Childhood was a time of various experiences; depending on your parentage and community, events in the world around and economic circumstances, it could be a happy carefree time or filled with hard work and poverty. To learn more about our Childhood collection in Ayrshire please take a look at our on-line exhibition; a digitisation project linked to our current When We Are Young exhibition at The Baird Institute, Cumnock.   When We Are Young is an exhibition of play and recreation for children and adults, celebrating how we have played in the past. Supported by Museums Galleries Scotland, the exhibition offers space for community-curated displays, where local people will tell the story of how they played in the past.    

Through the ages, until relatively recently, it was not even a given that a child would make it to adulthood. Improved medical services and developments in hygiene understanding mean that diseases which were once rife are no longer the danger they once were. Quite often a child would die, sometimes along with their mother during birth or shortly after. Smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles and tuberculosis were just some of the illnesses which could afflict the whole population, and children with their lower resistance and lack of vaccines frequently succumbed. The contagious nature of the illnesses and the close conditions of housing meant whole families could be wiped out within days. Today, the infant mortality rate is very low in comparison. 

In Scotland, after the birth of a child, a drink of whisky was taken, called the 'blythe meat', and following the baptism of a child, a gift of food - the  christenin' piece - was often made to the first person encountered when leaving the church. The ceremony was nearly always in a church, and it was important for luck to ensure that the child was not taken into any other building until it had been to the church. 

Before the introduction of Education Acts and suchlike, few children went to  school  full-time; the poorer classes could not afford to pay for classes and they required to work with the family or for someone else. Children were frequently employed as chimney sweeps because of their ability to get into small spaces - this, however, was a dangerous occupation and many were killed. Jobs on the farm were undertaken by children, such as scrubbing, fetching water, helping with washing, collecting eggs and obtaining wood for the fire. 

However, although it was hard work, it was good exercise and little excess money for luxuries meant that children had fewer sweets and a good diet, generally. There were still the unfortunate who frequently went hungry but vegetables and little meat was the mainstay.

Before the advent of television, children would spend evenings, especially in the winter, listening to the wireless with their family. Games included  tug of war, hopscotch, hide and seek and dodgie. Toys were often homemade, and examples include the gird and cleek, whip and peerie and the yo-yo. The gird and cleek consisted of a hoop and rod, usually metal, which had to be rolled along with the 'cleek' for guidance and building speed. A whip and peerie was like a spinning top with a string attached; this also had to be kept going with the string. Conkers was played, especially by boys, who tried to smash each others stringed chestnuts with their own. Girls played with skipping ropes and if they were lucky, they may have had a  doll . The more affluent families could afford a china or wax headed doll, but poorer children had rag dolls made from scraps of material. For a time, golliwogs were popular, but fell out of favour in the later 20th century as they were deemed to be racially derogative. Occasionally a lucky child would find themselves with a painted wooden or metal rocking horse or a set of tin soldiers, usually if their parents were affluent. The downside to belonging to the upper classes, however, was that a child was rarely looked after by their mother, but had a nanny or governess instead. Families were generally much larger, with as many as ten children being not unusual. 

Books  were comparatively expensive, so when not listening to the radio or playing, children had a variety of magazines to choose from. They bear little resemblance to the type of publication available today for children from preschoolers to teenagers.  Girls' Own (published 1880-1956),  Boys' Own (1879-1967) and  Hotspur  were particularly popular, with adventure stories, advice articles and other columns. Girls also had recipes and fashion pieces. 

During the war many children found it a time of worry and fear. Not least because of the invasions themselves, but many were separated from their parents for their own safety and sent to live in the countryside. For some, this would be their first taste of rural life and many enjoyed it, but there was the constant anxiety for their parents who were still in the towns and cities. 

Children in rural areas were already expected to participate in the running of the farm, but in wartime they were sometimes excused from school for this reason. The effort to keep the economy as stable as possible was even more vital at this time so all hands were needed; many farm labourers had enlisted and were away fighting.  Gas masks were issued to each child, who received instructions on usage and were expected to carry it at all times. 

During World War II, boys collected all the scrap metal they could find for the war effort - it contributed to the manufacture of planes and weapons - and the Scouts were used as messengers and signallers. 

The Scout movement began in the early 20th century, established by Robert Baden-Powell. The basic intention was to instil in young people good values such as service to others. Morals at the time would not permit the mixing of boys and girls (they were also separated in many schools) so the Girl Guides were formed. They worked on the same principles as the Scouts - they were originally the Girl Scouts - and soon after groups were set up for younger movements - Brownies and Cubs. These are still ongoing worldwide, and it is estimated that approximately 50% of UK women were in the Guides at some point. 

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