During the 18th century, mothers who left their babies at London’s Foundling Hospital would deposit something small, but unique, with the hospital to serve as an identifier in the event parents returned to reclaim their children. These “tokens”—scraps of fabric, small metal objects, or bits of jewelry—were sealed in the child’s official record as proof of the parental connection, even as the babies themselves were renamed and vanished into the institution.
Some tokens carried important bits of information, like this small piece of mother-of-pearl inscribed with the words “James, Son of James Concannon, Gent, late or now of Jamaca 1757.” Researchers piecing together the stories of the tokens were able to find out that James was born in September 1757 and left at the hospital as a 2-month-old infant. James’ mother, Elizabeth, claimed to be married to James’ father, who was serving in the military. Although Elizabeth left the token and two notes written “in an educated hand” signifying her intent to reclaim the baby, the records show that she never returned.
Some tokens seem to be repurposed sentimental objects from love affairs, like the ring with a heart inset, which has a poignant inscription on the interior of the band: “He who neglects me loses me.” It seems that the child whose token this was left the hospital when she reached adulthood—probably, as the blog Material Cultures notes, “never having seen the ring that was her only link to her parents.”
Some tokens were humble everyday objects, like the hazelnut and the fabric heart: exceedingly simple and slight, given the connection they were meant to signify.
The tradition of leaving tokens ended in the early 19th century, when the hospital began to follow the much more efficient—albeit prosaic—procedure of issuing receipts to mothers who surrendered their children.
An exhibition of a selection of foundling tokens and their stories, titled “Threads of Feeling,” will open at Colonial Williamsburg on May 25.