John Styles, a research professor in history at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. and an honorary senior research fellow at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, researched ordinary people’s clothing for his book The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England, published in 2007. Very few pieces of clothing that belonged to the poor survive, since they were worn to rags or cut up and reused for quilts, baby clothes, and the like. Costume collections in museums represent the clothes of the rich, mostly the cutting-edge fashion.
Not being able to find working people’s clothing, Styles searched for early textiles and was told about the Foundling Hospital textiles. He sifted through 5000 rare, mundane, and moving scraps of fabric—the largest archive of everyday textiles—and produced an exhibition at the Foundling Museum and a small book, Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770. The book and exhibition explain more than the history of fabric and clothing; they tell much about the lives of poor women and their babies that had not been known beyond a coterie of specialists until now.
Among the 5000 scraps of fabric pinned to babies’ registration documents that John Styles studied are ribbons, embroidery, and some baby clothes. In the exhibition 59 billet books, each open to one child’s record of reception into the hospital, give a glimpse of just a few of the thousands of forsaken children. Styles’s book about the tokens has closeup photographs of the scraps of fabrics, ribbons, and embroideries, and he identifies them.
Styles tells us that admission to the hospital was by lottery and that three-quarters of the babies brought there were turned away until 1756, when Parliament agreed to fund the hospital on the condition it accept every child. The following year the maximum age for admission was raised from six months to twelve months. From 1741 to 1760, the process of giving over a child was anonymous. Only after 1760 was the mother’s name recorded, after Parliament withdrew its support because of high costs, accusations of mismanagement, and worries about encouraging illegitimacy. The mother always retained the right to reclaim her baby, though only 152 children were reclaimed out of the 16,282 admitted between 1741 and 1760. There was a high death rate in the Foundling Hospital; two-thirds of those admitted died. (Overall, close to half of London’s total number of infants died during that period. Infant mortality was high everywhere in the 18th century.)
Sometimes tokens that identified the child were small material objects—a brooch, a ring, a key, a button, a coin, a coral necklace. Around 1850 these three-dimensional tokens were removed and the billets were bound into ledgers. The object tokens were put on permanent display. “The overwhelming majority of the objects attached to the billets are swatches of textiles. Sometimes, especially during the period from 1741 to 1756, when only selected children were admitted, pieces of fabric were supplied as a token by whomever left the child, often with an accompanying letter or statement.” Sometimes the fabric was cut from clothing that the baby wore.
This archive of 18th-century everyday textiles is “heavily skewed towards patterned and colourful fabrics.” Some are referred to in the ledgers as “Irish stuff and hooping cloth, tinsel, and gauze.” These textiles provide a record of the printed cottons and linens worn by ordinary women on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Styles lists more than 40 different fabrics named at the time of entry, and he presents some that are unnamed and unidentified. Some we would recognize, and others have not been produced for many decades. The many types of fabrics range from very cheap to costly. Styles says Russia cloth and brown linen were a shilling a yard or less. More expensive were serge, shalloon, and camblets. Linen check was used for aprons, and linsey-woolsey (a combination of linen and wool) was used for petticoats. Colorful printed cottons and linens were two shillings a yard. Silks were costly. A handful of silk fabrics can be found among the Foundling Museum textiles, but most swatches are moderately expensive, printed fabrics (usually with a single printed color). Next were handwoven stripes and checks. Woolens, worsteds, and linens were cut from the babies’ clothes, which had been made from discarded adult clothes.
The author contends that the printed fabrics demonstrate democratization of fashion. “Textile printing gave poorer women colourful designs which overlapped in aesthetic effect with the fashionable silks worn by their wealthy sisters, even when worn as a short bedgown which needed less material than a full-length gown.” Most of the Foundling Museum textiles were printed in one color, crudely executed, but there are hundreds of different patterns and few repetitions in the archive.
Ribbons made of silk added luxury. Plain ribbons were cheaper than patterned ones. Nearly a third of the textiles in the archives are ribbons. The author suggests that ribbons were “the very currency of romance.” Topknots, cockades, and in some cases a sleeve or a cap became the token. Some tokens have embroidery, some of it professional and some very crude.
Styles reminds us that for most of the babies, there was no token; the babies were dumped at the hospital, uncared for and unloved. But some mothers stitched the name of their child or the date of birth on a scrap. Many left an image of a heart as an emblem of love. He suggests that most of the mothers were illiterate and that the language of ribbons and hearts was all that was accessible to them; others used textiles and embroidery as their vehicle for self-expression. Only one token illustrated in the book was for a child reclaimed by his mother. It is patchwork needle case with a heart sewn on it in red thread. The case subsequently had been cut in half through the heart, and one-half of the case had been presented with the child as the token. The other half was kept by the mother for about eight years until their reunion when the heart was made whole.
The exhibition’s last venue anywhere, and the only venue in the U.S., is the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg. Also on view during the exhibition are items from the Colonial Williamsburg collection, including more than 40 children’s garments and accessories dating before 1800, two dolls, and several women’s dresses worn during pregnancy and lactation. In the study drawers is a selection of Colonial Williamsburg’s schoolgirl embroidery, primarily samplers and needlework pictures. The exhibition opens on May 25, 2013, and will remain on view through May 26, 2014.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest