What a beautiful baby boy! Oops, I mean baby girl!

by Meredith McGovern, Art and Culture Collections Manager

You know how it goes — you’re at the grocery store and a well-meaning stranger attempts to compliment you on your child, but accidentally mistakes it for the opposite gender. Some parents try to curb this by dressing their son or daughter in a gender-specific color (pink or blue) or clothing style (dresses). What about our ancestors? How did they avoid this problem, particularly during the 19th century when the littlest children — both girls and boys — wore dresses? The answer: hair styles! Back then, parents meticulously combed and parted their sons’ hair on the side, brushed it forward, or curled it in a topknot; they parted their daughters’ hair in the center and combed it down.

Let’s look at a few examples from the Indiana State Museum photograph collection. Remember, the trick is in the part — little boys wore side parts, little girls wore centered.

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If you have any, look through your family’s 19th-century photographs. Can you identify the boys and girls based on their hair styles?