Rare fabric swatches tell orphans' story at Colonial Williamsburg gallery

No one today remembers the names of more than 16,000 infants taken in by London's famous Foundlings Hospital during the mid-1700s.

But that doesn't mean there's no way to tell their anonymous but poignant stories.

Scrupulously recorded by the hospital's clerks, more than 800 feet of ledgers and entry books survive in the charity's archives, each one filled with detailed physical descriptions of the forsaken children who were registered not by name but by number.

Pinned to some 5,000 entries are silent but emotion-filled scraps of fabric preserved as both tokens of the child's identity and the affection of parents who dearly hoped to but rarely succeeded in reclaiming their abandoned babies.

Small cloth hearts, strips of ribbon and painfully scrawled notes rank as the most plaintive of these symbols, 59 of which are on view at Colonial Williamsburg's DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in the only American showing of "Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital's Textile Tokens, 1740-1770."

Despite their mute plainness, they've left more than a few gallery goers weeping.

"It's such a moving exhibit," says Colonial Williamsburg textiles and costumes curator Linda Baumgarten, who spent two years negotiating the show's transatlantic journey.

"We've had people leave the gallery in tears."

Founded by wealthy English sea captain Thomas Coram in 1741, the Foundlings Hospital was dedicated to the "education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children."

But because of what Coram himself saw as the shockingly large numbers of children abandoned by the poor of London during the time, the hospital was overwhelmed from the beginning.

Few applicants older than 12 months were accepted — and then only if the parent drew a white ball from a bag filled with the black balls of rejection.

Then the babies were stripped of their names and registered on a pre-printed ledger sheet as a number accompanied by a long list of physical descriptions.

"The process of giving over a baby to the Foundling Hospital was anonymous," explains exhibition curator John Styles in a book accompanying the exhibit.

"It was a form of adoption. The Foundling Hospital became the infant's parent and its previous identity was erased."

In order to avoid any threat of disclosure — and the shame that might lead some mothers to dump their babies in the streets or even kill them — the hospital's clerks were strictly forbidden to record the mothers' name until the 1760s.

But because the mother retained the right to reclaim her child if her circumstances improved, each one was encouraged to leave a token that could be used as an identifying mark in the future.

Notes and letters were a common response from the literate. But because so many of London's poor could not read or write, many more mothers left scraps of fabric cut from their clothes or the garments worn by their infants.

"Some of them appear to have been cut on the spot," Baumgarten said.

"But no matter what form they took, each piece of fabric tells a story. We have the date of admission. We know the social level of the child. We have a whole window that tells us who they were."

In practice, fewer than a third of the infants taken in during the mid-1700s were accompanied by such tokens of hope.