Foundling Wheels, Revolving Cradles, Baby Hatches, Baby Boxes…

19 Feb


Whatever term is applied – to me there is no need for them, they deny the child the right to know where they come from, and who they are.  Most countries that are using them have an adoption system in place that must be better than this concept.

NPR has an interesting interview on Baby Boxes but does a lousy job of describing the history of Foundling Wheels quoting only that they happened seven hundred years ago – yet they continued in France (and Europe) in one form or another for hundreds years after that.  You can read about it in the report written in the Fifth Annual Report of the Board of State Charities of Mass 1868 – linked below – click on Foundling and Deserted Children in the index. It details Foundling Wheels / Homes from the earliest of times in Athens, to the first Foundling Wheel / Home in Paris in 1363 and beyond (which it recommends again – that they do not create a Foundling Home in Mass.).

I have been drawn back to this report many times, and today read the report by the Visiting Agent, on what would be called foster care today – which while the indenture aspect troubles me, it was the practice back then. Like all practices some worked out okay, and for others it was misery.  He proposes in the report that a small stipend would get the young children placed in permanent homes early, before they were able to pay for their keep through work and that the outcome would be better.  It also appears that he looked for children who weren’t cared for, and also worked toward reunification.  I am compelled by the humanity the Visiting Agent had, you can hear it in his words, and also what he chose to include. Based on what travel was like in 1868, the sheer volume of work he did each year for the children is astonishing, not to mention the 900 letters written (you can see the stats towards the end). Hope you enjoy.

Fifth Annual Report of the Board of State Charities of Massachusetts – 1868

Taken from the Supplement of the Secretaries Report – Correspondence in the index  page 191 – 198…(italics is text from the report – not indenting)

There are 16 different quotes from letters received from the Children to the Agent. I have only listed four quotes due to the length of the post.

(2.) “Come and see me as soon as you get this. I do not go to school much. I have no books as other children have. My clothes are real shabby.”

(5.) “Kind and Best Friend: I write to let you know that I love my new place, and think you could not get me a better place than I have. I love Mr. and Mrs. _______, and think I shall stay here till I am of age, and longer. I go to Sunday school, and like to go here. Come and see me as soon as you can.”

(7.) “I wish you would get me another place. I am abused here. I don’t have so good clothes as the other boys. I have to work Sundays and evenings, and get up early. I would like to learn a trade. The carpenter’s trade would suit me.”

(13.) “I am greatly obliged to you for informing me that I have a sister. I did not know that I had any relatives living. I often think of the five years I spent in the State House and of all those little boys that went to school with me, and wonder where they are. I hope they have been fortunate enough to get as good homes as I have. I would like to have the boys at the Almshouse see our sheep and lambs. If they are as ignorant of sheep as I was when I came here, they will not know what they are. I am a pretty good farmer now. I hope to be a man, and be an honor to the State House.”

There are six selected quotes from the Families to the Agent in the report. First four below.

(1.) “Our two children have done much better since you were here. If they will continue doing well, we shall find no cause for complaint.”

(2.) “You had better come and see William. He is very discontented, and wants to go for himself. He is encouraged by other boys. He is also disobedient at times, and I cannot put up with it. A good talking to from you may do him good.”

(3.) “Ann is doing better since you came to see her. She says she is now satisfied she has a good home. She can do nobly.”

(4.) “The little boy you sent us is a prize. He is doing exceedingly well.”

The Want and Supply of Children

In visiting children, and looking for homes for others, I have visited, in the past two years, nearly twelve hundred families, mostly in agricultural neighborhoods, and have inquired concerning the number of children in several hundred more.

We have been accustomed to look for children in these localities, but the dearth has become greater in the rural districts than in the larger communities. In one small mountain town, I was told that half the families were childless. This accounts for the large number of deserted and dilapidated country school-houses, and discontinued school-districts. It also affords a reason why so many old-fashioned country-houses, built for large families, are now tenantless of children.

These are the localities where our homeless children are wanted, to bring back life and cheer to depopulated family mansions, and fill a void in the affections of their owners. If half the families thus situated could be persuaded to take children, the charitable institutions of the State could not supply the demand. As an inducement it would be better for the State to pay a small sum to families who take children under six or eight years of age. Many families who now feel that they cannot afford to bring them up to a paying age, would not long hesitate for a small remuneration, – much less than it costs to support them in the Primary School or Almshouse. such an experiment would work well for the child. A family will become more attached to a young child than to an older one, and this attachment will be mutual. The family would not be willing to part with their charge when it became older, and the girl or boy would always have a good home. This has been found to be the case, in almost every instance, where families have taken the young children.

In finding homes it has been my purpose to obtain those that would be permanent. It works badly to change places often, and the child, shifted from one family to another, acquires no affection for either, and finds no place it can call home.

The best places for children from our institutions, are found among the farmers, remote from populous villages. They are anxious to escape the discipline and confinement of institution life, and should be placed where they can enjoy large freedom without the danger of falling into bad company. I have yet to find a single instance where a boy placed out in the city, or large village, has remained with his master during the term of his indenture; but have found many cases where the full term has been faithfully served in the country.

With the girls the result is different; but for them the farm on the hill-side or in the valley, where they are made equals in the family, is better than being brought up in the cities and villages, where they are usually made servants.

[…] accounting details for the year


The whole number of visits made to children during the year is six hundred and twenty-four. (624;) number of visits made to families while in search of homes for children, five hundred and forty, (540;) number of places found for children, eighty-three, (83;) number of children transferred from one family to another, twenty-six, (26;) number of letters written, nine hundred, (900;) number received, nine hundred and five, (905;) number of miles travelled, twelve thousand five hundred and fifty-seven, (12,557.)

In the monthly reports made to your Board, the real work of the Agency has been more particularly given. Your Agent has in his possession the written history of nearly seven hundred of these children, and the whereabouts of many others is also known to him. By personal acquaintance, visitation and correspondence, he is kept constantly informed of their condition. The practice of presenting a little story-book or Testament to each of the children visited has been continued the past year, at an expense to your Agent of about eighty dollars ($80.)

Whatever of good the Agency may have accomplished, whatever wrongs it may have corrected, whatever of cheer and comfort it may have carried to the orphan and friendless, to your Board belongs the credit. Your Agent has given nearly his whole time and his entire heart and thought to the interests of these wards of the State. It has been his privilege to bring together brothers and sisters long separated, and, in some instances, forgotten by each other; to restore to parents their long-lost children; to be as a father to the fatherless and a friend to the friendless; to rejoice with them in their joy, to sympathize with them in their sorrows; to be their counsellor and help in misfortune; to visit them when sick or in prison, and to follow some of them to the portals of the tomb. The more he has done for them, the more there has seemed for him to do. Every mail brings the request of some child or master; every day brings new responsibilities, new anxiety, and this anxiety is always urgent,__

I am under many obligations to your Secretary, Mr. Sandborn, for advice and assistance; and for your kindness and confidence, gentlemen, I am sincerely grateful.

G.M. Fisk, Visiting Agent.

Palmer, October 1, 1868.


Posted by on February 19, 2013 in Adoption


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8 responses to “Foundling Wheels, Revolving Cradles, Baby Hatches, Baby Boxes…

  1. Don't We Look Alike?

    February 19, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing this heart-breaking document.


  2. eagoodlife

    February 19, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Best history I’ve read is by Kate Addy. The practise may be centuries old, doesn’t make it humane.


    • TAO

      February 19, 2013 at 7:12 pm

      Far from humane – what gets me though is the report I linked to got that it was wrong, that people before him – got that it was wrong – and yet today – again it is happening.


      • eagoodlife

        February 19, 2013 at 9:30 pm

        I read an article with quotes fro NYPD Officers who regularly discover dumped babies both dead and alive. Recent attempts are .to prevent deaths and seem to be relatively successfgul. Is it better to have a dead baby or a live baby who will never know who s/he is? At least the deaths are not in huge numbers as they were in Italy numbering thousands a year in the days when they were left to starve.Millions of ‘unwanted’ babies have died this way and isn’t it time there were some lessons learned?


        • TAO

          February 19, 2013 at 11:42 pm

          Von – NY has had Safe Haven legislation in place for quite a few years now – not sure how many different ways need to be offered. They can be anonymous, but at least with Safe Haven there are some options – change their mind they can come back, leave details, etc and stops the potential for someone other than the mother/father from being the one to drop the baby off. The Safe Haven protects them from any charges of abandonment etc with the exception if the baby comes in with clear abuse – pretty sure any police, fire department, hospital, etc are drop off spots. Many states have versions of the same, such as giving you a wrist band that is also placed on the babe if you want to return – what is lacking is some states don’t require checking missing person etc and it is a mishmash of laws…of course.


  3. TAO

    February 19, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    BTW – I know I went off topic of the title but the children’s letters got to me…and I wanted to get to know the man they sent them to a little better.


  4. Valentine Logar

    February 21, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Yet, there will always be lost children and the closer we can get to protecting them the better. This history is interesting and sad.


  5. M.

    March 5, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Reblogged this on Ghost Kingdom and commented:
    Great history primer.



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