The Foundlings’ Fate

Scholar Notes New York’s Sad History

Posted December 8, 2009 at 4:17pm

Part of Julie Miller’s work at the Library of Congress involves helping visitors find the materials they need to conduct their research.

Miller’s own research, however, has led her to those who were never really found.

Miller has written a book about foundlings, children who were abandoned by their mothers, often on street corners, during the Industrial Revolution. Most of the mothers were unmarried women who didn’t have the means to care for their offspring, and most of those children died in infancy.

Miller will discuss the book, “Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City,— in the Pickford Theater in the Library’s James Madison Building at noon today.

“Women were really very poor in the 18th and 19th centuries,— Miller said. “There were very few jobs they could do. … The circumstances of their work didn’t allow them to keep their children with them. It was really a tragedy.—

Miller, who taught at Hunter College in New York before coming to work at the Library in June, got the idea for the book while doing research on another subject. She came across a reference to foundling asylums, facilities set up in 19th-century New York City to handle the wave of babies and young children discovered abandoned.

While most European cities had built foundling asylums by the early 19th century, most American cities lagged behind. Children found abandoned were sent to poorhouses rather than facilities specifically designed to care for them, Miller said.

That changed after the Civil War, when the country’s population began to shift to big cities. No city was bigger than New York, which built four foundling asylums to handle the growing crisis of abandoned children.

New York and other major American cities saw a massive population growth in the latter half of the century, fueled by industrial growth and immigration.

But mass poverty was widespread. That left it up to public officials (and private charities) to step in to help abandoned children.

“What I really wanted to find out was how New York interpreted its foundlings,— Miller said. “They read the problem as essentially a moral problem.—

Miller researched the foundling phenomena as a whole while also trying to tell specific, personal stories, giving a history to a group of people who have been largely forgotten by history.

It wasn’t easy. Children sent to the asylums were essentially anonymous — officials had no idea where they came from. Often, they were given names of the street corners where they were found. Miller came across one foundling who was named “Prince Mulberry— after being discovered at Prince and Mulberry streets, for example.

“The idea was that if anyone wanted to claim them, they could be traced this way,— Miller said.

While most of the children died in infancy at the asylums, those who didn’t were often adopted, taking the name of their adopted family, Miller said. Then those children were largely lost to history, as the asylums rarely kept records of them after they left.

When they were rediscovered, it was mostly under sad circumstances. Miller discovered one story of a woman who got into an argument with her daughter, then dismissed her as a foundling, thus abandoning her once again.

Although the stories were mostly sad — and foundling asylums were largely deemed a failure — the fact that New York stepped up to take care of its most vulnerable is very telling, Miller said. It marks a turning point in American history when society began to recognize the need for systematic intervention.

Miller is just trying to tell that story, she said.

“What struck me,— she added, “is what a sort of forgotten problem this was.—