The Foundlings of France: 1831 and 1857

A Mother depositing her child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris by Harry Nelson O'Neil 1817-1884

A Mother depositing her child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris by Harry Nelson O’Neil 1817-1884

The Foundling Hospital at Paris

No public edifice ever presented an appearance more in opposition to the painful reflections to which its mere existence gives rise, than the Foundling Hospital. You expect on entering, nothing but tears and disgust, and yet you scarcely hear the cries of the newly-born babes — you expect matter for dark philosophical emotion, and you see nothing around you but flowers, and good grey Sisters, and snow-white curtains, and crucifixes, to which you may add, the fruits of frailty, perhaps of crime. You walk between two rows of cradles, as in a flower-garden; only in the latter, nature gives to the orphan plants their proper nurture. Here you may see heads with flowing yellow ringlets, angel faces, a room poetically called the crib, a pretty little chapel, and a dissecting room. This edifice was formerly a convent of Oratorians; it is now a Foundling Hospital; — there are two centuries between these names. There is nothing remarkable in the building itself; it is like a college, a manufactory, a house in the street, or your father’s house. But I had almost forgotten a statue which you salute on entering. Vincent de Paule [the Founder] keeps watch in the vestibule of his temple….

On arriving at the outer door, I beheld a sort of box or cupboard with a double opening, one towards the street, and the other inside the building. It was much like the letter-box at a post-office; and the comparison is strengthened when we consider that a mother often dropped her child into it as she would a billet-doux, with this shade of difference, that the billet began the intrigue, and the child ended it. This box or cupboard is no longer used. Formerly the unhappy mother deposited there, mysteriously and at night, her new-born babe; then, after ringing the bell to awaken the sister on duty, she disappeared — her tears and her remorse still heard in the surrounding darkness. It is otherwise now — a singular abuse compelled the change. Dead bodies of children were often found in the cupboard, put there either to avoid the expense of burial or to conceal a crime. This mode of defrauding the guillotine and the undertaker, no longer exists. A sister sets up all night at the entrance of the parlour, and receives from the hand, the children that are brought to the hospital during her watch. The cupboard is closed, and its lock rusty. Besides, this mode has long since lost the charm of secrecy.

Women now take little pains to conceal their pregnancy, for mishaps are thought less of than formerly. Whether the child be born in a boudoir or in a garret, it is now a mere family affair, and amicably adjusted. The infant is taken to the hospital at noon day; it is even recommended to the kind attention of the Sisters; its father’s name is carefully repeated, and after a few tears the whole is forgotten. If, subsequently, the unhappy babe cry, expire, be cut to pieces by the anatomist, and its severed limbs sewn up in a canvas bag and consigned without ceremony to the earth, no matter, — family honour is safe; the mother goes either to a ball or to the Salpetriere; civilization continues its progress; surgical knowledge excites admiration, and we have lectures on political economy at the university. All this is admirable!

Sometimes — but instances are rare — the mother is heart stricken at the idea of a separation from her babe. Her hands tremble as she unrolls the swath; she sobs with agony as she strains to her bosom the child who shall never call her Mother. I have heard of affecting incidents, of heart-rending sorrows, and of entire dramas, whose forcible colouring imparts a vivid character to such scenes of painful excitement. Some poor girls of the working classes put a mark upon their babes; others, suspend from the neck of the little innocent, a chaplet, or an old ring tied to a ribbon. Others, again, mention a beloved name to the Sisters of the establishment, and entreat that the infant may bear that name. These unhappy mothers call every month, and every week, to ask how their children go on; — for they are not allowed to see them; nor are they allowed to take the bodies of such as die — these are the prey of the surgeon’s scalpel. Others, of these wretched females, unable to bear the separation, contrive, by an excusable deception, to get themselves hired as wet-nurses to the establishment, for the sole purpose of suckling their own babes….

There is a register, a simple register, in which is inscribed, at the entrance of each child, the most minute particulars attendant upon its arrival. In this register, for instance, is written, that the child was dressed in coarse linen, or in a fine frock trimmed with lace; or, again, that it was quite naked — that the parents, or mother, had wept, or had not wept. The words they spoke are taken down, and their regrets, their anxiety or indifference, and their general bearing, are recorded — the day and hour of the child’s arrival, its name (if it bore a name), and any disease with which it might be attacked, is minutely entered. This register, as you will observe, is filled with distinct and positive information. When the child dies, the date of its death is likewise added to the other particulars. This book, therefore, contains the most voluminous and precise annals of the most extraordinary history that ever existed. Moreover, these chronicles of an hospital, this great register of another species of national debt, is kept for a useful purpose. When the parents are desirous of withdrawing a child from the hospital, the old and stained pages of the register afford the means of identity. You purchase your recollections from this book; and you drive a hard bargain for the few words, which are all that remains in the world to establish the proof of your paternity. They are your son’s talisman. The employes of the hospital, therefore, entertain for this book the same respect as for a vestry register. They put on their gloves to open it—they consider it a precious relic. Make a sacrifice of gold, and its tabernacle will be opened unto you. Add twenty francs more, and you will obtain materials to write the extract. Nobody sees this book; the person in whose charge it is, locks it carefully into a cupboard. He is afraid of making the public acquainted with the golden mystery of its possession….

There is one fact to which I call the attention of the utilitarians. Compared with the other capitals of Europe, and in proportion to the number of its inhabitants, Paris is the city whose hospital receives, on a general average, the fewest foundlings. And yet, of all nations, France is the one which shows the most indifference in making these unfortunate beings useful members of society. In London the education of these orphan children partakes of the Franklin school, and of the hospitality of an industrious people. Correct manners, and even morals, are instilled into them; which is rare with us. I must add that the mothers are obliged to appear, prior to their accouchement, and declare their pregnancy, and although their names escape the dishonour of being registered, the shame of appearing beforehand, deters all but the most wretched and the most abandoned from availing themselves of the charity…. In France, scarcely have the foundlings passed the age of childhood, ere they are dismissed from the hospital. They are dispersed, whether they will or not, among the lowest classes, with the present of an imperfect education; and if one of them should, under his homely garments, feel the thrill of genius, and try to wrench off the helot’s collar, his choice would still be confined to the alternatives of a plane, or a spade, or starvation.

If I were to say that not one-half grow up to reap this inheritance, poor as it is, and that the remainder die from the privation of a mother’s milk, the uncertainty of science, and the infection of loathsome diseases, I should be far within the mark. At the present day, nearly three-fifths of the foundlings die in their first year. A fourth of the newly-born children perish during the first five days, and more than two-thirds after the first month. Five years after the day on which eight children had been deposited at the hospital, only three of them would be found alive. Extend the time to twelve years, and there is only one survivor…. It is, however, some consolation to learn, that the number of deaths decreases daily, and that the mortality of the hospital, at present, bears no proportion to what it was forty years ago. A single fact will prove this. Now-a-days, convenient carriages bring nurses to Paris from the country, and each Department has its foundling hospital. But can it be credited that, prior to the Revolution, the hospital in the metropolis was the only one in the kingdom, from all parts of which children were brought to Paris to receive a Life Ticket, which oftener turned out a certificate for death! A porter walked through the provinces, carrying upon his back a padded box containing three newly-born babes placed upright in it, supported by wadding, and breathing through a hole in the lid. This man quietly wended his way towards Paris, careless of dust, mud, the mid-day sun, or the bustle of inns. Now and then he stopped to take his meals and make his young companions suck a little milk. On opening the box, he sometimes found one of them dead. When this happened, he would throw the body by the road-side and continue his journey with the remainder. On his arrival he got a receipt for the goods delivered, without being answerable for accidents on the road.

If the present system has obliterated all traces of this deplorable practice, society is not proportionably benefited. In France, as in the other continental states, the direct ratio of the increase in the number of deserted children is progressive with the amelioration in the administration of these hospitals. This fact makes men doubt whether it would perhaps be better, for the healing of this social ulcer, if these children had either been strangled at their birth, left to expire, under the pangs of hunger, or with cold upon the street pavement. Such is the opinion of Malthus, the celebrated English economist, who has written an admirable work on Population. This terrible judgment is, however, not without appeal; but, on looking at the number of admissions into the Foundling Hospital at Paris, the mind cannot sometimes help coming to a conclusion in its favour. Paris: or, The book of the hundred-and-one, Volume 2, 1833

Just over twenty years later, the situation of French foundlings had not changed much:

Whenever a woman desires to abandon her child, she appears before a magistrate for that purpose; he is obliged to accept the child if she demands it. If she will keep it, he is impowered to give her aid. If the child is abandoned, the clothes are saved, or some token is kept, by which to maintain the identity of the child, and to enable the parents to reclaim it, if they wish to do so at any future time. In former times government made it easy for a mother to rid herself of her child —it being only necessary for her to take the child to the hospital during the night, place it in a box and ring the bell, when it was at once drawn into the institution and no questions asked. This arrangement was abolished some years ago, for the avowed reason that it encouraged vice, but really because such numbers of children were abandoned that the cost to the state was enormous. The crime of infanticide, however, has greatly increased since the change was made. The Medical World: A Journal of Universal Medical Intelligence, Volume 2 May 20, 1857, p. 199

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil has left out the portions where the author excoriates the fair sex for its weakness in producing these “fruits of frailty,” as he seems to labour under a misapprehension that the female of the human species can reproduce without assistance.

Mothers in 18th-century England who left their children at London’s Foundling Hospital also left tokens so that they could reclaim their child if their circumstances improved. These tokens–scraps of fabric, baby clothes, or other items–were saved and carefully noted in ledgers. Some of these poignant items are now on display at the “Threads of Feeling” exhibition at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum on West Francis Street in Colonial Williamsburg. Formerly shown at the Foundling Museum in London, the DeWitt Wallace is the only venue for the exhibit in the United States.


One thought on “The Foundlings of France: 1831 and 1857

  1. Pingback: The Ghost of a Doll: 1862 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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