In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Foundlings and Abandoned Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Approaches in United States History
  • Anthropological, Ethnographic, Personal, and Journalistic Approaches
  • Mothers and Babies
  • In Literature
  • Museums

Childhood Studies Foundlings and Abandoned Children
Rachel Fuchs, Stephanie McBride-Schreiner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0075


The study of foundlings and abandoned children is a subfield of the history of children and the family but also relates to studies of charity, philanthropy, and public welfare. The terms “foundlings” and “abandoned children” are interchangeable and, until the early 21st century, pertained primarily to Western Europe and Russia. Scholarly work highlights the diversity of cultures and experiences, demonstrating that both terms denote children with unstable or nonexistent families, including orphans with one or both parents deceased, newborns abandoned at birth, children whose families (usually a single mother) could not or would not keep them, and homeless street children. Giving up an infant for legal adoption by another family was not an option in many Western cultures until the 20th century, and such infants whom a parent could not or would not keep often became abandoned children or foundlings when another family or kin member could not provide for them. “Abandoned children” is the general term, whereas “foundling” is more specific, denoting infants left at institutions or “found” on the streets or in doorways or churches. A person, usually a mother or midwife, would abandon an infant at a foundling home, and the authorities would send those infants to wet nurses, with whom a large percentage died. Foundling homes existed in Europe starting in the Middle Ages, and the period between the 15th and 18th centuries saw a rise in those institutions, predominantly run by the Catholic Church. During the 18th and 19th centuries a great increase in child abandonment occurred throughout Catholic Europe, but children were not confined to institutions; those who survived were raised by wet nurses and foster parents. Scholars discuss differences between Catholic and Protestant cultures; in Protestant states, unlike the Catholic, abandoning infants to an institution was rare, but orphanages existed for parentless children. During the 19th century, state and municipal interests altered provisions for abandoned children, with governments taking a greater role in providing for abandoned children within and outside institutions. While variations persisted in the different countries of Europe, including Russia, institutions for abandoned children were established in colonial settings and in the United States. In the 20th century, institutions for abandoned children declined with the increase in public welfare for mothers and children, foster care, and formal child adoption. This article presents scholarship that addresses abandoned children in the social, cultural, political, and demographic contexts, including those children outside institutions. The article pays special attention to abandoned children in Europe because that is where the problem developed and was the greatest, but it also considers abandoned children in the United States, where issues and policies were different, and the global dimensions of child abandonment in the 20th and 21st centuries.

General Overviews

Forms of child abandonment have occurred in varying degrees in nearly every culture and society, but how and why children were abandoned and what happened to them depend on the specific time, place, and culture. No overview of foundlings and abandoned children exists in monograph form, only as edited volumes, because the geographic, chronological, and thematic depth and breadth is enormous, varying by time, place, politics, and culture. The most comprehensive and significant broad survey of the topic is the edited volume Panter-Brick and Smith 2000, in which historians and anthropologists present a far-reaching view of abandoned children in various non-Western and Western contexts. Collectively, the essays show both similarities and differences over time and geographic region. The Collection de l’Ecole française de Rome 1991, a largely demographic approach by fifty scholars to the study of abandoned children in Continental Europe over five centuries provides another survey. Several introductions to the topic in a European context may be found in sections of historical surveys of childhood and of poverty and charity. Heywood 2001 and Cunningham 2005 focus on the main benchmarks of change in abandonment practices and the treatment of abandoned children over time. Pullan 1994 offers a clear orientation to the dominant European systems for institutional care for abandoned children: the Catholic system (France, Italy, Spain), characterized by religious or publicly funded foundling homes and wet-nursing networks, and the Protestant system, with its diverse range of local initiatives, such as aid to poor mothers and highly selective, specialized institutions for children. Hunecke 1985 gives a historiography of early works on the topic. An excellent overview of theoretical and methodological issues concerning the study of foundlings and foundling homes can be found in Tilly, et al. 1992. Depositing infants in a foundling home or abandoning them was often a legal alternative to infanticide. In China, parents without these options resorted to the latter; Mungello 2008 is an overview of infanticide in China over several centuries.

  • Collection de l’Ecole française de Rome, ed. Enfance abandonnée et société en Europe, XIVe–XXe siècle; Actes du colloque international de Rome, 30 et 31 janvier 1987. Collection de l’École française de Rome 140. Rome: l’École française de Rome, 1991.

    This largely demographic study by several authors covers the fluctuation in the rates and causes of child abandonment, the institutions receiving foundlings, child abandonment as a social vice to eradicate or an inescapable social ill, the abandoning mothers, the high infant mortality, the causes of death, wet nursing, and the role of society. Most contributions are in French, Spanish, or Italian.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500. 2d ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

    An overview of western Europeans’ changing ideas about childhood, this text contains sections covering institutional care of orphaned and abandoned children as well as the widespread philanthropic and governmental interest in “saving” the child in the second half of the 19th century.

  • Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001.

    In this comprehensive history of childhood from the Middle Ages to the early 21st century, Part II, chapters 5 and 6 (pp. 62–102), on caring for infants and parent-child relations, discuss abandoned children as a social problem and the establishment of foundling hospitals as a solution.

  • Hunecke, Volker. “Les enfants trouvés: Contexte européen et cas milanais, XVIIIe–XIXe siècles.” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 32 (1985): 3–29.

    This article situates the author’s work on abandoned children in Milan, within a thoughtful review of historical and demographic studies of child abandonment, foundlings, and foundling hospitals published during the 1970s and early 1980s. Hunecke also offers insight into methodological issues and limitations.

  • Mungello, D. E. Drowning Girls in China: Female Infanticide since 1650. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

    This groundbreaking analysis of Chinese female infanticide puts forward a balanced view of this little understood, controversial, and very private practice. The author considers the cultural, economic, and social causes of gender-specific infanticide in China and its persistence into the early 21st century, despite efforts over the last several hundred years by Confucian moralists, Buddhist teachers, Christian missionary workers, and government officials to end it.

  • Panter-Brick, Catherine, and Malcolm T. Smith, eds. Abandoned Children. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    This multidisciplinary volume presents a global view of child abandonment from the Renaissance to the end of the 20th century. The essays collectively examine a broad spectrum of abandoned children—foundlings, orphans, refugees, street children—through anthropological and historical perspectives. Panter-Brick’s introductory essay is a reanalysis of the concept of abandonment. The volume lends itself equally well to historians, anthropologists, demographers, and social welfare and policy workers.

  • Pullan, Brian. Poverty and Charity: Europe, Italy, Venice, 1400–1700. Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1994.

    One chapter, “Orphans and Foundlings in Early Modern Europe” (pp. 5–28) of Pullan’s important book, explores the major themes pertaining to child abandonment practices in early modern Europe, with a clear explanation of differential treatment of foundlings according to a north–south axis, a divide rooted in distinctly Catholic and Protestant values and attitudes concerning family, legitimacy, poverty, and charity.

  • Tilly, Louise A., Rachel G. Fuchs, David I. Kertzer, and David L. Ransel. “Child Abandonment in European History: A Symposium.” Journal of Family History 17.1 (1992): 1–23.

    A useful synthesis of the state of the history of child abandonment, including similarities and differences of practices in France, Italy and Russia, with critiques of anthropological, demographic, and cultural approaches and considerations for new lines of inquiry.

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