Collections Visits

Textile tokens from the Foundling Museum: objects full of feelings.

I have been lucky to visit The Foundling Museum in 2019 and 2020. It has become a favourite of mine; in this short article I try to explain some of the reasons why this museum and its very one of a kind textile collection, stays in my heart.

The museum opened in 2004, as the legacy of what was originally the Foundling Hospital, funded by royal charter in 1739. Not a hospital as a medical institution, but as a place to look after abandoned children, this enterprise became possible thanks to the hard work and persistency of Captain Thomas Coram. Sustained originally by private sources of income and thanks to the patronage of successful artists, such as Hogarth and Handel, the Foundling would become not only an institution caring for vulnerable children, but a highly respected public art gallery and fashionable musical space. 

It was funded in a time when the abandonment of children (and infanticide) was prevalent in Georgian Britain. The Foundling had the double purpose of caring for abandoned children as well as taking the burden of the mothers, giving them a second chance to work and live free of stigma. However, as resources were limited, not all children could be admitted, and therefore a system of selection by ballot was imposed from 1742 until 1756 (Wedd, 2004), the year when Parliament started to fund the Hospital upon the condition that every child would be accepted. 

The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard, numbered for a key, engraving after Louis-Philippe Boitard, 1753: via Wellcome Collection (CC BY)

As a key step of the process, the mother would leave a token with the child (many of them, swatches of textiles). Sometimes the textile was cut in half and the mother would keep the other piece. As the original identity of each baby was erased by the hospital, the token acted as a mean of identification in the event of the mother being able to reclaim the child if her circumstances improved. 

The tokens were left mainly from 1741-1760, as from 1759 a receipt system was introduced. By 1800 it had admitted a total of 18,600 children, from which over 500 families asked to have their children back (Bright and Clark, 2015), using the token process. Nowadays, the textiles belong to the collection of the Foundling Museum and many of them are stored at the London Metropolitan Archives.

The fact that these objects became part of the Foundling’s textile collection, the fact that visitors can engage with them, and the fact that they can be interpreted today, means that all those babies were never claimed back. Knowing this can make the observer feel the emotional energy that still lives within this object (a token). As Hancock (2010) suggests, the materiality of an object invites the observer to consider the materiality of ‘the other’; in this case, the ones whose bodies and lives were connected to this piece of fabric. The lost stories of the mothers and the babies are linked forever in those humble pieces of fabric, in each of their threads.

Representation of the Form and Manner in which Exposed and Deserted young Children are admitted into the Foundling Hospital. Illustration by Nathaniel Parr, 1749.

Many institutional collections have been amassed and bequeathed by wealthy and privileged individuals, and such collections display their power and status. However, this is not the case at the Foundling. The collection is one of a kind, its objects are relatively cheap fabrics that tried to emulate the sumptuous silk clothing which was so in vogue. As the survival of historical textiles is extremely rare and, in most cases, only clothing from the upper-classes, the Foundling collection is the best example in England, and according to Styles (2010) maybe in the World, of 18th Century working-class textiles. They are an invaluable source of information about the cotton industry and the printing techniques that were developed at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, the encounter with this collection can evoke strong emotional responses from the observer, such as empathy towards those women and babies; as Watson suggests, those emotional experiences are connected to the way we see the world through a moral lens (Watson, 2016, p. 83).

A heart cut from red woollen cloth, a ribbon of blue paduasoy silk, and a piece of linen diaper (c) Coram. Foundling 10563, a girl admitted 22 November 1778. Image courtesy Foundling Museum.

This is the period when Britain was reaching its expertise in producing printed colourful cottons and linen, copying the desired chintz from India, which had been banned due to protectionist measures (Styles, 2010). This information is key to understand that the tokens were pieces of textiles produced as a response to high demand for these colourful fabrics, even among ordinary people who formed the mass of the population. As stated by Styles (2007), these textiles were part of the consumption machinery that was transforming Britain in the 18th Century.

After having reflected on these objects, it can be said that they are able to introduce different narratives, which could serve as a bridge to connect with the audience. It can bring true wonder to realise how a tiny piece of fabric can be interpreted from so many angles, and can tell so many stories. These textiles can be seen as the material proof of a period full of inequalities and struggles. So many narratives around this object could be told, to mention just a few: the lack of choice and societal expectations of 18th Century women; children’s stories and their chance of progressing; and consumption habits among the lower classes.

The circumstances of the women who handed over their babies were varied (Styles, 2010); deprivation, stigma, pain, and suffering could be common themes, most of them will remain anonymous forever. Not all of them left a token, but the fact that many did could have been a sign of hopes of reclaiming the child. They were mothers of limited means, they left affordable textiles, but most of them with fashionable designs. Even delicate details can be observed in many, in which babies’ names and birth dates had been carefully embroidered.

Henry Nelson O’Neil, A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris, 1855 © The Foundling Museum. Image courtesy Foundling Museum.

On a personal level, as an observer, I felt that this object was connected to the body of the mother -cutting the textile from her own dress or the baby’s clothing- and I felt the weight of the baby, being handed from her hands to the hospital’s hands forever.  I believe we can escape context, and that objects are powerful by themselves, however, sometimes -as in this particular case- I choose not to escape context. With no context at all, even if the object would not be completely silent, it would have not been able to tell such a story. No other object or collection has moved me the same way in a museum and made me feel the fragility of life, affecting my sensory experience completely and pushing a wave of emotion through me.

Images courtesy Foundling Museum:

Further reading:

  • Bright, J., Clark G. (2015) ‘The Foundling Hospital and its token system’, Family & Community History, 18(1), pp. 53-68.
  • Hancock, N. (2010) ‘Virgina Woolf’s glasses: material encounters in the literary/artistic house museum’, in Dudley, S. (ed.), Museum Materialities. London: Routledge, pp. 114-127.
  • Styles, J. (2007) The Dress of the People. Yale University Press: New Haven & London.
  • Styles, J. (2010) Threads of Feeling; The London Foundling Hospital’s textile tokens, 1740-1770. Lamport Gilbert Ltd: Reading.
  • Watson, S. (2016) ‘Why Do Emotions Matter in Museums and Heritage Sites?’, in van Boxtel, C. (ed). Sensitive Pasts: Questioning Heritage in Education. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Publishers, pp. 75-91.
  • Wedd, K. (2004) The Foundling Museum: A Guide. Harris, R. and Tharp, L. (eds.). The Foundling Museum: London.

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