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  • The History of the Playpen November 2, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback


    The playpen originated when a hunter-gatherer mother realized, many thousands of years ago, that she could keep her child in a safe corner of the cave with a simple barrier. But when did the business of playpens becomes serious, when were the first commercial models available in the shops? Beach set himself the task of trying to get at the origins of the first marketed playpens this morning. Apparently the breakthrough came in the late nineteenth century, though, a lot, obviously, will depend on the vocabulary used. In the English-speaking world, at any rate, the phrase ‘baby cage’ was adopted, a rather unpromising way of describing the product. Note that, in the eighteenth century, a ‘baby cage’ apparently (no contemporary references found) referred to a wickerwork version of what we today call ‘a walker’.

    The earliest version that can be purchased and that is helpfully illustrated came out in 1888 in Dundee, Scotland. The baby cage in question doubled as a cot.

    It may have been an idea whose time had come as in 1889 in Exeter an ‘adjustable cot’ was released that could double as a baby cage and a go cart!

    By 1899 there was even an article on how to improvise a baby cage with two chairs, some mesh and a wall…

    By 1915, ‘baby cage’ had become established as the term for what we today call a playpen, at least in British English: Every mother knows what restless little mites babies are…’

    A new development took place in 1922. In the United States one Emma Read put down a patent for a ‘portable baby cage’: the above comes from the patent. A baby cage with wheels then? Was Emma ripping off the go-cart-baby-cage hybrid of a generation before? Not a bit of it. Emma had designed a cage that could be, Beach’s throat goes dry, hung outside windows so that babies would get plenty of fresh air! (See the picture at the head of this post). Incredibly the idea caught on, though there was a lot of freelance adaptation: sorry Emma.

    The first report from Britain comes in 1923 when an engineer in Bloomsbury decided to hang his baby fifty feet up: again dry mouth.

    A reference from 1926 meanwhile had an aristocratic family put up a galvanized iron cage outside their front door so that their children could play and not risk the local roughs!

    By 1931 they were being used at an unnamed London hospital. Note that in 1925 the connection between sunlight and vitamin D had been discovered, making the cage even more attractive to city-dwellers.

    In 1934 Poplar council (poor inner city London) voted to pay for baby cages in some of their council houses. Then the idea seems to wither: did the Luftwaffe perhaps put pay to it in British cities? The last reference Beach has found is to 1937 which was when, allegedly, the photograph at the head of this post was taken, in Chelsea, London. That baby may be alive somewhere in the English shires today…

    As to the word ‘playpen’ the longer Oxford English Dictionary brings us back to 1931 and an advert in the Daily Express: ‘play-pens in best hardwood.’ Here is a reference from 1914, predating the OED by some fifteen years. An Americanism perhaps? Most likely ‘baby cage’ became the window playpen leaving the field open to other more promising terms in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Can anyone, particularly using US sources, help us go backwards? Also, this is very morbid, but did the baby cage ever fall from a fifth floor window? drbeachcombing AT gmail DOT com [NOTE NEW EMAIL!]