From as far back as Hellenistic antiquity and up through the first decades of the twentieth century, the large-scale ABANDONMENT of newborn babies features prominently in the history of Western Europe. Although sometimes confounded with infanticide, abandonment frequently occurred with the hope that someone would find and rear the child. In many cases, these abandoned infants, or foundlings, were left with tokens to aid in reclamation or to ensure that they would be well treated. By the thirteenth century, salt was left with foundlings as an indicator of their baptismal status. These tokens suggest some expectation, or at least hope, that the child would be found alive.

Until the later Middle Ages, infants were frequently left outside of public buildings or in open places where they might be easily seen. As Christianity spread, foundlings were increasingly deposited at churches. However, beginning in the twelfth century, the process of abandonment became more institutionalized. Aimed at preventing loss of life–especially when it occurred prior to BAPTISM–a system of foundling homes emerged in Italy and then spread throughout much of Europe. By the nineteenth century, over one hundred thousand foundlings were being abandoned annually to these institutions. The officially sanctioned system usually allowed for the abandonment to remain anonymous. In many parts of Europe, it was possible to abandon the infant via a device known as the wheel–a wooden turntable placed within the wall of the foundling home building, often containing a cradle of sorts. A person standing outside the foundling home could place an infant inside the wheel, and, in many instances, there would be a bell above the wheel to ring and alert someone inside, who could then turn the wheel and procure the foundling without seeing the person who left the child. Ideally, these institutions would place the foundling with paid foster parents, preferably in the countryside, who would then raise the child. Foundling homes differed in the age at which they stopped paying foster parents, but in most cases, female foundlings remained the wards of the home until marriage, while male foundlings were cut off from all support once payments to their foster families ceased.

Although abandoned children were not uncommon, especially in urban areas, the first foundling home in the United States was not established until 1856, in Baltimore, Maryland. In the years that followed, many more were established so that by the early twentieth century most large cities had at least one foundling home. However, in many other places separate homes were never established and foundlings were received by ORPHANAGES, county almshouses, or poor-houses. The fragmentation of the U.S. system makes it difficult to estimate the numbers of foundlings at any one time or to generalize about methods of care they employed. Indeed, there is evidence that some foundling homes opposed fostering while others actively pursued rapid foster placements. One sad generalization about institutionalization can be made, however. In both Europe and the United States, competition from middle-class families created a shortage of wet nurses who could foster children or who wanted to work, often feeding more than one child, in the cramped conditions of the foundling homes. As a consequence, prior to the safe pasteurization of milk in the late nineteenth century, many children died in foundling hospitals, both from disease and malnutrition, in their first months of life.

See also: Adoption in the United States; Baby Farming; Bastardy; Foster Care; Orphans; Wet Nursing.


Boswell, John. 1988. Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Vintage Books.

English, P. C. 1984. "Pediatrics and the Unwanted Child in History: Foundling Homes, Disease, and the Origins of Foster Care in New York City, 1860–1920." Pediatrics 73: 699–711.

Lynch, Katherine A. 2000. "Infant Mortality, Child Neglect, and Child Abandonment in European History: A Comparative Analysis." In Population and Economy: From Hunger to Modern Economic Growth, ed. Tommy Bengtsson and Osamu Saito. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Tilly, Louise A., Rachel G. Fuchs, David I. Kertzer, and David L. Ransel. 1992. "Child Abandonment in European History: A Symposium." Journal of Family History 17: 1–23.