Foundlings: A pre-modern social welfare system
I actually knew a foundling once so it's really quite recent history. It reflected a time when food was much less abundant than it is now in a modern capitalist society. Lots of people had to battle to feed their families. There was even some real starvation.
Under those circumstances, a father wanted to be sure that the kids he was feeding were all his. And the only way he could achieve that was by forging all sorts of bonds which would ensure that his wife slept only with him. Marriage was a public agreement that she would do that and he would provide for the resultant kids. And the society generally co-operated with that. There were all sorts of norms for female behaviour that made it punitively difficult for her to stray.
But the sex drive being what it is, women did sometimes stray. The woman and her lover of course did the utmost to hide her lack of virtue but that became difficult when a baby popped out. The social disgrace was enormous and even the woman's family would not support her lest they to fell into disgrace.
So how was she to support herself and the babe? She could hardly go to work with a new baby and the poorhouse would close its doors to her. The poorhouse was the Victorian social support net for those who could not support themselves. So on many occasions the baby had to be disposed of in some way. A common way was for the mother to wrap the baby up warmly and leave it on the doorstep of one of the great houses.
When one of the servants opened the door of the house next morning, the babe was found. And there was generally some sympathy for it among the servants. The cook (who had access to food) or some other kindly person would informally "adopt" the babe and see to its needs. It became a foundling.
The master of the house would not always be told imediately but, when he was, he would generally accept it as a fait accompli and wash his hands of the matter. As long as his dinners were not interrupted and the cleaning was done, he could allow the servants the occasional folly. But he would not acknowledge the baby in any way.
But babies grow up eventually and the legitimate children in the house would sometimes notice another child in their environment and might even get to play with it. So if the child had some virtue -- a clever brain or a pleasant manner, say -- this would become generally known to all -- eventually even to the master. And for the inculcation of virtue, the foundling would quite often be included in the children's lessons.
Children of a great house were not sent to a school. They were taught at home by a tutor or a governess. A tutor mainly taught Latin and a governess generally taught French but there was some general education included. So foundlings often got a better education than children brought up in a poor household. And there were occasions, when the foundling displayed some talent or other, that the master of the house would give some acknowledgement to the foundling -- taking personal credit for having taken in the foundling.
So it was a very hit-and-miss social safety net but its results for the child would fall within the range of what many legitimate children experienced at the time. That it didn't starve was a significant achievement.
Having a great house nearby was not always available so an embarrassing babe would be left on the doorstep of what was apparently a prosperous couple -- with uneven but not too terrible results. The foundling I knew was actually unaware for most of her life that she was a foundling. She was brought up no differently from the other children of the family. It is normal for babies to be treasured.
There are of course still foundlings of a sort in the Western world today. A babe is left at a hospital by a distressed mother and modern social welfare measures grind into gear.
In history and in literature there are many stories about foundlings, starting with Moses.