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Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City

Julie Miller

Publication Year: 2008

Two interesting items:
The author's article in New York Archives
A letter regarding foundlings in The Riverdale Press

In the nineteenth century, foundlings—children abandoned by their desperately poor, typically unmarried mothers, usually shortly after birth—were commonplace in European society. There were asylums in every major city to house abandoned babies, and writers made them the heroes of their fiction, most notably Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. In American cities before the Civil War the situation was different, with foundlings relegated to the poorhouse instead of institutions designed specifically for their care. By the eve of the Civil War, New York City in particular had an epidemic of foundlings on its hands due to the rapid and often interlinked phenomena of urban development, population growth, immigration, and mass poverty. Only then did the city's leaders begin to worry about the welfare and future of its abandoned children.

In Abandoned, Julie Miller offers a fascinating, frustrating, and often heartbreaking history of a once devastating, now forgotten social problem that wracked America's biggest metropolis, New York City. Filled with anecdotes and personal stories, Miller traces the shift in attitudes toward foundlings from ignorance, apathy, and sometimes pity for the children and their mothers to that of recognition of the problem as a sign of urban moral decline and in need of systematic intervention. Assistance came from public officials and religious reformers who constructed four institutions: the Nursery and Child's Hospital's foundling asylum, the New York Infant Asylum, the New York Foundling Asylum, and the public Infant Hospital, located on Randall's Island in the East River.

Ultimately, the foundling asylums were unable to significantly improve children's lives, and by the early twentieth century, three out of the four foundling asylums had closed, as adoption took the place of abandonment and foster care took the place of institutions. Today the word foundling has been largely forgotten. Fortunately, Abandoned rescues its history from obscurity.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. vii

List of Tables

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

I would like to thank the people who welcomed me in from their doorsteps, both literally and figuratively, during the many years that I worked on this book. Foremost among them is Gerald Markowitz, who nurtured the book from beginning to end. I appreciate his wisdom and kindness. Thomas Kessner also played an important role; I...


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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-12

On a May evening in 1841, a widow named Charlotte Sears discovered a day-old boy abandoned in the entry of her house on Fourth Street near Avenue D in New York City. She carried the baby to the offices of the almshouse in City Hall Park. There she told the clerk who recorded her story that she did not know “who left it there nor to whom it belongs.” The commissioners of the almshouse, whose responsibility...

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1. “Children of Accident and Mystery”: Foundlings in History and Literature

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pp. 13-46

On a December evening in 1838, a group of well-to-do New Yorkers sat down to dinner at the home of Philip Hone, a former mayor of the city. As the group tucked into their game and oysters, they were interrupted by an unexpected ring of the doorbell. When Hone’s servant answered the bell, he found no one there—until he looked down at the...

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2. “New York as a Nursing Mother”: Foundlings in the Antebellum City

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pp. 47-84

During the first half of the nineteenth century, private charitable institutions for the poor multiplied in New York. This proliferation became even more pronounced by midcentury as immigration intensified. Overwhelmed, the state developed a practice of delegating the care of the poor to private, often religious, charitable institutions to which it allocated...

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3. “The Murder of the Innocents”: New York Discovers Its Foundlings

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pp. 85-128

Foundlings were a part of the landscape in antebellum New York. They were to be pitied, but also to be expected in a city as large and complex as New York was coming to be. Private charities felt helpless to do anything about them, and the almshouse coped with them as it was mandated to do. And then in the 1850s, infant abandonment...

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4. “The Basket at the Door”: The Foundling Asylums Open

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pp. 129-175

The Civil War put the plan to open the newly built Infant’s Home on hold. Two of its principal advocates, Isaac Townsend and Mary Du Bois, were gone from the scene. The war monopolized all the money, time, and attention that charitable and reform-minded New Yorkers had to give. The new building was being occupied not by needy...

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5. “Out-Heroding Herod”: The Foundlings and the Revolutionary

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pp. 176-199

Jacobi, an attending physician at the Nursery and Child’s Hospital and a member of the Randall’s Island Infant Hospital’s medical board, was a pioneer in the new field of pediatrics. He was a representative of a new laboratory-based medicine that was centered in Germany and France and brought to the United States by European physicians such as himself and by Americans who studied medicine...

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6. The End of the Foundling Asylums

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pp. 200-225

Abraham Jacobi’s attack on the nursery’s foundling asylum in 1870 was just one in a series of misfortunes that all the foundling asylums endured within their very first decade. Another was the collapse of the Tweed Ring in 1871. A significant byproduct of the exposure of that generous but unprincipled group of politicians was an enhanced mistrust on the part of the state legislature toward private...

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7. Conclusion: The Foundling Disappears—Almost

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pp. 226-241

In the first decades of the twentieth century, three out of New York’s four foundling asylums closed their doors. According to their own goals, they had failed. They had been unable to effect any change in the moral complexion of their society, and they could cope neither with the massive immigration that overburdened their resources...


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pp. 243-310


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pp. 311-317

About the Author

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pp. 319

E-ISBN-13: 9780814764411
E-ISBN-10: 081476441X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814757253
Print-ISBN-10: 0814757251

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2008

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Subject Headings

  • Abandoned children -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- 19th century.
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