A Short History of Cradles
The first piece of furniture many people used to encounter in this world was a small swinging or rocking bed known as a cradle. Now largely superseded by cribs or cots (which were both originally also swinging or rocking), the cradle has a long history and was also typically one of the first pieces of furniture to be acquired in new households, preceded only by beds, chests, and tables.
The earliest and most common type of cradle is the rocker, derived undoubtedly from a half log, hollowed out to provide a secure resting place for the infant. From this to a simple box mounted on transverse curved sections was a short step, but a far cry from the miniature “great beds of state,” richly carved and furnished with elaborate and costly hangings that were used to cradle the children of royalty.
A particular American favorite is the type common with the early Colonists, characterized by sloping sides and a hooded end, most often made from simple nailed pine boards, although examples exist that represent in miniature all the major period styles, from Gothic to Art Nouveau.
Almost as venerable is the type of cradle that consists of an open container suspended by hooks, chains, or rope from a standing frame. The earliest known example of this type is a Gothic cradle made at the end of the 15th century and reputed to have been used by Henry V (who, however, was born a hundred years earlier!). The box is simply pegged together and suspended between two standards or uprights braced on a flat frame. At the other extreme, in terms of construction, is a design illustrated by the famous 18th-century cabinetmaker Sheraton, in his Cabinet Dictionary, which includes a spring mechanism designed to keep the cradle rocking for an hour and a half — a function now accomplished by electric motors in this age of preoccupied childcare providers.
Graham Blackburn is a furniture maker, author, and illustrator, and publisher of Blackburn Books www.blackburnbooks.com) in Bearsville, N.Y.