The Foundlings exhibition at the Amsterdam City Archives – July 2020.
Nowadays, a foundling always makes headline news. It’s rare to find an abandoned baby, but there was a time when this was quite a common occurrence. Around 1800 some 300 to 800 children were found each year in Amsterdam — between one and three every day. All these foundlings were then taken in by the Almoner’s Orphanage (Aalmoezeniersweeshuis) on the Prinsengracht, which later became the Court of Justice. Now the building is being transformed into a 5-star luxury hotel. A sharper contrast is hardly imaginable – from an orphanage for the poor to a 5-star hotel in only 200 years.
When I walked in to the exhibition space I did not know what to expect, but I was moved by the many personal items of the children that were on display. All the heartbreak and sorrow of these children and their parents became clear just by looking at a worn-out little dress or cardigan…
A register was kept in the Intake Books, stating the name, where the child was found and, glued next to it on the page, any note found. Surnames were invented by the regents of the Orphanage. It was usual in those days to assign the child to a wet-nurse who then raised the baby.
These small books are a witness to the extreme poverty in Amsterdam around 1800. On each page the name of the foundling, often together with a note that the parents had put in the child’s clothes. The note mentioned the name, the age and often also the religion. Together with the note the parents would sometimes leave a piece of ribbon or a playing card cut in half. The parents would keep the other part or half, hoping that one day they would be able to take their child home again.
The orphanage’s archive is one of the most extraordinary and moving collection of documents kept at Amsterdam City Archives. Mothers would often leave a personal note with their child, and they have all been kept. Their heartfelt pleas paint a moving picture of the fate of these children and the distress felt by their mothers, some of the city’s poorest residents. The exhibition is about maternal love, poverty and caring for one another. And how vulnerable children were looked after around 1800.
Location: Stadsarchief Amsterdam, De Bazel, Vijzelstraat 32.
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