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Today, childhood is considered a special period in every person’s life. It is a carefree, precious time of curiosity, games, and everyday discoveries. However, such understanding of childhood is relatively modern: for centuries, a child was reckoned an “underdeveloped” adult. The way people perceive and raise their children characterises different cultures and societies. In this article, we suggest investigating paintings and ornaments of the 19th – early 20th cc. and exploring what activities, values, and ideas were associated with childhood in Russia of the past.

From Birth to the First Step: Under the Protection of Cradle’s Ornaments

The first space that a child could explore was their own cradle or cot. A child would stay in the cradle until they learnt to walk, or until another baby was born in this family. Sometimes a child continued sleeping in their cot until the age of 2 or 3. In peasants’ dwellings, the cradle had a utilitarian function: tight swaddling protected a baby from falling out of their bed, so a mother could swing the cot and do her household chores at the same time. Peasants hung cradles up to the ceiling: it protected a baby from draught as hot air went up. People also believed that evil spirits who lived under the floor could not get to a baby sleeping in the hung cot. Special ornaments that covered edges of the cradle safeguarded children, too. Cots were also adorned with different scenes that depicted important life moments: through such images, adults wished a child to grow strong, kind, hard-working, and lucky.

Paintings on Cradle’s Borders as a Way to Wish a Child a Happy and Wealthy Life

A painted cradle with a writing and a date: 1867. The Northern Dvina, Permogorye. Painting on wood

This cot from Permogorye Volost was made by two craftsmen: the first artisan chiselled the form from wood, while the second one adorned it with painting. The shape and decoration of the cradle proves that the carver was as gifted as the painter: it is evident from accurate proportions of the cot, beautifully cut edges, and small knops placed on the item’s corners. The painter made the cradle even more beautiful, emphasising its sophisticated silhouette with patterns and colours. The painting has a light background, while the lower edge and legs are coloured dark green. The dark shades outline the painted images and serve as a frame, thereby turning the scenes on each side of the cradle into completed pictures. The dark tones also emphasise the ethereality of floral patterns and the accuracy of the outlining ornament. The images are coloured red, green, and yellow. Red serves as a dominant shade: it makes the cradle look festive and fancy.
The painting includes several scenes, each outlined with green and red flowers and plants. For instance, the painter depicted a tea party on the headboard: two people sit at the table with a samovar. A woman with a baby on her knees sits next to them. A scene on the opposite board depicts a hunt: two boys stand in front of a tree and aim at a bird that sits on the crown. On one of the sideboards, there is an image of a family going somewhere in a horse-driven carriage. The opposite board contains the picture of a boy with a squeezebox and two girls busy with some work.

A Kind Wish to a Baby

A painter decorated one of the boards of this cradle with a cot of the same shape. 1830s. Permogorye. Painting on wood

Quite often the theme of a painting gave a clue to the purpose of an object. On the board of this cot, a painter depicted a baby after the bath. Two women swaddle them and put them to their bed that hangs down from a pole (called ochep in Russian). The cot on the picture is a precise copy of the very cradle on which the image is painted. Windows and shelves with tableware indicate that the scene takes place inside a dwelling.
The painting is very vibrant and fancy: the child’s mother spreads her hands; she is ready to take the baby and carry them to the bed. The elder sister carefully holds the baby and swaddles them. The writing on the surface is both a description and a wish to its owner. It says, “This cot is for a little baby, for them to sleep and to wake up, and for them to grow up, to become kind and smart, to learn the God’s statutes and to respect their parents.”

The Central Place in a Dwelling

A cradle. Second half of the 19th century. Village Bol’shoy Dvor near Tsivozero. Painting on wood

Lush floral ornaments decorate the external boards of this cradle. The item came from an old house which interior was adorned with same paintings. Probably the cradle was decorated simultaneously with the house and was placed in the centre of the dwelling.

Childhood in a Big Family

The 19th and early 20th centuries are the period when big, patriarchal families proliferated in Russian villages. The main principle of upbringing there was to respect the elders. To teach respect, people not only told their children the rules of conduct or showed an example, but also resorted to corporal punishments and restrictions of various kinds. Quite often desires of a child faded into insignificance and gave way to what the elders in a family deemed more important. Yet, folk paintings usually did not refer to the difficulties of upbringing in a peasant family. In the scenes of feasts and tea parties, portrayals of children added to the imagery of a big, strong, and wealthy family.

A Distaff. A “Tea Party” Scene

A distaff. A fragment that shows a scene of a tea party. First half of the 19th century. Several settlements of Mokraya Yedoma. Painting on wood

In the first half of the 19th century, the lower part of distaffs from Permogorye was usually decorated with scenes of feasts. Young spouses welcome guests at their house. The mistress of the house with a female headgear holds a baby in her hands. The master of the house carries a decanter to the guests who sit at the table with a samovar. In this concluding painting of the series, a painter showed well-being, prosperity and family harmony. These things people would wish a young girl for whom this distaff was made.

A Family Dinner. Painting on a Breadbox’s Cover

A family dinner. Painting on the cover of a breadbox. Mid-19th century. Permogorye. Painting on wood

This oval container, a breadbox, is decorated in a lubok style. A painter depicted a scene of a family dinner. There is a big bowl on the table; three people sit and eat: a bearded man (the head of the family), a young woman, and a boy.

Business First… Raising through labour

Children had to work from an early age: they did household chores and helped adults. For instance, at the age of 6-7, peasant children would graze cattle, look after animals, and take care of their younger siblings. Paintings on household items can tell a lot about many other activities of children in villages.

Picking Berries in the Woods

Berry picking in the woods. Painting on a basket. First half of the 19th century. Permogorye. Painting on wood

The painting on this small basket depicts two figures walking one after another: a woman with a basket walks ahead, she is followed by a boy with a dog on a leash. Probably they are a mother and a son who went to a forest for berry picking.

Painting on a Breadbox

Mushroom hunting in the woods. A fragment of the painting on a breadbox. Mid-19th century. Permogorye. Painting on wood

This breadbox has a lubok decoration with the similar image of a boy with a dog who follows his father on his way to a forest. The man holds a basket in his left hand and carries a knapsack (called pester’ in Russian) made of bast fibre. Based on the size of the carriers, we can suppose that this time, the characters go mushrooming.
A painter showed how busy these people are: a viewer can feel the brisk gait of the man and see how the boy tries to catch up with him. In these tiny images, the master even manages to give us a hint about the age of the characters: young boys are beardless, adults have a short curly beard, and old men have a long and grey-haired one. Boys are always dressed as adults, the main difference is in their height.

A Family Craft

Painter I. Mazin showed how distaff bases (dontse in Russian) were produced in Gorodets. Early 20th century. Nizhny Novgorod Oblast. Painting on wood

Many peasant families earned their living producing distaff bases. All members of a family could participate in this work, including women and children. A craftsman who knew the whole process very well depicted it on one of the bases and supplemented each image with a title. The board has a rectangular shape, images are organised horizontally. We see many people busy with work: a man has a thick beard and moustaches, other males are beardless youngsters; there is also a woman with a child. Perhaps they are a family: the bearded man is a patriarch, the woman is his wife, the two young boys and the child are their sons. The scene takes place in front of a house that exemplifies the style of peasant dwellings in the region.
In the upper-left corner, there is a sawbuck with a log. Two boys cut it into pieces from below and from above to produce planks. A writing next to them says, “Cutting an aspen for bases,” which means that it was the material for distaffs. Below this scene, the painter shows how planks are cut into smaller pieces that will later become distaffs’ seats (bases). This operation is titled “Cutting planks.” The head of the family “chops bases” by himself. The elder sons pound and hew a distaff’s “head” – a stand for a comb. Then the father and the son plane (smoothen) all the items. The wife and the youngest son perform the easiest task: they stick “heads” to distaffs.
The painting has a golden background, all the characters are dressed in bright clothes coloured blue, red, or green. The edges of the picture are outlined with the thick stripe of curly grass. The work looks like a pictorial panel that can be hung on a wall.

…Pleasure Afterwards. Toys Helped Children Explore the Environment

Adults made toys to amuse their children. However, such items also served educational purposes. They helped a child learn more about their environment and natural phenomena, distinguish colours and shapes, explore plants, animals, houseware, and various instruments.

A Toy “Troika”

A toy “Troika.” 1930s. Gorodets town. Woodcarving, painting on wood

Gorodets toys are lightweight and composite. Quite often they were made of splinters or thin logs. The author of this unique “red troika” depicted strong, rushing horses. Their thick curved necks make the impression of an impatient movement. Wide green, black, and white stripes are their harness; their mane is painted with thin white lines, as well as ornaments on the carriage. Several stars on horses’ necks add to the overall painting and “flaming” colours of the animals.

A Toy “Two Harnessed Horses”

A toy “Two Harnessed Horses.” 1930s. Gorodets town. Woodcarving, painting on wood

Contrasting colours emphasise the expressively carved silhouettes of these two horses. Black and red shades are supplemented with bright yellow and white elements. The style of this toy refers to the folk painting of Gorodets town. Researchers argue that such figures depicting horses coloured black or purple might refer to the state postal service.

So Real

A distaff base. A toy. 19th century. Bone carving

This miniature, rectangular distaff base is made of bone in an openwork technique. It is decorated with two ornamental rosettes and small prongs on its edges.

A Toy “Wet Nurse”

A toy “Wet Nurse.” 19th century. Sergiyev Posad City. Woodcarving, painting on wood

Such toys that portray wet nurses were made in Sergiyev Posad. Their stiff pose is the sign of the significant role of wet nurses, while the slight incline of the figures might be a dignified bow. The style of this type of toy has much in common with baba dolls (“baba” means “woman” in Russian).

A Dummy “Wet Nurse”

A dummy “Wet Nurse.” The Workshop of Gavriil Salov. First half of the 19th century. Sergiyev Posad City. Woodcarving, painting on wood

A “dummy” (Russian: bolvashka) is a wooden model for making papier-mâché toys. This dummy that depicts a wet nurse with a baby was produced by the Workshop of Gavriil Salov in Sergiyev Posad. The imagery of a peasant wet nurse has always had particular dignity in folk arts. The artisan who worked on this dummy explored all the properties of wood as a material. Soft curves create a well-balanced, composed silhouette. This dummy is a unique example of an early 19th century toy from Podmoskovye (a region where Sergiyev Posad is located).

A Toy “Boy under the Tree”

A toy “Boy under the Tree.” 19th century. Sergiyev Posad City. Woodcarving, painting on wood

This figure called “Boy under the Tree” was made by I. Stulov, an artisan from Bogorodsk. The toy dates back to the mid-19th century.

A Toy “Wet Nurse,” “Barynya under an Umbrella”

A Toy “Wet Nurse,” “Barynya under an Umbrella.” 1880s. Bolshiye Gonchary near Tula. Sculpturing

Toys that portray townswomen in fashionable outfits, wet nurses carrying children in their hands, and monks come from Bolshiye Gonchary Sloboda near Tula and date back to the 1880s. Their authors replicated clothes of their epoch and maintained the stylised imagery of a toy at the same time.

A Toy “Nanny with Children”

A toy “Nanny with Children.” A. A. Mezrina. Late 19th – early 20th cc. Vyatka town, Dymkovo Sloboda. Sculpturing

This toy “Nanny with Children” was made by a famous toymaker, Anna Mezrina.

Education Was Not for Everyone

Although folk paintings include scenes of lessons and classes, education was a rather exclusive thing in the 19th century. For instance, children of serfs (in Russia, serfdom was abolished as late as 1861) could study in parochial schools only. They were not allowed to enter senior or higher education institutions. Only after the Emancipation Reform of 1861, there emerged so-called peasant schools of literacy and rural (village) schools that implied the three-year cycle of basic education. However, peasants themselves believed that the main purpose of education was to learn skills that allowed solving everyday problems.

Learn Letters From… Gingerbread

A gingerbread board. Early 19th century. Vyazma town. Relief carving on wood

Accurate, delicate, rhythmic patterns cover the surface of this gingerbread board. It has 48 rectangular sections, each containing three Cyrillic letters “В” (“V”), “Я” (“Ya”), and “З” (“Z”) that stand for “Vyazma” – a place where famous pryaniki (the type of gingerbread in Russia) came from. When a big pryanik was baked, it was cut into 48 small pieces. The three letters were the only decoration of each sweet. Peasants appreciated gingerbread adorned with writings and used it as decoration. There are samples of gingerbread boards where writings are meaningless, because their makers used letters only as ornaments. Even one letter was considered an adornment, especially for small pryaniki. Usually such pryaniki were produced with the help of alphabetic boards that contained all letters of the Cyrillic script. Some children even learnt their first letters from such bakery.

Book Wisdom

A literacy lesson. A detail of the painting on a basket. The 1830s. Permogorye. Painting on wood

Two persons sit on opposite sides of a table: a grey-bearded man and a beardless boy, both are dressed in full-length garments. The man holds an open book in his hands, the boy writes something down in a notebook with his quill. This is probably a scene from a literacy lesson. Perhaps the author of this work wanted to make its subject as clear as possible – that is why the book is widely open, so a viewer can read a text written on its pages: “Blessed is the man…”

Doing Homework

Doing homework. A detail of the painting on a basket. The 1830s. Permogorye. Painting on wood

Another scene shows the same boy alone. Apparently, he does his homework: he sits and meticulously writes the same words with the quill: “Blessed is the man…” The rest of the phrase did not fit in the page, but the beginning of the sentence reveals that the boy writes texts from the Psalter. In the past, peasant children would learn reading and writing skills with the help of this ecclesiastical book.

Lace for Restless Children

A child’s dress. 1902. The St. Petersburg Governorate. Coupled lace made of cotton threads

The idea of what childhood is and what children can do changed over time. Yet, children were restless, active, and curious at all times. This dress decorated with fine lace was made by girls who studied in the School of Lacemakers in Rozhdestveno, a village in Tsarskoselsky Uyezd. The fancy garment was presented at an exhibition. Perhaps adults loved such a cute dress, but it is hard to imagine a minor wearing it. Snow-white, thin lace is not a good choice for the clothes of a little child.

Works cited:

  • Russian Folk Carving and Painting on Wood: From the Collection of the Zagorsk State Museum-Rreserve of History and Art [in Russian]. O. Kruglova, 1983
  • Russian Folk Painting [in Russian]. S. L. Zhegalova, 1984
  • Russian Folk Arts in the Collection of the State Russian Museum [in Russian]. I. Ya. Boguslavskaya, 1984
  • Russian Bone and Ivory Carvings of the 18th – 19th cc. [the catalogue of the collection; in Russian]. I. N. Ukhanova, 2005
  • The State Historical Museum [website].
  • Experts from the Municipal Budgetary Institution of Culture “Memorial Estate of Vasily Surikov.”
  • Russian Bone Lace [in Russian]. V. A. Faleeva, 1983
  • Peasant Children in Russia of the 19th – early 20th cc. [in Russian]. Chrestomathy. Vol. 1. Local editor: E. G. Ponomarev. Stavropol, 2009.

Editors of this article: Natalia Tolkach, Elizaveta Berezina.

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