chapter  6
THE SOCIETE DE CHARITE MATERNELLE, 1788–1815
ByStuart Woolf
Pages 15

The immediate context of the Parisian Society for Maternal Charity was provided by the debates about abandoned infants and breast-feeding. The issue of foundling hospitals and in particular the question of the so-called tours (which allowed mothers to retain anonymity when abandoning their children) had become a lively one throughout western Europe by the later eighteenth century. The increase in abandonment was related not to demographic growth, but to the ease of access to foundling hospitals, and the extremely high level of infant mortality was blamed on hospital conditions. The critique of foundling hospitals formed part of a more general rationalistic Enlightenment attack on charity and charitable institutions, regarded as generating the poor by their very existence; while the evidence of infant mortality was deployed as a weapon in a broader campaign against hospitalization in contrast to outdoor assistance at home. The Paris Hôpital General contained the largest foundling hospital in Europe, attracting between 5,500 and 7,500 abandoned infants a year by c.1780 from all over northern France; all contemporaries agreed that at least two-thirds died in their first year, and far more by the age of 7.3 Precisely because of the enormous pressures and difficulties in feeding the foundlings, medical practitioners had experimented in the 1780s with alternative methods of artificial nutrition. Among the philanthropists funding such efforts in the early 1780s was Mme Fougeret, the founder of

the Society for Maternal Charity. The results of all these experiments had proved disastrous, with almost total mortality, so reinforcing the arguments in favour of breast-feeding.4