Monday, August 23, 2010

Don’t Forget Foundling Hospital Records

A Foundling Hospital Then is Not as Now!

Built in 1198, the original 'foundling wheel' was a rotating platform that allowed women to leave their babies without being seen. It was installed outside Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican on orders from Pope Innocent III.

We all can remember unwed mother records, orphan train and orphan home records, and adoption records, but did you remember to check the local Foundling Hospital Records? 

What Is A Foundling Hospital?
Foundling hospitals were welcoming institutions for abandoned infants and children. In the USA, the Civil War conflicts catapulted the need for Foundling Homes.

More recently foundling asylums gave shelter to orphans, but originally the activity of foundling hospitals was confined almost exclusively to rescuing and caring for infants who had been deliberately abandoned by their living parents (usually a mother). Today we often call them “safe houses” where mother’s can legally abandon their children anonymously.

Foundling Hospital Records
Records of Foundling Hospitals can have a wealth of knowledge for the genealogist. Foundling records may reveal a mother’s name; however, it is not uncommon for a father to admit a child (especially if illegitimate) to a Foundling institution, keeping the mother anonymous.

Foundling hospitals often baptized their charges, as did the New York Foundling Hospital which baptized their children as Catholics. They would then put then in Catholic homes, even if they entered the Foundling institution as Jewish or non-Catholic.

By knowing a Foundling institution’s practices, further information may be located in associated records. For example, knowing the NY Foundling Hospital, which opened 11 October 1969 as the Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity baptized their children as Catholics. Further information may be found by researching the area or parishes baptism records.

European Foundling Hospitals
These “hospitals” are well documented in Europe prior to the 12th century. During the 13th century foundling hospitals were established in Rome, and at Eimbeck in Germany. The magnificent foundling hospital in Florence, called at present spe-dale degli innocenti, was founded about 1310. Similarly institutions were established in Paris as early as 1302, and in Venice in 1380. The hospital at Nuremberg was founded in 1331 and made it obligatory on the children to refund the expense of their education. The hospital of the Holy Ghost at Marseilles in France was the first to adopt the revolving box where the children could be conveyed into the building without any possibility of those who brought them being seen.[1]

In France in the 1700’s it is said that one third of all children were abandoned. Foundling Hospitals were one product of the great wave of England philanthropic activity of the eighteenth century. According to the Foundling Museum in England, the first home purposely for abandoned children in Britain was established by Royal Charter in 1739.

African-American Foundlings
Added to the tension of the Civil War, The Colored Foundling Home of New York City was burned down in the 1863 race riot of NY.

As an aftermath of WWI, African American soldiers and German Fraeuleins (women) and Hausfrauen (wives) created over 800 mulatto illegitimate off-springs (mischlinge or bastard). As the soldiers were relocated, these German mothers often abandoned the children leaving them at Foundling Homes to follow their lovers. As German citizens, these children were often sterilized or not being of pure race were put into labor camps during WWII.

Other Popular Foundling Hospitals
Pennsylvania: Roselia Foundling Asylum and Maternity Hospital was established June 16, 1891 and closed 1971. Records may be located at the Sisters of Charity, DePaul Center, Mt. Thor Road, Greensburg, PA 15601 ; 412-836-0406

Missouri: Bethesda’s Foundling Home in St. Louis originally admitted foundlings in 1892 at their Soulard Mansion building. Record information may be found at the 1920 St. Louis Census – Bethesda Foundling Home Transcription Project:

Happy Researching!

Accurate, Accessible Answers

[1] ] European Founding Hospital History: Chest of Books website;; accessed 23 August 2010


  1. Thanks for the useful information - foundling, Kate Adie's book "Nobody's Child" also contains a lot of info on foundling hospital history and is a very interesting (if heartbreaking) read.

  2. I recently was looking at the history of the New England Home for Little Wanderers. It's roots go back to 1799 when it was called the Female Asylum (!) and the Massachusetts Infant Asylum, the first foundling hospital in the United States. These are old institutions with a wealth of records.