Q: I recently found an old diary in which my grandmother wrote this about my uncle: “today the baby was shortened.” What in heaven’s name could she have been referring to? She was born in 1893, grew up around Philadelphia, and had my uncle around 1925. She was Catholic so it couldn’t have had anything to do with circumcision.
A: We were stumped too, until we found this definition of “shorten” in the Oxford English Dictionary: “To put (a child) into short clothes.”
The dictionary defines “short clothes” as “an infant’s short-coats,” which wasn’t much help. Nor was this definition of “short-coats” in the OED: “The garments in which an infant is clothed when the long clothes are laid aside.”
It turns out that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, both male and female newborns were clothed in dresses (long clothes) that came down below their feet.
When the babies were a few months old and beginning to crawl, they were “shortened”—that is, clothed in ankle-length or calf-length dresses (short clothes or short coats) so they could move around.
In the May 1913 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, a doctor answers a question from a young mother about baby clothes. Here’s an excerpt from “The Young Mothers’ Class,” by Emelyn L. Coolidge, MD:
“This time I have some questions to ask you about the baby’s clothes,” said the young mother to her doctor. “First I want to know at what age you think a baby should be changed from long clothes to short ones, and how long these first short clothes should be.”
“Usually in these days it is considered best to put the baby in short clothes when he is three months old,” replied the doctor. “He is not then hampered by long skirts when he needs to kick and develop his legs; but if he happens to reach this age in the coldest weather you had better wait until it is a little warmer before making the change from long to short clothes, which should be of ankle length.”
[Update, Aug. 20, 2014: A reader of the blog notes that the most often-heard reference to short clothes these days is
probably in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers. Marco and Giuseppe, in their introductory song, describe themselves as "For gallantry noted / Since we were short-coated."]