Although Victorians are remembered for dressing their boys like Little Lord Fauntleroy, Civil War children actually wore a range of styles.
New clothing for children of the Civil War era was hard to find during wartime, especially in the South, so most wore practical clothing suitable for a variety of occasions and with hems that allowed room to grow. Hand-me-downs from older siblings were very common. However, the overall philosophy on kids' clothing was that they should be dressed like little grown ups.
Farm boys or town apprentices wore heavy, coarse, durable fabrics that could withstand the hard daily labor. Jackets and pants were made from denim or canvas. Children during the Civil War also wore cotton shirts, woolen vests (in cool weather), and suspenders (not belts) to hold up their pants. Wide-brimmed straw hats protected outdoor laborers from the sun.
Country boys typically went barefoot in summer, but in the city, boys wore low cut leather boots. In poor rural areas, a boy might not receive his first pair of boots until he was old enough for his feet to stop growing.
Wealthy young men, or any male trying to dress up for a special event like the delivery of the Gettysburg Address, wore loose dark suits over white dress shirts with broad bow ties. Male children in the Civil War era basically dressed the same as father, but their jackets were waist-length and only buttoned near the top.
In warm weather, boys wore knickerbockers or short pants instead of long trousers, but this was only allowed until a boy reached his teenage years.
All males were expected to have neatly cut hair. Men wore tall silk or beaver fur hats, such as the famous stovepipe hat that Lincoln liked to wear, but young men only wore soft caps with short visors.
Victorian girls wore long dresses made of cotton or linsey-woolsey, which is a woven linen and wool blend. The dresses buttoned up to the throat.
Outside, female children of the Civil War era used simple cotton bonnets that tied under chin to protect them from the sun. Girls wore their hair cut until they were 9 or 10 years old, because wearing her hair up had a special significance meaning that she was older and more mature.
All Victorian females, including Civil War children, were expected to wear layers under the skirt of their dress to make it appear fuller and wider. This could be accomplished with a crinoline made of linen and horse hair, cotton petticoats, or hoops made of steel or whalebone.
Girls dressed like their mothers, but they never wore hoops and their dresses were mid-calf length instead of ankle length. The dress of a 12 year old ended an inch or two below the knee then was lengthened an inch or two each year to gradually reach just below the ankle by age 18. Full-grown women wore lace up corsets to reduce the size of their waist, but young girls only used a belt or girdle, if anything.
Ladies going out for a lot of walking wore high top leather boots that required a small hook to button.
In our modern world of pink versus blue from the moment a sonogram can be read, it is hard for us to comprehend that Victorian society, which kept grown men and women in very different worlds, lumped all babies together as neutral. Both sexes wore dresses that reached their feet!
For very young children in the Civil War era, hair was worn in the same style, too, falling to the shoulders in loose curls.
Under age 5, Civil War children dressed alike except that girls sometimes wore crinolines. However, young boys always wore looser petticoats under their dresses. Around age 5, a boy gave up his skirts and started wearing short or long trousers or knickers. From this point on, he was expected to develop manly personality traits, but before that, he was a dress up baby doll just like the girls!
Growing up was a tough process for Civil War children, but they made the best of what they had when it came to clothing.
While visiting, modern kids in the Civil War town of Gettysburg will appreciate the experience more if you tell them what life was like for Civil War children their age or let them try Civil War costumes. The Battle of Gettysburg is more real and interesting for kids in Civil War clothes.