’5,000 rare, beautiful, mundane and moving scraps of fabric’ is how curator John Styles describes the extraordinary archive inspiring Threads of Feeling, an exhibition of the textile tokens left with abandoned children 1740-1770 which is currently showing at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury, London.
Being a foundling was a cause of great shame in eighteenth-century London. So, in an attempt to avoid the associated stigma, a baby’s name would be changed on admission to the Foundling Hospital, and the mother’s name would not be recorded. Instead, a textile swatch (or ‘token’) would be given by the mother, or cut from the foundling baby’s clothing, and pinned to the printed registration form (‘billet’) issued on receipt. As the hospital emphasized in 1745, ‘if any particular Marks, Writing or other thing shall be left with the Child, great care will be taken for the preservation thereof’. Despite the anonymity of admission, a mother retained the right to reclaim her child, and a small textile scrap might be all there was to facilitate identification. Sadly, most mothers didn’t return: of 16,282 admissions between 1741 and 1760, only 152 came back.
Putting aside the human stories for a moment (which is difficult), and approaching this archive with the mindset of a textiles historian, these scraps are very exciting indeed. They represent a rare survival of everyday textiles worn by ordinary eighteenth-century women, forming Britain’s – possibly Europe’s – largest collection. There are about forty different named fabrics catalogued, their variety illustrating that the poor had access to a surprisingly wide range of colourful fabrics, even before the Industrial Revolution. It may be that the collection is somewhat skewed towards the colourful and patterned as their purpose was the later recognition of a child, but the collection is so vast that it also contains quite plain, mundane fabrics. What makes the Foundling archives so special is that the object (the swatch) is united with text (the Hospital’s clerks’ handwriting) and the two together form the only means we have of identifying many everyday eighteenth-century textiles. The clerks’ jottings include the rather familiar sounding calico, flannel, gingham and satin (though their eighteenth-century counterparts weren’t very much like the fabrics we know today) and the now lost-to-us camblet, fustian, susy, cherryderry, calimanco and linsey-woolsey. The printed billet form itemised the ‘Marks and Cloathing of the Child’, offering an intriguing glimpse of the everyday dress of the period, most of which I can only hazily imagine: biggin, forehead-cloth, head-cloth, long-stay, bibb, frock, upper-coat, petticoat, bodice-coat, barrow, mantle, sleeves, roller etc. Some scraps were cut from the mother’s clothing, some were taken from the baby’s own (caps, cockades and topknots, detachable sleeves). Baby clothes might well have been made from a mother’s worn-out garments, upcycling being nothing new. And a mother’s clothes might be surprisingly fashionable: her gown might be made from one of the new cotton or linen printed knock-offs of an unaffordable and impractical (unwashable) silk.
The display isn’t vast (I overheard some other visitors registering their disappointment) but forms a representative sample of an enormous archive; to give you a sense of the scale of it, the storage boxes containing these billet forms line 250 metres of shelving in the museum’s archive. It took me a couple of hours to look around Threads of Feeling plus the permanent displays, so I couldn’t really have wished it so very much bigger. And I didn’t get anywhere near the Handel collection which is housed in the same building on another floor. But that may be explained by the more accessible lure of the cafe (left as you enter the museum) which does a very nice selection of cakes; I’m sure Handel – himself an infamous glutton – would have approved.
Back to the swatches, some samples contain needlework and embroidery, varying from the crude to the expert. Some are ribbon, a universally recognised symbol of love in the eighteenth century, especially resonant in circumstances of separation and loss (think ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’: a much later song carrying an 18th-century sentiment). Ribbons were the currency of romance and courtship, witness ‘fairings’ (gifts bought at fairs), the subject of the song ‘Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?’ which is played as ambient music through the exhibition (suitably atmospheric, if slightly annoying once heard half a dozen times). I discovered that there were gender-specific ways to tie ribbons: military-style cockades for boys, loosely tied topknots for girls (see below). Interestingly, colours which have since become gendered were not so defined in the eighteenth century; pink and blue were used for boys and girls alike.
I visited this exhibition last month and really loved it, though I found that every so often the weight of sorrow and heartbreak implicit in these textile scraps became overwhelming. Each and every swatch represents an unbearable pivotal moment of separation and loss. It is the notes left by arguably the more fortunate literate mothers – or in this case, a father – which break your heart, this one accompanying a pink and white flowered ribbon:
Ann Gardiner, Daughter of James and Elizth. Gardiner, was Born in St Brides Parish Octr. ye 6th and Baptizd and Registerd in the Parish Church Octr. ye 10th 1757. Begs to have Care Taken on ehr [sic] 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
And this note accompanying a 1760 cotton or linen swatch – printed with a green and black leaf on a shelled background – for a baby girl of just a few weeks old:
…She has had the Breast and tis humbly hop’d it will be continued as she will not in all probability live without it.’
Whether one of the stalwart wet-nurses managed to pull this little girl through isn’t told.
As it’s Valentine’s Day today, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the heart was just as much a symbol of love in the eighteenth century as it is today. Seen as the literal source of the emotions, it turns up with unsurprising frequency on foundling tokens. There are suit-of-hearts playing cards, hearts drawn on paper, metal hearts, embroidered hearts, hearts cut out in fabric (see above), and even – in the case of one baby boy – a gown cut from a print of heart playing-cards. Fittingly, the only token in the exhibition which figured in the reunion of a mother and her child was a patchwork strip with half a heart embroidered in red thread. Sarah Bender, the mother, who admitted her child on 11 February 1767, kept the reciprocal half -heart on its corresponding patchwork scrap, and ventured back to reclaim her 8-year-old son on 10 June 1775. Alas, I have no picture of this token to show you, nor any artist’s impression of the no-doubt teary reunion, but the token is featured in the small-yet-beautifully-formed exhibition catalogue by John Styles (shown top).
Remarkably, the work of Thomas Coram, the merchant who established the original Foundling Hospital, continues today in the charity which still bears his name – an unbroken thread between those eighteenth-century foundlings and today’s vulnerable children.