by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections
Last night I came across a museum exhibit I have to share, because it so poignantly draws upon the power artifacts have to connect us across time to the experiences of others. Threads of Feeling: 18th Century Textile Tokens from the Foundling Hospital showing now at The Foundling Museum, presents the history of the Foundling Hospital (an 18th century London orphanage) using a medium that couldn’t really cut any closer to our hearts: scraps of garments left by the impoverished mothers who turned their babies over to the hospital in hopes of using these mementoes as a way of reconnecting with their child sometime in a distant, better future. On the website devoted to this exhibit curator John Styles, history professor at the University of Hertfordshire, explains:
The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption, whereby the hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced. The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed. The pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother.
Swatches of cloth cut from the clothes of mothers and babies, gowns cut in half, scraps tied to babies’ wrists –some kind of cloth memento was collected for each of the more than 4,000 babies left at the institution between 1741 and 1760. These precious fragments were attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, and today are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, where they make up the largest collection of everyday textiles from the 18th century in the world.
The exhibit features the fabric mementos paired with the bare facts that were collected for each child that came under the Hospital’s care. These spare personal histories run the gamut from tragic to redemptive:
Sleeve blue and white strip’d cotton turn’d up with purple and white linen. Foundling number 220. A girl aged about three weeks, admitted 15 November 1745. Named Catherine Walton by the Foundling Hospital. Apprenticed 1757 to James West, watch case maker, Fleet Street, London.
A piece of blue silk pin’d on ye Breast’. Foundling number 1254. A girl aged about xx, admitted 29 May 1755. Named Anne Robinson by the Foundling Hospital. Died as a child, date unknown.
A patchwork huswife made from printed and woven fabrics, embroidered with a heart and the initials SC and cut in half to form a broken token. Foundling number 16516. A boy aged xx admitted 11 February 1767. Christened Charles, but given the name Benjamin Twirl by the Foundling Hospital. Reclaimed by his mother, Sarah Bender, 10 June, 1775.
Beyond the fascinating history of The Foundling Hospital and the individual lives of the children cared for within its walls, Threads of Feeling takes full advantage of the rare glimpse this textile collection offers into the garments and fabrics available to working people in the 18th century. In contrast to the luxury fabrics and garments of this period, well documented in written records and portraiture, these everyday clothes, like many of the objects which most closely shape and reflect the way most people actually lived and looked, are mostly used, reused, and finally disappear.
This exhibit seizes hold of the fragile threads this collection preserves, and uses them to weave a vivid picture of an often invisible history.
Visit the exhibit’s Facebook page for more images and stories from the exhibit.