I visited the Threads of Feeling exhibition at the Foundling Museum about a month ago. Here, belatedly, are my notes.
Between 1741 and 1756 there were about 400 “forsaken children” left at the Foundling Hospital each month. Then the hospital was granted Parliamentary funding and the number of babies rocketed to 4000, nearly half of them from outside London. Some came from as far away as Cornwall, Northumberland and Wales in the hope of finding a safe home for their infant. Parliamentary funding was discontinued in 1760 amid concerns that it was encouraging women to give up their babies too readily.
Neither the names of the mothers nor the infants was recorded; the hospital renamed the children on arrival in order to provide them with the chance of a fresh start in life. (Many mothers did name their babies and leave their names anyway.) So mothers were instructed to leave a token so that they could be reunited at a later date. Tokens included coins, rings, padlocks and keys, watch seals, coral necklaces and more – but the most common token was a fragment of textile, often clipped from the child’s clothing upon arrival.
Since babies’ clothes at the time were made from womens’ clothes – gowns, petticoats, cloaks, neckerchiefs, shifts and caps. The textile tokens left with infants would often be from the same sources, so they represent what (mostly poor) women were wearing: woollens, light worsteds (such as camblet and calimanco), linens, cottons and mixes – sometimes plain, sometimes with woven or printed patterns.
While their means might have been few and far between, women “did not live in black and white”
Towards the middle of the century printed linens and cottons made an appearance, standing in for the printed silks that the well-to-do were wearing – a trend that stimulated the technologies which kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Popular motifs – printed or stitched –
[No men’s fabrics: kerseys, fustians, thicksets, corduroys]
There was no colour-coding by gender – that is, no blue for a boy or pink for a girl. Instead, girls would wear ribbons gathered together in a “topknot” while boys would wear a “cockade”, a sort of rosette inspired by the decorations worn by military men, particularly on tricorn hats. Ribbons, a cheap and versatile accessory, were universally recognised as the currency of romance and love – particularly poignant under circumstances of separation and loss. Ribbons made up the “fairings” exchanged by lovers at festivals and on holidays. (“Oh dear, what can the matter be?” is the lament of a jilted girl waiting for her swain to return with a promised bethrothal gift of blue ribbons.)
Embroidered figures were also common – acorns, butterflies and birds and flowers being relatively common — symbols of renewal. Letters ranging from articulate to scrawlings, too. Only in about half of the cases is there evidence of maternal dismay; but then on the other hand, only in a few cases is there evidence of neglect. Very few of the babies were ever reclaimed; in fact, the majority – perhaps two-thirds – died before reaching adulthood.