RICHMOND, Va. - When poverty or social mores forced a woman to abandon her infant at London's Foundling Hospital during the mid-18th century, a piece of fabric left with the child signalled the mother's intention to reclaim her baby. Among the thousands who left fabric pieces, few were able to return for their children.
Those simple but poignant swatches will be exhibited starting Saturday at Colonial Williamsburg. A woolen heart, a silver ribbon and a patchwork needle case are among the fabrics — called tokens — on loan from Coram, a British children's charity, for the yearlong exhibit "Threads of Feeling."
It offers a glimpse into the social history of London and the clothing of that period.
"The tokens themselves are rare survivors of what were once beautiful yardages of fabrics," said Linda Baumgarten, curator of textiles and costumes at Colonial Williamsburg. "Fabrics survived from the 18th century, but we seldom know exactly who used them and when they were made. These swatches are dated by when the baby was brought in."
The swatches often reflect what the child's mother wore, as baby clothes usually made from used adult pieces.
"You have great beauty as well as a parallel story of family life," Baumgarten said.
The Foundling trove, representing the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain, is the centerpiece of the exhibit.
The exhibit features token-filled billet books, each opened to a swatch and its backstory — the fabric type, the infant's arrival at Foundling. Artist William Hogarth's depictions of the clothes, embroidery and fabrics worn during that period also are part of the exhibition.
The infants were brought to Foundling Hospital often because impoverished mothers could not care for them. Babies also were left during families emergencies, or because they were illegitimate.
"This was sort of the social service safety net for London," Baumgarten said.
The fabrics were a child's identifying record, which today would be an entry in a computer database. They were provided by the mother, who would be anonymous, or snipped from the child's clothing by nurses. Tokens were attached to registration forms and collected in ledgers.
Children's given names also were changed at Foundling.
"The Foundling Hospital became the infant's parents, and its previous identity was erased," said exhibition curator John Styles, a research professor in history at the University of Hertfordshire.
Many mothers left notes or letters imploring the hospital to care for their child. A baby occasionally would be reclaimed, and the pieces of fabric entered in the ledgers would help reunite mother and child.
"These stories pack powerful, emotional punches, sure to resonate with parents," said Ronald Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg's chief curator.
Not every woman came to Foundling Hospital with the intention of returning her child. Of the 16,000 babies who were brought to the hospital during the mid-18th century, only one-fourth had tokens signifying a temporary placement. Of that number, fewer than 200 mothers returned to reclaim their children, Baumgarten said.
The displayed heart token, which dates to 1758, was pinned to a girl's cap. The rounded, ruby-colored wool also includes a piece of linen.
A flowered silver ribbon identified a boy, admitted in 1756. It includes the note: "This Silver Ribbon is desired to be preserved as the Childs mark for distinction."
The patchwork needle case, made from printed and woven fabrics, featured a heart and the initials "SC." The boy admitted in 1767, was given the name Benjamin Twirl. His mother, Sara Bender, reclaimed him in 1775.
The hospital was founded by a sea captain, Thomas Coram, who was distressed by all the babies he saw abandoned on London's streets, Baumgarten said. A popular charity, one of its benefactors was George Frideric Handel, who conducted concerts to benefit the hospital.
The hospital ceased most of its London operations in the 1950s. Its former site is now a playground for children.
Besides the Foundling exhibit, items from Colonial Williamsburg's collections will be exhibited. They include a maternity ensemble dating from the late 1800s and an infant's gown and cap.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap
Colonial Williamsburg: www.colonialwilliamsburg.com
The Foundling Museum: http://www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk/