Car seats are perhaps the most crucial piece of parenting equipment on the market today. In fact, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, out of every four unintentional injury deaths of a child, vehicle crashes are to blame for one. However, their data also shows that the rate of motor vehicle crash deaths per million children has dropped by 76 percent since 1975. The combination of safer vehicles and advanced car seat safety technology means more kids are living through to adulthood.
While teen drivers are another scary statistic, at least when they’re young, using the right car seat has a high chance of helping them walk away from a crash. And although original child seats were nothing more than hanging chairs or boxes to contain infants, today’s seats have serious strength when it comes to protection and restraints.
Car seat safety didn’t become a serious industry until parents and car manufacturers began designing their own car seats. In fact, it took until 1971 for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to adopt federal standards for car seat manufacturing and safety. After that, each state began introducing laws about child restraints, with all of them forming some regulations by 1985, according to SafeRide4Kids.
Over the years, car seats evolved from simple seats to give kids a boost to see out the window into steel-framed and lifesaving equipment for young children.
20 Getting A Boost
Early in the life of the automobile, parents came up with sack-like “seats” to contain their children while they drove. In 1933, SafeRide4Kids explains, a company produced seats that were like booster high chairs, allowing parents to see them propped up in the back seat. Later seats allowed kids to see out the window, too, but didn’t do much in the way of protecting them in accidents. In the bottom left of this display from the Henry Ford Museum, you can see an early car seat that was barely a chair let alone a safety device. On the right is a seat that’s a bit newer, but still focuses on function rather than protection.
19 The Kid In A Bag Model
Initially, car seats were for containment, so it’s not that surprising that someone came up with this sling-like concept. Maybe they thought that softer materials were better for babies, but that also meant a bit of jiggling when the car went over bumps. Then again, many modern babies enjoy car rides, so maybe it’s an age-old tradition that’s just become a little safer over time. A canvas “sack” to hold the baby was all parents needed back in the 40’s and 50’s to carry their kids around without fearing they’d fall out the window or crawl underfoot. Fortunately, even baby bouncers have more safety features these days.
18 Riding In Comfort
How many times have us adults reclined our seats while someone else is driving, whether to catch some sleep or just stretch out? Well, before child safety seats became a “thing,” reclining seats were parents’ go-to way to corral kids. Maybe the idea was that a child who was lying down would be safer if there was a collision, but it also makes sense if parents were doing this with smaller infants. For a baby who can’t sit up, you have to have some way to keep them stationary and be able to keep an eye on them. Back in the day, parents also opted to place a bassinet or other baby bed in the back seat for their tots.
17 Baby Seats For Fun
Though the first seats from the 1950s did a decent job of containing babies, the over-the-seat-back models likely jostled the tots with every turn. But then again, going for drives was a family pastime, and including baby in that was a necessity. Many of the earlier seats, like the one pictured, even added a steering wheel for baby to play with while mom or dad drove. And though there’s a crotch strap to keep the kid from sliding out, there is only a waist belt to keep the baby secured. Plus, what would mom or dad do with an infant that couldn’t yet sit up?
16 Baby In A Box
We can only guess that this early car seat was a parent’s attempt at keeping a baby contained and somewhat comfortable during drives. It’s a metal box that appears slung over the seat back, with a chair-like back and what appears to be a foot rest. One can guess that there probably aren’t any straps to hold the child in- rather, this seat mimics other early attempts at keeping baby immobile while letting him see out the window while mom drives. It’s not a bad first stab at a car seat, especially in a time when there weren’t any ready-made options available.
15 Tiny And Terrified Driver
This little baby looks as scared as a car seat safety tech would be at the installation and use of this seat. Yet another over-the-seat model with a steering wheel for baby, It’s mostly metal bars. Although, we can at least be grateful that the child wasn’t crawling all over the seats and floor or hanging out the window- which used to be a thing! While there may be a buckle on this seat, baby’s not strapped in for this photo. It also looks like the little one is either too small for the seat or doesn’t exactly enjoy riding in it.
14 Dapper Dude Driving
Another tiny tot in a metal-bar car seat comes from a 1957 photo op. Although seatbelts were a “thing” by this time, no one had caught on yet to the dangers of suspending babies over the seat backs. And from the photos from that time, most babies rode in the front seat with their parents in these contraptions. We can guess that’s for “safety” reasons, so mom and dad can keep an eye on the baby. Surely car seats of any kind were almost a luxury back then, and there still wasn’t a governing body to tell parents what to use or how to use it.
13 Vintage Tot Cruises
Although this baby from 1962 looks like he’s having a good time, the seating arrangement would make modern parents gasp in concern. Without any straps except for the waist one, a baby was at the mercy of physics. Plus, that clamp on the top of the seat probably wasn’t as secure as today’s LATCH or seatbelt connectors, meaning baby and his seat became a projectile in the event of crash. But back then, no one knew any better- 3-point vehicle seat belts didn’t even come out until 1959. It’s safe to say the whole family took a gamble every time they loaded up for a drive.
12 Y-Strap And Rear-Facing
In a show of genius in 1964, a man named Bertil Aldman designed the very first rear-facing car seat. The Swedish professor recognized the protective effects of rear-facing car seats, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute reported. Thanks in part to Professor Aldman’s work, Swedish children began riding rear-facing since the mid-1960’s. Today, Sweden maintains an almost 100 percent rate of compliance with child seat laws. Swedish kids also routinely rear-face to at least four years old! But unfortunately, rear-facing infant seats didn’t come to the US right away. It was a few more years before the US recognized the need for child restraints that provided crash protection.
11 Padding And Positioning
This seat more closely resembles today’s models, with the extra padding and even a headrest. But this model came from 1970, and though the focus was more on safety than anything else, comfort was still important. Plus, no one had performed the tests and studies we have today that show how dangerous car accidents are to children’s developing bodies. Sure, junior may have been comfy while the car was driving, but in an accident, this seat still left plenty to be desired. However, this seat came right before the federal standards were established for car seats- meaning it may have been one of the last of its kind.
10 Seat Belts In Miniature
Another photo of a 1970 infant seat clearly shows a miniature seat belt across the baby’s shoulder. Though we wouldn’t dream of anything less than a five-point harness today, seatbelts were still a relatively new invention and parents didn’t have the knowledge we do today. Still, this seat made an attempt at not just restraining baby for mom and dad’s convenience, but also applied the principles of vehicle safety on a smaller scale in an effort to keep babies safe. Today, we’d like to see a baby this age rear facing still, but back then, this was probably the safest mode of infant transport available.
9 Early Rear Facing Attempts
Although this 1970’s-era rear facing seat was an innovation at the time, it also took advantage of seats that turned backward independently. So the back of the rear-facing seat was supported by the vehicle’s seat back, and the child simply sat on the seat the way he normally would. The difference is straps that resemble a four-point type of harness. Although this child could probably fidget and slide out due to the lack of a crotch strap, AKA five-point harness system, the benefits of rear facing likely outweighed the potential drawbacks. The same applies today- only we have more comfortable and safety-minded seats for kids to rear face to around age four or older.
8 Ford Rolls Out First Seat
You may not think of Ford as anything other than a vehicle brand, but in 1968, it also offered a car seat. The Tot Guard was offered to buyers of new Ford vehicles as a child safety system. The seat included a cushion in front of the child’s face to stop them from pitching forward in the event of an accident or a hard stop, Phil and Ted’s reported. It used the vehicle seat belt, which didn’t actually touch the child, to hold the “shell” over the child’s lap. Although parents wouldn’t want to use this system for a small infant, for older kids, it offered a more comfortable and, theoretically, safer ride than just a seat belt.
7 Baby, Or Pile Of Laundry?
At first glance, this baby’s seat more closely resembles a laundry basket than a safety device. But it was GM’s first attempt at an infant seat, the Infant Love Seat. Not only did this seat rear face and hold babies up to 20 pounds, but the company also offered a forward-facing toddler seat, too. And while it looked deceptively heavy, the seats were hollow inside, making them relatively lightweight. According to multiple sources, the Love seat was available in the late 60’s to 70’s and was the standard for parents of infants- plus it was a portable seating option for tots, the way parents see infant seats today.
6 Old School Style Seat
Although this seat looks similar to others from its era, with the metal bars and leather padding, it has more in common with today’s seats than you’d think. Even though car seats made great strides in terms of comfort, this parent chose to add their own car seat cover with style. While parents in the 70’s may not have known about flame retardant properties of fabrics, modern parents are cautioned against using after-market accessories for car seats because of documented dangers like seats catching on fire or kids suffering injuries in accidents. Still, it’s nice to finally see a harness on a car seat rather than a wimpy strap across the middle!
5 Camper Van Cozy
While there’s no proof in the image, an educated guess would place this pair of seats in or around 1970. Considering the fact that these two girls are in what looks like a camper van- complete with pull-back curtains on the windows- the 70’s seems like a possibility. There’s also the fact that while one seat still has the metal frame and vinyl padding of yesteryear, the other seat is mostly plastic with fabric covering. And yet, that ever-present plastic steering wheel is still around- as if 20 years isn’t a long enough run. But it wouldn’t be much longer before the steering wheel would disappear completely in favor of more safety features.
4 Innovations In Infant Seats
By 1980, companies had figured out how to scale down the vehicle seats of yesterday to fit babies. Rear facing infant seats became the norm. Similar to seats for toddlers that featured plastic restraint systems, this seat had a sizable piece of plastic as the center point of the harness. And although it has a fresh-looking baby, this seat wasn’t strictly an infant carrier, such as the one I rode in around 1989! Today, you may see this type of buckle on a child’s swing or other ride-on toy, but back then, chest clips didn’t exist yet and plastic panels were the key to restraining kids.
3 A Whiff Of Modernism
Now this is a seat that looks more like what we’re familiar with today. This toddler seat rolled out in 1990 and likely resembles what most millennials rode in as children. Whether this was before or after the phenomenon of car seats with overhead “arms” is uncertain, but the plastic chest panel is a familiar component. If parents today thought they had it bad with configuring straps and clips, imagine trying to work the straps and plastic piece over your toddler without whacking them in the face with it. Kids today are absolutely spoiled when it comes to the features and comfort of car seats.
2 80s Babies Reminisce
As an 80s baby (1989 to be precise), I recall riding in a booster just like this 1991 Evenflo Shield. Everyone around my age likely remembers the car seats that snapped over our laps, whether in booster form or a high-back seat with a harness. Those pesky snap-down pieces were obnoxious over our legs, but they also proved a decent spot to rest a book or toy. Compared to today’s booster seats, however, these were sorely in need of padding and aesthetics. Plus, although most boosters are incompatible with lap-only belts, I distinctly remember riding in mine with only a lap belt.
1 Built-In Convenience
Although they’re uncommon nowadays, there was a time when many minivans and other vehicles came equipped with built-in child safety restraints. Talk about convenience! Parents only had to unzip a section of the seat’s cover, flip a section down, and load the kids in. This photo comes from a 1994 Dodge Caravan that had built-in seats, but other online sources have images from Volvo cars with similar seating capabilities. Sure beats switching a 30-pound car seat from vehicle to vehicle every time you switch cars or ride with a friend. Then again, the lifespan of the seats may not be worth the cost of adding them on, since most kids will only fit the height and weight requirements for a short time.
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