The Foundling tokens include many mundane eighteenth-century objects, but one type of token predominates: small scraps of textile fabric. Approximately five thousand of these scraps survive in the Hospital’s archives, outnumbering all the other types of tokens put together. They are Britain’s largest collection of the everyday textiles used by working people in the eighteenth century. Why are there so many of these tiny textile swatches among the tokens? The answer lies with the circumstances of the mothers whose babies were left at the Hospital and the Hospital’s motivation for keeping tokens in its records.
The textile tokens consist of small pieces of used fabric, often faded, cut from clothing. Most of the mothers who left babies at the Hospital were poor working women, sometimes utterly destitute. For many, their clothes were all they possessed. Clothing worn by babies born to poor parents in the eighteenth century was usually made from fabric cut from discarded or remodelled adult garments, often belonging to the mother. Not surprisingly, therefore, the textiles we find among the tokens are the kinds of inexpensive fabrics worn by working women and their babies. There are very few of the heavy dark textiles – kerseys, fustians, serges – worn by working men.
The Foundling tokens were meant to help identify a child if it was reclaimed, so they needed to be visually memorable. It is for this reason that the very cheapest, plain, coarse fabrics rarely appear among the tokens. Instead, we find textiles that working women enjoyed as their inexpensive yet fashionable luxuries. They wore them as their best clothes on high days and holidays: cottons and linens printed with floral patterns and worn as gowns; richly coloured silk ribbons used to tie up caps; cottons and linens woven in blue check patterns for decorative neckerchiefs and aprons. These colourful, patterned textiles were distinctive enough to serve as markers of identity, yet they were cheap enough to be owned by mothers of Foundling children. They were carefully filed away by the Hospital along with each child’s registration document.
It is important to bear in mind that not all the textile tokens were chosen by mothers of Foundling children. In periods when the Hospital was overwhelmed with babies, many, perhaps most, of the textile tokens were selected by its nurses and clerks. Desperate for a ready means of identification when no token had been left with the child, they cut a piece of fabric that could serve as a distinctive token from the clothes the baby wore on arrival, such as a sleeve or, most frequently, an infant gown.
Yet Foundling mothers did select many of the textile tokens. We can see this in the efforts some made to include the names they had chosen for their babies, despite knowing that the Hospital gave the children new names. Names, initials, birth dates and birthplaces were sewn on to textile tokens. Occasionally, babies’ names were even written in ink on silk ribbons.
The textile tokens also express the hopes mothers invested in their babies, using the natural imagery commonly employed in commercial design for printed fabrics. A printed acorn or bud could suggest germination and new growth, a bird or a butterfly the chance to fly free, a flower the capacity to blossom and fruit.
But the most direct, powerful expressions of raw maternal emotion found among the textile tokens are those that employed the heart, the established symbol of love in the eighteenth century, as it remains today. Foundling mothers left embroidered hearts, hearts cut out in fabric, and even, in the case of one baby boy, a gown printed with suit of hearts playing cards.