How 18th Century England Dealt with Poverty

Since the practice of leaving children at hospitals was so common, many historians once believed wrongly that women and parents were less attached to their children. Indeed, narratives of hardened mothers abandoning their children were documented in texts at the time, making children seem dispensable.

But what illiterate women couldn’t chronicle in books about life in London, they could weave into carefully crafted tokens of love for their infants. Some mothers illustrated enduring love with hearts and butterflies, symbols of innocence that displayed their deep attachment to their children. The most wrenching part of the exhibition is the mostly unrealized hope that mothers would return to claim their children. Of the 16,282 infants admitted to the hospital, only 152 children were reclaimed…

Women left their children not because they were unwanted, but because the cities were death traps for infants.

“There was such pressure on these places to take babies that there were lottery systems,” said Ron Hurst, chief curator of the art museums at Colonial Williamsburg. “Mothers had to draw [lots], and you either got to leave your baby or take them away. It’s anybody’s guess what happened to the babies who weren’t accepted.”

…Linda Baumgarten, on-sight curator of the exhibition, says…”This is concrete proof of what records suggest: Many mothers who left their children thought they were sacrificing themselves to give the child a better life.”

Source: Washington Post. HT: Robin Hanson.

Comments (28)

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  1. August says:

    I like the idea that London was colorful:

    “The trove of fabrics recasts much of working-class London in a vibrant, colorful light, opposing the drab, gray palette depicted in the writings of Samuel Johnson and his contemporaries.”

  2. JD says:

    What did the hospitals do with the children? I can’t imagine that a significant amount were adopted. Do we have any idea if they were able to lead better lives than their parents?

    • JD says:

      “Two-thirds of children admitted to the Foundling Hospital died because of infectious disease, roughly the same proportion that died in London overall.”

      I guess not.

  3. Baker says:

    London was a terrible place for children. “Two-thirds of children admitted to the Foundling Hospital died because of infectious disease, roughly the same proportion that died in London overall.”

    • Scott Yard says:

      Did these children get the diseases before or after being disserted at the hospital?

  4. Jordan says:

    This would be about the time of the first industrial revolution? There orphanage systems were extensive — still..

  5. Sam says:

    London doesn’t have the greatest historical record regarding child welfare. Look up where child labor started. However, today the city and country has obviously changed.

    • Tim says:

      Right, due to the industrial revolution.

    • Dewaine says:

      “Look up where child labor started”?

      It started with the first child. I know what you are trying to say, but really the only difference between child labor then and any other time is the new conditions of factory work. Work is good for children if the conditions are safe. Nowadays we have the opposite problem. Children aren’t allowed to work, so they and their families suffer.

      • Sam says:

        I am talking about exploitative modern-day child labor. Your assessment about children not being able to work nowadays as bad for their families is absolutely wrong and quite misinformed.

        • Dewaine says:

          If you are only talking about child “slave” labor, then I completely agree. Forgive me if I am wrong, but it sounds like you are against children voluntarily working for pay.

  6. Sam says:

    You are wrong and you are forgiven but inform yourself first. There are a myriad forms of exploitative child labor activities other than “slavery.” It’s something easy to look up and become informed about.

    • Sam says:

      In reference to Dewaine’s comment.

    • Dewaine says:

      Sorry, I didn’t mean “slave” in the strictest sense of the word, just that they wouldn’t be paid and had to work all day. I would assume that you are referencing some combination of those two things. Like, they work “way too much” and get paid less than market wages but they can’t quit because their parents are forcing them?

      • Sam says:

        Research “the worst forms of child labor” on a simple google search. And on your argument about child labor being ok if they want to work. Well, children have limited competence and have no autonomous rights, therefore how on earth can you give them that rationality to really think they “want” to work for compensation? Helping out the family, such as in farming, under conditions where they still get an education and recreation time, is another issue, but that is hardly what we are talking about.

        • Dewaine says:

          Then we must be talking about different things. Many American kids (and I’m sure other places as well) work from a young age (like 7) for pay to either help their family or for extra spending money. They should be able to, it helps them grow into adults.

          • Sam says:

            You may be talking about allowance. Again, please inform yourself about this. No child in the US works for actual pay, allowance from their parents for work and help is a different matter.

            • Sam says:

              And if they do, it is completely illegal and almost unheard of. The youngest legal working age in the US in certain states is 14 years old with a limit on hours.

              • Dewaine says:

                I worked for my father’s business and then later at his friend’s business 2 Saturday’s a month growing up. I know a lot of kids who did the same. It used to be common for kids to have paper routes or provide clerical services.

            • Dewaine says:

              You are right, which is why parents employ their kids illegally either in their business or a family friends off the record. Maybe this is a better system anyway. If a child is working for someone who cares about them, they are probably less likely to be taken advantage of.

              • Sam says:

                They don’t employ the child structurally with a wage, and if they were to exploit or force the child to work, then they are not only breaking the law, but abusing the child. You assume families always have the best interest for their children. That may not always be the case. Some “work” or “help” experience for children may be fine if the purpose is to help the family and teach them work ethic, under the right conditions, which is completely different from my original point.

                • Dewaine says:

                  When are you forcing a child to work and when are they choosing it? Why is working for pay different than working around the house? What does “some work” mean? These are decisions that are entrusted to parents. Obviously we can both agree that child abuse is terrible, but “we know abuse when we see it” isn’t satisfactory for the law. The point I’ve been trying to make (poorly) is that there are everyday situations in which children should have the right to work.

                  • Sam says:

                    I don’t think you understand the caretaker philosophical scheme that protects children from exploitative environs. If you want your child to work to gain experience and help, then what is preventing you from going overboard and abusing that child? So, if a child can get an actual paycheck, the child will pay taxes and have jurisdiction over his/her public affairs or should the parent decide all that for them? Just as they would decide what type of work they do? In that sense, let’s get rid of all laws because law’s are there to restrict the right to engage in certain harmful behavior and the issue here is that children do not have adult-level competence to exercise their “right” to work. And again, even if we legalize it and ban ‘abuse’ via law, (which both are not mutually exclusive anyways) this has little to do with what I was talking about.

                    • Dewaine says:

                      “In that sense, let’s get rid of all laws because law’s are there to restrict the right to engage in certain harmful behavior”

                      Obviously, we can’t do this, but I’m glad that you said it. These laws always hinder some, while protecting others. Some kids aren’t allowed to develop into responsible adults while providing for their families, while others are spared from abuse. There has to be a better system than an outright ban.

                      Sorry for instigating a long discussion based on false pretenses, although it was fun.

  7. Buster says:

    It’s only been within the past century in Western countries that children ceased to be an income-producing family asset and became liabilities that required costly investments of family resources. For that matter, the concept of teenage years as a period of spreading your wings and coming of age is quite recent.

    In past centuries, children worked around the home / farm and their contribution to family/household finances increased with age until they left home. Children tended livestock, watched over younger children, helped cook, clean, do laundry, fetched water for the household and collected firewood for warmth and cooking. Parent valued children as a cheap source of household labor and security in old age.

    • Sam says:

      Actually, children still work and pervasively do in terms of “past centuries” to which you refer.