Cumbersome when compared with today's designs, the pram was once the ultimate in baby chic, and freed mothers, nannies and babies alike from the prison of their homes.
Pram manufacturers sold their models mostly through catalogues. These went into great detail about the qualities and fittings of each pram, playing on a mother's desire to provide the best for her child.
Now we have entered the age of the carrycot and the collapsible buggy, the days of the perambulator seem to be numbered. In the course of its short history - it has existed in its present form for little over a century - the pram has been a boon for mothers and nursemaids, a source of high-quality wheels for schoolboy mechanics and a powerful symbol of class and status.
From the very earliest times, pram manufacturers have shamelessly called their models names such as Queen, Princess, Royal or Duchess, in order to exploit people's snobbery and the high hopes they naturally entertain for their children. The most popular names of all have been those of royal residences, like Sandringham, Windsor and Balmoral, names which might suggest to parents that their sons and daughters were receiving the same start in life as the princes and princesses of the realm.
The early manufacturers of the 1840s were deeply indebted to Queen Victoria when she bought three ready-made carriages from Hitchings Baby Stores of Ludgate Hill. The large, high-backed, vehicles she acquired for her children were designed to perambulate
toddlers who could sit up and take an interest in the world.
Though there had for some time been vehicles made for carrying children, they had always been just miniature versions of grown-up carriages, pulled by ponies, dogs, goats or obliging servants. The
mid-19thcentury perambulators, later to become known as Victorias, were quite different in that they were pushed from behind like a bath chair and were designed for the convenience of the mother (or more likely the nursery maid) rather than for the delight of the child.
It was still some years, however, until designs for small babies were put into production. The history of baby carriages began with the appearance of the bassinet on a four-wheeled chassis in the 1880s. At the time it was illegal to take a four-wheeled vehicle on a public footpath, and some people were even prosecuted for pushing their prams through the city streets. Faced with bassinets containing tiny babies, the Law decided to stop making an ass of itself, and pram-makers became free to experiment with any design they liked.
Old prams may be somewhat impractical or even dangerous by today's standards for carrying a baby around, but they can make an attractive and unusual ornamental feature in your home. Many people will have an old pram in the family, or even remember their own pram, and though the basic design has altered little over the years there have been subtle changes in style and function.
A distinctive feature of Victorian prams was the footwell which projected beneath the main body. In a wide tandem pram a larger child could sit with its feet in this well while the baby slept beside it with its head at the other end. The systems of boards and cushions that were used to cover the well varied from make to make. By Edwardian times the footwell was often disguised by larger side-panels.
Edwardian prams were dangerously high but were also extremely elegant:
fittings like the jointed stays that kept the hood open were made of brass, and the grip on the handle would often be porcelain, although plastics like ivorine and celluloid were substituted on cheaper models. After World War 1 the market for prams widened to include all but the poorest families, and the majority of children born in the 1920s would have spent much of their infancy in a Marmet, a Wilson Silver Cross, a Lines or an Osnath.
Slowly, the concern for safety grew. Footbrakes became a standard fitting. The pram body was made deeper, so that it was harder for babies to clamber out, and lower to the ground in case they did manage to escape. By the mid-'20s the fashion was for extraordinarily low prams. By the end of the decade, doctors decided that children were not getting enough fresh air at the bottom of their highsided prams. Prams were therefore raised off the ground once more, onto the larger wheels that had been customary in Edwardian times.
Chromium plating replaced expensive brass fittings, at first only on the more conspicuous parts of the pram, but after World War 2 every exposed piece of metal was chromed, in common with the motor cars of the day.
Although tall prams were still the norm in the 1950s and 1960s, many pre-war manufacturers foresaw the design that would eventually replace them: the lightweight carry-cot and pram.
A Silver Cross advertisement from the late 1930s ran: 'You mothers know what it is to be invited out of an evening and having to leave His Majesty in the care of someone else... Now, with the new Silver Cross Bedtime, you can take Baby on your visits without so much as waking him up.'; an enticing, if rather optimistic prophecy.