"I knew how to do that before I was out of leading strings!"
"Don’t treat me as if I were still in leading strings!"
"She manages the poor man as if he were back in leading strings!"
We have all read some variation of at least one of these remarks in at least one Regency romance novel. The first time I encountered the phrase was in Georgette Heyer’s novel, The Nonesuch, so it will always be cataloged in my mind as a "Heyer phrase." But just what were leading strings, when and how did they evolve, who wore them, when, how, and by whom were they used?
Leading strings were a serendipitous discovery which began as hanging sleeves. The origins of the hanging sleeve go back to the Middle Ages. However, the type of hanging sleeve which was to give rise to leading strings developed in the latter decades of the fifteenth century. These late-fifteenth-century hanging sleeves were a mere vestige of the large and complex hanging sleeves found on the garments of previous decades. They were essentially a pair of long tubes of cloth, usually of the same fabric as the garment, which fell free from the shoulders to just above the level of the hem of full-length gowns.
From at least the Middle Ages until the mid-eighteenth century, for the most part, children’s clothing was modeled on that of adults, though the styles of garments made for children changed much more slowly than did adult fashions. Thus, children from the late fifteenth century wore outer garments, typically called coats or dresses, that included hanging sleeves which hung down their backs. It did not take long for their mothers, nurses and other care-givers to discover how convenient those long strips of cloth were in keeping crawling babies out of danger as they explored their floor-level world. These same vestigial hanging sleeves were also quite beneficial in assisting toddlers to walk and in gently controlling their direction to ensure a safe path for their first faltering steps. For well over a century, though the fashions in children’s clothing slowly changed, hanging sleeves were retained on the outer garments of the very young.
By the seventeenth century, the hanging sleeves on children’s clothing had become somewhat narrower and shorter, no longer hanging nearly to the hem of their dresses. It seems that they first began to be called leading strings at about this time, though this is one phrase which is conspicuously absent from the Oxford English Dictionary, so it is difficult to be certain of the date. It is curious that these lengths of cloth were called "leading strings," as they were always attached to the backs of children’s garments, never the front, and were used more to steer toddlers trying to walk rather than to lead them. Leading strings were much more like the reins used to guide a horse than they were a leash used to lead a dog.
As the seventeenth century slipped into the eighteenth, leading strings become even more narrow. By this time, they might be made of the same cloth as the garment to which they were attached, but they might also made with ribbons of matching or contrasting colors. There are records of leading strings for particularly large or heavy children being made of a sturdy cord rather than ribbons or lengths of cloth. By the early eighteenth century, most leading strings were still sewn to the shoulders of the child’s outer garment. But in some cases, leading strings were pinned to the shoulders of the outer garment. Thus, only one set of leading strings would be needed for a child, regardless of the number of garments in their wardrobe. This seems to have been more common among those of lesser means. There are also a few children’s garments in museum collections in England which have a pair of bound slits at the shoulders, similar to large button-holes. Some scholars speculate that these slits were for the purpose of passing the leading strings, probably ribbons in these cases, though the outer garment so that they could be attached to the child’s corset. Yes, corset. From the beginning of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century, nearly all children, both boys and girls, were put into corsets as babies. Corsets for children were never boned, but they were made of multiple layers of sturdy linen or cotton. They were usually quilted or corded for strength. The intent of these corsets was to keep the child warm and to begin, at an early age, to train them up to have good posture. Corsets would also have been the perfect garment to which to attach leading strings, particularly for very active and energetic toddlers, who might tear leading strings from their thinner, less sturdy outer garments.
There is much evidence to suggest that leading strings were more likely to be worn by the children of the aristocracy, the gentry and the upper middle classes. The memoir of William Hutton, growing up in a poor family in the 1730s, seems to support this theory. Young William was aware that his beloved little sister was not like other, more affluent, children in their area, because she did not wear leading strings. Her loving brother saved his pennies to buy a packet of string from which to fashion leading strings for his little sister. But, when he attempted to place his leading strings under her arms, he tells us, " … the dear little thing informed me by her cries that I hurt her." And so, his little sister remained free of leading strings. However, there are some records of women of the working classes who had leading strings on their children. Many of them seem to have been women who had no servants, and used the children’s leading strings to keep the little ones out of mischief or harm’s way as they dealt with their many demanding house-keeping chores. In some cases, these women did treat leading strings more like a leash, using them to tie their toddlers to a bed-post or other heavy piece of furniture indoors, and a tree or a fence outdoors, to keep them safe while they worked.
Up until the mid-eighteenth century, most children were taken out of leading strings once they had learned to walk properly. In most cases, at about age three or four. Mothers were always very proud to report this milestone in their child’s development to family and friends. There are some letters, and diary entries, in which women write with satisfaction of cutting the leading strings from the clothes of their son or daughter, once they felt the child no longer needed the support. Children of privilege might even get new clothes which had no leading strings, once they had learned to walk. However, in the last decades of the eighteenth century, it became the fashion for young girls of the upper classes to have hanging sleeves, sometimes called hanging bands, on their formal gowns. These were worn as a symbol that they were still a child, under their mother’s care, and not of marriageable age. These hanging sleeves were broader and shorter than leading strings, but are often mistaken for them. The situation for boys was different, as they were taken out of leading strings as soon as they learned to walk, at about age three or four, never to wear them again. They would be breeched a few years later, and the style of their clothing at that stage would mark them as still within their childhood.
Some social reformers and physicians began writing against the use of leading strings in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but their opinions were not quickly heeded by the majority of the public. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was a strong advocate of all things natural, particularly in the raising of children, believed that leading strings should never be used. An issue of The Lady’s Monthly Museum, in 1799, cautioned mothers against the premature use of leading strings. In his book, Advice to Mothers, first published in 1809, Dr. William Buchan warned women that the use of leading strings could lead to any number of ills, including "habitual indigestion" or "consumptive complaints." By the Regency, many mothers, especially those who thought themselves forward-thinking, chose not to put their children into leading strings. But the use of leading strings did not die out during the Regency. They were still in use by some mothers well into the nineteenth century, typically by very conservative women who refused to relinquish the traditions of their own upbringing. Leading strings were also still used by women who had no servants or other help and still found them the most convenient way to keep their children safe while they worked.
Most people of the better classes who reached adulthood during the Regency would have worn leading strings as children. Some children of working class families might also have worn leading strings, though their leading strings might have been more restraining leash that guiding rein. Everyone in the Regency would have known the meaning of the term "leading strings," associating it with childhood and powerful parental controls. There were some progressive young Regency mothers who would have decided to forego leading strings for their own children. That decision could easily have brought them into conflict with a conservative mother or mother-in-law who felt that what had been good enough for her children should also be good enough for her grandchildren. Young mothers might also have anguished over whether or not they should use leading strings, considering the respected doctors and reformers who were writing against them, predicting a host of dire consequences to the child if they were used. Many upper class young girls would have worn hanging sleeves attached to the back of the dresses and gowns they wore in public. This practice was still fairly common as the Regency began, but it was dying out as that decade came to an end. So, Dear Regency Authors, the term "leading strings" has many possibilities for use in a Regency novel beyond a means by which to convey extreme youth and/or the need for adult oversight. How might you use it?