her Arms and Another Small Child on Her Back, Accompanied by a Young Boy created in 17th century Italy (left), in Rembrandt’s Three Beggars at a Door (1603) (right) in the Netherlands, Cornelia Sheffer-Lammer’s Soldier’s Widow (centre) created in the late 18th – early 19th century, just to name a few.

The use of infant carriers was still associated with poverty and itinerancy in the 18th century, as I discussed in Medieval Babywearing and 20th Century Babywearing. The ideal of the time was that an infant should be at home, preferably in the country with fresh air and clean water, with a nurse and servants to care for it. Barring that, an infant should be at home with its mother, no need to leave the house with the baby in tow, save for situations in which they could be carried in-arms.

Yet, the women in this painting needed to keep the baby with them and still get work done. Perhaps they couldn’t afford a place or person to care for the baby while they go out or aren’t from the area. However, both of the infants look healthy and are well dressed. It is possible that the women carrying the infants are not their mothers but are being paid to nurse the infants by wealthier families and had side hustles.

Hogarth’s painting, though satirical in tone gives us a glimpse of often overlooked history, that of mundane infant care. Hogarth was an artist who acknowledged and cared about the most vulnerable in his teaming city. Infant carriers were not associated with any parenting ideology but rather were entirely pragmatic tools, necessary for caregivers who needed to keep babies close and still have their arms free for other work, like serving customers, or for navigating the crowded streets of London– then as now.

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Diez Castilho, Silvia, Antônio de Azevedo Barros Filho. “The history of infant nutrition.” Jornal de Pediatria, 86.3 (2010), 179-188.

Phaer, Thomas. The Boke of Chyldren. (1545) Ed. A. V. Neale and Hugh R. E. Wallis. London: E. & S. Livingston Ltd. 1955.

Stevens, Emily, Thelma Patrick, and Rita Picker. “A History of Infant Feeding. Journal of Perinatal Education, 18.2 (2009), 32–39.

Van Hout, I. C., Beloved Burden: Baby Carriers in Different Countries. Amsterdam: KIT, 2005. Print.

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