J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

“5,000 Scraps of Fabric” from 18th-Century London

On Saturday the Guardian in London ran a fascinating article about an exhibit that opens this week at the Foundling Museum. It opened in 1739 to look after infants whose mothers could not care for them.

In the mid-18th century thousands of poor women, similarly at the end of their tethers, deposited their newborn babies at the hospital. A sign instructed them to leave some kind of identifying token pinned to the child in the event they were one day in a position to take it home. Neither the name of the mother nor the baby would be recorded, so this token needed to be memorable and distinctive. . . .

5,000 of the infants deposited came with some kind of token attached. And by some lucky chance these tokens, mostly comprising bits of fabric carefully pinned to the baby’s admission billet [as shown above], have survived. . . . The exhibition’s curator, Professor John Styles of Hertfordshire University, is emphatic about the significance of these 5,000 scraps of fabric, mundane and beautiful, lumpy and sheer. They comprise, he explains, nothing less than the biggest archive of 18th-century materials surviving in Britain, probably in the world.
(Yes, the curator is an expert in decorative arts and fashion named Styles. He must hear about that a lot. He has his own webpage about the exhibit, and another about hand-spinning.)

The Guardian article goes on to discuss the difficulty of finding evidence about ordinary people’s dress in the eighteenth-century British Empire, and concludes, “even women at the very bottom of the pile – obliged to give up their babies because of poverty, illness and family breakdown – were able to participate in the new economy of pretty things.” A third of the token are ribbons, not scraps of cloth. Of course, these tokens were meant to be out-of-the-ordinary, not what any other baby would come with, so the mothers had reason to seek out the most unusual fabric they could afford.

As for the babies themselves:
Two-thirds of the foundlings died, which sounds shocking until you remember that nearly half the children born in London at the time would perish in infancy. . . . Within a few days of being received the children were shipped out to the country, where they were suckled by wet nurses. If they managed to survive for six years, they returned to Bloomsbury for some solid if rudimentary schooling. From there the boys were apprenticed in a variety of trades and the girls prepared for a life in service.
Less than 1% of the mothers ever returned to ask for their children, but apparently in those rare cases the token system did work.


Joe said...

A great article and a superb 1775 Boston website. Thanks for all the great educating.

K L said...

Thank you for writing about this poignant exhibit, and for the notice of the new Common-Place. All excellent reading. Kit

Myrt said...

Can you imagine -- fabric from the 1700s? Amazing!