Threads of Feeling

Threads of Feeling
The Foundling Museum, London, England
October 14, 2010 – March 6, 2011

The archives of the Foundling Museum reveal one institution’s attempts to provide much needed support for children in the eighteenth century. The 5,000 small textile swatches held in the Hospital’s records document some of the children taken into its care. This poignant exhibition focuses on these fragments of fabric, which were often snipped from a mother or child’s clothing by the hospital nurses and used, in lieu of a name, as identification in the event that a mother was able to return for her child. Very few did.

Dating from 1741 to 1760, the pieces of cloth attached to the Hospital’s registration forms make up the largest collection of ‘everyday’ textiles in Britain from the eighteenth century. The everyday part is important here. For centuries textiles of the elite and aristocracy have been preserved in museum collections, but only in recent decades has the importance of working and daily dress been recognised. Typically ‘everyday’ textiles were used and reused until threadbare. This makes the printed, embroidered and woven fragments of the Foundling Museum’s records a unique snapshot of working women’s dress.

The exhibition’s curator, Professor John Styles of 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 ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother.” Styles elaborates on the connection between mother and child’s dress explaining, “baby clothes were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing. The fabrics reveal how working women struggled to be fashionable in the 18th Century.”

Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital in 1739. Coram worked in America as a young man and returned to London’s crowded population with the conviction, after seeing the expanse of space and opportunity young America offered, that there was a place and need for every life in the world. The reasons for children arriving at his hospital were varied. The official records on display reveal that many children were accepted into the Hospital and died only a matter of weeks, and in some cases days later, suggesting that families may have tried to seek help for ill children as a last resort. One note attached to a pink and white flowered ribbon reads, “… She is not a bastard Child and your Care will be most Gratefully Acknowledged by your most obliged Humble Servant JG.” For some the institution was seen as a better start and mothers hoped to secure a place for a child to ensure a future better than their families could offer.

For its time, the Hospital’s standards were incredibly progressive and encouraged a lifestyle we now take for granted: fresh air, exercise and a healthy diet for the children in its care. A system of apprenticeships meant that children acquired skills that, for the lucky, provided them with a trade in adult life. Today the textile fragments the allowed for anonymity and identity to co-exist provide us with a moving reminder of the textile’s role as memory keeper.

The Foundling Hospital buildings survived until the 1920s and are now the Coram Fields children’s playground. The Hospital’s work continues today through the children’s charity Coram.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2011: 64)