Keynote by Professor John Styles, ‘Objects and Emotions: The London Foundling Hospital Tokens, 1741-1760’

The keynote speaker at the Emotional Objects conference, Professor John Styles, has kindly shared the full text of his lecture from 11th October 2013, which is reproduced below. The conference was supported by his five-year ERC-funded research project Spinning in the Era of the Spinning Wheel, 1400-1800.

‘Objects and Emotions: The London Foundling Hospital Tokens, 1741-1760

Marcel Proust, in the first volume of his novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, famously invokes a small cake – a madeleine – to express the unique capacity of objects to evoke emotions and memories. Yet Proust immediately offers a qualification. It is not the sight, nor even the touch of the cake that overwhelms his narrator with exquisite pleasure rooted in memories of childhood, but its taste. Proust’s madeleine carries great emotional power, but a power exercised at a particular moment in a very specific manner. The fictional story exemplifies both the opportunities and the limitations of historical study of the relationship between objects and emotions. Objects can transmit emotional messages, carry emotional associations and evoke emotional responses, but frequently they do so in such a personal, intimate way as to defy broader appreciation. Even when objects are emotionally charged in ways that command wide recognition, that recognition is often restricted to very specific circumstances. Things that exhibit emotional power in one setting can lack it in another. Moreover, even when an object’s emotional charge was widely recognized at some period in history, there is no guarantee it can be recaptured by the historian.           

It is not wholly surprising, therefore, that recent scholarship on the history of the emotions has focused on texts and paid little attention to objects. The object of that scholarship has been not so much the history of feelings, but more the history of how people wrote about feelings. Starting from the assumption that human emotions are less biological constants than cultural constructs, it is through the changing use of words that historians of emotion have endeavored to understand the ways people in the past articulated and understood their feelings. We can, of course, approach objects as a system of signs to be read, a material language. But if objects represent a kind of text, then it is a one that is (and was) exceptionally unstable, elusive, and ambiguous, easy to manipulate and almost impossible to read consistently, a conclusion confirmed by recent empirical studies indicating how difficult people find it to interpret clothing as a form of non-verbal communication about identity.           

So what can objects tell us about the history of the emotions? The records of London’s Foundling Hospital, the first English orphanage for abandoned infants, in the middle decades of the eighteenth century provide a unmatched opportunity to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of studying the history of the emotions through objects. The Hospital was located in what is now Coram’s Fields, just a couple of hundred metres from where we are now sitting, and, at the time it was built, on the very edge of London. More than five thousand objects dating from 1741 to 1760 survive in the Hospital’s archive. Each one accompanied an individual, documented infant as they were admitted to the Hospital. The presence of these objects in the archive arises from one of the most profound experiences of separation and loss known to human beings – the rupture of the foundational emotional bond between mother and baby.           

The official name of the Foundling Hospital was ‘The Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children’. It admitted its first infants in 1741. Initially the Hospital was entirely reliant on private sources of funding – subscriptions, donations and the like. It rapidly became one of the most fashionable charities in London, at a time when subscription charities were becoming all the rage. Nevertheless, reliance on private funding meant resources were tight. From 1741 to 1756 the Hospital never had enough money to accept all the children brought to its gate, despite its policy of restricting admissions to babies aged two months or less. Intakes of children were limited to one a month or one every two months, with only twenty children – ten girls and ten boys – admitted on each occasion. During these years annual admissions never exceeded 200 children. To ensure fairness, the Hospital instituted a system of selection by ballot in 1742. Women who brought infants to the Hospital drew coloured balls from a bag. A white ball meant the child was admitted, subject to checks for age and infectious disease; a black ball meant rejection. Most were disappointed. Between 1749 and 1756, for example, only 803 babies were accepted out of 2,808 brought to the Hospital. Nearly three-quarters were turned away.         

This period of selective entry came to an end in 1756, when Parliament agreed to fund the Hospital on condition that it accepted every child, irrespective of the day it was brought. The date provides the explanation. 1756 saw the start of the Seven Years War and the patriotic imperative to nurture the country’s future military might was powerful. The following year the maximum age of admission was raised, first to six months and then to twelve. The result was an explosion in the numbers of children admitted to the Hospital. During the entire fifteen years of selective entry from 1741 to 1756, the Hospital had taken in only 1,384 children. During the four years of the government-funded ‘General Reception’, between 1756 and 1760, it accepted 14,934, over ten times as many. Annual admissions leapt from under 200 to approximately 4,000, with over a hundred babies arriving weekly during the Spring when admissions were most numerous.         

The contrast between the period of selective entry and the General Reception was not simply a matter of numbers, but also of geography. Before 1756 the vast majority of the Hospital’s children came from London. Between 1756 and 1760, almost half came from outside the capital, some from as far afield as Cornwall, Northumberland and north Wales. There was also a change in the circumstances under which they arrived. During the General Reception years, more and more of the children were sent by parish officials across England and Wales. This development may indicate that parents in far-flung parts of the country needed official assistance to transport their children to the Hospital in London. Alternatively, it may indicate the dawning realization by parish officials that, under the liberal admission regime of the General Reception, they could make use of the Hospital to relieve parish ratepayers of the expense of bringing up illegitimate children.

 It is important to stress, however, that by no means all the children admitted to the Foundling Hospital at this period were illegitimate, despite statements to that effect made repeatedly at the time and since. During the General Reception, it is likely that as many as a third had married parents, obliged by hardship or separation to give up their offspring in the hope that the Hospital would offer better opportunities in life. Hardship and separation were, of course, even more grinding for the unmarried parents of Foundling children. Both sets of parents were drawn overwhelmingly from the ranks of the labouring poor.

Throughout the period from 1741 to 1760, the process of giving over an infant to the Hospital was an anonymous one. It was a form of adoption, whereby the Hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced. Initially no questions at all were asked of those who brought the children to the Hospital, in order to avoid the shame which might otherwise encourage mothers to dump their babies in the streets or even kill them. No record of the mother’s name was kept by the Hospital’s clerks. 

Recording the mother’s name began only after 1760, when Parliament withdrew its financial support. The huge numbers of babies brought to the Hospital as a consequence of the General Reception resulted in vast expense, accusations of mismanagement, and panic about promoting vice and illegitimacy. Without government funding, the Hospital reverted to subscription funding. Its income fell and the number of places available to deserted children plummeted. A new selection system had to be instituted using petitions, which normally named the mother.         

Although admission to the Hospital before 1760 was, as I have said, anonymous, the mother retained the right to reclaim the child if her circumstances changed. In this policy, the Hospital was simply reproducing the normal pattern that can be observed in foundling hospitals across Europe since the Middle Ages. European Christian culture was informed by a powerful belief in motherhood and the sanctity of the bond between mother and child. In practice, however, cases where parents claimed back their children were few. Only 152 children were reclaimed out of the 16,282 admitted between 1741 and 1760. This is a tiny number, but it has to be set against the horrifyingly high death rate among babies in the care of the Hospital. Two-thirds of those admitted during these years died. Death rates were especially high for those admitted during the General Reception, when the Hospital was overwhelmed with babies. Shocking though these figures are, we should remember that close to half the babies born in London died in infancy. Infant mortality was appallingly high in most eighteenth-century cities, where densely-packed populations and poor sanitation encouraged infection. The poverty, hunger and disease that impelled many mothers to turn to the Foundling Hospital left their babies particularly vulnerable. The same pattern can be observed across Europe. At the Foundling Hospital at Paris in the mid-eighteenth century only one in ten of children admitted reached the age of five.         

The numbers of children actually reclaimed by their mothers may have been tiny, but ensuring that mothers were able to take their children back was an important priority for the Hospital. To achieve it, the Hospital’s founders borrowed procedures already long-established in foundling hospitals in Catholic Europe. From the start, each baby left in the Hospital’s care was registered with a number, accompanied by information designed to assist future identification. On the printed registration forms, known as billets, there were headings for entering the sex of the child, the clothes it was wearing on admission (which were then replaced with Hospital issue), and any special distinguishing marks on its body. In addition, the Hospital encouraged mothers to supply a token, which might be a note, a letter, or a small object, to be kept with the billet as an identifier. Small objects were especially suitable when the mother concerned was illiterate, as so many of the Foundling mothers must have been in the mid-eighteenth century. Exactly the same practice was followed in foundling institutions in France and Italy, Spain and Portugal, although it is striking that there, many of the tokens have a much more explicitly religious character than those in Protestant London. 

In 1745, the London Hospital emphasized that ‘if any particular Marks, Writing or other thing shall be left with the Child, great care will be taken for the preservation thereof’. Mothers were well aware of this. A letter left at the Hospital with a child in 1756 reported ‘it is wrote over the Door to have a token sent with the Children for distinction’. By the end of the General Reception in 1760 the practice of supplying tokens had become so familiar that for the next four decades some mothers continued the practice, even though under the new petitioning system it was no longer necessary for identifying the child with the mother.         

Despite the Hospital’s instructions, the registration documents for about 40% of the babies admitted before 1760 lack any kind of accompanying token, whether a letter or other identifying object. Did the mother simply relinquish any hope of reclaiming her child, or was she too troubled or disorganized? We cannot know. 

A token in the form of a written paper accompanied roughly 50% of the babies accepted between 1741 and 1760. Take this example. It says: 

‘Ann Gardiner Daughter of James and Elizth. Gardiner was Born in St Brides Parish Octor. ye 6th and Baptized and Regesterd in the Parish Church Octr. ye 10th 1757  Begs to have Care Taken of her and They will pay all Charges in a little Time with a handsome Acknowledgement for the Same and have her Home again when they get over a little Trouble they are in. She is not a bastard Child your Care will be most Gratefully acknowledged by your most obliged Humble Servant JG’ 

Most paper tokens, however, are not long, elaborate letters, but rather the briefest of notes with a name and birth date scrawled on torn-off scraps of paper. Terse wording was the norm: 

‘Elizabeth Hort Born the 13 of Febery 1760’

In the cases of about 5,000 of the children – about 30% – a small non-paper object survives as an identifier, often in conjunction with a written paper. Some 200 of these non-paper tokens were removed for display at the Foundling Hospital in the middle of the nineteenth century, when the billets, which had originally been folded up with the tokens inside, were flattened for binding into the ledgers now known as the billet books. This group of tokens was put on display in cases at the Hospital. They continue to be displayed in their Victorian cases at the London Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, adjacent to the original site of the Hospital. This group consists not of textiles, but of small items such as metal watch seals, coral necklaces, coins, brooches, rings, padlocks, keys and buttons. As examples of small, everyday objects owned by the kind of poor women who left their babies at the Hospital they are fascinating. Yet these trinkets are entirely unrepresentative of the generality of non-paper tokens attached to the billets, accompanying less than 3% of the children. They were probably removed for display precisely because they were three-dimensional and too bulky to interleave in bound volumes. 

The overwhelming majority of the non-paper objects attached to the billets are swatches of textiles. Sometimes, especially during the period from 1741 to 1756 when only selected children were admitted, these pieces of fabric were consciously supplied as a token by whoever left the child, often with an accompanying letter or statement. ‘Pray be careful of this token’, as it says here. 

But more often, especially during the General Reception of 1756 to 1760 when the Hospital was overwhelmed with babies, the textiles were cut, presumably by officials desperate for a ready means of identification, from one of the items of clothing the baby wore when it arrived, such as a sleeve, a ribbon, or most frequently a gown. It is important to emphasize, therefore, that for approaching half the babies, including many whose billets have a swatch of colourful textile attached, there was never a token as such. Even where a small piece of fabric is still pinned to the billet, it is more likely to have been chosen by the Hospital’s officials for administrative convenience during the General Reception than carefully selected by an anguished mother as testimony of maternal separation and loss. Identifiability was the priority here. It was usually the most distinctive, colourful fabric worn by the child that was chosen, most often a print or a check. 

We should remember that many Foundling babies were simply dumped at the Hospital, uncared for and unloved. A boy admitted in 1757 was described as ‘Clothed with Rags Swarming with Varmen’. Another admitted a few months later was ‘A Mear Skilinton Covered with Rags with a hole in the Roofe of the Mouth’. Yet another in 1759 was reported to have been ‘exposed and deserted by the parents of the sd child or persons unknown and left to the mercy of the world’. 

Nevertheless, among those non-paper objects that were left deliberately as tokens by whoever brought the baby, textiles predominate. So does this prove that during the eighteenth century textiles were the most potent vehicle for fixing emotion and memory? For a mother, whose hands had sewn or washed the fabric, and whose baby had touched, worn and soiled it, perhaps. But again we must remember that identification was the priority. Take the ribbons which constitute roughly 40% of the textiles. A yard of multi-coloured figured ribbon in bright, lustrous tints could be purchased for a few pence. Plain ribbons were cheaper still. The variety of colours and patterns on sale was enormous. Cheap, colourful, patterned and diverse: these characteristics made ribbons a perfect way for poor mothers to fulfill the Hospital’s instructions to provide ‘a token … for distinction’. 

Yet there was more to the link between ribbons and the Foundling babies than vibrant colours and varied patterns. Ribbons were universally recognized symbols of love, especially in circumstances of separation and loss. They were the very currency of romance, love and courtship, especially in their role as fairings, the gifts exchanged between lovers at fairs and holidays. Their emotional significance was especially strong when the beloved was absent. The emotion could be rendered more intense by tying the ribbon in knots, known as loveknots. The effect could be intensified yet further by attaching other love tokens, such as coins or rings, to the ribbon, hanging it round the neck or tying it to an item of clothing for greater intimacy. All these emotional enhancements can be observed among the Foundling tokens.           

Even more emotionally explicit is a subset of emblematic items among the objects supplied as tokens. The most expressive include carefully contrived textile images, sometimes hand-sewn, sometimes obtained by customizing the natural imagery commonly employed in commercial designs printed on linens and cottons. An acorn or a bud might suggest germination and new growth, a butterfly the chance to fly free, a flower the capacity to blossom and fruit. The most direct expressions of raw maternal emotion are those that use the heart, an established symbol of love in the eighteenth century. The heart was literally believed to be the seat of the emotions. Foundling mothers left embroidered hearts, hearts cut out in fabric, hearts drawn on paper, metal hearts, and suit of hearts playing cards. One heart-shaped metal pendant left as a token carried the lines ‘you have my Heart, Tho’ we must Part’, but the words seem almost redundant, such was the familiarity of the heart as an emblem of love.           

These objects demonstrate how mundane things could be deliberately made, elaborated, or customized to express emotion. But like Proust’s madeleine, they also demonstrate that the emotional charge attached to objects was contextual and impermanent. A suit of hearts playing card, signifying intense maternal emotion in its role as a Foundling token, is unlikely to have had the same emotional resonance in a game of All Fours or Cribbage. A fabric heart pasted into a Lancashire weaver’s pattern book as a decorative variation on its predominantly rectangular companions is a far cry, in terms of emotional intent, from the hearts cut out in fabric left with Foundling babies. 

More problematically, these objects raise the issue of authenticity. Do they tell us how poor mothers felt about giving up their babies, or do they tell us how poor women thought a wealthy institution would expect them to express emotions about separation and loss? After all, mothers may well have believed that fulfilling the Hospital’s expectations would help secure admission and preferential treatment for their child. Under both the ballot system of selection before 1756 and the General Reception of 1756-60, admission to the Hospital took no account of the behaviour of the mother. Nevertheless, it may well have been the case that mothers believed that by behaving in ways the Hospital authorities considered appropriate and seemly might help secure a place for their children, or, at the very least, better treatment once admitted. And this would not have been a wholly unjustified assumption. The behaviour and deportment of the mother were to become crucial under the petitioning system of admission instituted by the Hospital after 1760.           

The one form of emotional expression among the tokens that defied institutional expectations was the attempt by numerous mothers to name their babies. Although it must have been common knowledge that the Hospital gave every baby a new name, mothers constantly asserted their own choice of name. Some employed paper letters and notes, but others sewed names, initials, birth dates and birthplaces on fabric, or even wrote them on ribbons. In this challenge to the Hospital’s policy, we find potent evidence of authentic maternal attachment. Yet it is available to us only because it is in the form of a text, even if the letters are crudely sewn on fabric in worsted yarn.       

Disappointing though this dependence on words may be for those in search of a more object-orientated history of emotion, it demonstrates the great strength of the Foundling archive as a historical source: words and things are found in combination. 

Sometimes, as in this example, the words are laden with emotion, in both form and content:

‘Go gentle Babe! Thy future hours be spent
In Vertuous purity and calm content.
Life’s sunshine Bless thee and no anxious care
Sit on thy Brow, and draw the falling tear.
Thy Countrey’s grateful Servant may’st thou prove
And all thy Life be Happiness and Love.
May 1. 1758.’ 

Sometimes, as here, the words amount to very little:

‘Thomas Jones Junr. July 22nd 1758. H.S.’

yet in the context of the Foundling Hospital’s policy of effacing the previous identities of its charges, even this terse evidence of the parental determination to name transmits a powerful message. 

If, however, we shift our attention to the tiny textile image of an acorn – symbolizing new growth and cut from an everyday length of printed cotton fabric –  accompanying a note saying ‘Thomas Jones Junr. July 22nd 1758. H.S.’, we can see how the materiality of the Foundling tokens remains emotionally important. Many of the mothers, probably most, were illiterate. They could only express themselves in writing if their words were inscribed for them by others. The visual language of acorns and butterflies, ribbons and hearts, was, by contrast, accessible to all. But the mothers’ recourse to textiles as a vehicle for self-expression was not just a second-best substitute for writing. Theirs was a world where the use of certain objects to mark events, forge relationships and express emotions was familiar, and the meaning of those objects widely shared. It was a world in which verbal literacy existed in conjunction with a kind of material literacy which, if we have not entirely lost it, has become obscure and elusive.



  1. […] conference opened with a keynote by John Styles, who began our discussion of emotional objects using Proust’s evocative […]

  2. […] conference opened with a keynote by John Styles, who began our discussion of emotional objects using Proust’s evocative […]

  3. […] the Netherlands and Russia to participate in the conference….The conference opened with a keynote by John Styles, who began our discussion of emotional objects using Proust’s evocative […]

  4. […] and Emotions: The London Foundling Hospital Tokens, 1741-1760’, Keynote Lecture, 11/11/2013, Emotional Objects: Touching Emotions in Europe, 1600-1900,, accessed […]

  5. […] more on infanticide and foundlings, I came  across this lovely article.  You really should read it all, but here is an […]

  6. […] John Styles, Keynote: ‘Objects and Emotions: The London Foundling Hospital Tokens, 1741-1760’, Emotional Objects: […]

  7. […] were reclaimed by their parents, though not in great numbers.  Professor John Styles says that only 152 children were claimed out of the 16,282 admitted between 1741 and 1760. […]

  8. […] [9] John Styles, ‘Objects and Emotions: The London Foundling Hospital Tokens, 1741–1760’, Emotional Objects: Touching Emotions in History: […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: