Hong Kong 1940's (source:https://collections.lib.uwm.edu/digital/collection/agsphoto/id/23471/rec/76)
The traditional Meh Dai (Mei Tai)
Mei tai/Mei dai/bei dai/ are transliterations of a Chinese word 背带 meaning ‘baby carrier’ A meh dai is comprised of a square or rectangular shape with a four straps (on the top and bottom). Chinese baby carriers are commonly also found with two top straps only but the western meh dai has been adapted from the version with four straps. Meh dai’s are used with both babies and toddlers and traditionally are mainly used to back carry. In western countries they are often used on the front and occasionally even for a hip carry (although this isn’t very common). There are similar carriers which are found in other parts of the world (eg parts of Africa) but it seems likely that the western mei tai was directly adapted from the Chinese version. This is explicitly stated by The Nursing Mother's Association when discussion the origin of their Meh Tai (Meh dai)
"For the last decade we have
advocated the use of a baby sling
similar vo the type in which
Asian women have carried their
babies lor centuries. The sling is
called a "meh-tai". which I
understand is Chinese for baby
The Canberra Times Wed 29 December 1976 page 2
When this style of carrier and similar ones from asian countries like podaegis/ hmong/nyia, and onbuminos became popular in the US in the early 2000’s they were lumped into the umbrella term Asian style Baby Carrier (ABC for short) . When reviews were fist set up at The Babywearer (the most popular online babywearing forum at the time) there were only categories for "traditional carriers" and for "soft pack carriers" and no separate category for 'mei tai'. However it was soon suggested that as these carriers were inspired by traditional Chinese carriers the term mei tai should be used to better reflect the carriers origins. More recently the spelling meh dai or bei dai has become popular as it more accurately reflects the pronunciation in the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects of Chinese respectively.
Traditional Meh Dai’s
There was certainly variety in Chinese meh dais. There was variation in body shapes, hoods made of lattice work fabric strips, shoulder straps padded with plant material, headrests and even pockets! Carrier covers for cooler weather are found too Many traditional carriers are beautiful works of art, embellished with intricate embroidery with symbolic and cultural meaning (I highly recommend the book 'Bonding via Baby Carriers' – there are many wonderful Chinese baby carriers pictured).
Traditional Chinese meh dai’s were usually tied with the straps twisted at the chest and any excess tucked.
The traditional carriers used in Hong Kong had four Straps around 110cm each, tied at a knot at the chest. At the end of one or both shoulder straps the corners were folded over to the centre to form a pocket in which to carry a few coins. In the 19th and early 20th century The panel was quite large measuring up to 60cm. Gradually the overall size of the carrier became smaller during the 20th century. The carriers worn by the Cantonese and Hakka were about 25cm square. The shoulder and waist straps were a continuation of the top and bottom edges. The Hoklo and Tanka fishing people used carriers which were slightly smaller overall, longer straps were fixed diagonally to the four corners. Head supports were often attached. These were made of folded strips of cotton about Icm wide stitched at intervals to form a lattice square and attached to the top edge of the carrier to support the baby’s head. In the 1970’s it was usual to see most young children carried in these cloth carriers. Sadly By the early 2000’s the use of these traditional carriers has almost completely disappeared. Imported mass produced had mostly replaced them and most mothers tended to carry their children in front following Western fashion.
(Chinese Baby Carriers: A Hong Kong Tradition Now Gone Valery Garret Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society © 2001 Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch
Hong Kong 1957 https://www.pinterest.com.au/pin/177188566575051521/
Children carrying siblings Hong Kong 1956 (source https://gwulo.com/atom/22127)
Western children in Hong Kong were usually carted around in prams. The exception to this was in the early's 1940's when Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese and many western families were interned in Stanley Camp. Traditional baby carriers were used by mothers and babies there.
The photo below is a sketch drawn in Stanley Camp of a traditional baby carrier in use. You can see a flat shot of the actual baby carrier pictured in this drawing in an article about a reunion of the camp inmates (the baby grew up and kept it!) Link to article https://gwulo.com/node/30240
Vintage Mei Tai (Meh Dai) - Pre Internet
Early western versions were quite close to the traditional Chinese ones. While there was quite a bit of variety in the traditional ones they generally they had thinner, unpadded, and shorter straps than the meh dai’s seen in western countries today.
Pre Internet - Early Commercially Produced Meh Dai’s
The meh dai seems to have first appeared in the west in Australia first in the 1960’s. Variations may have been around before this in other western countries but I haven’t found any other earlier commercially made examples so far.
There were very few commercially produced meh dai's or similar carriers with tied straps before the early 2000’s. The meh dai (Meh tai) sold be the nursing mothers association is the earliest example I have found. It was quite close to this traditional design with four relatively short straps designed to be tied at the chest by twisting all four straps together. The carrier was also fairly lightweight with thin straps (but the shoulder straps were padded unlike in a traditional carrier). This early version of the mei tai was designed and sold be the Australian Breastfeeding Association (then called the Nursing Monthers Association). It was sold as the Meh Tai and later a version with clip version which did up with buckles was designed.
The ABA meh tai had short straps and could be worn in the traditional way or in this variation. The lower straps were tied around the waist like an apron. Then the baby was held against your chest and the body of the sling pulled up over baby's back. The top straps went up over your shoulders, then crossed behind your back, then each should strap was tied onto the waist straps.
"In 1966, NMAA Founder Mary Paton and her family were featured in a Herald newspaper series about Melbourne families. This busy mum literally flew home from another engagement to meet with the reporter and photographer at her home. Whether by good luck or intention, Mary had her youngest child on her back in a Meh Tai and the photographer suggested she "do something" he could photograph her doing in this strange thing. Mary grabbed the vacuum cleaner and was thus captured for eternity cleaning the house wearing a smart dress and high heels - donned for her earlier engagement! The response from readers was amazing, contacting the newspaper asking where they could buy such a thing - and Mary quickly announced that NMAA made and sold them"
This photo was published by the Herald in 1967 to help publicise the Meh Tai and was used on the Meh Tai packaging and instruction sheet.
Another newspaper photo that appeared on the front of the Wagga Daily Advertiser February 1976.
Below in the Meh Tai instruction booklet from 1984.
Some more examples - produced later but still the same design.
Source: Google Images
There was also a similar style being sold by at least one US LaLeche Leaque group in the 1970’s.
'Later on, in 1975, my second child was born. By that time I was a member of LaLeche League and our little group was making a mai tai-type carrier out of soft denim with a Raggedy Ann or Raggedy Andy appliqued on the seat and selling them for $7. each to support our group! I so wish I had a photo or had kept it. It was so cute! And handy!
Instructions to DIY mei tai like carriers could be found in Family/ DIY/ Mother's magazines in the 60's,70's,80's, but overall information access to traditional baby carriers before the internet allowed an explosion of sharing is fairly rare.
One example can be found in this English pattern book. This design from 1979 is close the traditional in that is has 4 straps of equal length and the top straps are straight across rather than angled but it is being worn in more of a western style (straps are crossed and tied behind baby's bum rather than twisted together at the front)
I have a separate blog post about this pattern if you would like to learn more here.
The Comfey Carrier was likely another early meh dai although I couldn’t find a picture of it to confirm this. This carrier had no buckles, could be used for front and back carriers and included two long straps that the user would cross in back and tie in front. The carriers were around from at least 1989 and they were still being sold in 1997
"It's deceptively simple. It's made of washable cotton stretch velour, no buckles or anything to adjust. You just place the baby on it, bring part of the carrier up through her legs, tie it around her waist, then bring two long straps up over your shoulders, cross them in back or front depending on where the baby is and tie around your waist on the other side. Baby can be face in or out, front or back (4-ways) and (this is the best part) is so secure you can bend down to pick up something off the floor and s/he won't fall out. It's incredible comfortable to wear. I have a bad back and I could hike for hours with a 4-month old in this carrier.
Mei tai’s really took off around the early 2000’s probably at least partly due to the fact that the internet had made the sharing of information about different baby carrier options much easier. A cottage industry was soon born - many online shops were opened with each small company or hobbyist adding on their own distinct twist to the meh dai. These makers developed many of the features and fabrics we see on meh dai's today. There are now dozens of different brands of mei tai’s (some still available new and some no longer in production) with a wide variety of features such as head supports, sleeping hoods, pockets, long padded or wrap style straps, mesh panels for hot weather, and cinchable bodies for easier use with different aged babies. More about this in part 2!
Chinese Style Baby Carriers in Hong Kong https://gwulo.com/node/38670
Chinese Baby Carriers: A Hong Kong Tradition Now Gone Valery Garret Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society © 2001 Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch
Chinese Style Baby Carriers in Hong Kong https://gwulo.com/node/38670
Information about the comfey carrier
https://www.facebook.com/groups/125491030798530/ (public group with some information about the ABA Meh Tai)
Beloved Burden: Baby-Wearing Around the World, 2015 by I.V van Hout (Editor)
Bonding Via Baby Carriers: The Art and Soul of the Miao and Dong People 2001 by Yu-Chiao Lin, Christi Lan Lin, and Brenda Liu Lan
threads from thebabywearer.com (you will need to join The Babywearer to read the posts)
Interesting discussion about the origin of the word 'mei tai' after one vendor tried to trademark it
I love to sew. I have five curious and active kids who keep me busy!