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Artifacts of Elegy: The Foundling Hospital Tokens

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 April 2015


This article explores the objects that were left as identifiers for the children abandoned to London's Foundling Hospital in the eighteenth century. Required by the hospital in order to permit a future reclaiming by a parent and to guard against a charge of infanticide, these tokens fulfilled an institutional priority. The token procedure, this article argues, resulted in a class of objects that can be aligned closely with elegy. Occasional objects, the tokens communicate maternal affection and a sense of dislocation. As distillations of grief and imaginative framings of loss, the foundling tokens constitute eighteenth-century artifacts of elegy.

Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2015 

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1 Foundling Museum, Accession number 2005.5.70.

2 As cited in Brownlow, John, The History and Objects of the Foundling Hospital, with a Memoir of the Founder, 3rd ed. (London, 1865), 7Google Scholar. Infants were deposited at the hospital by parents, guardians, relatives, midwives, parish officials, and other individuals.

3 An Account of the Hospital . . . in which is the Charter, Act of Parliament, By-Laws and Regulations of the Said Hospital (1749) in Narratives of the Poor in Eighteenth-Century Britain, vol. 3, Institutional Responses: The London Foundling Hospital, ed. Levene, Alysa (London, 2006)Google Scholar. The token procedure is detailed in the chapter titled, “Of the Numbering of the Children, and making up the Billets,” 54–55.

4 McClure, Ruth K., Coram's Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven, CT, 1981), 48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 An Account of the Hospital, 55.

6 Nichols, R. H. and Wray, F. A., The History of the Foundling Hospital (London, 1935), 125–26Google Scholar.

7 John Styles, in the catalogue that accompanies his recent exhibition at the Foundling Museum, Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital's Textile Tokens, 1740–1770 (London, 2010)Google Scholar, surmises that it was the three-dimensional objects that were removed from the billets at this time, rather than the textiles or notes, because the billets were flattened to permit binding (17). The three-dimensional objects, writes Styles, are “entirely unrepresentative” of the tokens as a whole supplied to the hospital.

8 Two recent publications, both co-authored by Bright, Janette and Clark, Gillian, provide accounts of the tokens: An Introduction to the Tokens at the Foundling Museum (London, 2011)Google Scholar and Fate, Hope & Charity (London, 2013)Google Scholar.

9 Adrian Wilson observes that about half the children admitted during this period arrived with a written token. See his essay, Illegitimacy and Its Implications in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London: The Evidence of the Foundling Hospital,” Continuity and Change 4, no. 1 (May 1989): 103–64, at 141CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Levene, in Narratives of the Poor, reproduces a selection of these notes (see 127–70). Based on a sample bound volume of billets, Levene finds that about two-thirds of infants arrived with some kind of token (xvii).

10 Styles, Threads of Feeling, 17. The period of open admissions at the hospital (2 June 1756 to 31 March 1760) was known as the “General Reception.”

11 These statistics were supplied by Alison Duke of the Foundling Museum.

12 Weisman, Karen, “Introduction,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, ed. Weisman, Karen (Oxford, 2010), 19, at 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 See Table 2.8 in Alysa Levene in Childcare, Health and Mortality at the London Foundling Hospital, 1741–1800 (Manchester, 2007)Google Scholar, 36, for a statistical analysis of the reasons given for child abandonment in the period 1756–60. Acknowledging that documentation sent by parish officials to the hospital might be somewhat skewed regarding the reasons for abandonment, Levene is still able to establish a pattern of parental death and economic hardship from the surviving data. Bailey, Joanne, in Parenting in England 1760–1830: Emotion, Identity, and Generation (Oxford, 2012), 3942Google Scholar, 48–70, makes the case for attending to the emotions of grief and to expressions of parental love as they appear in a variety of genres in the period.

14 Weisman, “Introduction,” 9.

15 Weisman explores elegy as the “framing of loss” in “Introduction,” 1.

16 See, for example, Stewart, Susan, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London, 1993)Google Scholar; Boon, James A., “Why Museums Make Me Sad,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Karp, Ivan and Lavine, Steven D., (Washington, DC, and London, 1991), 255–77Google Scholar; and Schwenger, Peter, The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects (Minneapolis and London, 2006)Google Scholar.

17 Vickery, John B., The Modern Elegiac Temper (Baton Rouge, LA, 2006), 1Google Scholar.

18 Gidal, “Museum Elegies,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, 620–36, at 621–24.

19 Boon, “Why Museums Make Me Sad,” 256, 258.

20 Adamson, Glenn, “The Case of the Missing Footstool: Reading the Absent Object,” in History and Material Culture: A Student's Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources, ed. Harvey, Karen (New York, 2009), 192207Google Scholar, at 192–93. Crane, Susan A. also seizes upon the issue of gaps in collections in “Introduction: Of Museums and Memory,” in Museums and Memory, ed. Crane, Susan A. (Stanford, 2000), 113Google Scholar, at 5.

21 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, “Why We Need Things,” in History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, ed. Lubar, Steven and Kingery, W. David (Washington, DC, and London, 1993), 2029, at 28Google Scholar.

22 By contrast, other mourning objects, such as the early American mourning miniature, because they were painted by renowned artists and because family members were depicted, were conscientiously preserved and survive in large numbers. See Frank, Robin Jaffee, Love and Loss: American Portrait and Mourning Miniatures (New Haven, CT, and London, 2000)Google Scholar.

23 Over the last several years, Bright and Clark have undertaken a project to match tokens with specific children, using the billets, petitions, and General Registers in the Foundling Hospital archive.

24 Burke, Peter, “Is There a Cultural History of the Emotions?,” in Representing Emotions: New Connections in the Histories of Art, Music and Medicine, ed. Gouk, Penelope and Hills, Helen (Aldershot, 2005), 3547Google Scholar, at 39.

25 This point is made by the editors of Chronicling Poverty: The Voices and Strategies of the English Poor, 1640–1840, ed. Hitchcock, Tim, King, Peter, and Sharpe, Pamela (London, 1997), 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the evidentiary value of pauper inventories, see Peter King's essay in this volume, “Pauper Inventories and the Material Lives of the Poor in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” 155–91.

26 The research for this essay is based on an examination of all the surviving billets from the period 1741–55 (except those currently removed for exhibition) and samples, usually from select days of admissions, during the General Reception (1756–60). The billets are held at the London Metropolitan Archives.

27 For the sake of convenience, I use the term “applicant” to refer to anyone who left a child at the Foundling Hospital.

28 For a review essay on this historiography, see Hitchcock, Tim, “A New History from Below,” History Workshop Journal 57, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 294–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 For Hindle's examination of the rhetoric of the poor's survival strategies, see On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England c. 1550–1750 (Oxford, 2004), 157Google Scholar. Hitchcock's chapter, “The Rhetoric of Rags” appears in Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (London, 2004)Google Scholar; references to the begging strategies of the wounded, disabled, and pregnant can be found from 108–17. Hitchcock on the poor as creative actors is in Down and Out, xvi. For Hindle on the agency of the poor, see On the Parish?, 445–49.

30 Levene on abandonment as a “poverty-alleviation strategy” appears in Childcare, Health and Mortality, 9. Hitchcock's study of the economic prospects of women who experienced an illegitimate pregnancy is “‘Unlawfully Begotten on Her Body’: Illegitimacy and the Parish Poor in St Luke's Chelsea,” in Chronicling Poverty, 70–86, at 77.

31 Trexler, Richard C., “The Foundlings of Florence, 1395–1455,” History of Childhood Quarterly 1, no. 2 (Fall 1973): 259–84Google Scholar, at 269–70.

32 Tanya Evans also offers a discussion of the tokens as participating in the language of making shift and of emotions” in her “Unfortunate Objects”: Lone Mothers in Eighteenth-Century London (London, 2005), 139–44Google Scholar. This essay extends Evans's work by arguing for the tokens explicitly as elegy.

33 London Metropolitan Archives (hereafter LMA), A/FH/A/09/001/001, billet no. 11; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/006, billet no. 448; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/001, billet nos. 38, 39; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/002, billet nos. 90, 105.

34 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0017, billet no. 1282.

35 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0010, billet no. 766. In the 1740s and again in 1756 and 1757, when the hospital was preparing for the General Reception, it circulated notices about the token procedure. For the 1745 notice, see Styles, Threads of Feeling, 15. For the 1756 and 1757 advertisements about the token requirement, see Wray and Nichols, The History of the Foundling Hospital, 125.

36 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0010, billet no. 754.

37 See Styles, Threads of Feeling, for how the foundling textiles can be used to map the economic status of the women who left their children at the hospital, 19–29.

38 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0011, billet no. 822.

39 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/007, billet no. 534.

40 On 7 October 1748, a two-month-old male arrived “with a yellow Ribban tyed round / the right wrist where was wrote / my Name is Andrews,” LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/006, billet no. 453. Styles discusses this and other like ribbons in Threads of Feeling, 64–65. For the range of ribbons used as tokens, see 43–51. Styles observes that some of these ribbons were “the very currency of romance” and symbols of love “in circumstances of separation and loss,” 43, 48.

41 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/006, billet no. 497.

42 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/00125, billet no. 11136; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/005, billet no. 436.

43 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/004, billet no. 299.

44 Nichols and Wray, The History of the Foundling Hospital, 125.

45 This statistic is from Levene, Narratives of the Poor, x.

46 The billet with the battledore is LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0026, no. 2137.

47 Levene, Childcare, Health and Mortality, Table 2.7, 33.

48 This line, a common refrain in the documents left with the infants, comes from a note left with a three-week-old female child in 1751, LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0010, billet no. 799.

49 Levene, in Childcare, Health and Mortality, Table 2.2, 18, puts reclaimings at 1.2 percent for the period 1741–99. For the requirement to repay the hospital and some of the contexts of reclaimings, see McClure, Coram's Children, 124.

50 This is Levene's estimate in Childcare, Health and Mortality, 18. See Table 2.2 for the period 1741–99 and her chapter “Risks of Death: The Estimation of Mortality,” 49–67.

51 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0016, billet no. 1184; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/007, billet no. 564.

52 It is not the position of this article that children left without a token were not valued nor that the elegiac operates in all the tokens supplied to the hospital. The article does, however, proceed from the view that the more atypical tokens probably represent a certain intentionality and investment in the parent-child bond.

53 Philips, “On the Death of my First and Dearest Child, Hector Philips,” in Early Modern Women's Writing: An Anthology 1560–1700, ed. Salzman, Paul (Oxford, 2000), 271Google Scholar.

54 Under this general heading fall articulations of elegy in film, paintings, landscapes, photography, war monuments, and museums.

55 Sacks, Peter M., The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore and London, 1985), 6Google Scholar.

56 Anne K. Mellor, “‘Anguish no Cessation Knows’: Elegy and the British Woman Poet, 1660–1834,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, 442–62, at 448–49.

57 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0015, billet no. 1239; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0010, billet no. 788; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0017, billet no. 1276; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/008, billet no. 663.

58 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/001, billet no. 7.

59 An Account of the Hospital, 54–55.

60 See, for example, the note in LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/004, billet no. 333.

61 For a representative note, see LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/005, billet no. 436.

62 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0010, billet no. 722. In an article on the paper tokens, Laura Schattschneider shows how in some poems “the foundling's body becomes a ventriloquist for the thoughts of its parent-authors.” See Schattschneider, “The Infants' Petitions: An English Poetics of Foundling Reception, 1741–1837,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 33, no. 1 (March 2004): 7199, at 75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/004, billet no. 322.

64 In “Unfortunate Objects,” Evans also makes a connection between tokens exchanged between lovers and the foundling tokens (141).

65 Foundling Museum, Accession number 2005.5.375.

66 Levene, Narratives of the Poor, xvii.

67 Mellor, “‘Anguish no Cessation Knows,’” 448.

68 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0015, billet no. 1169.

69 For the association of coral with the transition from long to short coats, see Buck, Anne, Clothes and the Child: A Handbook for Children's Dress in England 1500–1900 (Carlton and Bedford, 1996), 59Google Scholar. The author thanks one of the anonymous reviewers of this essay for directing her to this source.

70 For coral as an amulet for infants, see Pliny, Natural History, vol. 8, ed. Jones, W. H. S. (Cambridge, MA, 1963), XXXII.xiGoogle Scholar, 479. See, for example, Peter Paul Rubens's chalk drawing of his son Nicolaas, Portrait of a Little Boy with a Coral Necklace (ca. 1619) and John Hoppner's The Sackville Children (1796), in which Lady Mary Sackville is shown wearing a coral necklace.

71 Wray and Nichols, The History of the Foundling Hospital, 126.

72 See, for example, LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/006, billet no. 501. Here, a King of Diamonds is inscribed with the dates of birth and baptism of a six-week-old female infant.

73 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0017, billet no. 1254.

74 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0053, billet no. 4338.

75 Boulton, Jeremy, “‘It is Extreme Necessity that Makes Me Do This’: Some ‘Survival Strategies’ of Pauper Households in London's West End During the Early Eighteenth Century,” International Review of Social History 45, Supplement S8 (2000): 4769, at 56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 Bright and Clark, An Introduction to the Tokens, 15.

77 For the proliferation of thimbles during this period, see Pennell, Sara, “Material Culture in Seventeenth-Century ‘Britain’: The Matter of Domestic Consumption,” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption, ed. Trentmann, Frank (Oxford, 2012), 6484, at 76–78Google Scholar.

78 McKenney, Jenny establishes the thimble as a useful and evocative object in her article, “That ‘Bossy Shield’: Money, Sex, Sentiment, and the Thimble,” forthcoming in Lumen 34 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 See Styles, Threads of Feeling, for how the clothing of poor infants was sewn from worn-out adult garments, 29.

80 Schattschneider, “The Infants' Petitions,” 77.

81 For this token, see Bright and Clark, An Introduction to the Tokens, 22.

82 Mellor, “‘Anguish no Cessation Knows,’” 449.

83 See, for example, A/FH/A/09/001/0010, billet no. 778. The note accompanying this male infant refers to the copy of the token kept by the applicants “to compare.”

84 See Styles, Threads of Feeling, 53–56, 70, for the use of child's sleeves, which came in pairs, as tokens, and for the partial embroidered heart that appears in one of the billets, In The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (London and New Haven, CT, 2007)Google Scholar, Styles discusses the choice of patterned fabrics as identifiers for the hospital's procedure, 333. In “Unfortunate Objects,” Evans also treats the textile fragments that were tokens and the halved items that served as tokens, 141–42.

85 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0013, billet no. 998.

86 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/005, billet no. 349; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/007, billet no. 570; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/009, billet no. 705.

87 Mellor, “‘Anguish no Cessation Knows,’” 457–58.

88 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0022, billet no. 1791.

89 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0013, billet no. 1002.

90 Levene, Childcare, Health and Mortality, 37. See also Table 2.8, 36.

91 See Kent, David A., “‘Gone for a Soldier’: Family Breakdown and the Demography of Desertion in a London Parish, 1750–91,” Local Population Studies 45 (Autumn 1990): 2742Google Scholar; and Hurl-Eamon, Jennine, “Did Soldiers Really Enlist to Desert their Wives? Revisiting the Martial Character of Marital Desertion in Eighteenth-Century London,” Journal of British Studies 53, no. 2 (April 2014): 356–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

92 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0011, billet no. 862. This note, from December 1751, identifies the father of the two-month-old female child as Admiral Boscawen.

93 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0026, billet no. 2140; LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/0081, billet no. 6924.

94 The author thanks one of the anonymous reviewers for emphasizing these interpretive possibilities.

95 LMA, A/FH/A/09/001/004, billet no. 258.

96 Boon, “Why Museums Make Me Sad,” 255.

97 Solkin, David H., Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, CT, and London, 1993), 168Google Scholar.

98 Here, I rely on the evidence that Brownlow provides of the hospital's nineteenth-century display of the tokens, 152–53.

99 Levene, Narratives of the Poor, xiii.

100 This is Levene's phrase in Narratives of the Poor, xiii.

101 Brownlow cites a report in which the “most meritorious case” for admissions to the hospital is that in which “a young woman, having no means of subsistence, except those derived from her own labour, and having no opulent relations, previously to committing the offence bore an irreproachable character, but yielded to artful and long-continued seduction, and an express promise of marriage,” The History and Objects of the Foundling Hospital, 26.

102 See Brownlow for the Hospital's governors' and sponsors' naming of children after themselves, The History and Objects of the Foundling Hospital, 42.

103 Schor, Esther, Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria (Princeton, NJ, 1994), 1112Google Scholar, 230–31.

104 Gidal, “Museum Elegies,” 624.

105 Schwenger, The Tears of Things, 77, 6.

106 This statistic is drawn from Levene, Narratives of the Poor, x, and Styles, Threads of Feeling, 12.

107 This phrase comes from the title of Boon's essay, “Why Museums Make Me Sad.”

108 Karin Dannehl, “Object Biographies: From Production to Consumption,” History and Material Culture, 123–38, at 128.

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