November 30, 2009 Abandoned Children in 19th-Century New York City Subject of Book Discussion

Author Julie Miller Documents Epidemic of Foundlings

Press Contact: Guy Lamolinara (202) 707-9217
Public Contact: Center for the Book (202) 707-5221

In the 19th 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 the title character in Charles Dickens “Oliver Twist.”

In American cities before the Civil War the situation was different, with foundlings relegated to poorhouses instead of institutions designed specifically for their care. By the eve of the Civil War, New York City 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: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City” (New York University Press, 2008), Julie Miller offers a fascinating, frustrating and often heartbreaking history of a once-devastating, now-forgotten social problem that wracked one of America's biggest metropolises.

Miller, who is the early-American specialist in the Library’s Manuscript Division, will discuss and sign her book during a Books & Beyond program on Wednesday, Dec. 9, at noon in the Pickford Theater, third floor of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E. The event, which is sponsored by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, is free and open to the public; no tickets are required. The Library’s Manuscript Division is co-sponsoring this event.

With anecdotes and personal stories, Miller traces the shift in attitudes toward foundlings from ignorance, apathy and pity for the children and their mothers to recognition of the problem as a sign of urban moral decline.

“Abandoned: Foundlings in Nineteenth-Century New York City” will be available for sale and signing following the discussion.

Miller was the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellow of the New York Historical Society in 2006-2007 and taught at Hunter College, City University of New York, in 2001-2009.

The new Books & Beyond Book Club is available at Presented are discussions of books whose authors have appeared, or will appear, in this series. The site also offers links to webcasts of these events and asks readers to talk about what they have seen and heard.

The Center for the Book ( was established by Congress in 1977 “to use the resources and prestige of the Library of Congress to promote books, reading, literacy and libraries.” With its many educational programs that reach readers of all ages, through its support of the National Book Festival and through its dynamic state centers in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Center for the Book has developed a nationwide network of organizational partners dedicated to promoting the wonders and benefits of reading. The center also oversees the new website, with its exclusive “Exquisite Corpse Adventure” serialized story.

The Manuscript Division’s holdings comprise nearly 60 million items in 11,000 separate collections and include some of the greatest manuscript treasures of American history and culture. Among these are Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, James Madison’s notes on the Federal Convention, George Washington’s first inaugural address, the paper tape of the first telegraphic message, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and second inaugural address, and Alexander Graham Bell’s first drawing of the telephone.


PR 09-243
ISSN 0731-3527