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I’ve known about this for some time, but  I can now tell you that the fantastic Threads of Feeling exhibit, which I saw  in 2010 at the Foundling Hospital Museum in London and reported on here, is going to be on show at the De Witt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, throughout  2013.

Threads of Feeling 2010 Catalogue

This was, as you will no doubt remember, a fantastic exhibit, detailing the range of 18th century fabric samples given as tokens by mothers and sometimes fathers of foundling children when they were accepted into the Foundling Hospital’s care. These tokens were kept and preserved  in the Hospital’s “Billet Books”. By examining them carefully it can be deduced what type of clothing would be worn by ordinary people in 18th century England. The archive of these tokens is a veritable treasure trove, as few clothes worn by ordinary people from this era survive, as, naturally, they would have been reused  in various ways until they disintegrated.

The fabric token left by the parent of “Florella Burney Born June 19th 1758. In the Parish of St Anns SoHo.Not Baptiz’d, pray Let particulare Care be taken’en off this Child As it will be called for again…”

The exhibit was curated by Professor John Styles, who will also curate the Colonial Williamsburg exhibition.  I understand there will also be a symposium.

Costume made for the 2010 exhibit using a recreated “Florella” fabric

Professor Styles has, of course,  made a special study of these fabrics in his fantastic book, The Dress of the People, which I reviewed here. He writes:

Threads of Feeling  is an exhibition of the mid-eighteenth century textiles preserved in the records of London’s Foundling Hospital. The exhibition was first displayed at the Foundling Museum in London in 2010-11. It will open for a year at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, USA in 2013. Meanwhile, it continues as an online exhibition at:http://www.threadsoffeeling.com/

The Dress of the People:Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth Century England by John Styles

So..if you live in North America and were frustrated by the exhibit being only in London you will now have your chance to see this thought-provoking exhibit. When I have more details of dates etc I will, of course, let you know.

The Threads of Feeling exhibiton which has been so deservedly successful  and which is nearing the end ff its run at the Foundling Hospital, is now available to view online. My review of the exhibit can be accessed here.

If you go here you will be taken to a slide show, accompanied by a soundtrack of 18th century ballads which helps put the contents of the slides  into context. Each slide shows in great detail a piece of ribbon or fabric, one of the tokens which were kept in the Billet Books of the Foundling Museum and which were deposited by the mothers of the babies, just in case they were ever in a position to be able to return to retrieve their child and needed to identify it. Details of the fabric are also listed.

The quality of the photographs is stunning and every detail of the fabric can be seen. Do access it, especially if you have no hope of going to see the exhibit before it closes on the 6th March

This is a lovely video(which brings back fond  memories of Art A level for me!) and it records how the Florella fabric, a scrap of which was kept as a token in the billet books of the Founding Hospital(see above) was recreated for the Foundling Museum’s Threads of Feeling exhibition by the London Printworks Trust, and which is still open to visit until the 6th March.

Here are some images of the fabric – you can do as I did and buy a sample of it at the Foundling Museum’s excellent shop-

and this is how it was used to recreate a late 18th century bed gown for the exhibition:

(© Coram)

John Styles the Curator of the wonderful Threads of Feeling exhibition currently to be seen at the Foundling Museum, and which I reviewed here, is going to give a talk about the exhibit, together with a questions and answer session at the Foundling Musuem, on Wednesday 2nd February from 7.30p.m till 8p.m.

This promises to be a fabulous event, as John is not only the curator of the exhibit but the author of the magnificent book, The Dress of the People which I reviewed here and which, in part, examined in detail the tokens of fabrics left in the billet books of the Foundling Hospital by the poor and disadvantaged of the 18th century. You can see an example of one above. The collection of fabrics is therefore the most complete collection of 18th century working class fabrics in the UK. Examining the collection gives amazing insights into how the poor actually dressed. So, if you have ever wondered how Jane Austen’s characters such as Fanny’s Prices morther and her servant Rebecca from Mansfield Park dressed in Portsmouth , or how Nurse Rooke in Persuasion was attitred, then this is the talk (and book) for you.

I am hoping to go to this (she said frantically re-arranging dates in her diary) and of course if I do get there I will report back to you in full. But I do hope others of you can go: if you go here you can access all the booking details .

Some events at the Foundling Museum have just been announced, and as they are being held in conjunction with the famed Threads of Feeling exhibition, I thought you might like to know about them.

First, a talk on the subject of Bonds of Love and Affection at the London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth-century by Dr Alysa Levene:

In conjunction with Threads of Feeling, Dr Alysa Levene explores the emotional experiences of the children left at the Foundling Hospital. Over 18,000 babies and young children were left at the Foundling Hospital between its opening in 1741 and the end of the eighteenth century. We know almost nothing about the emotional experiences of any of them .

However, we can tease out something of the emotional bonds that existed between these children and their parents by examining the letters and tokens left with them. Very few of these children were ever taken back by their families, but this was not the end of their experiences of family life. Most were sent to be wet nursed in foster homes in the countryside, and here too, we can see some evidence of their experiences via the letters written by the inspectors of nurses back to the hospital. Not all of these experiences were happy, but this talk will illustrate how much the Foundling Hospital records can tell us about mothering, nurture and the model of childhood in the eighteenth century.

Dr Alysa Levene is a Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and author of Childcare, health and mortality at the London Foundling Hospital, 1741-1800: ‘left to the mercy of the world’ (Manchester University Press, 2007). She was also the general editor Narratives of the Poor in Eighteenth-Century England (Pickering and Chatto, 2006).

This talk will be held on Tuesday 25 January, 7pm- 8.30pm (doors 6.30pm, includes pay bar) Tickets will cost  £12, concessions: £10.

On the 16th February renowned costume designer and historian Jenny Tiramani will give a talk on how Georgian women dressed. Here are the detials:

Here are some details of Jenny Tiramani’s work to entice you….

She was the Director of Theatre Design at Shakespeare’s Globe, London until 2005. She received the 2003 Olivier Award for her costume designs of TWELFTH NIGHT with that company. From 1979 – 1997 she was Associate Designer at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London. Jenny Tiramani has worked with director Mark Rylance and composer Claire van Kampen since 1991 – starting with their Phœbus’ Cart company production of THE TEMPEST at the Rollright Stone Circle, Corfe Castle and on the foundations of Shakespeare’s Globe. During Mark Rylance’s period as Artistic Director at the Globe, Jenny Tiramani worked with him researching into the original practices of Shakespeare’s actors, their clothing, properties and the possible decoration of the theatre itself.

Jenny Tiramani is currently completing an academic book on Elizabethan costume and is visiting professor at the University of Nottingham.

It sounds a tremendous evening…..I’m considering going, very seriosuly…but will the never-ending snow permit? Here is the link to the Foundling Museum should you want to contact them to buy tickets.

This review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph magazine and was copiously and beautifully illustrated. Sadly,  during its transition to the web version of the newspaper the article has been denuded of many of its wonderful illustrations of  the tokens, but I link it here for you to read in any case.

BBC World News has produced a beautiful and moving film of the exhibit, which I wrote about here . The film included footage of the remains of teh hospital in Brunswick Square and details the history of the Foundling Hospital.

Interviews with Professor John Styles and Lars Tharpp are inlcuded and there is the very moving and sad story of a recent inmate.

Go here to acess it ( hopefully all over the world).And above are some photographs of the exhibition that I’ve not published  here before.

Good news for fans of the Foundling Hospital tokens in the US. The wonderful Threads of Feeling exhibition catalogue written by the curator of the exhibit, John Styles, is now available to purchase in the US direct from Burnley and Trowbridge, making considerable savings on mail order costs. . Go here to order it: you won’t regret it ;0

There is my sister; and really quite her own little elegant figure! and the face not unlike. I should have made a good likeness of her, if she would have sat longer, but she was in such a hurry to have me draw her four children that she would not be quiet. Then, here come all my attempts at three of those four children; — there they are, Henry and John and Bella, from one end of the sheet to the other, and any one of them might do for any one of the rest. She was so eager to have them drawn that I could not refuse; but there is no making children of three or four years old stand still you know; nor can it be very easy to take any likeness of them, beyond the air and complexion, unless they are coarser featured than any mama’s children ever were. Here is my sketch of the fourth, who was a baby. I took him, as he was sleeping on the sofa, and it is as strong a likeness of his cockade as you would wish to see. He had nestled down his head most conveniently.

Emma, Chapter 6

This passage shows Emma at her best; fondly talking about her family and her attempts to immortalize them, being honest about her ability and its limits. Her success in capturing the baby’s cockade is a very funny and revealing line. But exactly what was a baby’s cockade ? Shall we find out together? Yes, lets…..

Quite simply, a cockade was a formal arrangement of ribbons,a little motif, that decorated a male baby’s cap or hat. Here are some examples from the 18th century billet books kept by the Foundling hospital which I saw  on display at their marvellous Threads of Feeling exhibition.

The cockade took its inspiration from cockades worn by the military in their hats during the eighteenth century.

Hogarth’s painting The March to Finchley, above in its home at the Foundling Hospital, and below

in clearer detail, has a central section which  shows soldiers wearing black cockades in their hats (and doing unmentionable things..well, they are soldiers off to fight and it IS Hogarth).

Black was the colour associated with the Hanoverian royal family,who were of course the then ruling royal family not only in Hanover but in England.

Young children of both sexes in the long eighteenth century wore identical clothing- dresses- until the boys were breached and began to wear breaches or skeleton suits. The cockade was a means of distinguishing boys from girls as it would appear that certainly until the early 19th century only boys wore them.

SusanSibbald, shown below on the right of the engraving

confirms that cockades were worn by boys, certainly in 1811. In her memoirs she recalled  seeing a baby boy on display in a drawing-room in Jersey wearing one, in a scene that has echoes of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice:

In the drawing-room Mrs Harker had her baby brought, only about two months old, to exhibit to Mrs Gibbons, and expecting it would be much noticed by her but she was disappointed  for she barely looked at it and said she thought that  children were not presentable until they were of age to introduce themselves. Poor Mrs Harker seemed shocked which obliged me to be doubly interested in the little infant which I thought from his being so young would have looked better in his nursery attire of bed gown and nightslip instead of a robe and sash and tied up sleeves a bare neck and a cap like a sunflower with a scarlet cockade to match the ribbons  on the robe

(page 307)

Hogarth-again!-illustrated a young boy attired as Mrs Sibbold described in one of his paintings in the series of paintings which formed The Rake’s Progress. Below is the penultimate scene in the series showing the rake,Tom, in prison. Doubt reigns in the art world as to whose child he is, but he is most definitely a boy,wearing a red cockade on his cap.

Here is a section from that painting, to show you the details: do note you can enlarge all the illustrations in this and every post merely by clicking on them.

interestingly at this point in history(and until the mid 20th century) the colours pink and blue were NOT associated with any one of the sexes. Below is a predominantly pink cockade,worn by a boy at the Foundling Hospital.

Here is Sir Lawrence Dundas and his grandson painted by Johann Zoffany, painted in 1769.

You can clearly see that the grandson, not having yet been breeched, is wearing a long white gown with a pink sash.

This conversation piece of Sir Wiloughby de Brooke , the 14th baronet, and his family showing them at breakfast with their three eldest children at Compton Verney in Warwickshire. Though he eventually had five children, his daughter was not born until 1769.This painting finished  in 1766, therefore clearly shows the lack of distinction between the colours pink or blue, as all the children in the painting are boys.

Linda Baumgarten in her magisterial book, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America, states the position very clearly.

It is often difficult for the modern viewers to determine a childs gender in paintings and prints from the 18th century. Because the corseted torsoes of boys echo the feminine shape of the girls there appears to be little if any difference between the clothing of girls and boys.  Sets of childhood linens were unisex of either gender. Indeed both sexes of young children wore skirts when they were not in their shirts or bed gowns. Skirts apparently had an unspoken but genuine symbolic value in the society of the time. They symbolised children’s dependence in the same way that adult women all of whom wore skirts were also dependant on their husbands or fathers. People who wore pants(men) were the dominant member sof the family and society.  Skits had also a  more concrete, practical value for the mother of a child who was not yet fully toilet trained ;it would be easier to keep the child clean if clothing did not fit  closely around the loins….Despite the unisex appearance of children’s garments there were distinct differences between clothing of boys and grils. The signals of gender were subtle and some may yet go unnoticed. Nevertheless, they were obvious to people at the time. The young boy at the left in Joseph Badgers painting(above-jfw) wears a a low-neck dress….boys, not girls, wore this particular style with coat sleeves, a complete front opening to the hem and full skirts…Gender distinction had nothing to do with the presence of petticoats, the colour of the fabric the use of flowers silk or delicate textiles.Clothing that was colour coded-pink for a girl and blue for a boy – did not come in to well into the 20th century”

(pages 164-166)

So the question remains what did girls wear to distinguish them from boys?  Studies of the Foundling Museum textiles reveals that in the mid 18th century girls did not wear cockades but a loose bow with long trials known as a top knot:

Ribbons attached to girls caps always took the form of what was called a topknot, a loose bunch of knotted ribbons with strands hanging down…The difference (between boy’s cockades and girl’s topknots-jfw)arose almost certainly from the military and therefore masculine associations of the cockade.

(page 48 Threads of Feeling exhibition catalogue by John Styles)

However, by the time Jane Austen was writing Emma, the situation regarding top knots may have changed.In the Jane Austen Society Report for 1991, Mrs Duncan-Jones wrote of Mrs Ogilby, friend to Elizabeth Barret Browning’s mother:

Mrs David Ogilby the friend of Mrs Browning says in her recollections : In those days (1848)young infants wore lace caps with cockades of satin ribbon: a round cockade for a boy an oval cockade for a girl.

Now this date-1848- is clearly too late for Emma,but there may have been a change in the fashion at some time in the early 19th century in respect to the top knot/cockade for girls. But what is certain is that Emma’s cockade was worn as was the usual fashion by her nephew, a boy and Jane Austen in that passage in Emma, which may puzzle us now, was recording a long held tradition.

I visited this exhibit on Wednesday, which is being held at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square until the 6th March, 2011.  Brunswick Square was the home of the original London Foundling Hospital, a ground- breakingly original institution which cared for abandoned and illegitimate children who would otherwise have been left in the gutters to die. Founded in 1739, though the original building no longer exists in  Brunswick Square, the foundation  still performs sterling work in the form of the charity Coram,named after the Hospital’s founder, Thomas Coram.(More on the museum and the Hospital when I next post)

The children were deposited at the hospital by their desperate mothers (and,in an echo of Harriet Smith’s experience at Mrs Goddard’s school in Emma, sometimes by their fathers). Their parents knew that their child, once accepted, would have been given the best possible start in life (though the infant  mortality rates were still alarmingly high even for this section of society).

The Hospital tried, ab initio, to keep the most detailed records of the babies in its care. The billets, or registration documents which recorded the admission of a child to the hospital, often contained a token  left with the hospital by the mother as a meansof identifying her child should her circumstances improve and she could attempt to reclaim her child. In reality few managed to do this: between 1741 and 1760 only 152 children were reclaimed out of the 16,282 admitted to the institution’s care.

The tokens were sometimes tiny items of little worth:

But they could also take the form of a piece of fabric-a cap, or sleeve of a babies dress, or a piece of fabric from a gown owned by the mother. And it was the discovery of these fabric token which intrigued Professor John Styles.  He realised that it was an invaluable archive of working class fabrics and clothes, from which it was possible to make deductions about the type of clothing worn by the poor of the mid 18th century. Clothing of the poorest in society, is rarely, if ever, preserved. Worn till threadbare then used as rags, very little survives in clothing collections. So the archive of swatches of fabric collected in the ledgers of the Foundling Hospital Museum was in fact a mine of information awaiting discovery and interpretation. And this is what the exhibition, Threads of Feeling, curated by Professor  Styles sets out to do.

Housed in the basement exhibition area of the Museum, the  billet ledgers are displayed in  block display cases, the reverse sides  of which are decorated with large-scale reproductions of some of the pages of the ledgers…

together with comprehensive explanatory notes…whilst the other side of the cases

provides detailed note on all the fabric tokens in the exhibit ( there are over 6o tokens on display)

The billets and tokens are divided into different sections: ribbons- the love token of many a girl who had been taken “advantage of” and succumbed to the charms of  some swain at a fair. This flowered silver ribbon had attached to it a slip of paper with the inscription”This Silver Ribbon is desired to be preserved as the child’s mark for distinction”

Baby clothes-here is an example of a cockade made from silvered cotton dating from 1751. Emma Woodhouse, you will recall drew her nephew George wearing such an ornament(more on this in a later post) in Chapter 6 of Emma;

Here is my sketch of the fourth, who was a baby. I took him, as he was sleeping on the sofa, and it is as strong a likeness of his cockade as you would wish to see. He had nestled down his head most conveniently. That’s very like. I am rather proud of little George. The corner of the sofa is very good….

And this is a baby’s cap made of the linen material traditionally used for diapers, dating from 1753,a quite pathetically moving piece of clothing.

Some mothers left scraps of needlework-some fine,  some basic,but all most probably worked by themselves. Above is a piece of a sampler-that piece of work undertaken to prove above all that the child who had worked it was a “good”, industrious,religious soul- dating from 1759 which accompanied a boy into the care of the hospital.


Contrasting with the last token is this crudely sewn piece of blanket,edged in blanket stitch.

A lot of mothers donated tiny scraps of fabric  printed with buds, birds, acorns or other symbols of new life. This tny scrap shows a multicoloured flower. The scrap of paper accompanying it reads:

Florella Burney Born June 19th 1758. In the Parish of St Anns SoHo.Not Baptiz’d, pray Let particulare Care be taken’en off this Child As it will be called for again…

This tiny but colourful piece of  fabric was used as a template for a piece of clothing inspired by the exhibit. On the First Floor of the Museum, this outfit was on show:

It, in its turn, was inspired by the print The Female Orators by John Collet of 1768, showing street sellers in action.

The main character wears a short bedgown made of  material with a sprigged pattern, possibly printed onto a cream or yellow linen ground.

Close-up of the spotted fabric…..

Close-up of Florella….and below, a close up of the bright red underskirt…which all goes to prove, as Professor Styles assets here and in his book, The Dress of the People that  clothes for the poor of the 18th century were not monochrome and dull. They were as vibrant as any high street copy of couture clothes we see/buy today.

An installation by Annabel Lewis of the ribbon suppliers V V Rouleaux was also on display.

It began in the roof space of the stairwell of the museum just behind the bust of Handel,an original patron of the Foundling Hospital.

and hung down the stairwell…

right down to the ground floor….

….where it surrounded the statue of a foundling.

Very thought provoking.

The Florella fabric is on sale in the Museum shop

I bought some as a memento….

A wonderful way to remember this fine exhibit.

If you can’t make it to the exhibit then I recommend you buy the catalogue that accompanies the  exhibition which is available by mail order from Paul Holberton Publishing, all the details here. And if you want to read more on the subject then I can highly recommend Professor Styles’ book, The Dress of the People.

I should like to express my sincere thanks to professor John Styles for all his help in arranging for me to take photographs of the exhibition to share with you, and also to the Staff of the Foundling Museum for all their kindness.

This is a marvellous, thought provoking, once in a lifetime exhibit and experience. I can’t praise it highly enough. Go and see it: you will not regret it.

And a note to all frontier type re-enactors reading this post: thanks for visiting. Your comments have been very educational ;)

..to view two exhibitions, Threads of Feeling at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square

and Thomas Lawrence , Regency Power and Brilliance at the National Portrait Gallery.

I will of course be giving reports of my impressions of the exhibitions and their respective catalogues when I return, so I do hope you will then “virtually” join me  to talk about them in depth.

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