Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

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"You see I cannot take my child into the country. Work forbids it. With a child I could not find a place will not be long before I come back. Will you keep my child for me?"

-Fantine ( Les Misérables. Fantine, Book Fourth, Ch. 1)


Abandoned children, such as Cosette and Gavroche, played a significant role in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. However, these character's situations were not typical in France during the 19th century.

Background: Abandoned children of pre-Revolutionary France became wards of a religious charity group. Here their religious education was placed ahead of their secular education. So, when the children were released at age 25, they were often illiterate and unskilled. They commonly became prostitutes, vagabonds, or criminals in order to survive. The professions were the worst fear of the bourgeoisie who believed the children inherited their mothers immoral and sinful values, and thus to cycle continued. However, to deal with this overwhelming problem, in 1801, abandoned children became wards of the state. (5-16, Fuchs)


Abandoned in Les Misérables Time:

From Le Boulevard. Gustave Doré. 1862-1863. A couple abandoning their child at a hospice, where unwanted children were cared for by the state.

Hospices: Mothers who could either not care for or did not want their children abandoned them at a hospice. As many as one-fourth to one-half of the illegitimate babies born in Paris each year were taken to a hospice. There was one in each arrondissement(section) in Paris due to the high number of abandoned children. Most women either left their babies at the actual hospice, or gave birth at the hospital and when the police and hospice authorities could not deter the mother from abandoning the child,they signed a form stating they were abandoning their child. From here, the authorities took the baby to the hospice. This was primarily done because abandoning children on the street was illegal. Also, at this time, there was no adoption program established.

Admitting Procedure: Outside the hospice,women placed their babies in a tour, a wooden cylindrical cradle-like turntable about 55cm, and rang the bell to notify the nurse of a new baby. This anonymity was necessary to prevent abortion and infanticide, which werealso illegal at the time. Once taken in, the newborns were washed, changed, warmed, given an ID necklace, and their names(which were usually kept secret until 1831), date and place of birth, mode of admissions, and date and time of admissions were recorded in the Registre d'Admission. The names were kept secret for two reasons; one to protect the family name of the mother. Secondly, to prevent mothers who abandoned their children to try to take jobs as wet nurse in order to see them. They were then taken into the nursery. Older children were admitted in the same manner to the hospices. The only difference was that these children were taken to dormitories instead of nurseries, where they stayed, generally for a

From A. Dupoux, Sur les pas de Monsieur Vincent. Identification necklace worn by the infants. It consisted of silk and a silver medal

couple of days, until foster parents were found for them.

En Dépot: The term given to older children who were believed to be provisionally abandoned. These children were generally picked up off the streets by the police. After several days, their parents could not been found and the child was not reclaimed, their status changed from provisionally abandoned to definitely abandoned. Once this happened, they went through the same procedures as the other older children.

The Condition of the Hospices: The physical environment was cold, dirty, and overcrowded. The conditions within the hospices were not good. The authorities for the most part were more concerned with finance than the welfare of the children. For example, in 1830 in St. Vincent-de-Paul, there were three sister and eleven nurse's aids in the nursery for anywhere between eighty and one hundred and fifty infants. In theory, each wet nurse cared only for one newborn. However due to the lack of wet nurse, there were usually four or five newborns to each wet nurse while in the hospice. This was one of the reasons ,many of the babies did not receive breast milk at all or on a regular basis. The other reasons included the fear that the majority of the infants carried syphilis. To deal with this problem, the authorities along with doctors developed a means of artificially feeding them. This consisted of cows and goats milk. However, the milk often sat out in the open with no lid for days on end; thus obtaining a large amount of germ and bacteria. Dr. Hutinel described this after a visit to a hospice as, " contained in large jars, exposed to all dust, rested in an office situated in the center of the rooms, where from morning to night, it was contaminated by germs that dry sweeping would raise up several times a day" ( Fuchs 137). Due to the unsanitary conditions, one half of the infants died in the hospice before their first year.

To learn about the care given in the Hopsices click here



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