Threads of Feeling

From the start, the Foundling Hospital made it possible for mothers to reclaim their babies if their circumstances changed.

Foundling Hospital token: a black cockadeEach baby left in its care was registered with a number and information to assist future identification. On the printed registration forms or 'billets', the sex of the child was noted, along with the clothes it was wearing, and any special distinguising marks.

In addition, the Hospital encouraged mothers to supply a 'token', which might be a note, or a small object, to be kept as an identifier should she ever come bcck to collect her baby.

Different types of fabric

Foundling token: plain cloth The overwhelming majority of the tokens were little pieces of fabric, often with an accompanying letter or statement. Some were supplied by mothers, others were cut, on arrival, from the baby's clothes by officials looking for a means of identifying the child.

The fabric fragments in the Foundling Hospital billet books are Britain's largest collection of everday18th-century textiles, amounting to some 5,000 individual items. Because of their purpose to identify a child, they consist mainly of patterned and colourful fabrics. But there are also many examples of plain fabrics worn by ordinary women.

The language of love

Foundling token: linen cloth printed with heartsIn the 18th century, material literacy, where certain objects were used to mark events, express allgiances and forge relationships, was familiar and widely shared. 

Often, the hopes the mothers invested in their babies were expressed in the fabric. Fabric showing an acorn or a bud might suggest new growth, a bird or a butterfly the chance to fly free, a flower the capacity to blossom and fruit.

But the most direct expressions of maternal emotion found among the tokens are those that showed a heart, the established symbol of love.

Foundling mothers left hearts playing cards, embroidered hearts, hearts cut out of fabric and even, in the case of one baby boy, a gown printed with a hearts playing-card pattern.

Threads of Feeling

Foundling token: red woollen heart

'Threads of Feeling', an exhibition of the founding textiles was held in 2010 and 2011 at the Foundling Museum. A book by John Styles to accompany the exhibition, also called Threads of Feeling (the London Foundling Hospital's Textile Tokens), is available from the Foundling Museum shop. 


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