Gifts such as ribbons, rings, and coins formed a central part of courting rituals. These powerful talismans of romantic love were used by couples to convey initial attraction, deepen their intimacy, publicise a fledgling match, and secure an engagement. Though as many of the mothers of foundlings discovered to their cost, a promise of marriage could readily be broken by an unfaithful suitor. The tokens the mothers left with their infants at the Foundling Hospital tell us of their love, sorrow, desperation, and hope for their child’s future.
Ribbons were commonly gifted early in a relationship, as tokens purchased from the fair known as ‘fairings’. The clear association between ribbons and romance is evident in songs such as ‘Oh dear what can the matter be’, where the protagonist waits anxiously for her suitor Johnny to return from the fair with ‘a bunch of blue ribbons / To tie up my bonny brown hair’. Many foundlings were brought to the Hospital with ribbons pinned to their breast or tied around their arm or wrist. Some ribbons had an infant’s name and date of birth written on them in ink, or were attached to further tokens such as coins, with one child christened John Todd admitted on 25 June 1756 with a long strip of pink penny ribbon threaded through a silver penny.
He promised to bring me a bunch of blue ribbons, to tie up my bonny brown hair.
Whilst ribbons were used by suitors to express initial romantic interest, coins had greater contractual significance. They had historically been used to secure marriage contracts, often by being modified in some way by being bent, bowed, or broken. Whilst such contracts could no longer be enforced by the church courts following the Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, the symbolic role of coins in securing a union remained. Foundlings were commonly left with coins etched with their initials and date of birth, carved into the shape of a heart, hammered with notches, or symbolically broken in two.
‘Crooked’ coins were superstitious objects thought to bring good fortune. They were used to wish love and luck into the future of a courting couple, or foundlings left at the Hospital. Indeed, these may well have been the same objects repurposed from mother to child. Lucky ‘benders’ were smoothed to a blank surface and bent to form an ‘S’ shape. They were often pierced with holes, either to give them a further distinctive feature, or enabling them to be worn around the neck on a ribbon. One foundling was left with a bent silver shilling punched with two holes and etched with the initials ‘T * R’, likely their given name. It represents a mother’s love for her child, her hope for their future, and a past identity about to be left behind.
The most powerful symbol of love in all its forms was the heart. Some infants were bequeathed heart-shaped pendants crafted from mother of pearl, which was a common material for jewellery during this period. Other emotive symbols include a lock and key, with at least two foundlings left with padlocks as tokens, representing the mother’s hope for their child’s future security.
One foundling christened Harriot Littleton was left at the Hospital in 1752 with a token combining both of these motifs: a small ring inset with a red heart-shaped stone, either side of which sit a minute padlock and key. This tiny token of love encapsulates a mother’s care for her child, her sense of loss, and hope for a safer and more secure future.
Hear Sally’s in-depth exploration of one love token in our podcast series Take this Token: