Red children and foundling wheels

Some Paris names evoke long-gone places in the city’s past. The name Tuileries now represents a garden, before that a palace with a violent history, and before that, an area where tiles were made. I’ve always found it interesting that the French called a major palace after a tileworks.

Another name that has long fascinated me is that of the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Marais, which can be translated as the Market of the Red Children – as if one could go there to sell off a red-faced child (perhaps a child having a noisy meltdown). Here is a photo I took of the entrance in 2016.

In fact, the name refers to foundling and orphaned children who were dressed in red to show that they were the beneficiaries of royal charity. The hospice established in 1536 by Marguerite de Valois, sister of King François 1er, was officially called the Enfants de Dieu, because the children came from the Hotel-Dieu, the hospital close to Notre Dame. They were the children of mothers who had died there in childbirth or of illness, or of poor women who gave birth at the hospital and left their infants there to be cared for by the nuns.

About a decade later, another institution was established at the Hôpital de la Trinité (founded in 1201 on the rue St-Denis as a pilgrim hotel outside the old city walls) for orphans who had been born legitimately but who had no relatives to care for them. These children had blue uniforms, and were known as les Enfants Bleus, although the name was not attached to the institution itself.

Very little remains of either establishment. A bit of the former chapel of St. Julien of the Enfant Rouges can be seen in the courtyard behind 90 rue des Archives, near the market (look for the arched but now blocked-in chapel windows).

The Passage de la Trinité at 164 rue St-Denis, recalls the site of that establishment. There is a « pelle » (one of those oar-shaped historical markers) just outside the entrance describing the former hospice.

These two establishments catered mainly to orphans whose mothers or families were known to the caregivers. But there remained another category of needy children – abandoned infants. Every year, hundreds of babies were left at the doors of churches or convents or simply at street corners by women who could not raise them – because the women were too poor, or had too many other children, or who had work that prevented them from caring for a child, or who feared the repercussions of keeping an illegitimate child. A marble statue by an unknown artist, titled simply “Abandonné” represents a child left on a street corner.

For these children, St. Vincent de Paul and the Dames de la Charité (a group of wealthy women who supported charitable endeavours) founded the Hôpital des Enfants Trouvés in 1638. This establishment occupied various different addresses, including buildings on the Île de la Cité and the rue du Faubourg St-Antoine (where the Square Trousseau is today; a pelle marks the spot). In 1772, the Enfants Rouges was amalgamated with this institution. The market kept the name in memory of the children who had once lived in that part of the Marais.

How did these places operate before the Revolution? They were charitable institutions, staffed mainly by nuns and supported by donations. Once an infant was admitted and registered, the nuns’ first order of business was to find a wet nurse, since safe and reliable methods of feeding newborns other than breast milk did not exist at the time. A local woman would do this work at first, until a wet nurse in the countryside could be found. After they had been weaned, the children generally stayed in the countryside with a foster family until they were about six, at which time they returned to Paris, ostensibly to receive an education in one or other of the charitable institutions.

The education they received was mainly religious. They served in the chapels, and the hospices hired them out to walk in funeral processions. According to Rachel Fuchs,

The families of the rich paid the hospitals for the honour and privilege of having the orphans and abandoned children in their funeral parade. It must have been quite a spectacle to see the children from particular institutions all dressed alike in the color of their institution.*

Just imagine all those red and blue children in the procession.

The girls were generally taught some sewing skills and the boys learned some manual tasks. A very few learned to read (because it was such a small proportion, one wonders how those few managed). The children remained the responsibility of the institution until they were 25. At that point, they were on their own. The lucky ones found situations or apprenticeships that suited whatever skills they had acquired; the rest survived as best they could on the street. And these were the ones who survived; many (most?) did not live to the age of 25.

During and after the Revolution, responsibility for orphans and abandoned children was taken over by the government. But that meant that their care was determined by bean counters, who reckoned the costs of staffing, wet nurses, foster families, and living expenses to the nearest centime.

After the Revolution, the red and blue children disappeared. The hospices provided only temporary care for abandoned or orphaned babies for whom foster parents were being arranged, and infirmaries for babies who were ill. Older children were supposed to remain with foster families in the countryside. Although the government now funded the hospices, the staff continued to be drawn from the ranks of religious communities – nuns and some lay helpers.

A group of buildings on the avenue Denfert-Rochereau (at the time called the rue d’Enfer or Hell Street), later known as the Hôpital St-Vincent-de-Paul, became the main centre for the care of these children. It had previously been owned by the religious community called l’Institution de l’Oratoire. The former chapel of the Oratoire – large, drafty, and hard to heat – held about 80 cribs. Since there were usually more than 80 babies there at any given time, doubling up was common. The hospice was chronically understaffed, and despite the best intentions of the staff, the infants received the barest minimum of individual attention.

One interesting provision in French legislation adopted in 1811 was the requirement that each institution in France devoted to the care of abandoned children install a “tour” or foundling wheel. These devices, set in the outside walls of the hospices, operated with a turntable – the baby was placed from the outside into a small cradle and the whole thing swivelled so the baby ended up inside. The person who had placed the child in the tour rang a bell to alert those inside to the baby’s presence. They had existed in various places and in various forms since the Middle Ages, but Napoleon made them mandatory.

This image by Henri Pottin shows the two sides. It’s a sentimental view, and shows both mother and father as the baby is committed to the foundling wheel. But in reality, it was the mothers of the babies who usually acted alone, often late at night, in doing the deed.

The tours d’abandon were controversial. Their supporters saw them as a safe alternative to abandonment in the street, where a child might die of exposure or animal attacks, or to infanticide, which was by no means unknown among desperate parents. Those who opposed the tours felt they encouraged irresponsible behaviour, since a child could be deposited without consequences. The debate raged for decades. During certain periods, the tours were guarded so that it was not possible to deposit a baby anonymously. In the latter half of the 19th century, the tours were gradually dismantled.

According to one Paris blogger, one of these tours remains in the wall of the old St-Vincent-de-Paul hospital, 72 avenue Denfert-Rochereau. You cannot see it from the street, but if you put your arm through the iron railings and aim your cameraphone just right, apparently you can take a picture of it.

In the early years of the 19th century, the government tried to eliminate the distinctions between enfants abandonnés (one or both of the parents were known and had chosen to give the child into care), enfants trouvés (the children were simply “found” and their parents were unidentified), and orphelins (the parents were dead) in favour of calling them all enfants assistés. The building on the rue Denfert-Rochereau was renamed the Hospice des Enfants Assistés. Note that the rose window on the right is the one seen in the illustration of the room where the babies were kept.

In 1849, the care of these children became the responsibility of the Assistance Publique de Paris, which exists to this day. The photograph below by Charles Marville shows its original building on the Île de la Cité, demolished in 1874.

One of the most famous abandoned children in French history was Jean le Rond d’Alembert (shown below), who worked with Diderot on the Encyclopédie. He got his name because his mother, the French writer Claudine Guérin de Tencin, left him on the steps of the church of St-Jean-le-Rond (a now-demolished church on the Ile de la Cité) in 1717. But, as sometimes happened, he was reclaimed. His father was a military officer who was away at the time of his birth and who upon his return, located his son and arranged for his housing and education – without, however, acknowledging his paternity.

A less edifying story is that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had a great deal to say about the upbringing of children, but who forced his mistress to abandon all five of their children to the Enfants-Trouvés in the late 1740s and early 1750s. Their fate is unknown, since Rousseau did not reclaim them.

Many parents clearly hoped to reclaim their children and left them with identifying objects: a thread bracelet or a charm or a bit of paper with a special mark or message. The hospice staff registered these items when a child was admitted and retained them. At certain times in the 19th century (the regulations changed periodically and the anonymity of the tour was not a constant), taking a child to a hospice required the mother and/or father to identify themselves, and some did so willingly, hoping that the separation might be only temporary.

For a small number of mothers or fathers, the dream came true. But these were the exceptions (fewer than 2 percent of children were ever reclaimed). In part, the numbers were kept down because the authorities imposed a set of requirements that included repayment for the expenses incurred by state for the abandoned child.**

Towards the end of the 19th century, the state added education to the children’s upbringing, both at the Hospice des Enfants Assistés and at some special schools (one of which was named in honour of d’Alembert). Some girls were trained as midwives, some boys were trained in printing skills, cabinet making, or horticulture.

By the early 20th century the children were once again kept in Paris rather than sent to the countryside, and dressed in checked uniforms and cloaks (probably not red, though). The sounds of their voices must have carried across the Boulevard Denfert-Rochereau. Here is a photograph of some of them attending a special performance at Christmas in 1940, along with wealthy patrons of the institution.***

Nevertheless, the 19th-century hospices, bad as they were, underheated, underfunded, understaffed, allowed a few children to survive and grow to adulthood. Many ended up in rural areas, living with foster parents and working alongside them. Compared with dying as an infant on a street corner, that is something.

Text and market photo by Philippa Campsie; Marville photograph from; photograph of the exterior of the Hospice des Enfants Assistés from Université de Paris; photograph of children and of marble statue by André Zucca from Bibliotheques Patrimoniales; other images from Wikimedia Commons.

*Rachel Ginnis Fuchs, Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France (State University of New York Press, 1984), page 16. This fascinating book is a detailed account of the institutions and the changing regulations mainly from Napoleonic times to the fin-de-siècle. A further book by the same author, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (Rutgers University Press, 1992), tells the story from the point of view of the mothers. Both books were invaluable in writing this blog post.

**Occasionally, a wealthy benefactor donated money to defray these charges. Other requirements were that the mother had to prove that she was married and in a stable home situation.

***The photograph is by André Zucca, as is the one of the statue of the abandoned baby. It has been said that Zucca collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation, taking photographs intended to show positive images of the time (this may even have been one of them). This assertion is disputed. Zucca was put on trial after the war, but other than being prevented from working as a journalist again, he was not punished.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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14 Responses to Red children and foundling wheels

  1. ROY says:

    Saint-Julien des Enfants-Rouges was close to the Temple domain.
    King Louis XVI, who was prisoner in the Temple, used to pray in this small chapel, instead of the large Sainte-Elizabeth church, also in the neighborhood.

  2. Susan Walter says:

    Where I live, in the Touraine, we have the Orphelins Apprentis d’Auteuil, Maison Jeanne d’Arc, which I think is a 19C organisation, originally taking orphans and training them to be horticulturalists, but nowadays the kids are mostly refugees, unaccompanied minors and sans papiers. They used to live in the lovely Chateau of Verneuil sur Indre, but now they’ve moved into Loches into purpose built accommodation and get bussed out to Verneuil for their horticultural training. Local families are encouraged to take kids for the weekend, to give them some family life. They tend to be older teenagers, and the ones I have met have all been a credit to the institution.

  3. Marylouise Sillman says:

    Where are Orphans put now ?

  4. Truly fascinating. Paris is just full of these hidden pieces of history. You find something along a street that interest you and once you start researching about it, you find that you fallen down a rabbit hole. The history leads you in all directions. Makes you stop and look for the details when you’re walking. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Cat says:

    Another fascinating look into Parisian history. Thank you.

  6. Lynn Chisholm says:


    I love reading your well-researched little bits of history of France.

    Thank you,

    Lynn Chisholm McTavish

  7. Jacqueline Bucar says:

    Completely fascinating. In some ways, very little has changed in modern society. I’m sharing your post with my French groups. Thank you


  8. C-Marie says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!
    God bless, C-Marie

  9. I love your site. I’m doing some work on enfants trouvés and have been visiting the sites listed in this article. Where exactly is the marble statue by an unknown artist, “Abandonné”? Thank you!

    • I am glad you enjoyed the blog. The marble statue was in the St-Vincent-de-Paul Hospital, in the chapel. The hospital is now closed, although the building remains on the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau. The whole site is supposed to be redeveloped eventually. I do not know what happened to the contents of the chapel.

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