Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

Abandoned Children at the Hospice

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The Burden. Daumier

"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)

click on image to see full picture.

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)

Oh, To be Abandoned

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.

A Rise in Numbers and the Truth of the Stereotypes: The number of abandoned children grew throughout the nineteenth century, which lead to more hospices, and a growth in the fear the Bourgeoisie had that their stereotypes were accurate. However, the reason for the increase in the number of abandoned children, in actuality had little to do with the "immoral and sinful" nature of the poor. It was really a result of the economics of the time. Until 1864 the Orleanist monarchy enjoyed economic stability, and a steady growth.

However, at the end of the reign the was a severe depression, one of the worstin a generation. Bad weather brought a series of crop failures between 1845 and 1847. The agrarian crisis and the rapid increase in food prices produced a paralysis on the business world that greatly reduced production in the Nation's factories and mines. This caused bankrupted several railway companies, small local banks, and led to widespread unemployment. The Revolution on 1848 only made the situation worse because the political upheaval added to the business uncertainties and it intensified the depression. Due to the rise in unemployment and the lose of crops, many of France's poor were left without money, a job, food, or a means to acquire any. So when a child came along, they had to way to provide for it and abandonment was one of the only choices available to them (Wright 151).

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 whereas 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

From A. Dupoux, Sur les pas de Monsieur Vincent.

Identification necklace worn by the infants. It consisted of silk and a silver medal.

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 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.

To learn about the care given in the Hospices click here

To read about the conditions, click here


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This page created and maintained by Devon Hill, © 2001