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April 18, 2013

Small Swatches of Fabric Tell Powerful, Poignant Tales in “Threads of Feeling”

Each piece of fabric or token tells a poignant, emotional story from more than 200 years ago. Many of those stories are coming May 25 to the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg in a traveling exhibition organized by the Foundling Museum of London. “Threads of Feeling” consists of 59 books of textile tokens on loan from Coram, a British children’s charity.

“These stories pack powerful, emotional punches, sure to resonate with parents,” said Ronald Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “We are pleased to have the only mounting of the exhibition in the United States since it closed in London more than two years ago.”

In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left at London’s Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the Foundling Hospital's nurses. Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th century.

A selection of the textiles and the stories they tell us about individual babies, their mothers and their lives form the focus of the Threads of Feeling exhibition. The exhibition also examines artist William Hogarth’s depictions of the clothes, ribbons, embroidery and fabrics worn in the 18th century as represented by the textile tokens.

“The process of giving over a baby to the Foundling Hospital was anonymous,” said exhibition curator John Styles, research professor in history at the University of Hertfordshire. “It was a form of adoption. The Foundling Hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was erased.”

The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed, and the pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother.

The textiles are beautiful and poignant, embedded in a rich social history. Each swatch reflects the life of a single infant child. The textiles also indicate the types of clothing their mothers wore. Many clothes for babies were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing and the fabrics reveal how working women struggled to be fashionable in the 18th century.

“Threads of Feeling” opens May 25 in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and will be on view through May 26, 2014. A Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket, Museums Pass or Good Neighbor Pass is required.

Organized by the Foundling Museum and curated by John Styles, the token-filled billet books are owned and lent by leading United Kingdom children’s charity, Coram (which began as the Foundling Hospital), with the assistance of the City of London, London Metropolitan Archives. The Colonial Williamsburg exhibition of Threads of Feelings was supported in part by a grant from Mary and Clint Gilliland of Menlo Park, Calif., through the Turner-Gilliland Family Fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley